Sci-Fi Love Stories, part five: San Junipero

by Jen Scouler

When it comes to visionary science-fiction, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has been at the forefront for the last few years, bringing the writer’s dark and cynical view of our changing world to unnerved television audiences. When Brooker transferred the series to Netflix for a new season, he included an episode that no one expected.

San Junipero – Starting Anew

(This article contains spoilers for Black Mirror: San Junipero.)

Whilst the others are bleak, San Junipero is an hour-long romance in warm colours. Although it still has some essence of darkness emblematic of the series, it’s a masterclass in showing the true nature of relationships through a lens of unreality, and a fitting conclusion to our set of sci-fi love stories.

The episode starts in a city in the 1980s, where quiet woman Yorkie is nervously exploring the bombastic nightclubs of a Saturday evening. She comes across Kelly, confident and comfortable in her skin, and Yorkie’s polar opposite. As the two spark up a connection, they slowly develop a romantic relationship that – spoiler alert – is hindered by the giant virtual facade that is the city of San Junipero.

The science-fiction element acts as the entire base for this drama, rather than just as a plot device. Nevertheless, the first half hour plays out like a realistic 80s period drama. When Yorkie traverses different decades in the city thirty minutes in however, that’s when we know we’re really in the genre.

In the Black Mirror world, the technology that provides a virtual world is a new one, offered to older people who may be immobile or struggling with memories. According to Brooker, it’s loosely based on today’s immersive nostalgia therapy, in which medical practitioners find items from the past to help support those with Alzheimer’s. In San Junipero, older people can be transported back to the era that they most loved, or choose to stay there forever when they pass away.

Kelly and Yorkie are opposites in a lot of ways but their biggest divide comes from their long years uniquely lived. Yorkie has been paralysed since an accident at 21 and every moment in San Junipero is her time to explore the physicality that she’s been living without. Kelly meanwhile, is dealing with the complete loss of a husband and grown up daughter, neither of which have moved on to the virtual world.

To Yorkie, staying on in San Junipero past death is an obvious choice. When she tries to convince Kelly of the same however, she doesn’t recognise the ties that Kelly still feels. Her daughter and husband might not be anywhere now but that tiny uncertainty is still there, making choosing to stay forever in the city into a terrifying acceptance that she’ll never see them again.

What is so fascinating is how Brooker doesn’t make Kelly’s final decision clear until the very end, so we’re left to surmise at what finally prompted her to stay. Was it because Yorkie came back to get her even after they fought? Was it because she’d pushed away her worry about the afterlife? Or did she make peace with the loss she’d gone through and decide to give herself another chance?

To me, it’s likely a combination of the three that leads Kelly to start afresh with Yorkie. But along with questions on mortality, San Junipero asks that question that (and sorry for mildly cheapening this) Cher once sang – do you believe in life after love? Losing a loved one brings a feeling of suffocating grief but there’s space to recover. It doesn’t have a timeline and it doesn’t have a specific shape, but something will allow you to carefully frame the past as a memory, but also give yourself the emotional space to move on.

Romance as a genre often shows us the happy endings of matches that were always meant to be, but less common is a drama that shows the inner conflict after the end of a relationship. San Junipero is painful to watch at times but in the end, it perfectly pairs romance and sci-fi by remembering the humanity at the centre of a virtual world. After all, loss can happen to anyone, but it takes a difficult human strength to allow us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and find a new start – whenever that might be.

Jen Scouler is the founder of Lost In Drama, a film site devoted to classic novel adaptations and period dramas.

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