THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
Nightmare-tech show Black Mirror is getting bigger, bolder and even scarier
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’.