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"Be Right Back" is the first episode of the second series of British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror. It was written by series creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker, directed by Owen Harris and first aired on Channel 4 on 11 February 2013.

"Be Right Back"
Black Mirror episode
A woman with painted nails touches hands with a robotic-looking man wearing a green vest.
Martha (Hayley Atwell, right) interacts with a synthetic re-creation of her deceased boyfriend Ash (Domhnall Gleeson).
Episode no. Series 2
Episode 1
Directed by Owen Harris
Written by Charlie Brooker
Featured music Original Score by
Vince Pope
Original air date 11 February 2013 (2013-02-11)
Running time 44 minutes
Guest appearance(s)
Episode chronology
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"The Entire History of You"
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"White Bear"
List of Black Mirror episodes

The episode tells the story of Martha (Hayley Atwell), a young woman whose boyfriend Ash Starmer (Domhnall Gleeson) is killed in a car accident. As she mourns him, she discovers that technology now allows her to communicate with an artificial intelligence imitating Ash, and reluctantly decides to try it. "Be Right Back" had two sources of inspiration: the question of whether to delete a dead friend's phone number from one's contacts, and the idea that Twitter posts could be made by software mimicking dead people.

"Be Right Back" explores the theme of grief; it is a melancholy story similar to the previous episode, "The Entire History of You". The episode received positive reviews, with the performances of Atwell and Gleeson receiving universal acclaim. Some critics believe it to be the best episode of Black Mirror, though the ending was met with criticism. Several real life artificial intelligence products have been compared to the one shown in the episode, including a Luka chatbot that was partially inspired by the episode.

Contents

PlotEdit

Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash Starmer (Domhnall Gleeson) are a young couple who have moved to Ash's remote family house in the countryside. The day after moving in, Ash is killed while returning the hire van. At the funeral, Martha's friend Sarah (Sinead Matthews) talks about a new online service which helped her in a similar situation. Martha yells at her, but Sarah signs Martha up anyway. After discovering she is pregnant, Martha reluctantly tries it out. Using all of Ash's past online communications and social media profiles, the service creates a new virtual "Ash". Starting out with instant messaging, Martha uploads more videos and photos and begins to talk with the artificial Ash over the phone. Martha takes it on countryside walks, talking to it constantly while neglecting her sister's messages and calls.

At a checkup, Martha hears her child's heartbeat, and on her way out accidentally drops her phone and temporarily loses contact with the artificial Ash. After consoling her, the artificial Ash tells her about the service's experimental stage. Following his instructions, Martha turns a blank, synthetic body into an android that looks almost exactly identical to Ash. From the moment the android is activated, Martha is uncomfortable and struggles to accept its existence. Despite the android satisfying her sexually, she is concerned by his inability to sleep and absence of Ash's personality traits. One night, she orders the robot Ash to leave and is annoyed that he does so, as the real Ash would have resisted. The next morning, Martha takes the artificial Ash to a cliff and orders him to jump off. As he begins to follow the order, Martha expresses her frustration that Ash would not have simply obeyed. The android begs for its own life. Martha screams.

Several years later, it is Martha's daughter's (Indira Ainger) birthday. Martha keeps the Ash android locked in the attic and only allows her daughter to see the android on weekends, but she makes an exception for her birthday. Her daughter chats away to the android while Martha stands at the bottom of the attic steps, and forces herself to join them.

ProductionEdit

External video
  "Black Mirror"
The trailer for series two of Black Mirror.
  "Be Right Back"
The trailer for "Be Right Back".

"Be Right Back" was the first episode of the second series of Black Mirror, produced by Zeppotron for Endemol. It aired on Channel 4 on 11 February 2013.[1] On 22 January 2013, a trailer for the second series was released, featuring "a dream sequence", a "repetitive factory setting" and a "huge dust cloud". The advert ran on Channel 4 and in cinemas.[2] A trailer for "Be Right Back" first aired on 1 February 2013.[3]

Conception and writingEdit

The episode was written by series creator Charlie Brooker. A few months after the death of a person he knew, Brooker was removing unneeded contacts from his phone, and considered it to be "weirdly disrespectful" to delete their name. This idea later became an inspiration for "Be Right Back", along with another idea Brooker had when using Twitter: "what if these people were dead and it was software emulating their thoughts?"[4]

Prior to the writing of "Be Right Back", Brooker had read about the 1960s artificial intelligence program ELIZA, and how the creator's secretary was engaged in a very personal conversation with ELIZA within minutes of first testing it.[5] Brooker also considered the inauthenticity of social media users, commenting in another interview that "I found myself being inauthentic on there and it reminded me of writing columns for a newspaper".[6] In 2013, Brooker said that he rationed his Twitter usage as it caused him unhappiness.[4]

Several years ago, someone I knew died, and a few months later I was going through my phone, making some space by deleting numbers. It felt weirdly disrespectful to delete this person's name. Then last year after we had a baby I spent a lot of time up late and on Twitter, thinking: what if these people were dead and it was software emulating their thoughts? And if you're grieving, if you've got something you know isn't the person, but evokes enough memories to remind you of them, is that enough?

Charlie Brooker, Interview with Time Out.[4]

In a British Film Institute panel, Brooker notes that the episode mirrors stages of internet dating, progressing from text conversations to phone calls to real life interactions, and believes the "biggest leap" to be the synthetic flesh version of Ash, while the rest is "not that far-fetched". Executive producer Annabel Jones compares the technology to mediumship, as both are used for comfort.[5]

An unused idea for the episode was to have the audience realise "what a money-making scheme" the artificial intelligence company in the episode is. Brooker says in an interview that "there was a point where she runs out of credit and has to top it up. I think that was even shot".[6] Another idea was for viewers to "see other people who'd been brought back from their social media profiles."[7]

Casting and filmingEdit

Hayley Atwell, who plays Martha, was a fan of the first series of the show, calling it "inventive and very smart", so she asked her agent to get her a part in the second series. Atwell's first impression of the script was that it was "really poignant, but it still had the wit."[8] Asked in a 2013 interview, Atwell said that she was a heavy user of the internet.[4] Domhnall Gleeson plays Ash, and said in a 2018 interview that the role led him to try to use his phone less, with a stage direction where he frantically searches his phone particularly resonating with him.[9]

The episode was directed by Owen Harris, who would later direct series three episode "San Junipero"[10] – an episode which Harris described as "strangely similar" to this one as both are "relationship-led".[11] Brooker believes that Harris is "very good with performers" and "gravitates" towards Black Mirror episodes that are "more tender". Brooker praises Harris' "good eye for those authentic, bittersweet and painful moments."[12] Harris wished to make the episode appear as if it could be possible in the near future, as if one could "walk into the Mac store tomorrow and it wouldn't be out of place to see people trialling software like this". He describes that the story "on the one hand is about technology and on the other hand is about grief".[5]

In The New Yorker, Giles Harvey says that Brooker "was determined to make the devices and screens and interfaces used in 'Black Mirror' seem authentic." This is evidenced by an email sent to Martha reading "Martha, people in your position bought the following", and then showing "an array of grief-counselling books". Harvey comments that "the vignette stands for an accumulation of such intrusive moments—the death of solitude by a thousand digital cuts."[13] Another article in Huffington Post notes the touch-screen easel shown briefly in the episode, with Brooker commenting that "the design team had a field day with that easel" and that they suggested "Oh, we should copyright this. It'd be brilliant if this existed."[14]

AnalysisEdit

Brooker calls the episode "a ghost story".[6] David Sims of The A.V. Club describes it as a "spare, haunting piece".[15] Charles Bramesco of Vulture writes that it is a "high-concept tearjerker" which amalgamates a "cerebral sci-fi thought [experiment]" and a "sentimental core".[16] Megan Logan of Inverse says the episode is "tragic, but it also carries a deep-seated optimism".[17] Emily Yoshida of Grantland believes the episode is about grief, "one of the most primal emotions we know".[18] Luke Owen of Flickering Myth agrees, summarising the episode as a "sombre, low-key and all together depressing affair about grief and how people deal with it in different ways."[19] Similarly, James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly opines that the episode is a "moving exploration of grief".[20] Roxanne Sancto of Paste says the episode "examines our own mortality and our tendency to play God", and demonstrates how humans have a "desperate need to reverse a natural and necessary part of life without considering the consequences".[21] Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent calls the episode "tender" and "wistful", writing of Brooker that "his writing has changed since he became a husband and a father, but it's a thickening not a softening".[22]

Unlike past episodes of Black Mirror, this episode features a character beginning to use a technology, rather than one who is used to it.[18] Ryan Lambie of Den of Geek believes the episode's theme to be "technology's effects on relationships",[23] while Johnston posits that the episode "offers insight into not just the grieving process, but the way people portray themselves in increasingly mediated public spaces".[24] According to Daniel M. Swain of HuffPost, the episode is a "powerful reminder to the soullessness of social media",[25] and Sameer Rahim of The Daily Telegraph writes that the episode "touched on" ideas such as "the false way we sometimes present ourselves online, and our growing addiction to virtual lives".[26]

According to Lambie, Ash is "an affectionate boyfriend" and Martha is "blissfully in love", though Ash is easily distracted by his phone. Martha and Ash only appear together in a few scenes, but we see their love through "little in-jokes, shared love of cheesy 70s tunes and childhood memories".[23] Bojalad writes that they are "one of the most realistically comfortable and happy couples" in the series.[27] Owen agrees, writing that though the relationship has little screentime, the audience feel "an instant connection with them".[19] These scenes are later invoked "with the film's latter half cruelly mirroring all that we saw before", Sims writes. Examples include the android Ash disliking the Bee Gees and engaging in sex that feels "robotic".[28] Ash's cause of death is "neither clear nor important", though Sims and Sancto think that it relates to him checking his phone while driving.[15][21]

Yoshida says that the presence of the android Ash is "somehow menacing even though he appears completely docile". Yoshida further comments that Martha is unable to resist him, but also feels "real revulsion" at her situation.[18] Sims states that the replica of Ash is "self-aware", as it "knows it cannot replace Ash fully, and it knows its parameters as a computer program". The robotic Ash is "like a lost puppy" and follows Martha's "every request to the letter".[15] Swain says that he is "a handful of witty comments" lacking "anything of any meaning".[25] Morgan Jeffery of Digital Spy calls him "hollow" and comments that he lacks "so much of what made Ash the man he was".[28] Logan says the episode is about "the intangibles of humanness that make up the people we love".[17] Sutcliffe believes the robotic Ash fails as a replacement because humans miss their loved ones "sourness" as well as their "sweetness".[22]

Comparisons to other mediaEdit

 
The episode has been compared to Shelley's Frankenstein, with the artificial Ash paralleling Frankenstein's monster.

In contrast to the previous series opener, "The National Anthem", Brooker describes "Be Right Back" as "more earnest than people might expect" as well as "melancholy" and "very intimate and personal",[8] and Lambie makes similar comments.[23] Lambie and Jeffery both compare the episode to "The Entire History of You", an episode from the first series written by Jesse Armstrong.[23][28] Yoshida notes that "The Entire History of You" begins with Liam obsessing over a job interview, which he is able to replay through his grain device. Yoshida compares his inability to "let it go" to Martha's choice to "forever nurse herself on a slow drip of delayed acceptance" by replacing Ash with an android version of him.[18] Maura Johnston of The Boston Globe says that both episodes "revolve around the ideas of memory and its functions" and "[play] on the ideas of love and the ideal".[24]

Richard Hand of The Conversation describes the episode as a "clever reworking" of Mary Shelley's 1800s novel Frankenstein.[29] Yoshida compares the artificial Ash to Frankenstein's monster,[18] with Hand making the same comparison as both are "resurrected figure[s]" that "can never be human".[29] While Frankenstein demonstrates that the "vital essence of humanity" is not the "assemblage of body parts", "Be Right Back" shows it is not the "digital presence which surrounds".[29]

Reviewers have used the analogy that the episode is a version of "The Monkey's Paw" with futuristic technology.[30][20] Lambie compares the storyline to Ubik by Philip K. Dick and 1984 film Starman, and the cinematography to 2010 film Never Let Me Go.[23] TheWrap notes that the episode "shares some similarities" with 2013 film Her.[31]

Comparisons to AI technologyEdit

In 2015, Luka co-founder Eugenia Kuyda used her AI startup resources to build a similar online service using her deceased friend's chat logs; "Be Right Back" was one of the sources of inspiration for the project.[32] Having seen the episode after her friend's death, she questioned of the concept: "Is it letting go, by forcing you to actually feel everything? Or is it just having a dead person in your attic?" The Luka chatbot was launched in May 2016 and was met with mostly positive responses, though four of Kuyada's friends were disturbed by the project and one commented that she had "failed to learn the lesson of the Black Mirror episode".[33] Another company, Eterni.me, also produces AI that is "remarkably similar" to the robot Ash in "Be Right Back"; cofounder Marius Ursache has commented that "we're trying to stay away from that idea" about "the concept that it's a way for grieving loved ones to stall moving on" and that the AI depicted in this episode is a "creepier version" of their ideas.[34][35] Similar bots such as BINA48, made public in 2010 by Martine Rothblatt, have also been compared to the central conceit in this episode.[36][37]

Critical receptionEdit

First airing on Channel 4 on 11 February 2013 at 10 p.m., the episode garnered 1.6 million viewers, a 9% share of the audience. This was 14% higher than the time slot's average for the channel, but a lower figure than the 1.9 million viewers who watched "The National Anthem", the previous series' first episode.[38] In 2014, the episode was nominated for a British Academy Television Craft Award in the category Best Single Drama.[39]

The A.V. Club gave the episode an A– rating.[15] Out of five stars, the episode receives four stars in The Daily Telegraph[26] and Digital Spy.[28] Empire ranked the first meeting between Martha and the Ash android as one of the 50 greatest sci-fi moments.[40] Prior to the premiere of series 3, Logan claimed that the episode was "the best episode of the series so far" and the "most heartbreaking".[17] Rahim says that the episode is "a touching exploration of grief" and opines that "it's the best thing Brooker has done".[26] Following the fourth series, Alec Bojalad of Den of Geek opines that it is the best episode of the show.[27]

Logan praised the "great narrative" as a "stunning, linear meditation on grief and love". Lambie believes that the limited scope of the episode "intensifies its dramatic strength", and praises it as "appropriately haunting".[17] Contrastingly, Mike Higgins of The Independent criticises that the episode "wasn't quite the social-media satire it hoped to be".[30] Jeffery praises the tone as "creepy and moving in equal measure".[28] Sims comments that the "inevitable breakdown" is predictable but still "engrossing".[15]

Jeffery criticises that the episode "does stumble just a little at the final hurdle", with the ending seeming like a "cop-out" from Brooker because "like Martha, you get the feeling that he doesn't quite know what to do with Ash now that he's created him."[28] Owen criticises that the episode's ending "doesn't really conclude any of Martha's character progression".[19] Higgins calls the ending a "puzzle" as "Ash has become just another sci-fi stock robot".[30] However, Sims praises the final scene as "melancholy" and "too much to bear".[15]

Lambie praises the performances of Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson, writing that Atwell is "the hub of almost every scene" and "puts in one of the best performances in Black Mirror's short history", while the characters of Ash and Martha have "a real spark [...] in the few scenes they share together".[23] Owen reviews that Atwell gives "the best performance" in Black Mirror so far, with Gleeson's acting "equally as great".[19] Jeffery praises that the episode "has real heart and characters that live and breathe".[28] Sims reviews that Atwell "almost never [lets] her grief feel cartoonish or clichéd". Sims also praises Gleeson's acting, writing about the climax that "[i]t's amazing to watch Gleeson turn the emotions on after keeping them bottled in for an entire episode".[15]

Owen praises Harris' directing, as "the surroundings look familiar and the technology doesn't look that farfetched – adding to the believability of the story."[19] Higgins praises the cinematography in the countryside scene.[30] Bojalad writes that the scene in which the police arrive to inform Martha of Ash's death is "among the most artful and devastating moments Black Mirror has ever presented".[27]

Episode rankingsEdit

"Be Right Back" appeared on many critics' rankings of the 19 episodes in Black Mirror, from best to worst:

Instead of by quality, Proma Khosla of Mashable ranked the episodes by tone, concluding that "Be Right Back" is the fourth-least pessimistic episode of the show.[47]

Other critics ranked the 13 episodes in Black Mirror's first three series.

Other reviewers ranked the seven episodes produced under Channel 4. "Be Right Back" is listed fifth in a Metro article by Jon O'Brien,[55] and ranked sixth-best by Roxanne Sancto of Paste.[21]

ReferencesEdit

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  2. ^ "MPC creates darkly compelling ads for Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror". Digital Arts. 29 January 2013. Retrieved 16 December 2017. 
  3. ^ Westbrook, Caroline (2 February 2013). "New Black Mirror trailer shows Charlie Brooker's sinister take on social media". Metro. Retrieved 16 December 2017. 
  4. ^ a b c d Tate, Gabriel (31 January 2013). "Charlie Brooker and Hayley Atwell discuss 'Black Mirror'". Time Out. Retrieved 16 December 2017. 
  5. ^ a b c BFI Q&A - Be Right Back (Video interview). YouTube. 12 February 2013. Archived from the original on 31 January 2014. Retrieved 12 September 2018. 
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  8. ^ a b Jeffery, Morgan (8 February 2013). "'Black Mirror' returns: Charlie Brooker, Hayley Atwell talk series two". Digital Spy. Retrieved 16 December 2017. 
  9. ^ Nicholson, Tom (9 April 2018). "A Scene In 'Black Mirror' Changed The Way Domhnall Gleeson Used His Phone Forever". Esquire. Retrieved 12 September 2018. 
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  11. ^ Strause, Jackie (23 November 2016). "'Black Mirror' Director Shares His Take on "San Junipero's" Ending and Ideas for a Spinoff". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 20 September 2017. 
  12. ^ Grobar, Matt (22 June 2017). "'Black Mirror' Creator Charlie Brooker On His Affinity For "Idea-Based Dramas" And What's To Come In Season 4". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 17 December 2017. 
  13. ^ Harvey, Giles (28 November 2016). "The Speculative Dread of "Black Mirror"". The New Yorker. Retrieved 16 December 2017. 
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External linksEdit