Over the past two years, stories from Black Mirror have been eerily echoed in real life. First, there were claims that British prime minister David Cameron inserted his penis into the mouth of a dead pig as part of a university club hazing ritual—eerily similar to the first Black Mirror episode, 2011's "The National Anthem." Then this past May, a Russian-born San Francisco-based journalist and entrepreneur Eugenia Kuyda designed a chatbot imitating the conversational style of her recently deceased best friend, inspired by the 2013 episode "Be Right Back." While some high-tech futures of other episodes are still impossible, their questions about the social consequences of technology have proven themselves germane provocations.
With Black Mirror's latest six-episode season season, the satirical show follows the format of past seasons: Each episode has an entirely new cast of characters and totally different near-future reality, from soldiers aided by an augmented-reality implant to a single white female determined to improve her social media rating in an effort to qualify for a private real estate community. Some episodes tell stories possible with our current webcams and smartphones, while others look further into the future, speculating what might be possible with new technologies.
There's also a theme of reality being gamified in every story, for better or worse, which makes sense considering Black Mirror creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker started his career writing about video games. In addition to penning reviews in the mid 90s, he also wrote a comic strip for PC Zone called Cybertwats, which suggested an early penchant for societal critique. Working in both print journalism and broadcast TV over the past decades, Brooker's career has been extremely varied, from writing TV reviews and a what-if style column called "Supposing" for the Guardian to broadcast writing for the brilliant satireNathan Barley, the faux-news comedy series The Brass Eye, and the zombie-thriller Big Brother–parody Dead Set. All these endeavors showcase a cynical intelligence that's on full view in Black Mirror.
We talked to Brooker about reimagining what the show could be this season, his influences from The Twilight Zone to Monty Python, and how technology doesn't frighten him at all.
VICE: How did you feel that some of the episodes have come true to some degree? There was Piggate, of course, but did you also read about that Russian woman who used a Black Mirror episode as inspiration to create a chatbot based on her dead friend's messaging history?
Charlie Brooker: That was pretty mind-blowing. I kind of feel like if we predicted things that then come true, we kind of got lucky. Basically, we are trying to extrapolate from things that exist now, so in a way that's bound to happen. Some of the ideas strike me as inevitable. We probably get more credit from that than we deserve, but I'm happy to take it. Obviously, Piggate was just bizarre. That was the weirdest one of all by far. But when you're trying to predict the future, sometimes you're going to get lucky. Luckily, people don't notice all the stuff we got wrong.
When you're writing these episodes, is it a challenge to balance the emotional arc or storyline with the more conceptual societal critique?
It's kind of just using different muscles. This season, we sort of approached each episode like a different genre. Even within the season, "Hated in the Nation" is a police procedural and then "San Junipero" is a romance, coming-of-age story. I've got a short attention span, so I like a lot of variety. When we were shooting the first-ever season of Black Mirror, at the same time, I was working on a show that was effectively a Naked Gun–spoof [A Touch of Cloth]. I've always liked doing lots of different things.
Similarly, I feel that a lot of ideas in Black Mirror spring from comic conversations that I'm having. So sometimes there's a tendency for people to say, "The show is into technology, blah, blah, blah, and it takes itself too seriously." And I don't think it does. I think the show is quite playful. In coming up with the ideas, often I'm roaring with laughter.
"San Junipero" was my favorite episode this season. I thought it was interesting because it was more utopian than dystopian.
It was the first one I wrote for this season. I don't want to spoil it for people who haven't seen it, but I was consciously trying to reset what a Black Mirror episode is or can be. Because we were doing six episodes this season (and next season), I wanted more variety than we'd ever had before. So I consciously wrote it, in part, to respond to people who were going, "Oh, it's going to be all American now because it's on Netflix." I thought, Fuck you, I'll put it in California and set it in the past, and it'll have a hopeful tinge to it. It was partly to keep it interesting for myself and partly to reinvent what the show is.
What is it like collaborating with different directors every episode? Sometimes it's a grittier vision of the future; sometimes it's a shinier one. Is that something that's in the script or a vision the director brings to the table?
It really varies. Sometimes it's quite explicitly in the script. If you look at an episode like "San Junipero," the way that it describes the club, there's a line that says, "It's every 80s movie you've ever seen." So sometimes, that stuff is in the writing. But sometimes [these descriptions] aren't in the script. In "Nosedive," directed by Joe Wright, that whole pastel world really wasn't mentioned in the script at all. That's an extra level he brought in.
We want each episode to feel idiosyncratic and diverse. They all have a different tone because we encourage that. And different directors have different obsessions. All directors are obsessed and obsessive in some way, I would say, but they all latch onto things in ways you can't predict and that gives an extra texture in each story.
It's also always very collaborative. We get involved. [Co-showrunner] Annabel [Jones] and I get involved in every single detail. Everything is conversations: the costumes, the designs, the sets, the tone, the soundtrack. It's all collaborative, basically.
What have been your biggest sci-fi influences? The bee episode "Hated in the Nation" really reminded me of a Michael Crichton novel I read when I was a kid, Prey.
I've never really read any sci-fi, unless you count some Stephen King stories that could qualify. I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I've read horror fiction. I'm more of a nonfiction reader, really, to be honest. But I watched shows like The Twilight Zone, Totally Unexpected, and The Hammer House of Horror. The BBC also did a lot of weird, unsettling one-off dramas in the 80s. I remember these shows by this guy Nigel Kneale. He did this series Quatermass and the Pit. That was really ahead of its time! But I gravitate more toward speculative fiction than sci-fi. I like broad what-if stories. And then I loved things like The Matrix or The Truman Show. The Truman Show could have been a Twilight Zone episode in many ways. It's far -out ideas based on lopsided worlds that I tended to gravitate toward. But my primary interest growing up was comedy, like Monty Python. I loved anything that broke the fourth wall.
Twitter is a game. Twitter is the biggest role-playing game in history.
You also come from a background writing about video games. It seems a lot this season has been about gamification. Twenty years ago, gaming culture was in the gaming world, and now everything seems to be gamified.
Twitter is a game. Twitter is the biggest role-playing game in history. I do think a lot of people don't realize they're playing [these games]. The subtle gamification of things like Twitter is quite fascinating. What qualifies as a game these days is incredibly broad.
There's an argument almost every story this season has gaming elements to it. In "Nosedive," it's a gamified world. "Playtest" is explicitly about the gaming world. In "Shut Up and Dance," they are sorting of being forced to play a game effectively. Writing "San Junipero," I was thinking about games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It's a consequence-free environment. "Men Against Fire" relates to first-person-shooter games. And "Hated in the Nation," there's a game in that. When I got to the end of the season, I realized they've all got gaming in them. No one's noticed yet, except you!
Has having children changed how you think about the future?
Yes, in that it frightens me more. Not technology. Technology doesn't frighten me at all. I think it's an amazing thing. I worry more about things like war, intolerance, and climate change. The world has slightly sharper edges. I don't really worry about, "Oh, they're going to spend a lot of time looking at a phone." I don't really worry about that as much as I worry about the state of the world. Because if anything is going to help us [solve these problems], it's going to be technology.
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