We Spoke to Charlie Brooker About 'Black Mirror,' Fear, and the Future of Satire
The creator of the acclaimed Netflix series says he isn't anti-technology, just worried about everything.
Photo: Chris Pizzello AP / Press Association Images
It's a Sisyphean task, reflecting on something as fleeting as the "present." Yet it's striking how different the planet is compared to 2011—just five years ago—when Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror first aired on British TV. Comprised of three one-off stories—each posing menacing what-if scenarios sprung from the interplay between technology and society—the series painted a near-future that was both darkly entertaining and disconcertingly plausible.
Yet now, in the strange, lurid nightmare that is 2016, it's hard to tell if Black Mirror is more necessary than ever, or has been rendered completely redundant. Why bother scripting the nightmare when reality is just as bad?
As I sit down to meet Brooker in the corner of a Soho restaurant in London, I'm unsure whether to expect someone entertaining and inviting, or cynical and incredulous. To anticipate the latter doesn't seem unreasonable. One possible critique of Black Mirror, particularly from the audience of "self-obsessed millennials" who make up a substantial portion of its viewership, is the potential for it to get a bit "old man yells at cloud." Is it cultural criticism, or just a guy in his 40s complaining about how often we all check Instagram?
"I'm certainly of the generation that is inherently suspicious of the level of performance required on social media," Brooker concedes. "I'm old enough to feel like selfies are a bit weird, but I can understand it's probably more interesting to look back on—how you've changed across the years—rather than the crappy photos I tried to take of a sunset in 2006."
That said, he doesn't see the show as a vehicle for judgement, or damning of our relationship with screens. "I'm generally not anti-technology—I just worry about everything. I could worry about this tea scolding me, or gouging my eye out with this spoon," he says, raising a small silver teaspoon to eye level at an alarming speed.
If there is more at play than dystopian cynicism, is Black Mirror a misunderstood project? Does he mind, for instance, the extent to which its title has become a byword for any remotely sinister event involving technology? "I don't mind in that it's free publicity—anytime anything fucked happens people mention the show," he says. "If Samsung brings out a phone that explodes, people say, 'Oh, that's quite Black Mirror.' So if it's bad for the world, it's probably good for the brand!"
He laughs, but it's impossible not to recognize a hint of frustration in his voice when I mention the binary "technology goes wrong" view of the show some people have. "I think sometimes, when people are parodying it, they miss how self-aware it is," he says. "I know when it's being a bit silly."
It's an important distinction, given the 21st century's unstoppable, almost unknowable rate of progress. The idea of being lectured or chastised for behaving in a certain way feels alienating and reductive. Yet, crucially, Black Mirror has never really set out to make people look stupid; rather, its intention has always been to make people look like people. Flawed, bruised, and lacking the requisite software to cope with the threats and promises of the digital age.
Take "Be Right Back," surely the best episode of the second season—if not the entire show. It's a harrowing hour of television, in which a young woman clones her recently deceased husband using the blueprint of his identity, as spread across his social media activity. The episode isn't a lecture: The characters are left confused and morally conflicted, much like the viewers. Is this where satire has to turn in an increasingly extreme world? To the intimate and the personal?
"Possibly," Brooker nods. "I hadn't thought about it like that, but quite possibly, that's where you have to go if reality starts outpacing the grotesqueness of the fictional world."
This outpacing, of course, specifically alludes to the two starkly prophetic instances in earlier episodes of Black Mirror—series one's "The National Anthem" and series two's "Waldo Moment," both of which depict events with eerie similarities to real political events: Cameron's pig-fucking debacle and the rise of Donald Trump, respectively. Yet, while the parallels do bear striking resemblances, the episodes show more the mind of a writer who is fearful of ochlocracy and the corrosion of democracy. I ask him when this fear was born.
"How old are you?" he asks.
"25," I respond.
"I'm 45, literally 20 years older than you, you young fuck," he exclaims. "Look, one of the most formative things I can remember was when it looked like nuclear war was a real, likely thing. In the early 1980s, it looked like we were preparing, quite literally, to have a nuclear war. There were documentaries about it, dramas about it, and that's where I expected to die, as a result of technology and progress. I believed I would die in burning fireball. That's quite a traumatic thought—that stays with you—and I think that comes out in Black Mirror."
Brooker delivers this point with exactly the sort of flamboyant disdain he's perfected across years of panel show appearances. It's a sort of elaborately worded shoulder shrug that makes the oncoming apocalypse sound like he's just spilled coffee on his shirt.
"That's what worries me about my kids," he laughs, as though giddy at how terrifying the world may become for his children, aged two and four. "I don't worry about them losing all sense of reality in the year 2030 by putting on a VR headset that allows them to eat holograms, or whatever. It's more the big nuclear missiles sitting around in silos waiting for people to launch them."
For someone so politically fearful, or at least deeply distrustful, I'm curious as to whether or not he's been politically engaged. "Like anyone, I have my traditions—I grew up in a Labour household, and I definitely lean on the left side of things," he says. "But I think, as I've got older, I've gotten less sure of my convictions, or less sure of my opinions."
Britain's current political climate, he tells me, has him pining for the simpler days of Cameron and Clegg. "I miss the time, a few years ago, when everything was bland and 'meh'—when all politicians were the same, and everyone was boring and safe and stale," he muses. "I emailed Chris Morris after the referendum, actually, and said, 'You should do a one-off Brexit Brasseye—you know, a bit of fan mail—and he said, 'Well, the problem is it requires a form of authority to subvert for it to work, without that new tools are required.'"
He gets more animated the more he thinks about it all. "It does feel like we're at a really fevered time now," he continues. "You've got charismatic figures popping up on all sides, or monsters—depending on your angle. Then someone like Corbyn, who is kind of like an indie music act—like Arab Strap, with passionate followers, and you've got to admire that, but you just can't ever imagine them cracking the mainstream. I do admire that, but my pragmatic boring side says, Really? Do you really think that's going to work?"
Has work started on the 2016 wipe, then? "Put it this way," he says. "Normally we'd have our first writers meeting about the end of year show about now. This year, we had it in July."
Our time is nearly up, so my last question relates to the one Charlie Brooker project that, if you work at VICE, you are reminded of almost every waking day by tweeters and below-the-line commenters: Nathan Barley.
"The first thing to clear up," he interjects, as the words are leaving my mouth. "There is an episode of Nathan Barley where they produce an issue of Sugar Ape magazine called 'The VICE Issue,' which wasn't meant to be a direct comparison – it was a coincidence, literally just a coincidence. After it came out and people said, 'Ah taking the piss out of VICE magazine,' I thought, No! Of course people are going to think that! I think it weirdly even looked a bit like the old VICE logo. We had looked at VICE, of course, but it was never a direct piss-take.
"It's odd looking at that show now," he continues, now that the air is clear. "We worked out the storylines for a second series that moved away from the style magazine and was about his financial support being cut off, and he was facing cold, hard reality, which—had we known the term—would have been far more 'millennial.' He was left adrift in a world where things were crumbling, and he was less certain of things."
As we part ways, I'm struck by his hypothetical Nathan Barley—floundering beneath his failing ironic veneer. It says a lot for Brooker himself—not the failing part, but a writer often misread as a cynic, who is in fact simply trying to communicate an ounce of the bewilderment we surely all feel. Not that he'd say that himself, of course.
As he puts it: "I think it would be arrogant for me to assume I can change people's minds with a piece of fiction. I'm sure that has happened, but I don't know if I'm the person to do it."
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