Black Mirror: Season 5 – Episode 1 ‘Striking Vipers’ REVIEW

Black Mirror is one of the most creative shows of recent years, but where it was once scary it's now oddly cosy.

Charlie Brooker’s always been a fan of video games, but curiously, it took until season 3 of Black Mirror for the techno-fear show to touch on them. And that episode, ‘Playtest’, was more about virtual reality than gaming. Now, with ‘Striking Vipers’, Black Mirror launches headlong into the subject – and the strange culture gaming creates.

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The short version: Bored couple rediscover swinging.

The longer version: After Black Mirror used the concept of ‘people’s minds can be copied in their entirety to a USB stick’ a few too many times, in ‘Striking Vipers’ they’re finally, finally using another transhumanist concept. In this case, it’s using virtual reality to inhabit another body in cyberspace.

So when two old pals start doing this to play the newest version of their favourite game together, things couldn’t be better. They haven’t seen each other in too long, driven apart through no fault of their own, just the more boring reasons of work and family commitments and this allows them to reconnect. Unfortunately, in the chiseled bodies of the game characters, one thing leads to another and they begin an affair, right there in the game.

(The game is fairly clearly your Street Fighter/Tekken/Mortal Kombat sort of thing. It’s called ‘Striking Vipers’, but somehow I couldn’t help but think of it as ‘Street Fucker’.)

Despite the VR backdrop, it then becomes a fairly standard love triangle, differing from soap-opera material only in its circumstances. There’s some questioning of whether it can actually be considered an affair, but for all intents and purposes it’s treated like one. This only seems right, given that cyber-sex already exists. True, it’s mainly in the form of saucy instant messages, but if your partner catches you at it, the excuse “We didn’t do anything physically” will cut absolutely no mustard.

There’s a line from Neal Stephenson’s seminal sci-fi novel Snow Crash which always stuck with me: ‘You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the street and you will see all of these.’ If you ever played Second Life you’ll know that the dragons and penises were buried under a sea of wide-eyed, unrealistically-proportioned anime girls, but nonetheless the principle is sound.

By contrast, Street Fucker is just scratching the surface. There’s a moment when Karl muses happily on how different it is being in a woman’s body, but the idea is never revisited. He later complains “I fucked a polar bear and couldn’t get you out of my mind!”, and it’s a good line, but the polar bear’s right there on the character select screen, only a button press away. It would have been just as easy for him to be the polar bear (and then, presumably, commit the unspeakable).

Even without touching on that strange ursine experience, whether you’re being the bear or being with the bear, there’s a lot of potential in ‘Striking Vipers’ for exploring what gender and sexuality means in cyberspace that’s never really fulfilled. Does this make them gay? Does wanting to be in a woman’s body make Karl transgender? When they try kissing in real life, there isn’t the same spark – what the hell’s the word for that situation? Social conservatives complain that there’s too many names for sexual orientations and gender identities as it is, but with the rise of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, they haven’t seen the half of it yet.

It may be that Charlie Brooker, who’s almost certainly well-versed in these transhumanist ideas, is toning it down a little for Netflix’s mainstream audience. And that’s an understandable decision, but have you ever had the impression that Black Mirror was toning it down before? When it had the Prime Minister fuck a pig, did that seem like playing it safe? When a guy used fantastical technology to call out his wife for cheating on him, was that a lighter look at what the future might hold for us?

Given that their affair only really holds water in cyberspace, it only seems right that Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II don’t particularly convey the romantic chemistry. They play slightly troubled pals well enough, but when they’re actually talking feelings, it comes off profoundly awkward. (Again, is there even a word for that situation?) Most of the heavy lifting, chemistry-wise, is done by Ludi Lin and Pom Klementieff, who play the game characters. And who, without wishing to get too personal, have the kind of edge-of-disbelief bodies that fit right into the game’s ultra-stylised environs.

I don’t want this review to be a ‘well, here’s how I would have done it, by which I mean better’, but I also have to ding the choices ‘Striking Vipers’ made with Nicole Beharie’s character. Not the sight of this incredibly attractive actress declaring “I know my body isn’t what it was”, that’s just what you get in the media’s world populated entirely by beautiful superhumans, but rather how, for too much of it, she’s kept aside. That the very first thing we learn about her is that she likes to role-play, yet even when the whole messy truth comes out, she apparently shows no interest in trying out Street Fucker for herself – and there’s even odds that you, the audience, were idly wondering ‘right, so when’s the sex game coming out?’ – instead just taking the far less interesting option of being picked up by randos at the bar.

(As mentioned above, the ending – them choosing to tolerate each others’ affairs – is essentially just swinging, and the fantastical VR technology was basically just window dressing to how this happened.)

Black Mirror’s tended to be good with representation, so it seems a bit of a shame to have Beharie, the female lead of the piece, relegated to being nothing more than the cheated-upon spouse. It’s not that she doesn’t do it well, just that she doesn’t get to do anything beyond what you might see in a conventional romantic drama. Just as the futuristic technology of ‘Striking Vipers’ is basically tangential to the core plot, so too is Beharie’s character tangential to the technology – and as she’s a fan of the show, you couldn’t blame her for being disappointed.

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'Striking Vipers' still presents Black Mirror's usual mix of speculative technology and social science fiction, but the missed opportunities are too numerous to ignore.