Charlie Brooker Talks to Us about 'USS Callister'
In season four, 'Black Mirror' makes its first trip into space.
Everyone's favourite dystopian tech-anxiety anthology series Black Mirror returned this week, with six new episodes. For each one VICE is going to be exploring some of the ideas raised in the episode with key figures in the show and the wider world of science and technology.
First up, the "USS Callister" – a Star Trek-like space ship with a twist. The cheesy missions taking place on board are actually part of a jailbroken video-game run off the personal laptop of a tech developer.
The interview contains a couple of light spoilers.
VICE: Where did the idea for this episode start? Did you know you wanted to do something in space?
Charlie Brooker: Yeah, it was literally that precise discussion. We were on the set of “Playtest” from season three and there's a lot of special effects in that. We were discussing what we were gonna do next, because this was around the time we starting to plan this season and sometimes when we are talking about and working out what we’re gonna do next, we do it in term of genre. So we go, “oh what haven’t we done yet: musical, or erm, police procedural.”
Space was one we hadn't done, so how would we do a space episode? What would make a space episode a Black Mirror episode and also, because we were dealing with special effects on Playtest, well this is a tool box I haven't really used much in anything I’ve written. What happens if we sort of go for it. Because we were on set, there was a special effects guy there so I was having a chat with him about it. It came from there.
How does it differ doing a blockbuster episode like this, compared to some that have a more indie-film feel?
It’s a weird one because it’s probably in many ways quite a mainstream episode, structurally it's quite sort of trad in some ways, even if it goes into some weird places. It has weird detours in it. It was co-written with William Bridges. We co-wrote “Shut Up and Dance” in season 3. That was a very different episode, the sort of polar opposite in many ways. It was very much set in the real world, in the here and now and set in the present day and it was kitchen sink in that way. And then you have this, on a massive scale by comparison. So it’s more fun but also a different challenge. And the one thing we’re trying to do with the programme is make every single instalment of it different to the last instalment you saw.
I would say overall this season we do a lot of handbrake turns in terms of tones, genre, look, you know across the board. Every episode was different this time around.
I guess the thing that stuck with me through the series, there's a degree of sexual exploitation at the heart of a lot of stories, or just as part of them, those power dynamics at play.
What's really going on the "Callister" is it’s a story about power. It’s a story about a tyrant. It’s a difficult one. I mean someone said that to me before, that there was a lot of sex in Black Mirror and I was thinking is there that much? "15 Million Merits", I suppose. But I would say this is more to do with power, it’s to do with his weird fantasy world, this strange fantasy world which based on this vintage, ultra masculine, vintage sort of sci-fi world.
I more just mean that whenever there are new power dynamics from technology dynamics, you'll always explore...
I suppose that's because hopefully, because the stories are relatable and I guess most sci-fi stories don't really explore sex very much and if they do it tends to be like a sex robot. I guess you could argue we did a sex robot in the "Be Right Back" episode. I just think relationships are part and parcel of it. I think sex comes into the episodes but I don’t think we’ve done one which is about that. It’s usually about something else. So here it's more about power and tyranny really over all and in other episodes in the series, say "Arkangel", it's more about parenting and protection.
"The one thing we’re trying to do with Black Mirror is make every single instalment of it different to the last instalment you saw."
I guess here what you're also exploring is resentment: resentment toward women, resentment towards success, resentment from people who are often very good at using technology. You see that a lot with the Reddit stuff, ousting the female CEO and all of that...
There’s an element in there of which he’s resentful. But he’s resentful of everyone. That’s the thing. He’s resentful of the men and the women that he tends to, but with the women they’re placed in a Barbarella, sort of non-threatening doll sort of world. With the men he's subjugated them in a different way as the fawning sidekicks. I don’t know if there's one thing about people in tech that makes them more prone to misogyny or anything. It’s a tricky one because I think these things are elements within the story, but it’s not focused on these things. I think it’s more to do with someone in that story who’s not well basically, and who has unchecked power. So all of those things are aspects of that. But it’s interesting. Everyone seems to say that the episode are about different things.
I was reading this thing about how these superhero films are really struggling right now because they are so dependent on the franchise. So the viewer is more certain than ever before that nobody is gonna die. But in both this episode and “White Christmas” you manage to find a fate for your characters that is actually worse than death.
Yes we quite often like to throw in a terrifying existential nightmare. Like it wouldn't really be Black Mirror if there wasn't a terrifying existential nightmare somewhere at the core. I have to say I don't particularly enjoy superhero movies. I mean I can watch one to make the time go by, but I don't ever feel like I’ve got a foothold on what's going on. I’m not Iron Man, I’m never gonna be Thor. Although I hear Thor Ragnarok is good fun. I haven't seen that. But generally with superhero movies I feel like I can’t relate to what’s going on. Whereas here hopefully there's some point in it, where you sort of feel for the characters. On a basic primal level.
Especially in this case, where they’re linked with these real life normal people that work in an office.
Yes even our more fantastical episodes have an element that makes it more grounded or feel more grounded. Hopefully we’ve pulled that off in Callister.
Black Mirror is avaliable to watch on Netflix now