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10 January 2019

Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker on using Bandersnatch for politics: “That’s the fantasy, isn’t it?”

The creator of Black Mirror on China’s dystopian tech and the rise of Alexa. Contains spoilers.

By Suchandrika Chakrabarti

If there’s one thing a Black Mirror plot will do, it’s escalate quickly. The rapid-fire decisions we have to make in “Bandersnatch” – the choose-your-own-adventure film that Netflix released just after Christmas – start out innocuous (Sugar Puffs or Frosties?), skirt around serious issues (Take the medication or flush it away?) and eventually push us into appalling decisions (Bury body or chop up body?) that, understandably, make our Eighties teen protagonist Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) cry out in agony and ask us, in a meta flourish, if he really, really has to.

Could a system like this be recalibrated for other purposes, such as elections? How about showing voters the possible outcomes of their choice? “That’s the fantasy, isn’t it?” Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker tells the New Statesman. “Possibly like a virtual reality headset that you have to put on and it boils down the next ten years, then it takes you two minutes to experience that, so you see the ramifications of your decision.” He does admit, though, that even he wouldn’t have been able to script the last two punishing years of Brexit and Donald Trump, no matter how he used Twine, the video game programming language that let him sketch all the alternate realities of Bandersnatch.

Between figuring out an entirely new way to tell stories on Netflix, and making the upcoming season five of Black Mirror (which doesn’t have a release date yet, but is due later than expected thanks to the complexity of making Bandersnatch), Brooker hasn’t been keeping up with the news as much as he used to. “It’s been very obviously been very, very busy doing this,” he says. “So, because I haven’t been doing the Screenwipe shows, I’ve not been watching the news. I spent years watching it, so I’ve deliberately not, and what’s depressing is the news seems to be stuck as well. It seems to be stuck in shit mode.”

Brooker might not be seeking out the headlines these days, but still they find him, relentlessly. “Lots of people have sent me articles about that system in China,” he says, referring to the authoritarian state’s social credit concept, not dissimilar from a tyrannical social ratings app in the episode “Nosedive”.

“It’s like the world functions as a Black Mirror alert system for me,” he continues. “Where people just say, ‘Have you seen this? This is a bit Black Mirror isn’t it?’ Yeah. It is. I would say it’s slightly terrifying, but is it the worst thing China has to face at the moment? Probably not. I mean, there’s climate change…”

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It’s the tech that’s closer to home that’s been worrying him. “Can you imagine if Twitter, Instagram and Facebook didn’t exist, and then suddenly the government forced us all to take part in it tomorrow – we’d be outraged! Similarly, if they gave us each an Amazon Echo device, and said, hey, put this in your house, it will record everything you’re saying and doing. I have bought one though, I literally bought one because I thought I should have that in my house; because it will help me think of Black Mirror ideas.”

Brooker’s not saying if he’s got a smartspeaker-themed episode in the next season of Black Mirror, but he does expand on how have an Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, has affected his kids (sons Covey, six and Huxley, four): “They immediately took this thing like a duck to water. After we had it for about a week, the four-year-old walked into the kitchen and went, ‘Alexa… I mean, Daddy! Where are my shoes?’ And then we went on holiday. In the hotel room, the kids walked in and went, ‘Alexa Alexa’. When I said there wasn’t one, they replied, ‘Just saying it so I’d hear where she was… if there was one’. Now that’s quite smart, because they’re cleverer than me.”

Parenting tends to bring on nostalgia, so it’s no coincidence that Bandersnatch is set in the 1980s, the decade Brooker became a teenager. While the film pushes technological boundaries, the setting is a loving recreation of Brooker’s memories: “I was 13 in 1984, and I remember going into WH Smith to look at computer games. The days of loading games off a cassette tape, which would take like five to ten minutes on the ZX Spectrum with rubber keys. The emotional moment for me was going into the Bandersnatch WH Smith set that we built in Croydon. All of that was very evocative for me.”

Back to the near future, though: what’s in store for us in season fiIve? One of the Bandersnatch endings shows the daughter of a major character living in what seems to be the present day. She’s being interviewed on the news, and, as always, Brooker’s hidden Easter Eggs are there in the news tickers. One sticks out as referring to a story we’ve not yet seen: “Senate Committee Grills Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer over Russian Bots.” What’s this? Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, perhaps? Sounds like there’s going to be some pretty contemporary stuff in the next season.

Brooker won’t give a straight answer. “Don’t think there’s any storyline hints there… The next season is coming this year, so not too long to wait. It’s sort of different to other seasons, and that’s basically all I can say. Sorry, I have to be really cagey – it’s more fun that way.” He’s right, really. It is more fun being horribly surprised by Black Mirror than by, well, real life. For now. 

Bandersnatch is available to stream now on Netflix.

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