As Black Mirror returns to Netflix this week, its creator discusses how far its come and whether the future is really as bleak as it seems
No one, not even Charlie Brooker, can neatly summarise what Black Mirror has become. Now in its sixth season, the feel-bad, comedic, sci-fi anthology series has, for a while, demonstrated it could also be feel-good, deadly serious, and unconcerned with technology, depending on which chapter you click on. Returning with five mostly dark, disturbing episodes written or co-written by Brooker, the Netflix show has further shifted from its “what if gadgets were bad?” origins, so much so that the new batch were nearly released as a spinoff entitled Red Mirror.
“I was definitely doing a reset,” Brooker tells me, perched on a sofa in the Soho Hotel, two days before the Netflix launch. “Red Mirror was going to be horror, chaos and crime stories, but Black Mirror in tone. Then I found myself thinking of tech ideas. In Black Mirror, generally, there’s a lot of what’s authentic, what’s real, and the media. But the challenge of promoting this season is that there isn’t a definite theme.”
It’s here I insist to Brooker, 52, that there’s a definite theme: audience interaction with art. In ‘Joan Is Awful’, Joan (Annie Murphy) discovers that Streamberry, a Netflix parody, uses personal data and deepfake technology to recreate her life as a TV series starring Salma Hayek; Joan thus manipulates her behaviour, including bowel movements, to influence the next day’s episode. In ‘Loch Henry’, two filmmakers (Samuel Blenkin, Myha’la Herrold) insert themselves into the true-crime documentary that they’re shooting, making themselves the protagonists of their story.
In ‘Beyond the Sea’, a housewife (Kate Mara) falls for a painter (Josh Hartnett) who captures her ennui through brushstrokes. In ‘Mazey Day’, a paparazzi photographer (Zazie Beetz) engages with an actress (Clara Rugaard) by physically tracking her whereabouts. In ‘Demon 79’, a saleswoman (Anjana Vasan) is advised by an entity (Paapa Essiedu) who materialises, algorithmically, into a physical form based on her pop culture preferences.
“You’re probably right,” says Brooker, pausing. “I like your reading of it. I should have pretended that was my thought.” Referring to ‘Bandersnatch’, the 2018 choose-your-adventure special, he notes, “It’s something I’m interested in. ‘Joan Is Awful’ is about hyper-targeted material generated on the fly for the consumption of primarily one person.” Does he receive Netflix’s secret data on Black Mirror? “I’m like: do I want to know? They discuss broad viewing patterns. We know most people watch the show in order, and a percentage gravitate to other episodes first. But [Netflix] don’t say, ‘Therefore could you make more episodes like that?’”
I suggest that season six – two episodes involve Streamberry, four have artists as protagonists – reflects the anxieties of being the showrunner of Black Mirror. “It probably does on some psychological level that I’m, thankfully, blissfully unaware of,” Brooker says. “Quite often, genuinely, the inspiration comes from extrapolating a comic thought. It comes from a cathartic laugh – a nightmare scenario to amuse myself – and then I’ll usually play it straight.”
‘Joan Is Awful’ sees Joan sneaking into Streamberry’s workplace to spy on its CEO. Brooker hasn’t fantasised, for instance, of crawling into Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos’s office to eavesdrop? “That hasn’t been a nightmare I’ve had, nor is it something I’ve done.” Would he watch a show called Charlie Is Awful? “I think you would watch a show that was just about yourself, wouldn’t you? You’d have to know what was going on in it.”
Isn’t reading your own press a similar concept? After all, our interview could become Charlie Is Awful or Charlie Is Awesome depending on my mood? “That’s terrifying if you put it that way. Fucking hell! No, I cringe... Also, the other week, I said something about ChatGPT that got slightly taken out of context. Not in the original interview, but now everyone takes a sentence and reports on the soundbite. Before you know it, it gets sucked up into this cyclone.”
I reveal that, in research, 99 per cent of the recent Google results for “Charlie Brooker interview” were just articles reporting on his ChatGPT quote. “Ironically, a lot of those rewrites could have been done by ChatGPT. I did a really fun interview with Empire and mentioned ChatGPT. Somehow that got turned into ‘he used ChatGPT to write an episode’. That didn’t happen!” Brooker clarifies that season six finished shooting before ChatGPT was released; he then happened to, for fun, enter prompts such as “describe an onion in the style of Philomena Cunk” and “come up with a Black Mirror story idea”. He found, however, that the results were derivative, and that ChatGPT couldn’t tell jokes.
“I can see the advantages of AI as a tool for human writers or artists to use. Photoshop hasn’t replaced artists; it’s been a powerful tool for them” – Charlie Brooker
“But quickly, that becomes: ‘Black Mirror creator writes an episode using ChatGPT.’ That’s annoying! That isn’t what I said! That isn’t what happened! The next thing will be: anyone who doesn’t like an episode, will go, ‘Well, he should have fucking stayed with the ChatGPT shit version of it, instead of that crap.’ It’s so weird to see it happening in real-time: one thing goes out, and then there are a billion parasitic, little summations that come out, and the meaning gets distorted.”
As ever with real-life nightmares, Black Mirror got there first. In a 2012 episode, a grieving woman experiments with AI to communicate with her dead boyfriend. “‘Be Right Back’ is very much a parable about why a generative language chatbot is not a replacement for a human being,” says Brooker. “The worry for scriptwriters isn’t ‘we’re going to be replaced overnight, and scripts are being pumped out tomorrow’, because it can’t do that yet. But an entertainment executive could say, ‘Generate 10 superheroes,’ and it churns out 10 derivate ones, like, you know, Crab-Man – like Spider-Man, but he’s bitten by an angry, radioactive crab.
“You’ve got this crappy IP where they go, ‘We need a human scriptwriter to write the Crab-Man script because the machine can’t do that yet’, or to rewrite terrible pitches because it only writes slightly tone-deaf stuff. The danger is that executives will go, ‘Now I’ll hire a human being, like a handyman for the day, to make this saveable.’ That’s a worry, because I can see the advantages of AI as a tool for human writers or artists to use. Photoshop hasn’t replaced artists; it’s been a powerful tool for them. That’s the balance we’re trying to find. You can’t put the genie back into the bottle, but I think that writing tools should be in the hands of writers.”
Truth is, Black Mirror isn’t that hard to define: it’s the Netflix show everyone watches and argues about upon its release. With Brooker in front of me, I have my own quickfire questions. Given that Dazed was satirised in Brooker’s sitcom Nathan Barley, was troubled fashion icon Mazey Day a wordplay on Dazed? “No, no, no. Mazey Day is a thing in Cornwall. It’s a day! A mazey day.” Limmy allegedly dropped out of Bandersnatch due to scheduling. Could he be cast again? “I’ve got a funny feeling we might have been thinking about him for [‘Loch Henry’], the episode set in Scotland.”
With my time up, I bring up something that makes no sense without context, but has to be asked: why doesn’t Josh Hartnett’s character have a penis? “Does he or doesn’t he?” says Brooker. “We don’t actually answer that question. We leave the question hanging – much like his potential appendage. It’s Schrodinger’s dick.”
Black Mirror season six is streaming on Netflix now