TV review: Black Mirror; Penguins - Spy in the Huddle

Charlie Brooker's new drama is a compelling sci-fi romance to die for

Martha and Ash are driving to the country in the kind of apocalyptic black rain we've had a lot of recently. They stop at a petrol station to buy coffees. The news on the van's TV is about advances in intelligent synthetic flesh aimed at getting amputees back on their feet. Martha presses a button that says Drive Safe on it. Later, at their country house, she works at a large convex interactive touch screen for illustrators.

The technology in Charlie Brooker's latest Black Mirror (Channel 4) is not so far-fetched. Synthetic flesh can't be far off; those screens may already exist; Volvos already pretty much have Drive Safe buttons. There's more. My favourite, a home pregnancy test kit, does an animated baby with accompanying baby music for a positive result (what would negative be, I want to know – a picture of a big wad of cash to a dance anthem?). A dropped mobile phone can be brought back to life on a kind of resuscitation pad. Ash can be brought back to life by collecting his electronic DNA ...

Whoa, hang on, Ash is the guy, right? Oh yeah, he got killed in a car crash the day after the petrol station. But he too is (sort of) brought back to life – first just via online chat, then his voice, through software that searches all his electronic footprints, old emails and phone conversations, devouring, copying, learning. Then Martha takes it up to the final level and recreates him physically, via a mail-order blank body, a bath full of nutrient gel, a packet of electrolytes, more electronic data input. And like the other techy stuff it's not so totally out of the question. Well, stage three maybe, but because we got there incrementally, via two steps that really aren't such big asks, the whole thing is almost viable.

This Black Mirror feels less like the usual Brookerian nightmarish video game dystopia, and more like 2019. It's also less satirical and acerbic than some of his previous television; not just a technology-obsessed sarcastic underwhelmist's bleak view of the future. This is just as much a love story about two young people, one of whom is dead. Ha, it's basically that movie Ghost! Charlie's just updated Ghost for the 21st century with a ginger robot spod in the Patrick Swayze role ... No, of course it's not that. I've written about my intense jealousy of CB and his enormous talent and success before; that will just be it rearing its ugly green head again.

Perhaps marriage and fatherhood has turned him soft, though, because there is a new gentleness about this one. The relationship, what Martha wants and expects of Ash, and her grief are more important than the shocks or the jokes. It feels personal, too. I suspect there is quite a lot of Ash in his creator – he's distracted, a slave to his phone and to Twitter (it's still there in the future, I'm afraid), not so interested in countryside views, infuriating, a bit shit in bed ... yeah, there I go again.

No, the tragedy is that the above makes it better. Even better. Not just prescient and wise, wicked and funny. But also touching, human. Aaaghh. I would kill him, but he'd just come back.

I like penguins (who doesn't?) And there are some lovely ones in Penguins – Spy in the Huddle (BBC1). Humbolt penguins in the unlikely surroundings of the Peruvian desert; rockhopper penguins, demonstrating how they got their name, in the Falklands; emperor penguins doing their long march in the Antarctic. Some of the footage is filmed from extraordinarily close range, by cameras disguised as rocks, eggs, penguins. Robot-camera penguins – brilliant.

But David Tennant's narration is infuriating, full of anthropomorphism and puns, "feather-ruffling" and "here come the girls". It's like having a bedtime story read to you. And then the music – comedy plinky-plonky rockhopper music for the rockhoppers, soaring strings for the Emperors in the storm ... Stop it! I don't need music, or David Tennant, telling me when's something's funny or sad or anything.

Also, was it sanitised, as well as infantilised? Happy Feet, basically? So a couple of eggs were taken by skuas, but no penguins were eaten in the making of this film – by sea lions, leopard seals, vampires bats, nothing. I can't pretend I wasn't disappointed. Also that none of the robot penguins got themselves shagged by real ones. It might have led to a creepy new strain of super penguin, with synthetic flesh, totally indestructible, with the power to improve further and learn, through data collection ... the Brooker penguin.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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