Black Mirror: Beyond The Sea
June 16, 2023 10:44 AM - Season 6, Episode 3 - Subscribe

In an alternative 1969, two men on a perilous high-tech mission wrestle with the consequences of an unimaginable tragedy.
posted by ellieBOA (37 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, not the ending I expected or hoped for (both men were clearly a**holes - I wanted Lana to dump them both and head for the city and a big big bookstore with her son), and in the meantime we fridge not one, but two women. And where the hell is Mission Control while all this is going down? Are deep space travel, artificial gravity, robotics, and faster-than-light telepresence so cheap that they don't need to bother paying attention to what's happening on this ship because they've got a hundred of these throwaway tin cans?

I probably shouldn't have started with this one, but I'm a sucker for alternate history.
posted by Mogur at 11:19 AM on June 16, 2023 [7 favorites]

I was disappointed. It started badly (Oh noes! Murderous cult of California hippies!), but it seemed to get better during the middle when it dealt honestly with the feelings of everyone involved. But then it had to go all "open the pod bay doors, Hal" and failed to stick the landing. It could have been so much better.

Also, why was there a paperback book (The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury) on the spacecraft. What, they don't have PDF readers? And why would anyone recommend anything by Robert Heinlein to a woman?! I mean, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress isn't the worst thing she could read (it's no Farnham's Freehold), but damn! What, no Martha Wells in this timeline?
posted by SPrintF at 5:42 PM on June 16, 2023 [2 favorites]

This was like "Todd Haynes does Black Mirror", but not in a good way.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:28 PM on June 16, 2023

Also, why was there a paperback book (The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury) on the spacecraft. What, they don't have PDF readers?

Did they have PDF readers in 1969?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:03 PM on June 16, 2023 [4 favorites]

Did they have PDF readers in 1969?

I missed the "it's somehow 1969 with artificial gravity and robots, but no readable text formats because reasons" aspect of the story. (2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968, so maybe the story is meant to be a retro-homage to that film? I dunno.)

"Demon79" is set in 1979, for some reason, although nothing in the story requires it. ("Bright Eyes" dates to 1978, so I guess that checks out.)
posted by SPrintF at 8:38 PM on June 16, 2023

This was disappointing.

- The women were treated like possessions that men could literally have playground fights over. "She's MINE!" Sure, it's 1969, but that seemed more like an excuse to write misogynistic characters than any kind of commentary on the past or parallel with the present.

- The INCREDIBLY SOPHISTICATED robotics and telepresence (consciousness transfer?) technology was used just so that the crew could chill out at home for a while? Why was a piece of technology that probably cost NASA more than the spaceship just walking around LA going to movies? And if they had that level of robot technology, why weren't the robots on the ship? Which would have actually served a purpose, i.e. saving risk to human lives, and making it unnecessary to have an atmosphere and artificial gravity on the ship?

- Even accepting the premise, the ending was lazy. There was an obvious insane Black Mirror ending RIGHT THERE: Dude* confines Aaron Paul on the ship, then zaps back into Aaron Paul's robot body, and Aaron Paul watches helplessly as Dude impersonates him and takes over his life, making his wife and child much happier than they were before. Instead we just got "HA HA YOUR WIFE DEAD NOW TOO".

* Nobody was memorable enough that I remember their name.
posted by mmoncur at 10:01 PM on June 16, 2023 [17 favorites]

Yeah, I kept hoping that there would be some sort of creative solution to the menage a avatar situation, but instead we got yet another fridging. And, even accepting that this was some sort of alternate-history 1969 that had telepresence puppets that could cry, but no tablets, there's still too many plot holes: why weren't the telepuppets on the ship instead of the people? If Art Dude could jack into Aaron Paul's telepuppet, why didn't NASA give him another telepuppet to avoid the possibility of precisely this situation? Did Art Dude, that sensitive artist, not possibly foresee that Aaron Paul would find the nudes of his wife that weren't even in a fucking drawer or something? Did anyone get the feeling that that level of work could have been easily handled by just one guy?

Looking back, the S5 episode "Striking Vipers", even though it met with some criticism on the purple, did this sort of roughly parallel would-it-really-be-cheating, can't-we-work-out-some-sort-of-accomodation-that-would-get-everyone's-needs-met sort of plot so much better. Bleh.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:39 PM on June 16, 2023 [8 favorites]

Guys, I'm starting to think that CB's greatest fear isn't that technology will replace him, but that HIS woman isn't HIS anymore...
posted by Molesome at 7:41 AM on June 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

The Rae Bradbury book almost seems like a nod to the radical implausibility/inconsistency of this story. I walked away form this episode thinking "Or, a Meditation on Toxic Masculinity".
posted by molecicco at 12:32 PM on June 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

I liked this more than everyone else I guess. It's true that this is another story where the woman is mostly a prop, although it does give her a bit of agency; she isn't just someone to be seduced, or even owned. I would have liked to have understood a little why Cliff didn't touch her anymore; it seemed like that would have helped me feel for his wife a little more; her whole thing was wanting her husband back, but we don't really get to see what Cliff was like before, or why he even changed.

I actually didn't mind the ending, simply because it acted as surprising to me.. I was expecting him to murder Cliff and take his place, but I guess the 2 man ship situation rather put paid to that. And that's what the last scene is... Cliff now has to accept that he takes revenge and dies too, or spends several more years with someone he hates.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 1:04 PM on June 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I feel like the show wanted you to believe that David was a much better person than Cliff and Lana would have been much happier with him as a partner, but they fail to establish that before destroying any sympathy you might have for David.

Cliff is almost a cardboard cutout distant mid-century father type that the show tries to establish as a villain - doesn't pay attention to his wife's needs, doesn't read, overtly religious and traditional values, has his son refer to him as "sir" and routinely beats him. You don't get enough time with David's family to really see that he's much different, so his character is also kind of a cutout, established by his love for art, reading, keeping a bonsai tree in his quarters, and actually having conversations with Lana where he's emotionally present. But then he goes and also hits Henry, sexually assaults Lana, and eventually murders them both, perhaps just to put Cliff in the same situation that he's already in? The world might be better off that they're a third of the way into a roughly 6 year, 8AU mission.

I'd have to watch again to see if anything actually changed, but when Cliff confronts Lana in the barn about having an affair with David, the view of the house in the background through the barn doors suddenly seemed to be very much like the painting rather than reality.
posted by LionIndex at 1:23 PM on June 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

There was an obvious insane Black Mirror ending RIGHT THERE

Alternate Black Mirror ending:

While David is visiting Lana he finds himself inexplicably in his own body instead of Cliff's. Other glitches happen and eventually Cliff and David realize that the "real world" is a simulation that is being shown as a reality TV show, and NASA simulated the death of David's family just to create drama.
posted by mmoncur at 1:50 PM on June 17, 2023 [8 favorites]

The episode works if you accept that the whole point was a kind of assertion of nihilism.

Well, I do think the horrific ending demonstrates that Booker intended an indictment of toxic masculinity — that while Cliff was neglectful, David (who no doubt thought himself enlightened) was truly predatory.

But I don't think we needed to see that particular ending on the spacecraft — it seemed to invite the audience to be complicit in David's satisfaction at Cliff getting his comeuppance.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:31 PM on June 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

that while Cliff was neglectful, David (who no doubt thought himself enlightened) was truly predatory.

Yeah, I was thinking about my previous comment, and despite how it seemed like the show was setting us up to not like Cliff, I think the only true selfless acts of kindness in the episode are from Cliff and Lana - when they offer to let David use Cliff's replica, and Lana comforting him when he breaks down crying in the woods. After that, David is really just using the replica to get more time with Lana and the painting is just an excuse.
posted by LionIndex at 5:46 PM on June 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

Re the ending, I think it was supposed to fulfill an angle that wasn't explored. When David breaks down his angle is that Cliff doesn't understand what he's lost.. Cliff is not emotionally there with David either. And so the ending should say more about how, like, when you have a coworker for years that you spend more time with than your family, that is like family. Their lives at home are performances, they're fake in a couple senses, but in reality they are stuck with each other and live with each other. Like, face it, this is your life.

I think that's the way to make the ending work but the episode did not put that kind of work in, there was just nothing at all between Cliff and David.

Watching it, I too kept wishing other things would happen. I feel like this one just lost its own plot.
posted by fleacircus at 12:15 AM on June 18, 2023 [1 favorite]

I guess I just couldn’t buy in to the basic premise of the episode, so it got worse and worse as the story developed.

Assuming this technology exists as presented, there is zero reason to put fragile human bodies in a tin can and build a whole bunch of infrastructure to feed them, keep them from boiling, and get them oxygen.

However, if you’re silly enough to plan a mission with that part backwards, then I suppose you are probably also foolish enough to completely do away with ground support staff/mission control and leave your pilots unsupervised and free to do murders in your robot suits.

(Also, apparently these robot suits can do some sort of faster than light communications, allowing your meatbrain in space to walk around and react without 16+ minutes of round-trip latency.)
posted by FallibleHuman at 1:31 AM on June 18, 2023 [4 favorites]

Did they ever establish the potential for teledildonics? Does Cliff refuse to touch his wife because he doesn't want her to screw a robot? I mean the cultists ask this question outright at the beginning of the episode (in an extremely out of character way), so they acknowledge the audience is thinking about it too, but they never give us an answer, unless I missed it...
posted by grog at 8:12 AM on June 18, 2023 [4 favorites]

Like I mentioned elsewhere, I don't quibble with the fantastical technology but Booker pretty egregiously failed to recognize how every single other aspect of the story was irreconcilable with that tech.

My theory of the suspension of disbelief is that the agreement between the writer and the audience is that the audience will accept the unreal premise without question but, in turn, the writer ensures the rest of the narrative doesn't undermine that premise. That fundamental unreal premise is the weak point so its plausibility within the narrative must be maintained. This isn't limited to SFF — all genres have their unrealities, like legal or medical dramas, and even almost all 'realistic' fiction portrays a world that is far more explicable than real life. Fiction is always to some degree misdirection, there are always some things that the writer can't call the reader's attention toward because doing so will interfere with the SoD.

Does this telepresence in this episode make sense? On its face it's impossible. But that's acceptable as long as we're not reminded of this by a whole bunch of other things within the fictional context that shouts "this doesn't make sense — even if it were possible, no one would use it like that".

For me, the thing about all this in this particular episode is that it leads me to wonder why it was so important to Booker to throw out any real attempt at plausibility in order to tell this particular story in this particular way. The shape of this story must have very important to him. And I think this story is fundamentally ugly. I can't find a way to redeem it. It's intended to indict toxic masculinity, but mostly just wallows in it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:15 AM on June 18, 2023 [7 favorites]

Watching an interview with Brooker and others talking about this episode, it's not clear what he was going for. I am not able to watch the whole thing now but a couple interesting points.

1) It was going to be called Sea of Tranquility, but there was something else coming out with that name.

2) Brooker calls it the ultimate work-from-home story. But of course that's backwards!? It's a home-from-work story! TBH I think for some people, work and their work relationships are their exciting colorful real life and the home life is more stilted and unnatural and based on weird fake performances... Urgh they really needed to explore something like that, show how Cliff and David's personalities conflict on the space station, the drab gray meaninglessness is their reality and they have to face up to the fact that in reality they are there together and have to get along, for it to be like a reverse work/life story. But they didn't do anything with it.
posted by fleacircus at 11:59 AM on June 18, 2023 [5 favorites]

For me, the thing about all this in this particular episode is that it leads me to wonder why it was so important to Booker to throw out any real attempt at plausibility in order to tell this particular story in this particular way.

That was my biggest frustration. If this was just a random one-off Netflix show, then the fundamental plausibility problem (WHY AREN'T THE ROBOTS IN SPACE?) would have made me stop watching.

But because it's Black Mirror, I kept watching because I thought either (a) a hidden truth would be revealed that made everything make sense, like White Bear in season 2, or (b) it would ramp up the unbelievability, question itself, and mock its own audience for believing the premise, like Joan is Awful this season.

Sadly... neither one happened.
posted by mmoncur at 6:15 PM on June 18, 2023 [2 favorites]

There's no way that story needed to be 80 minutes long. I'll watch the interview linked above at some point, but this episode was a well-acted mess. Interesting to watch for a while, with mmoncur's "well it's Black Mirror so something different must be happening by the end" feeling keeping me going, but eh. Brooker seems to not have any fresh science fiction ideas so far this season, at least none with any sort of deeper resonance.
posted by mediareport at 7:18 PM on June 18, 2023 [4 favorites]

Didn't like this at all! So the women and kids are murdered. Yuck. Not necessary. There were many other ways for this to be better. Lana could have had 2 husbands! They were both terrible though.

Who was in charge of this mission? I know it was in the olden days but they did not consider what might happen to a man overcome with grief? How about another way for him to experience the outside world if something happened to his earth body? No back-ups? He could have been in an accident or the body could have malfunctioned. Cliff was kind of a robot on earth and in space. But they did do a kind thing for David.

I was expecting for David to do something fucked up like kill Cliff or trap him somehow. Or even sabotage the mission. But they kept working. I guess the mission was the priority and the families were... not.
posted by mokeydraws at 7:16 AM on June 20, 2023 [2 favorites]

1969 was "the olden days". I mean, that was an awfully long time ago. But ... I remember 1969.

To be fair, that doesn't disorient me as much as people acting as if the 90s were antediluvian.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:57 AM on June 20, 2023 [1 favorite]

How about another way for him to experience the outside world if something happened to his earth body? No back-ups?

Agreed - a number of sci-fi problems with this episode where the logic isn't internally consistent. On this point, Cliff and Lana are talking about how the replicas were made before they left earth so they can't make a replacement... but David is obviously using Cliff's replica just fine, so there's no reason they can't just make a generic replica and have David use that. What would it cost? $6 million? They have technology; they can rebuild him. Plus the whole issue that's been brought up of "why not put the robots on the ship instead", and just have a few replacements sitting in storage in case one of them gets lost on a spacewalk.

And where are they even going that having living people makes any sense at all? They mention being 1/3 into the mission and having 4.7 AU left, so I'd figure the total distance is in the 7-8 AU range - I'm guessing since this is sort of a 2001 homage, they're going to Europa and it's not a straight line. Does AU make any sense as a unit of distance for space travel if you're not measuring a line straight out from the sun?
posted by LionIndex at 10:19 AM on June 20, 2023 [1 favorite]

grog: "Did they ever establish the potential for teledildonics? Does Cliff refuse to touch his wife because he doesn't want her to screw a robot? I mean the cultists ask this question outright at the beginning of the episode (in an extremely out of character way), so they acknowledge the audience is thinking about it too, but they never give us an answer, unless I missed it..."

Ultimately, this is the problem for me. i think Ivan's critiques are valid, but I also think that they could've constructed a scenario where we'd understand why the replicas couldn't be on the ship. Instead, we got an episode that had long, uncomfortable silences instead of better world building.

I also would've liked to know what Cliff's whole situation is. He's portrayed as aloof in a way that I'm sure lots of real 1960s dads were, but then those dads wouldn't have been able to respond with the tenderness that Cliff shows in his last scene with Lana. I understand the instinct to show that stuff rather than tell it, but I don't think it was shown to anyone's satisfaction.

I just mentioned this in an older episode's thread, but all these episodes have to pass the Jurassic Park test for me. I'll submit that people in these episodes make stunningly bad decisions, and I'll suspend my disbelief for those decisions in proportion to (a) how understandable the decision is in situ and (b) how good the payoff is. When Cliff first proposed to Lana to let David use his replica, that absolutely passed the test for me, even though I knew it would be their undoing — because it's such a human response in the moment, and I know that that's where the interesting narrative stuff would happen.

What doesn't pass the test for me is why, once the drawings have been discovered, Cliff would trust David to do absolutely anything, and why he wouldn't just call off the mission and head back. Or, if that's somehow impossible, why NASA would design and execute a mission without even the most basic of contingencies. That fails both my prongs — (a) they didn't try to lampshade it or show us the rationale behind it at all, and (b) the payoff absolutely was not worth it.
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:39 PM on June 20, 2023 [4 favorites]

On the issue of "why not put the robots on the ship instead" -

Okay. Every so often, when the guys were beamed down to their robots, they would get an alert from the ship and have to go clock back into their human form on the ship. Robot-form was only for "hanging out with family". So - presumably human-form was set aside for the more "important" tasks.

So - since there's that judgement call that "human form" is superior to "robot form", it stands to reason that they'd want the superior versions of these guys on the ship. Ergo....humans on ship, robots on Earth.

....Okay, I admit that's flimsy but it's why I bought it, anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:54 AM on June 21, 2023 [2 favorites]

I thought that might be the case too, but they didn't demonstrate it or give a reason despite having the opportunity - Cliff does two space walks during the alert times and I'm not sure what he did as a person that his replica couldn't do; someone could have done a quick exposition dump at some point explaining why they needed real people, but I don't remember it from the episode. The ship apparently knows what's going on with itself well enough to be able to alert them to when there's a problem and they need to stop being replicas, so I'd figure it could do the same if the human/replica locations were reversed - just send out an alert that Cliff and David need to get in their replica pods and fix something.
posted by LionIndex at 6:59 AM on June 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

I'll take a crack at the "robots on Earth" question. It is because - and this is of course completely noncanon - in 1969 they couldn't pack a whole lot of actual computer into the bot's body. The part we don't see is a great big honkin' server room full of all the racks and racks of computers that are needed to make the telepresence even possible. The rooms are in Houston, and are connected by landline to those robot chairs, which are in turn connected by radio to the actual robot bodies. So, it's the tons of computers that couldn't be sent into space.
posted by Mogur at 1:32 PM on June 21, 2023 [4 favorites]

But, again, the problem is that this sort of background could easily have been worked into the script, and it just wasn't.
posted by Mogur at 1:33 PM on June 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

It's also weird that the robot interface thing was (as far as we saw) the ONLY communication they had with people on Earth. David couldn't handle being alone so he had to borrow Cliff's robot, but he probably would have felt better if he could have a video call with an old friend, or his mom, or even better a therapist...

I know video calls to space don't fit with 1969 but neither does real-time faster-than-light telepresence...
posted by mmoncur at 3:52 AM on June 22, 2023 [1 favorite]

There were a couple of times when I thought both the actors were acting especially robotically while portraying their replicas on earth. Like David getting up from the bed when he heard the sound of intruders, or Cliff getting up from the replica chair. I thought the show was trying to show us that the telepresence replicas were too clumsy and laggy to be able to deal with the life or death situations intrinsic to space travel, and that’s why the humans were up there and the replicas down here.

The show did not go along with my brilliant idea.
posted by ejs at 8:47 PM on June 22, 2023 [2 favorites]

I completely misinterpreted what was happening in this episode because of the sheer implausibility of instantaneously transferring that volume of data back and forth from deep space to Earth. (Which the show seemed to acknowledge by the limited comms with NASA, or when the TV broadcast of the funeral was grainy. I thought the graininess was just a fuzzy AI type simulation.)

So I watched this assuming that the “Earth” scenes were simulations that were occurring on board the ship’s computer, which the astronauts could interact with when they were jacked in, and that’s why a new home simulation couldn’t be made for the first guy, because it would have to have been designed and loaded up before they left. And the violence against his “family” was due to discomfort or latent anger in his subconscious, which would emerge again later in the show. But then I was lost as to the depth of the horror that the second guy felt at the end, because I thought all that was being taken from him was his own simulation. Oh well!
posted by chimpsonfilm at 10:35 AM on June 23, 2023 [3 favorites]

It was going to be called Sea of Tranquility, but there was something else coming out with that name.

I heard it sucks.
posted by flabdablet at 5:40 AM on July 2, 2023

The Bradbury book was a nice touch; Bradbury was generally more interested in the stuff of sci-fi as metaphor for real world issues than for its own sake, and while I think it's...not wrong to wonder why, logically, the robots would not have been sent to space instead of the people, this story doesn't really care about the answer to that; the robots are just a plot device.

That said, I don't think the story works terribly well after the half hour or so, because Brooker doesn't seem to know what he wants the story to be about. David and Cliff both suck in their own ways, though maybe David is just so severely psychologically damaged that he isn't totally responsible for his own actions. I guess the story could be about a feeling of unreality in one's own skin, but if so it approaches the subject so obliquely...hints like Cliff (I think) not wanting to have sex with his wife in the robot body are interesting, but don't pay off in any way. Eventually it just wraps up like one of the clunkier Cabinet of Curiosities episodes, and pretty predictably. Also, I hate to say it because I love him in most stuff, but I don't think Aaron Paul was really the actor for this; his David seemed less like Josh Hartnett and more like Aaron Paul whispering.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:06 AM on July 10, 2023 [1 favorite]

I feel like Brooker started with a dude v dude setup and then realized he needed to give Kate Mara's character a little more agency, then he realized he kinda liked Kate Mara's character and realized he respected the conservative space family and realized he needed to throw that off and get back to his dude v dude setup and so then he gave it the ending that fit the middle he didn't write.
posted by fleacircus at 1:28 PM on July 10, 2023 [2 favorites]

My main question was why there was only one version of the robot bodies on Earth. Seems like a rookie error NASA!.

Also at the end I thought "Oh yeah, he has been basically insane since his family was murdered" so his retaliation made sense to me?
posted by Julnyes at 10:19 AM on July 20, 2023

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