THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY

Night­mare-tech show Black Mir­ror is get­ting big­ger, bolder and even scarier

Empire (UK) - - PREVIEW - WORDS DO­RIAN LYNSKEY

YOU KNOW YOU’VE cre­ated some­thing truly mem­o­rable when the par­o­dies start to ap­pear. In De­cem­ber 2014, Net­flix made Char­lie Brooker’s nerve-rack­ing an­thol­ogy se­ries Black

Mir­ror avail­able world­wide, and the cult Bri­tish show be­came a phe­nom­e­non. “Ter­ri­fy­ing, funny, in­tel­li­gent,” tweeted Stephen King. “It’s like The

Twi­light Zone, only rated R.” Shortly af­ter­wards, satir­i­cal web­site The Toast imag­ined ten future episodes with snarky syn­opses such as, “What if phones, but too much?” Black Mir­ror has ranged from the night­mar­ish (‘White Bear’) to the ten­der (‘Be Right Back’), each episode ex­plor­ing a dif­fer­ent genre and theme, but it’s eas­ily stereo­typed as a se­ries of je­re­mi­ads about the per­ils of tech­nol­ogy.

“I think if you said to peo­ple, ‘Pic­ture the first episode of the new se­ries of Black Mir­ror,’ they would imag­ine some­one frown­ing at a seethrough phone in the future with drone strikes go­ing off be­hind them,” says Brooker, talk­ing about the show’s move from Chan­nel 4 to Net­flix. “Hope­fully we’re keep­ing view­ers on their toes so they don’t just think it’s some­one hav­ing their life ru­ined by a phone. Although that hap­pens, too.” Just as peo­ple used to whis­tle the theme from

The Twi­light Zone to de­note some­thing spooky, fans now use “Black Mir­ror” as short­hand for any­thing anx­i­ety-mak­ing about the tech-crazy 21st cen­tury. Al­most ev­ery time there’s some­thing aw­ful on the news, or a novel piece of tech­nol­ogy is un­veiled, Brooker gets a tweet ref­er­enc­ing the show. “It’s great,” he grins. “It’s free pub­lic­ity.” Ac­cord­ing to ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Annabel Jones,

Black Mir­ror’s only uni­fy­ing qual­ity is its sense of un­ease: “It makes you feel slightly un­set­tled. You think, ‘Is that a world I’d like to en­ter?’”

Be­fore the show’s de­but in 2011, Brooker had sev­eral roles: scabrous news­pa­per colum­nist, sar­donic TV pre­sen­ter and cre­ator of über­hip­ster Nathan Bar­ley. Even while mak­ing the sec­ond se­ries, he was si­mul­ta­ne­ously writ­ing cop-show par­ody A Touch of Cloth for Sky and co-host­ing 10 O’clock Live for Chan­nel 4. Since Net­flix com­mis­sioned two six-episode sea­sons in Septem­ber 2015, how­ever, Black

Mir­ror has be­come all-con­sum­ing. “There’s an un­re­lent­ing tick­ing clock,” he says. “It’s men­tal.”

The of­fer was too good to re­sist, though. Af­ter two three-episode blocks and a not-ter­ri­blyfes­tive Christ­mas spe­cial for Chan­nel 4, Net­flix of­fered a much big­ger can­vas, with a bud­get and

po­ten­tial au­di­ence to match. “In a way it’s the plat­form that an­thol­ogy shows have been wait­ing for,” says Brooker. “Tra­di­tion­ally an­thol­ogy shows find it dif­fi­cult to sur­vive on TV be­cause you don’t have re­cur­ring char­ac­ters and an over­ar­ch­ing sto­ry­line. The Twi­light Zone strug­gled in the rat­ings for much of its life. Be­cause we can launch all six at once it’s more like an al­bum, or a short film fes­ti­val, or a book of sto­ries.”

“It’s a word-of-mouth show,” says Jones. “Peo­ple want to talk about it once they’ve seen it. Net­flix is per­fect for that.”

The ideas for Black Mir­ror episodes tend to stem from con­ver­sa­tions between Brooker and Jones. “A ‘what if?’ idea comes up that usually makes me laugh and then, as we ex­plore the ram­i­fi­ca­tions, you find it up­set­ting,” Brooker says, turn­ing to Jones. “As long as I’m laugh­ing and you’re look­ing up­set, we’re in busi­ness.”

Empire is shown Episode 1, ‘San Ju­nipero’, which opens with a ner­vous young woman (Macken­zie Davis) en­ter­ing a club in Cal­i­for­nia in the early 1980s, but is nei­ther pe­riod piece nor a time-travel story. As soon as the town of San Ju­nipero’s true na­ture is re­vealed, it be­comes philo­soph­i­cally provoca­tive and deeply mov­ing. “It’s an in­ter­est­ing game, to see how long you can wait for the re­veal,” says Brooker. “You have to bal­ance it in the edit. How do we drop this in­for­ma­tion with­out blow­ing the game too soon?”

Black Mir­ror has al­ways at­tracted tal­ent, in­clud­ing Hay­ley Atwell, Domh­nall Glee­son and Jon Hamm, but Net­flix’s ku­dos means Brooker and Jones can cast the net even wider. ‘Nose­dive’, which Brooker calls a “play­ful satire about so­cial me­dia in­se­cu­rity”, is di­rected by Joe Wright and stars Bryce Dal­las Howard and Alice Eve. 10

Clover­field Lane direc­tor Dan Tracht­en­berg takes charge of ‘Playtest’, a “hor­ror romp” about video games fea­tur­ing 22 Jump Street’s Wy­att Russell. Other episodes, says Brooker, in­clude a po­lice pro­ce­dural, a mil­i­tary thriller and “an un­fold­ing con­tem­po­rary night­mare” with no sci-fi el­e­ment.

The six-episode for­mat al­lows Brooker and Jones to ex­pand the pa­ram­e­ters in terms of genre and tone. “The per­cep­tion is it’s a show writ­ten by the Un­abomber about how tech­nol­ogy is evil, which I don’t think it is,” says Brooker. De­spite the greater eclec­ti­cism, he’s in­cluded a few Easter eggs for keen Red­di­tors who have con­cocted elab­o­rate the­o­ries about how it all con­nects. “It’s not set in a shared world,” he says. “But if some­body can think up a the­ory that links them all, good luck to them.”

The pair are al­ready con­tem­plat­ing ideas for the next se­ries. In the mean­time, 2016’s re­lent­less cav­al­cade of aw­ful news should con­tinue to pro­vide

Black Mir­ror with plenty of free pub­lic­ity. Now all it needs is a theme tune you can whis­tle. BLACK MIR­ROR IS ON NET­FLIX FROM 21 OC­TO­BER

Clock­wise from left: Bryce Dal­las Howard in Joe Wright’s episode ‘Nose­dive’. Yikes, phones!; 22

Jump Street’s Wy­att Russell (cen­tre) in Dan Tracht­en­berg’s ‘Playtest’; Macken­zie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-raw go club­bing in ‘San Ju­nipero’.

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