Writer/co-producer Charlie Brooker has often said how Black Mirror episodes are genre-based as much as tech-based. Sure, they’re all sci-fi to an extent, but we’ve had the Black Mirror take on Scandi-noir (Hated In The Nation), space romps (USS Callister), portmanteau horror (Black Museum) and so on and so on.
Brooker has also often stated how much he likes to surprise viewers, and with Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too – presumably a pun on ’80s Britflick Rita, Sue & Bob Too that will go over the head of 85 per cent of viewers – he’ll have managed that, both in the ever-twisting plot (don’t worry – no spoilers here) and the fact that, halfway through, it turns into an adult take on the 1980s, 90-minute kids’ adventure caper, complete with gags, a goofy chase and what cinema censors amusingly describe as ‘mild peril’. It’s The Goonies meets Westworld, and it’s utterly brilliant.
And this is Black Mirror, so there are very real, very frightening questions asked, too. Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too is a rumination on the creepy trend for holograms of deceased popstars (explored last week in these very pages), the exploitation of popstars and stans (something that, with Vox Lux recently in cinemas, and the #metoo movement yet to fully hit the music industry, is absolutely topical), the medication of artists and the commodification of music in a post-product landscape.
Brooker and Annabel Jones, Black Mirror‘s showrunners, have said that while the part of Ashley O wasn’t specifically written for its star, Miley Cyrus, she was at the top of the wishlist to play the role. And just as when viewing A Star Is Born it’s virtually impossible to imagine anyone but Lady Gaga playing the part, such is her ownership of the role, so is the case with Cyrus in Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too (or, as it might have been called, A Star Is Borg).
Cyrus’s life parallels, to some degree, that of Black Mirror‘s Ashley O, a teen pop star commodified to the point that an animatronic Alexa-style device of her is on the market. Where Cyrus went through the ranks of the Mickey Mouse Club and went on to forge her own path (all hail a pop star brave enough to put out an album as out-there as the gross-out psych-fest of 2015’s ‘Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz’), we find Ashley O going through the realisation that there’s more to life than her super-sunny, pink-haired pop pap.
The problem? Her aunt/manager Catherine, very much the opposite of Cyrus’s own cool dad Billy-Ray Cyrus. She’s a figure we’ve seen throughout pop history, someone in the mould of Brian Wilson’s father Murray, or the late Joe Jackson, who views a vulnerable dependant as a product.
In Rachel, Jack And Ashley Too, she hatches a plan to put the human Ashley O on standby and replace her with a digital version, even fishing ‘new’ songs from her brain and recreating her as, essentially, a digital slave.
Meanwhile, we have Rachel and Jack, teenage sisters living a drab life. Rachel’s escape is her stanning of Ashley O; Jack’s is playing the bass to ‘vintage’ gothic rock and punk. In the grand cinematic tradition of unlikely champions forced to perform an heroic task, it falls on the sisters to defeat the evil aunt and save Ashley – or her memory, at least.
Given we already live in a time when a singer’s voice can be captured as Vocaloid samples and used alongside a midi keyboard to create authentic-sounding new works, and when a virtual Roy Orbison is on tour with a virtual Buddy Holly (presumably with Saint Peter as their roadie), this stuff is not so much science fiction as science fact.
We’d hasten to say it’s the clever thing about Black Mirror because everything about Black Mirror is clever, but the trick of this particular episode is to shine a light on things that are already happening in the pop world and present them as science fiction then, within that, to package it all – the ethical issues, the sheer human nastiness – as a laugh-filled romptastic caper movie.
No, wait – the real genius in this episode is the songs. Even the most hardened fan would be pushed to notice, but all of Ashley O’s songs are Nine Inch Nails songs reworked with perky production and upbeat lyrics full of motivational aphorisms. It’s Leona Lewis-murders-‘Hallelujah’ times a million – albeit with the blessing of Trent Reznor.
NME readers will be pleased to note the episode also features a shout-out for Idles and Savages, who Brooker told us he discovered via Spotify recommendations. Algorithms aren’t all bad, you see. Until they become sentient…