The Prime Minister being forced to have sex with a pig on live telly! In 2011 The National Anthem, the first ever episode of Black Mirror (Mondays C4), pursued that unbeatable central idea ruthlessly, nailing points about accelerated news cycles and online mob justice. It announced Charlie Brooker's drama strand as a sleek beast, willing to bite. But two more self-contained episodes tempered this, the satire making gentler observations about people rather than just technology.
Black Mirror returned for series two this week and moved further towards small, personal drama with a parable of grief that had a tender and macabre heart.
Be Right Back took us to the near-ish future. Martha (Hayley Attwell) had a boyfriend, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson), who was infuriatingly obsessed with social networks. The smartphone widow became an actual widow when Ash died in a car accident, but she had access to an online service that used his endless shares, photos, videos and status updates to simulate first his internet chat, then his phone calls and finally, using a spookily humanoid robot, Ash himself. Could she really bring him back?
In The National Anthem, the only emotions at risk of being trampled by the outlandish set-up were a politician's. A bereft young woman is different, so it was more important to face the challenge that virtually all sci-fi has: make us forget the premise and start feeling the humanity. Plus, coming up with original sci-fi is like trying to think of a new horsemeat joke - Be Right Back was very close to Solaris, Caprica and several famous others. The answer is to make the gimmick a tool, not a master.
At first the virtual Ash was a piercing metaphor for a soul coping without its mate. Martha had Ash's voice in her earphones and pretended he was with her as she took a hilltop walk and attended the 12-week scan of their unborn child. Martha sort of knew it wasn't really Ash and that what she was doing was sort of crazy, but talking to people you wish were there is a level of madness most people have been to.
A really bold writer might have stayed inside Martha's mind, but Black Mirror is about digging down to the logical, horrible conclusion. So she got hold of the walking, talking, lifesize Ash – and the craziness spiralled, particularly since she quickly took the robot to bed. In real life, boyish Ash had struggled to ring beautiful Martha's bell; because he understandably hadn't Facebooked that info, the Ash robot had no such flaw. It was, well, a love machine. She enjoyed a sweaty, cathartic montage with it.
Physical intimacy might be something bereaved partners crave, but replacing a real man's overawed stabs with a priapic cyborg rather undermined the poignancy. Sex with a robot was not much less icky than sex with a pig.
Brooker's preoccupation with nuts and bolts was transmitted to Martha. She was never mad enough with grief to justify the folly of that sex scene, or for her to stop noticing details like the replicant's smooth skin and inability to sleep convincingly. His obviously imperfect presence was a quirky distraction, when what we wanted her to do was lose her mind and take our disbelief with it.
Because she didn't, the otherwise perfectly thought-through final scenes didn't hit home. Martha led the robo-slave Ash to a clifftop and told him to throw himself off, relenting when he convincingly broke down in tears as the real Ash would have. Attwell and Gleeson had been excellent throughout but were rawer and braver than ever here. Then the subtle, wrong-footing coda: years later, Martha's daughter climbed their loft ladder to visit her "dad" – Martha having found a place for the hurt and the memories.
Both moments would have been powerful if more emotional legwork had been done to earn them. The transition Brooker needs to complete is from a writer who can skilfully make ideas ping in our heads to one who can make them settle in our hearts. As it is, you can still see past the curtain to the whirring cogs.