Before he was celebrated as one of the great TV creators of our age, perhaps the most enduring image of Charlie Brooker was that of a man sitting on his sofa, pretending to furiously masturbate. During the run of his BBC Four television review show Screenwipe, he jacked his imaginary beanstalk to TV clips of Paul Ross reading a horror story, an advert for M&S stilton, the cheating major Charles Ingram recounting a dream of his past life as a Roman soldier, Dot Cotton communing with her late husband and Jeremy Kyle perving on one of his traumatised guests (during that one Brooker shouted “cry on it bitch!”).
The Brooker I meet in a nice suite of a central London hotel appears considerably less grotty. For a start he’s part of that small group of British comedians who’ve found later career success in America and as such have started to look younger as they get older. He’s got a kind of chirpy, affable manner, immediately happy to discuss whatever’s thrown at him, be that cam girls or Uber’s new silent journey option, although he still talks with the unmistakeable Brooker voice, rising an octave when he’s even slightly aggravated.
He’s joined by his creative partner and Black Mirror co-showrunner Annabel Jones, who's worked with Brooker since his Screenwipe days and recently produced the excellent BBC mockumentary series Cunk on Britain. As soon as I arrive Jones begins needling Brooker, disagreeing with almost everything he says and bringing out a different side to him than the fatalistic wank-merchant British TV viewers might be more familiar with.
Even when our conversation turns, almost immediately, to pornography, the new-look Brooker feigns naivety. “I’ve never seen any pornography ever. What is pornography? Annabel said to me it’s on the internet somewhere but I haven’t seen it. Maybe you could print it all out for me, I can’t imagine there’s much,” he says.
It’s not just Brooker’s persona that's become a little cheerier, the new season of Black Mirror, up on Netflix from Wednesday the 5th of June, has also made a tonal shift. There’s still destitution and misery, sure, but you don’t leave the episodes thinking that the end is coming and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. If anything these are stories about deciding which elements of tech we want to accommodate, and which we want to revolt against.
We’re talking about porn because it’s the centrepiece of the episode "Striking Vipers", a perfectly pitched treatise of relationships and sexuality that, in ways that will make sense when you watch it, invents a new sexual orientation. It’s the story of best friends Danny and Carl, played by Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who have grown apart as they’ve got older but reconnect when they start playing a virtual reality version of a Tekken-style game. Though the game is hyper-real, they play as comic-like characters: a male sexy swashbuckling ninja and a short-skirted female fighter. Quickly fighting turns to fucking, and Danny has to reckon with how bonking his best mate every night in a virtual world will affect his relationship with his wife.
I ask what made them want to probe questions around sexuality. Brooker says most Black Mirror ideas come from a conversation or a scribbled idea he has (“Man 3D prints his own prick” he offers as an example). In this case there was an ongoing conversation about doing a musical episode around an office team-building exercise in which a whole company had to recreate the film Grease but in a VR world. Brooker and Jones like the idea of no one knowing who was playing who, so the CEO might be Olivia Newton-John and the janitor could be John Travolta.
At the same time, Brooker was reflecting on his own video gaming youth. He used to be “shit hot” at Tekken and many evenings were spent playing with friends in his flat until daylight. “One night I realised the windows were open and the neighbours must have thought it was like a sex dungeon because there were all these people going ‘ah’, ‘oww’, ‘eeeeek’ until god knows when in the morning. It sounded very sexual.”
Those strands of thought intertwined, and from them emerged the idea of a video game that allows its two male players to engage in steamy heterosexual sex. It creates new questions, not just around how we will define new sexualities created by technology but also the line between watching porn and adultery.
“Yes, I don’t know what the reaction to it will be because it’s such an odd dilemma," Brooker says. "They’re confused in the story – whether they’re in love with each other. It’s like he’s having a holiday romance but he’s got a magic button that takes him on holiday. Or like Mr Benn but Mr Benn is fucking the shopkeeper,” he adds, quickly giving up any pretence his mind is no longer in the gutter.
The influence of previous Black Mirror episodes has become a useful way to make sense of real-world horrors, to the point that calling things “so Black Mirror” has become a bit of a catch-all cliché. China's Social Credit System, a governmental initiative planned in which every person and business would have a state-mandated score, has often been compared to the "Nosedive" episode where every action and person is given a star rating. When a TV comedian was elected in Ukraine, many compared it to the panel show bear in "The Waldo Moment" who ends up winning an election.
This episode feels like it will be referenced for a long time as our experiments in virtual love begin. Just last week Bella Hadid did a Calvin Klein advert where she snogged virtual human Lil Miquela, a moment criticised for queer-baiting because its only human star, Hadid, identifies as straight. Calvin Klein eventually apologised for the ad, but "Striking Vipers" suggests these questions will never be as simple as tweeting “we sincerely regret any offence caused” – digital relationships always have a real-life impact.
Brooker got into television through criticism, writing weekly missives from the nether regions of the EPG in his Screen Burn column for the Guardian and his TVGoHome site, a parody of the Radio Times in which Brooker described imagined shows like Ainsley's Last Suppers (“Ainsley Harriott tours Britain's hospices. This week, a terminally ill watchmaker from Norwich tucks in to a Mediterranean feast”).
Now though, Black Mirror itself is pored over by a swollen TV criticism industry, with think-pieces on what each episode gets right and wrong about our changing technological environment. While the show has won many critical plaudits, individual episodes have been criticised for having twists that are too clearly telegraphed or being unsubtle in their “technology is scary” sermonising. Do they get worried about what people think? Jones begins diplomatically, “Well, we’re always so pleased with the films with the way the films have come out, I just think we’ve delivered the film we wanted to…”
“…so fuck everybody else in the world?” Brooker offers, as a potential sentence ender.
“Well no, that’s the thing about an anthology: people aren’t going to love them all. That’s going to be the reality when you’re presenting very different genres and tones.”
“I hope the fact that there are some episodes that people really love and some people really hate means we’re doing our job; we’re making something so unpredictable you don’t even know if you’re going to like it,” Brooker jokes. I mention the Guardian column Jump the Shark, which each week examines when a particular TV show went bad, the somewhat pessimistic philosophy being that there are no TV shows that ever stay good. Is there ever a worry that one day they just won’t be able to sustain it?
Brooker says it can be hard because they’re completely starting from scratch each time, so they’re continually having to create new characters, new software systems, new rules of the world that they’re inhabiting, “but I think the advantage we have is that we can completely reset. When you have a traditional ongoing narrative there are problems that can emerge if you introduce a big false element because you've run out of time or ideas, you've sort of fucked with the reality. Then it's hard to win people's trust back.” Jones quickly points out he’s basically just talking about Game Of Thrones.
“Well yes they’ve had that problem," Brooker continues. "George R R Martin, as someone pointed out online, writes by the seat of his pants. But the stories are grinding to a halt as it takes him longer to churn the books out and it starts to collapse under the weight of its own complexity. The producers have had to get it to an endpoint and so it’s meant there's this point where suddenly all the characters’ motivations change. They sort of become chess pieces. And I'm sympathetic to that as a problem but I think that’s how jumping the shark happens.”
You can tell that Brooker has been thinking a lot more about those kinds of character concerns in Black Mirror too. These feel like the most fleshed out characters since it began. Our heroes make big choices and show agency, rather than simply responding to whichever technological nightmare they’ve been thrown into – a critique that has followed Black Mirror around since at least the third series.
"Smithereens", an episode about our addiction to social media and the impossibility of trying to speak to a human at a big tech company, sees a grief-stricken Andrew Scott (Fleabag's Hot Priest) using a hostage situation in order to contact Billy Bauer, the boss of a Twitter-like company who he blames for making his technology too addictive. Throughout, the episode nods to the ways we try to escape from technology: Scott’s character listens to a guided meditation (before taking someone hostage at gunpoint) while Bauer can’t immediately be reached because he’s on a tech-free silent retreat.
“Jack Dorsey, the head of Twitter, had gone on some silent meditation retreat at the end of last year. I think in his absence, there had been lots of issues; people had been going, ‘what are you gonna do about the Nazis, Jack!!!!’ Then he came back, and he just went, ‘hey, wow, I just had an amazing silent retreat, I learnt a lot about myself’.” “He was coming back to tell the addicts he was clean,” says Jones.
At the same time he was hearing so much from his own writing team about all the different ways they try to avoid technology, be it through the Headspace app or little tricks, like turning their phone displays greyscale. What, though, about Brooker himself? After a career made consuming a near-constant stream of content and contraptions, all the while offering his own caustic take on how they might bring destruction, has he ever tried meditation?
Yes, he says he’s done a bit of mindfulness, although he says mindfulness is really just “self-enforced boredom, it’s just someone going ‘right, shut up, shut your eyes or don’t and sit there and do nothing and notice every time you start fidgeting in your head.’ Then the more you notice that you're fidgeting in your head, the better you'll be.”
Maybe that’s why Brooker seems so at peace now, ten minutes a day thinking about nothing. Does he feel like it’s helping? Has it changed him? “Yeah, I mean, a little mindfulness is probably a good thing. You wouldn't want to be continually aware all the time. Because you'll be walking around going ‘I am a mammal on a dying planet and my lifespan is finite and I am ultimately meaningless.’ I mean I still think I that a lot, but now I try not to dwell on it.”
Black Mirror season 5 is available to stream on Netflix now.