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5 June 2019

Charlie Brooker: “Everything’s gone a bit Black Mirror – but it’s free publicity for us”

The co-founder of the hit tech dystopia show on keeping up with reality. 

By Suchandrika Chakrabarti

Black Mirror fans don’t know when the next season of the show will be released by Netflix, but here’s something to keep us going: Inside Black Mirror, an oral history of four seasons of Black Mirror, will be published on 1 November.

It’s a huge slab of a book, designed to stay in one place and be dipped into: suitably, for a tech-sceptical show, a respite from our mobile phones. The pages alternate between gorgeous full-page stills from the sets, and the reminiscences of co-creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, along with cast and crew from each episode, and commissioning editors from Channel 4 and Netflix.

Black Mirror debuted on Channel 4 with the much-anticipated “The National Anthem” on 4 December 2011, a different era. As Brooker tells the New Statesman: “We are now living in a period of dizzying technological change – you get psychological whiplash trying to keep up with it.”

Back then, the iPhone was only four years old, and its maker, cult figure Steve Jobs, had just died; Twitter turned five and got Tweetdeck as a birthday present for itself; Facebook was seven, and on the brink of acquiring Instagram. Brooker notes how all of these tech advances have impacted on the making of the news so much, that Black Mirror’s first episode, set in 2011, would have to be radically altered for 2018: “If you were doing ‘The National Anthem’ now, that would be a big change. The 24-hour rolling news networks would be a lot less significant than social media is today.”

That’s not the only difference Brooker would make to Black Mirror’s first outing.“Well, for one thing… the pig. People would assume that this was based on the scurrilous, probably untrue rumour about David Cameron in that book. So we’d probably have to make it a completely different… challenge. It was such an outrageous thing being suggested at the time, but the world has got progressively more surreal. It would all be quite different.”

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A few episodes really do seem to have come true, though. Season Two’s “The Waldo Moment” is pretty unpopular with the Black Mirror fandom: the tone is a bit off, the main character is underwritten, plus there’s a leap in time and believability at the end. However, the idea of an annoying, belligerent cartoon with no experience and few serious policies attaining political office? Funny then, not so funny now. “It was worryingly prescient,” admits Brooker.

Then there’s Season Three’s “Nosedive”, the first Netflix episode, that depicts Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter, veteran of both M. Night Shyamalan films and the Jurassic World franchise) in a pastel-coloured waking nightmare where people rate each other. All the time. For everything. And the ratings matter.

Someone involved in setting up China’s social credit system must have seen “Nosedive”. In the new book, Brooker promises that he didn’t sell the “incredibly sinister” idea to them. The episode was co-written by Mike Schur, who created US sitcoms Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, as well as current Netflix hit The Good Place, which also features a rating system, this time one that determines whether people get into heaven or hell.

Brooker has not seen Schur’s version of the system yet, as he’s not caught up on The Good Place – he’s not even seen Bodyguard, which pulled in 11 million people for the BBC in the last five minutes of its finale last month. Killing Eve episode two onwards is sitting on iPlayer, waiting. Brooker’s been working on bringing us more Black Mirror, although he occasionally has a break from work to watch Barry and Better Call Saul.

The rating system of “Nosedive” is a funnier, gentler exploration of Brooker’s favourite topic for Black Mirror, crime and punishment. There’s Season Three’s “Shut Up and Dance”, a perfectly sickening example of vigilante justice (probably), delivered to the teenager Kenny by unseen hackers. It was, Brooker tells the New Statesman, “for quite a while set in America, partly because we were hung up on the fact it’s easier for Kenny to have a gun if it’s [there] – but, actually, it makes the gun more frightening and unusual when it’s in Britain.”

Season 3 finale “Hated in the Nation” originally had a more clearly happy ending, in which undercover policewoman Blue (Game of Thrones’ Faye Marsay) was seen to serve justice with a hidden knife. Still, the uneasy, general presence of the drone bees – to replace the living ones – prevents any ending to that episode being completely happy. They’ve been buzzing into the real world, too.

The unbelievably upsetting robot dogs in Season Four’s “Metalhead”, which features a woman literally being hounded, were based on real inventions by Boston Dynamics; they can now dance to four-year-old summer bangers, an undeniable sign of the apocalypse. Don’t believe me, just watch.

Inside Black Mirror is for fans who’ve seen every episode of the show, and want to understand how Brooker takes current technology and stretches out its potential into an undated future, letting his characters torture themselves with the power it helps them acquire – and somehow, we always find ourselves caring about them.

A memorable example is Season Two’s “Be Right Back”, in which Hayley Atwell’s Martha takes the opportunity that science gives her to resurrect her recently-deceased husband, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson). The story behind the episode shows how exploring emotion won over inventing incredible new tech. In the book, the episode’s director, Owen Harris (who returned to the series in Season Three for Emmy-winning “San Junipero”, also about grief and love) remembers how he’d insisted that Ash’s death ought to be seen onscreen; he’d even sourced a realistic-looking body for the accident.

Brooker stepped in at that point. In the book, he responds to Harris by saying, “We just felt we didn’t need that. It’s more powerful that Ash just goes off and you don’t know what’s become of him. And so, when it’s confirmed to Martha that something has happened, it’s confirmed to us as well,” he says. 

Brooker expands on the point to the New Statesman: “It’s quite silly how she brings the robot version of him to life in a bathtub, by pouring nutrients in. I think we’re several decades away from that, or I hope so. I saw a story the other day about a company offering sex robots based on deceased lovers, which is sort of ‘Be Right Back’.”

“What’s interesting is people’s memories,” Brooker goes on to say. Re-visiting old work and past colleagues’ stories from 2010 onwards for the book showed him that he’d forgotten so much. “Hopefully readers will see how many people there are involved in doing something like this. It’s easy for us looking back to forget how many different iterations everything went through on the way from page to screen. It’s strange to go back in time to look at the various struggles.”

Talking about how he manages to make so many on-point predictions in Black Mirror, Brooker says: “In a sense, it’s easy to stay one step ahead of technology, because it’s become so miraculous. It means we can kind of show our gizmos and gadgets in the show doing fairly impossible things. So as long as it feels grounded, you kind of buy it.

“The public in general is now more prepared to accept technological miracles, so that makes it a bit easier. We have a rule on how we don’t have anything that’s magic. There’s always a sort of explanation as to how it’s working, although that’s a rule we bend occasionally.”

When pressed on where the next season of Black Mirror might take us, all Brooker will say is: “The world is a massive trash fire right now, and everything’s gone a bit Black Mirror – but that’s just free publicity for us!”

Inside Black Mirror is published on 1 November 2018.

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