As the Charlie Brooker’s desolate view of the future returns, we discuss Trump, the comfort of virtual reality and whether he could have prevented Brexit
If it’s true that art reflects life, then Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is a chilling vision of the tech-based dystopia we’re mindlessly clicking towards. Thankfully, for anyone not depressed enough by Trump and Brexit, the feel-bad TV show returns for its third and best season this Friday, with six new episodes arriving on Netflix. And boy do they feel appropriate.
When Brooker launched the anthology-style series in 2011, it was supposed to be an absurd collection of “what if?” scenarios (including the preposterous notion of the prime minister fornicating with a pig). Since then, the show’s taken on a more prescient role in the cultural conversation. For instance, an episode from 2013, “The Waldo Moment”, suggested a cartoon character could encourage a disenchanted public to vote against its best interests. Well, it seemed funny at the time.
Furthermore, now that smartphones are increasingly the cracked window to the soul, Black Mirror simply has more to chew and spit on. These upcoming episodes not only look superior (directors include Joe Wright and Dan Trachtenberg), but they’re bigger in scope, budget and ambition. “Nosedive” imagines a society that strictly revolves around rating everyone out of 5. “San Junipero” is a coming-of-age romance between two disco-loving women in 1987. “Hated in the Nation”, a 90-minute thriller in the Scandi noir mould, sees Kelly Macdonald investigating a string of Twitter-related murders. And with “Shut Up and Dance”, I don’t even know where to begin.
Once again, Black Mirror touches a nerve because it’s the humans, not the machines, at fault. Some truths can only be muted for so long. But the new season is less bitter just for the sake of being bitter. Where once the show had a 404 error where its heart should be, there’s now a faint sliver of hope – in one episode, anyway. Besides, everyone feels vulnerable online even Mark Zuckerberg tapes up his webcam out of paranoia. Black Mirror simply reminds us that we’re not alone, and actually we should take comfort in how we’re all doomed in this hopeless world together.
To celebrate Black Mirror’s new season, we spoke to Charlie Brooker about steering the show in a fresh direction, accidentally predicting the rise of Trump, and why Twitter is an insidious videogame we don’t realise we’re playing.
What constitutes an episode of Black Mirror? Because in this season, there’s a 90-minute detective story, an episode set in the 80s, and also a thriller with no sci-fi elements.
Charlie Brooker: It’s definitely a flavour. Often, it’s an idea that makes me laugh, or something that, if played straight, would be really disturbing and awful. Generally, the basic rule is: some horrible logic spirals out of control. It’s a weird one, because people try to pitch ideas to us, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s nearly it, but not quite.” It’s a little idiosyncratic. We’ve got more variety in this season than before – because we’re doing six, so we have to, and also to differentiate from stories we’ve done in the past. Hopefully, we’ve expanded what the show is, to the point where I can’t even adequately describe it.
There’s a bit more optimism with the new ones.
Charlie Brooker: Definitely. That’s deliberate. “San Junipero” was the first one I wrote for this season, and I didn’t want it to constantly be “the bleak show” – like, someone’s life is ruined, so let’s wait and find out how. It’s to keep the viewers on their toes. I didn’t want it to just be the negative technology show.
In 2008, between writing Dead Set and creating Black Mirror, you did a screenwriting episode of Screenwipe. In that, Russell T. Davies told you, “It’s better to be confused for 10 minutes than bored for 5 seconds.” Do you follow that philosophy when constructing the mystery aspect?
Charlie Brooker: Yeah, I think so. One of the reasons I gravitate towards doing a one-off story each time, rather than creating a 10-season arc, is that I don’t know I have the patience to keep something going for that long. Doing five seasons of something requires a lot of repetition. I’m a bit too ADD for that. Actually, what stuck with me from that interview is when Russell said a lot of dialogue should be two monologues crashing, because people often don’t listen to each other in everyday life. It’s a tool I often reach for. It keeps echoing around my head. So weirdly, I was actually listening to him. I didn’t just have an inner monologue going, “Shut up, Russell T. Davies! No, I don’t believe you!” I was actually absorbing it – thus proving him wrong, and also right.
Where do you see the show in relation to our turbulent political landscape? Are you inspired by it, or reacting to it?
Charlie Brooker: It isn’t really inspired by it, in that things like Brexit happened after I’d written all the stories for this season, for instance. I guess if it’s inspired by anything, there’s a general unease that it draws on, which is just something I generally feel. What I don’t tend to do is look at a news story and go, “What is the Black Mirror take on the refugee crisis or Donald Trump?” I don’t tend to do that. It tends to be, I’ll think of a popcorn “what if?” idea that amuses me. If it chimes with something that’s going on in the world, then so be it, and that’ll add an extra layer of resonance.
If you’d continued with 10 O’Clock Live, or had maybe done Newswipe this year, could you have prevented Brexit?
Charlie Brooker: No! There’s a famous quote from Peter Cook about what a brilliant job the Weimar Republic cabaret did in preventing Hitler. I don’t think any satire could have prevented Brexit. What could have prevented Brexit would have been a decent Remain campaign that was coherent and made sense. It felt like, the day after, lots of people went, “I know what I miss and like about Europe. Hang on… Oh, shit. It’s too late. If only I had communicated that in a coherent way.”
And when you’re doing stuff on the BBC – this is one of the reasons why TV generally is often hamstrung. If I’m doing theWipe shows, we have to be as impartial as we can. Obviously, I’ve got my allegiances, but we tend to be sarcastic about everyone, to a point that’s probably self-defeating. It would be arrogant of me to assume we could have prevented anything.
A lot of people were saying at the time Brexit’s like The Thick of It, but to me, it seemed like Black Mirror, especially “The Waldo Moment”. When you’re writing, do you have to predict what’s going to be topical in, say, two years’ time? For instance, Trump could be irrelevant by December.
Charlie Brooker: Yeah, it’s weird, and that’s why I don’t necessarily look at the news. If I was to sit down now and write a story based on Trump, it’d probably be completely outmoded by the time it got to the screen. But because I’m generally drawing on things that are in the ether, it appears more prophetic than it really is. I might be picking up on the general mood and the way things are going without really realising it. Certainly, when I was writing “The Waldo Moment”, I thought, “I don’t know if this is plausible.” I felt afterwards, “I don’t think I really nailed that. I don’t think I got it right. I don’t know if it’s plausible.” And then you see the rise of Trump and go, “Oh, now it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.”
Do you wish you were more scathing towards that character?
Charlie Brooker: Weirdly, I feel like that that episode should have been a little miniseries on its own.
Like a Dead Set-style series?
Charlie Brooker: Yeah, exactly, a limited run like that. There’s lots of little things you can do with that story which we didn’t really have time to do. It jumps ahead at the end, and I didn’t quite lay the groundwork correctly for that. I should’ve expanded it more.
“I don’t necessarily look at the news If I was to sit down now and write a story based on Trump, it’d probably be completely outmoded by the time it got to the screen ... it appears more prophetic than it really is” – Charlie Brooker
Armando Iannucci got Chris Morris to direct some episodes of Veep. Have you spoken to Chris about doing anything for Black Mirror?
Charlie Brooker: I have, but Chris is working on a film at the moment. I did ask, but the thing is, Chris is such a lone wolf. I was surprised he was directing episodes of Veep, but he’s got a longer working relationship with Armando. It’s tricky, but I did try to tempt him.
There are a lot of interesting music choices in the new season, like the Radiohead in “Shut Up and Dance”, the 80s tunes of “San Junipero” and the Under the Skin-ish score of “Hated in the Nation”.
Charlie Brooker: We got different composers for every episode. The directors generally start talking to a composer, and then we’ll sign off on that. We’ve been very lucky. Clint Mansell scored “San Junipero”. We got Geoff Barrow from Portishead on “Men Against Fire”. Max Richter did “Nosedive”.
With the Radiohead track, that was James Watkins, the director. He just put it on in the edit. Often, you’ll put on a piece of music on the rough cut and go, “We’re looking for this sort of tone.” In that instance, we couldn’t find anything to replace it with that we liked. You get attached to it. With “Hated in the Nation”, and other episodes in general, sometimes you’ll say, “It’s in this ballpark.” I’m not quite sure what conversations James Hawes, who’s the director, had with the composer, Martin Phipps, on that episode. But I remember, his brief was to imagine what “hate” sounds like.
With a lot of sci-fi movies, I get distracted by plot holes – or looking for plot holes. But the internal universes ofBlack Mirror feel very detailed and worryingly plausible. Are you picking concepts that are just a step away from existing?
Charlie Brooker: We try to keep things grounded within the rules we’re setting in each story. There’s an unwritten rule: you can introduce one fantastical thing in the first 10 minutes, and you’re alright. It’s when you start introducing fantastical elements in the 40th minute that people start to go, “Fuck off, that would never happen.” We try to keep the technology grounded and feeling plausible. And because I’m quite dweeby in real life, I like to obsess over the details of why a certain bit of kit would work in a certain way.
You mentioned Dead Set. I was agonising over a plot development that I thought was implausible. Yann, the director, went, “Fuck it, It’s a movie moment, no one will care”. Meaning, you’ll hopefully be so interested, you’ll forgive it, because you want to see what happens next. So we’ll do that, but I like it to keep one foot in reality at all times. It keeps the stories feeling plausible, even while they’re ridiculous.
Are there any episodes you’d like to see remade by another filmmaker? Like Michael Bay doing “The National Anthem”?
Charlie Brooker: How would that work? With a 200ft pig? Or, “On this take, he’s going to fuck his way around the whole zoo.” I’d like to see David Lynch remake “The National Anthem”.
We’ve been approached to remake some of them before, but we think that’s only worth doing if there’s a reasonable extension of the story to do. “Be Right Back” is one where there’s a whole extension to the story that we didn’t have time to do. With “White Bear”, I have an idea for a sequel.
“There’s an unwritten rule: you can introduce one fantastical thing in the first 10 minutes, and you’re alright” – Charlie Brooker
With Adam Curtis films, they’re about demystifying things. What do you want viewers to take away from Black Mirror?
Charlie Brooker: Weirdly, and possibly erroneously, I don’t see Black Mirror as a message show. My priority is to entertain. “Playtest” is an episode that doesn’t really have any kind of message; it’s a creepy, twist-in-the-tale story. Having said that, sometimes there are opinions being vented within the episodes. But the show doesn’t offer solutions because I find that to be finger-wagging when I see it in other dramas.
I don’t have the moral certainty to know what my message would be to people, so I try not to hit people over the head too hard – I think, possibly erroneously. Ultimately, I don’t know. People can take whatever fucking message they want, the cunts. (laughs)
Speaking of “Playtest”, I remember watching How Videogames Changed the World and being slightly enraged when you named Twitter at number one.
Charlie Brooker: It was only chronologically! That was our fault, in that we didn’t make it clear it was a chronological list, not in order of importance. We did deliberately put Twitter last as a surprise, but there’s an argument for saying it’s one of the most influential games of all time.
So is there a parallel between video game addiction and losing hours every day to Twitter?
Charlie Brooker: I still maintain that Twitter is a game, and it’s a game that people don’t realise they’re playing. It doesn’t feel like a game, but it’s structured exactly the same way. You perform a personality in order to win points and progress in the form of getting retweets and followers. It’s insidious. That system, no matter who you are, gives you a little dopamine rush every time you get a retweet or a like or a follower. That’s the same as the little noise it makes when Mario collects a coin and there’s an inherently satisfying ping noise.
“I don’t have the moral certainty to know what my message would be to people, so I try not to hit people over the head too hard ... Ultimately, I don’t know. People can take whatever fucking message they want” – Charlie Brooker
There seems to be a recurring theme of video game addiction in the new episodes.
Charlie Brooker: If anyone suffers from video game addiction, it’s me. When I’m writing the show, I go, “Right, if I write these next two scenes, I’ll go on the PlayStation for an hour, and then I’ll come back to write.” Because I tend to write through the night. I hope it doesn’t come across as: “See, games are bad for you!” Because I think they’re better for you than watching telly. You’re engaged and alive and alert.
Have you tried out VR stuff?
Charlie Brooker: A little bit. PlayStation VR headsets are a fucking game-changer. I’d tried Oculus before. Then the other day, I put on the PlayStation one, and I had the same sensation I got when I saw Space Invaders for the first time when I saw Doom for the first time, and when I saw Super Mario 64 for the first time.
And when you tried Twitter for the first time.
Charlie Brooker: Yes, and when I tried Twitter for the first time [laughs]. The penny just dropped. I was just trying out VR the other night, and I thought, “Fuck. OK, I get it. I totally get it now.” Anyone who puts that headset on will go, “Fucking hell!”
It sounds a bit frightening if VR is better than real life.
Charlie Brooker: Yeah. That’s something I would have dismissed as fear-mongering, when people go, “It’s a bit of a worry, isn’t it? People will put on a VR headset and they won’t want to go back to the real world.” I used to think, “Shut up, you fucking prick.” But I didn’t want to return to the real world. I’m sure the novelty will wear off, but the first commercially available headsets are the shittiest ones that will ever be available. So fuck knows what that’s going to be like in 10 years’ time.
Black Mirror Season 3 premieres on Netflix on 21 October