Charlie Brooker Talks to Us About 'USS Callister'
In season four, 'Black Mirror' makes its first trip into space.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Everyone's favorite dystopian tech-anxiety anthology series Black Mirror returned to Netflix 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 onboard are actually part of a jailbroken video game run off the personal laptop of a tech developer.
This interview contains some 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 going to do next because this was around the time we started to plan season four. Sometimes, when we are talking about and working out what we’re going to do next, we do it in term of specific genre. So we said, “Oh, what haven’t we done yet: musical, or a 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," 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 all 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 weird because it’s probably in many ways quite a mainstream episode. Structurally it's sort of traditional 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 three. 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 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 program is make every single installment of it different from the last installment you saw.
I would say overall this season we do a lot of handbrake turns in terms of tones, genre, and look 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—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? There is in "15 Million Merits," I suppose. But I would say this episode has more to do with power. It’s to do with his weird fantasy world: this strange fantasy world, which is based on this vintage, ultra-masculine, 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, the stories are relatable. 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, 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 installment of it different to the last installment you saw."
I guess here what you're also exploring is resentment: Resentment toward women, resentment toward success, and 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 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 of the story, but it’s not focused on these things. I think it has 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 is 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 going to 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."
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