Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is warping into space for its fourth season. Ian Berriman beamed onto the set
We’re on set as Charlie Brooker unleashes another bout of creeping techno-paranoia. Full disclosure: nano-cameras embedded in this ink are watching you. Behave.
Boom, left!” a voice shouts, prompting a mass lurch to port. ”Boom, right!” sends everyone staggering starboard as sparks fly and the lighting flickers. Reassuringly, some things never change in the world of sci-fi tv. Who needs sets mounted on hydraulics when you can get the cast to do their best reacting-to-explosions acting?
SFX is at twickenham Studios, observing filming of an episode of Black Mirror – but feeling rather like a fly on the wall at Desilu Studios in 1966 during the making of Star Trek. Before us is a spaceship bridge, bedecked with banks of blinking lights. Standing about it are six actors in brightly coloured uniforms. this is
is the USS callister, captained by the heroic captain Daly (Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons) – who’s currently engaged in a stand-off with a heavily-armed Gorgon Dreadnought.
“We’re not running anywhere,” he says, pointing at a green screen. “take us into the gas cluster!”
“it’s suicide, captain!” protests the first officer. “it’ll tear the ship apart!”
“You’re a Space fleet officer,” Daly snaps. “Hold yourself together!”
“Boom, left!” comes the cry from behind the cameras – followed by a volley of “Pew! Pew! Pew!” noises as the callister returns fire.
Sitting alongside us behind the monitors, charlie Brooker, creator of the anthology show, whispers that the look of this sequence will be
very ’60s. “it’s all wonky angles and harsh lighting – lights just on people’s eyes, beads of sweat, all that stuff.”
Daly’s daring tactics eventually win the day, and he sends his alien adversary off with his tail between his legs, nobly declaring, “i showed you mercy – reflect on that.”
a cry of “three cheers for captain Daly!” goes up. after a chorus of “for he’s a jolly good fellow”, the hero worship starts to look a little ott, as the first officer drops to one knee to kiss his hand, and Daly swings a female crewmember into a clinch.
“cut!” calls director toby Haynes, and the cast dissolves into laughter. they’re clearly having a whale of a time.
Brooker tells us he came up with the concept for “USS callister” on the set of season three’s “Playtest”.
“‘We’re a sci-fi series and we haven’t done space yet!’ was the thought. ‘So let’s do space.’”
Not being all that au fait with deep-space shows (“i can’t relate to a cone-headed alien in white robes explaining why humankind has violence in its system,” he jokes), Brooker enlisted the aid of Will Bridges (co-writer of last year’s “Shut Up and Dance”), who brought his nerd knowledge to bear on the script.
“We thought of him because we knew he’s a sci-fi fan,” Brooker explains. “He was fucking delighted! He kept referencing things where i was like, ‘i don’t know what that is!’”
With Bridges supplying technobabble, further authenticity has been added by having star Plemons work with a dialect coach.
“We had some discussions about degrees of Shatner,” Brooker laughs. “obviously it’s not a carbon copy of William Shatner, but he’s doing a really good job of emulating those strange stop/start speech patterns.”
this being Black Mirror, there’s much more to this episode than mere Galaxy Quest-style homage, though (all will be explained about 15 minutes in). indeed, when Brooker first conceived the episode, it didn’t include the ’60s stylings – that came in later.
“the idea came from the notion of living under a dictatorship,” Brooker explains. “So it’s more about that dynamic than nods and winks to classic Star Trek. and if there’s any parody going on, it’s done with affection. my aim is not to have a pop at shows that are much more long-running and influential than ours!”
During a break we catch up with the actors, who are bathed in a red glow – not because the captain has declared Red alert, but because on a freezing soundstage in January, the sensible place to be is around an electric heater. female cast members like cristin milioti – who plays Nanette, a new addition to the crew – have it worst thanks to uniforms that expose expanses of goose-pimpling midriff and thigh. one alien crewmember is bright blue, and milioti is in danger of turning a similar shade.
“i know!” she says, “it’s very cold, and it’s not the most comfortable outfit. But it’s so much fun once you see yourself in the mirror with the big hair and the lashes.”
this must be what it was like working on a ’60s sci-fi show, we suggest.
“i’m sure – though with, like, 95% less sexism,” she wryly notes. “No one has slapped us on the ass at lunch, which i’m sure is what that was like… But yeah, it’s one of the most fun jobs i’ve ever had. in between takes, all of us are beaming, because it’s what you dream about doing when you’re a kid. it doesn’t feel like work.”
We put it to Plemons that “doing a Shatner” must be particularly good fun.
“there can only be one William Shatner!” Plemons insists. “But i’m trying to do my version. it’s been an intense lesson for me in
Star Trek, because i never grew up with sci-fi – i grew up in texas, watching Westerns. But it’s a lot of fun to have all this footage to go through. Someone told me that Shatner was classically trained and did a lot of theatre, and watching the episodes with that in mind, you do get the sense that he treated Star Trek as if it were Shakespeare.”
time for a nose around the bridge, doing our best to tune out the electric heaters and hot water bottle (a method milioti’s been using to fend off hypothermia). Noticing that iPads have been inset into the consoles, we peer at the labels on them. Some are suitably futuristic, like “HYPeRviSoR viRtUaliSatioN”; some not so much – why would the USS callister need “vPN eNcRYPtioN”? intriguingly, the walls feature soft panels, like a
He’s doing a good job of emulating William Shatner’s speech patterns
padded cell – a sensible precaution in case you’re hurled against a bulkhead mid-battle? But the neatest feature is a revolving bar. its shelves are lined with cocktail shakers, swizzle sticks and decanters of brightly coloured liquids, which include “distilled root blood” and “Bengarian phlegm shots”. it’s a good job it’s there, because these characters are going to be in regular need of a stiff drink…
clocking in at 74 minutes, “USS callister” is just one of six episodes of season four, which vary wildly in tone.
“We’ve got ones that are overtly comic,” Brooker says. “and ones that are incredibly bleak and brutal.”
We’re actually getting eight stories, mind, as “Black museum” is an anthology that uses the titular crime museum as a framing device for three tales.
“it’s a bit amicus horror movie,” Brooker says, “a bit campfire tale. and it’s got quite a lot of nods and winks to previous stories – we’ve gone very easter egg-y on it.”
the shortest episode of the season – and the series so far – is “metalhead”, starring maxine Peake. it’s also, at the suggestion of director David Slade (30 Days Of Night), the first monochrome Black Mirror episode.
“He said, ‘i want to make it in black-andwhite,’” Brooker explains, “and we thought, “Yes, that’s a good fit,’ because of the nature of the story – it’s deliberately pared back.”
then there’s “Hang the DJ”. Does the Smiths-lyric title have any significance?
“Probably not in the way you might think,” Brooker says. “they don’t literally grab a noose and hang a DJ! that’s to do with romantic lives.” Brooker also confirms that “crocodile” does
not feature an actual crocodile. a “nightmarish thriller” starring andrea Riseborough, it was shot in iceland by The Road’s John Hillcoat.
“that’s one of our logical traps,” Brooker says. “a shocking thing happens at the opening, then it’s all about the ramifications of that. there’s a darkly comic element to it, but overall it’s sweaty and tense.”
finally, the story that’s most personal to Brooker is “arkangel”. Directed by Jodie foster, this intimate tale of a mother/daughter relationship has a kitchen-sink feel.
“that’s very much informed by my experience as a parent,” Brooker says. “You can buy an app now that tracks a child’s whereabouts, and there’s nurseries that have webcams so people can check in and watch their kid. the instinct is a noble one. But at what point are you like the security services?”
in classic Black Mirror style, the episode features tech it’s not difficult to imagine people being happy to use in the near-future.
“You see this daughter being fitted with an implant that allows her mother to see where she is at all times, to see medical information, to see what she’s seeing… and also to potentially intervene in what she’s seeing.”
talking about the parental instinct to protect takes Brooker back to something that happened when one of his sons was three.
“i was being a bad parent, he was watching stuff on Youtube, on the app. then the algorithm goes, and it plays the next thing, and the next thing… i went out of the room, i came back, and he was watching the trailer for John carpenter’s The Thing! He was not happy!”
fans of the likes of “White Bear” and “Shut Up and Dance” will be hoping some of season four proves to be just as traumatising...
All aboard the USS Callister for the series’ first space-set episode.
“Metalhead” is the first Black Mirror episode to be shot in black-and-white.