Black Mirror season four was being written in July 2016, just after the Brexit vote, at a time when Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign was gaining momentum and “there were all sorts of awful things going on in the world, which there still are,” Charlie Brooker tells me. In that context, he says, “there was a conscious decision to vary” the stories they told in the six new episodes.
The aim was to avoid “a depressing sort of [depressed voice] ‘Oh, I’ve just watched the news. Don’t know if I want to watch that now’”, Brooker explains. “We do have nihilistic bleakness in this season, but we also wanted a bit more lightness occasionally.”
One season four episode—Hang The DJ—is even characterised by Brooker as playful and comedic, a description that makes producer Annabel Jones laugh and qualify, “in Black Mirror terms!”
Ahead of the new episodes arriving on Netflix on Friday the 29th of December, here’s a spoiler-free season four chat with its creators…
You must be sick to death of people telling you how brilliant your show is by now, with all these Emmys and plaudits…
Charlie Brooker: So you’re going to tell us how shit it is!
Nope. The two episodes I’ve seen [Arkangel and USS Callister] are brilliant.
CB: Oh good! Did you have a favourite of the two?
They’re both so different, aren’t they?
CB: That’s the right answer!
With season three there was an attempt to upend what the show was, or how it was seen, with San Junipero in particular. What was the approach with season four?
Annabel Jones: To continue doing that really. We did that first Netflix series and were really pleased with how it came out, and then had the confidence to challenge what the show means or can be in terms of genre and tone. As an anthology show, you just don’t want to become predictable. You’re just constantly trying to find new worlds to explore while absolutely trying to keep that Black Mirror DNA through it, so you feel it belongs in the season.
CB: It’s definitely true that we thought we had to keep playing with the tone so it doesn’t become predictable. What’s an unpredictable thing for us to do? What if we do one that looks like a very heavily trad sci-fi show with elements of comedy in it, it’s quite mainstream in many ways, it’s quite a popcorn story, that. So that’s hopefully very unexpected. Then as we go throughout the season. Arkangel, that’s a completely different tone.
AJ: And scale.
CB: It’s much smaller, more of an indie drama. Then you’ve got Crocodile, which is almost like a Scandi noir, a very different tone again, it’s more of a paranoid thriller, with Andrea Riseborough. Hang The DJ, which is more playful, comedic?
AJ: In Black Mirror terms!
CB: It is! [Laughs] It’s got overtly playful elements in it. It’s set in a world in which there’s Spotify for relationships, i.e. you are given a playlist of all the relationships you’re going to go through in your life, basically, in order and duration. So that’s a fairly comic premise…
AJ: [laughs] Or reassuring?
CB: Or reassuring, yes! It also takes any guesswork out of what you’re going to… well, you’ll have to watch the episode. It is quite a playful episode. Then you’ve got something like Metalhead, which is the opposite of that! It’s black and white, it’s brutal, survival horror, with Maxine Peake and lots of sort of visceral stuff going on in it! Then Black Museum, which is the anthology one. In that, there’s a lot of references to other stories we’ve done.
That’s the Easter Egg one then?
CB: Lots of Easter Eggs. They’ve all got Easter Eggs in I think this time around. There’s a couple in USS Callister, there are a couple of references to things.
AJ: Very fleeting!
CB: But they’re there! [Laughs] In that one we build on some things we’ve done in other episodes and we specifically refer to things from other episodes as well.
At the Edinburgh TV festival this year, you said you’d identified a formula for your episodes – that they start with somebody in a trap… and they stay there!
Having identified that formula, do you feel a need to break with it?
CB: Yeah. We slightly do.
AJ: I’m not sure about that at all! That was you being slightly facetious.
CB: That was me taking the piss out of our own show [laughs]
AJ: I can think of lots of times they’re not in a trap, or they do escape.
CB: They escape for five minutes, then it’s back in the trap! [Both laugh] The challenge is to try and expand and change what the show is while keeping it the same show is a weird one, but hopefully we’ve pulled it off, I think?
Nobody would describe the show as comforting TV—it’s hardly Bake Off, is it? But you’d say there’s a sense of comfort to be derived from these stories of unfair universes?
CB: I think there’s something cathartic in that sometimes. Even though it’s chilling to watch, say, The Twilight Zone episode where Burgess Meredith smashes his glasses and literally says ‘it’s not fair! It’s not fair!’, there’s something about that which made that episode much more effective as a piece of anti-nuclear paranoia than if there’d been a happy ending. It’s so unexpected and small and cruel.
If you’re someone like me who always grew up in the shadow worrying about nuclear bombs, there’s something weirdly comforting about seeing something that says ‘yeah, it’s terrible out there’.
Having said that, we have deliberately got in this season… because when we were writing it, it was July 2016, just after the Brexit vote, and there were all sorts of awful things going on in the world which there still are.
AJ: Before Trump.
CB: And you’re sort of thinking ‘I don’t know what state the world will be in by the time this comes out’ so there was a conscious effort to think that, well, we do have nihilistic bleakness in this season, we do have quite a lot of it in there, but we also wanted a bit more lightness occasionally so it’s not just a chore, a depressing sort of [depressed voice] ‘Oh, I’ve just watched the news. Don’t know if I want to watch that now’. So there was a conscious decision to vary it.
AJ: Also, I think it ruins the story if you’re always expecting a nihilistic ending, you feel as if you’re being led slightly.
CB: And when it comes, it’s worse! [Both laugh] Because then it’s like ‘OH NO!’
Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, thank you very much!
Black Mirror season 4 arrives on Netflix on Friday the 29th of December. We’ll have plenty of spoiler-filled coverage post-release.