I should've known when I signed up to cover just one episode of the new season of Black Mirror, the show would task me with writing a piece making sense of the nature of life.
In a way, this is an ideal show to review. Each episode is completely self-contained and only a certain "tone" is ever-present. There are no recurring characters, no past and no future to deal with. As a concept the show is virtually identical to Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
Then again, sometimes one of these come along and, well...
Man has sought to conquer death throughout history. With 'San Junipero', Black Mirror offers us a cute, suggestive and mostly believable pastiche on the subject in a "not-so-distant future" where we've actually managed to do it. Sort of, maybe.
Voltaire once said, "if God didn't exist, it would be necessary to create him." 'San Junipero' shows us a world that's decided God doesn't exist and gone about creating Heaven. Heaven, we learn, is a swarm of virtual realities where the imprints of the "souls" of the departed go on to live forever. Society no longer even uses the term death, instead describing the process using the decidedly religious metaphor of "passing over".
In fact, Black Mirror's construction of a virtual Heaven is extremely clever. One reason it's thought many people tire of life and lose their vigor is how they are increasingly alienated by a society less and less resembling the one of their formative years. "Heaven" fixes that by offering multiple realities each depicting a different phase in our history which the clients choose between at will, incorporating idealized representations of themselves in the prime of their youth. Most of this episode is spent in the 80's virtual world, presumably serving as the retirement home of most born in the late sixties and early seventies, but there are glimpses of others.
'San Junipero' represents the shift between two eras as a showcase of the survivors' guilt of those immortal. It does so through a simple love story between Kelly and Yorkie. These are both old women, but while Kelly has lived a full life in a long loving marriage with a husband and daughter, Yorkie is a lesbian woman who's spent all of her adulthood paralyzed after a car crash and never really had the chance to live her life at all. The episode does a good job of showing the differences between them. While they are both of similar age, compared to Kelly, Yorkie's little more than a child.
Neither Yorkie nor Kelly are long for this world. We further learn that Kelly lost first her daughter and then her husband, and that her husband refused to join the afterlife program as "if my daughter couldn't go, how can I?" Now she herself faces the same dilemma, talking about all the sacrifices they've made for each other and predictably infuriating Yorkie who has just met who she believes to be the love of her life.
The entire process of uploading the conscious mind to a mainframe and terminating the body touches on the Theseus paradox and also reminds me of Lawrence Krauss' The Physics of Star Trek, which features a fascinating discussion of the workings of the transporter. If your entire body is atomized, stored as a pattern in a buffer and rematerialized in minute detail at another location using different particles, do you die? What are "you" - the mind controlling your body, or your organism? Would you be "less" you if I cut off your finger, or with an artificial heart?
What people often fail to realize is that we are beings in constant change undergoing constant decay and death. We may feel the same person from one day to the next, but are we? Are we the same person from one year to the next, or one decade? Does the ten-year-old version of you really exist as anything but a fading memory? In this context, isn't it easy to stipend that the "you" is merely the entity that thinks it is you, as long as all else agree and none other exists? Black Mirror takes this to its logical extreme as it isn't even telling a story about one person dying and living on within the system for her lover's benefit. Both are about to die.
'San Junipero' also touches the strong religious opposition to the afterlife machine, with Kelly's family refusing her to go through with the procedure. There's something ironic about that, since believing it to be "Godless" may betray a belief that science does in fact transfer the "soul" to the machine. Alternately it may be related to different forms of aniconism, and finally it may just be a desperate resistance against a piece of technology threatening to make their churches obsolete, as the episode hints it's well on track to do.
In conclusion, this episode is very good science fiction. It's telling precisely the kind of story only science fiction can tell and it does so in a thought-provoking and plausible manner, with no fantastic overtones. If you're only going to watch one episode of Black Mirror, you really can't go wrong with 'San Junipero', and I'm honored I got to review it.