Mirror Image: USS Callister vs. Zanzibar
As Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and BBC Two’s Inside No. 9 return to our screens, Christy Smyth pits each episode against each other. Spoiler alert.
On the 29th of December, Netflix released the fourth series of Black Mirror, a dark anthology series created by British writer Charlie Brooker. On the 2nd of January, the fourth series of Inside No 9, a dark anthology series created by British writers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, started on BBC Two.
If you don’t already know, these shows are very similar. One of these similarities is that they are both incredible.
There are some key differences between the two. Since Netflix picked up Black Mirror in 2015 the production quality has been noticeably better (than both previous series of the show and Inside No 9). Black Mirror episodes are also twice as long, which works, more often than not, to its advantage. Naturally, former League Of Gentleman writers Shearsmith and Pemberton inject more of a comedic edge to their show than what you would find in Brooker’s, but that doesn’t stop it getting just as bleak.
So they’re both brilliant, and we can leave it at that, right?
No. Only one can reign supreme. So for the next few weeks I’ll be pitting episode against episode to see which is best. If it’s a draw we’ll have a fight to the death between fans. Like Black Mirror’s Shut Up And Dance, with less questionable masturbatory materials.
This week it’s USS Callister vs. Zanzibar. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
Black Mirror: USS Callister
In the first of the new Black Mirror episodes, Jesse Plemons plays Robert Daly, a bitter programmer who takes out his frustrations on the sentient digital clones of his co-workers he keeps trapped within the online game he helped develop.
However, new addition (both to Daly’s workplace and, inevitably, his online spaceship – USS Callister) Nanette Cole, played by Cristin Milioti, convinces her fellow prisoners to stage a revolt, the end goal of which is their deaths, and subsequently their freedom.
The characters in this episode start in a similar position to where Joe Potter ends in the festive special, White Christmas. They are not themselves, they are copies. But if you didn’t tell them, they wouldn’t know. This checks the usual Black Mirror boxes of ‘Wouldn’t that be bloody horrible?’ and ‘Why would you even think about that?’
This kind of set-up is Black Mirror at its best, giving the viewer a scenario that is unthinkably horrible, and making normal, decent characters live through it. What’s different this time though is the sequence of events. Usually in the show we start in a relatively normal situation, though with advanced technology, and then it ends by all going horribly wrong. In USS Callister, the situation is awful from the start, and it ends with the characters succeeding in making a better situation for themselves.
This may not seem like a problem, but it bothers me how unnaturally happy this ending is. Black Mirror mainly deals with what happens when technology moves faster than our morality can keep up with. It reflects the ways in which technology can make us like evil Gods. The key idea behind almost every Black Mirror episode is ‘Just because we CAN do it, that doesn’t mean we SHOULD do it.’ And the end result of almost every Black Mirror episode is that we do it, and we all pay the price. What makes USS Callister different from other episodes is that it focuses in on one evil person, and when he is defeated we get the perfectly tied up happy ending. It all just seems too normal.
Black Mirror endings are usually hard to watch. The characters either live in constant pain or die. This episode, however, gives me that unfortunate feeling that it’s pandering to the American audience by providing the third option of a ‘happily-ever-after’. Not only that, a ‘happily-ever-after’ that comes out of the blue and seems unnaturally applied to an otherwise incredibly sinister and bleak episode.
The concept behind USS Callister is a real stand-out for the series, and at times it is so tense it could have you (like me) feeling physically sick with anticipation. The production value, like much of the show post-Netflix, is brilliant and the acting is great, but all these positives only serve to make that one negative all the more frustrating.
Inside No. 9: Zanzibar
The writers of Inside No 9, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, have played with different narrative devices since the show started. A great past example would be A Quiet Night In, a silent episode featuring Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie. Of course all the episodes are set inside a ‘number nine’ (usually a single room or building), which is the great narrative device that drives the whole series.
Zanzibar uses one of the most interesting narrative devices yet. It is set in the corridor on the ninth floor of the titular hotel and is a true Shakespearian comedy of errors, complete with iambic pentameter, mistaken identity, and a Greek chorus in the form of a bellboy.
The choreography of how the players move in and out of rooms is executed seamlessly and the exaggerated archetypal nature of the characters only benefits the style.
As has become standard for Inside No 9, a real highlight is seeing so many great actors in one room, and this is a cast fit for Shakespeare. Jaygann Ayeh is particularly brilliant as narrator Fred, as is Helen Monks as chambermaid Colette.
A drawback of the episode is it’s shorter running time, with Inside No 9 episodes clocking in at half the running time of your average Black Mirror outing. It does, at times, feel a bit hurried, especially in its final moments. However, these moments are few and far between and if anything the quality of this, and all the other episodes, is a testament to how much Shearsmith and Pemberton can do in such a short space of time.
These are, of course, wildly different from one another. They are different, even, from anything we’ve seen before from their respective shows. In this regard, they are both incredibly successful season premiers that come at a point where it could be easy for the writers of either series to be running out of ideas.
However, the point of this whole thing is to pick a winner and I’m going to have to side with Zanzibar. There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t have a smile on my face while watching it. It’s true that USS Callister had me on the edge of my seat, but even if it had the horrible ending I, for whatever sinister reason, wanted, it still wouldn’t have been able to beat the sheer enjoyment I got watching Inside No 9.
Next week: Arkangel vs. Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room