Dearly beloved, we gather here today not to praise science fiction, but to bury it.
We live in an age when the sum total of human knowledge exists in glowing rectangle form in our pockets — an age where the reaction to the reality of self-driving cars isn’t astonishment, but rather: “What took so long?” Need something a little more dystopian than that? Boom. Here’s a reality TV star/famous capitalist running for President of the United States.
How can science fiction survive in a world where almost every possible outlandish premise seems on the cusp of becoming reality? The answer is that it can’t. Instead, science fiction is evolving into something else, with the help of Twilight Zone-esque anthology series Black Mirror.
“I’ve always been interested in science fiction,” Black Mirror creator and writer Charlie Brooker tells Den of Geek via phone. “But I can’t really relate to traditional sci-fi. I don’t really see [Black Mirror] as a sci-fi show in a way. It’s more speculative. Speculative fiction.”
Created in 2011 and originally airing on England’s Channel 4, Black Mirror is an anthology show with hour-long episodes that take horror, comedy, tragedy, and, yes, science fiction and run them through the filter of technology. “If technology is a drug — and it does feel like a drug — then what, precisely, are the side effects?” Brooker asked in a 2011 interview with The Guardian.
According to the wildly successful first and second seasons (with an obligatory British TV Christmas special to boot), side effects include: a digital implant that allows users to relive all of their memories, including those of past infidelities; a world in which the underclass is forced to provide energy to the upper class via exercise bikes, all in the vain hope that they’ll one day make it big on a televised talent show; and, of course, most predictably, a sitting prime minister fucking a pig on live television.
Black Mirror is millennial Twilight Zone, named for the ever-present blank screens that follow us all around in our day-to-day life. And, just like most millennial enterprises, it has enjoyed an impressive second-streaming-life thanks to Netflix.
The first and second seasons consist of three episodes each, followed by a Jon Hamm-starring Christmas special in 2014. When they made the transition to Netflix, worldwide audiences were able to catch up with the phenomenon and they soon demanded more.
Now Black Mirror’s new home is Netflix, fitting snugly between shows like ‘80s sci-fi nostalgia-fest Stranger Things and The Twilight Zone. The streaming giant picked up Black Mirror for two super-sized (at least by the show’s standards) seasons of six episodes each. The first new season will debut on October 21.
Brooker calls the transition to Netflix: “Pretty seamless, actually.”
“They’re engaged, but they’re not prescriptive,” he says. “You feel like you have real collaborators.”
Then there’s the matter of Netflix’s all-episodes-at-once model, which — when trotted out for the wrong scripted show — runs the risk of not working. But the anthological Black Mirror doesn’t have to worry about the pacing issues which have plagued other streaming shows looking to sustain a single narrative over a season.
“It feels like these streaming platforms are what shows like this have been waiting for,” Brooker says. “We’re making a little film festival and you can choose what order to watch them in. It’s there on your shelf for you to pick up where and when. You’re not beholden to the ratings monster.”
Brooker sounds genuinely grateful for not only the streaming model, but also every technological advance that has helped the rest of the world catch up to his creative, at times darkly comedic, vision.
He got his start in about the least Black Mirror medium possible: magazines. Brooker wrote game reviews, columns, and comics for PC Zone magazine in the mid-1990s. From there, he was off to numerous other media and opportunities, including TV reviews and other columns for The Guardian, a satirical website, and then some TV writing for Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show. Eventually, he got his own series: Screenwipe.
Throughout his career, Brooker points to two guiding principles: things that make him laugh and things that make him think.
“I’ve always loved what-if ideas,” he says. “My background is in comedy and you’ll find all sorts of weird ideas in comedy. And, often, these are ideas that make me laugh.”
Combine that love of speculative fiction and humor with a noticeable hole in the TV landscape for anthologies — something now being rectified more and more, as evidenced by the powerhouse Emmy’s “miniseries” category — and you get Black Mirror.
“Television was heading in the direction of long season arcs,” Brooker says. “Breaking Bad and Mad Men are great and I was massively hooked on them, but I felt like there was room for a show in which you didn’t have to fill out a mythology over five seasons. I felt like saying ‘The End’ was becoming a novelty.”
Having a “The End” is something that all of the episodes in season three have in common. They all feel like their inception could have been a one-off concept that elicited laughter… before trudging along, in classic Black Mirror fashion, into something much more poignant and/or horrifying.
There is the, let’s say, unconventional nostalgic love story “San Junipero,” starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Free State of Jones) and Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire). There is also an exploration of web forum trolling gone to its logical extreme in “Shut Up and Dance,” starring Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones) and Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game). “Men Against Fire” is the most traditionally sci-fi of the bunch, beginning as a Starship Troopers-esque future military drama with Malachi Kirby (Roots) and Michael Kelly (House of Cards). Brooker describes “Hated in the Nation,” starring Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men), as a “detective” story and “Playtest” as a bit of “horror.”
Of the six new entries, however, “Nosedive” fits Charlie Brooker’s vision of “speculative fiction” most adeptly. “Nosedive” is based on an original concept by Brooker, with a script written by actress Rashida Jones and Brooklyn Nine-Nine showrunner Michael Schur. It features Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness), and James Norton (Happy Valley). The less that’s said about the plot, the better — but, let me just say: you’ll begin to value your Uber rider score more than ever.
Brooker, who watches more U.S. shows than U.K. ones, as they are more “exotic” to him, describes the teaming up with Schur and Jones as part of a “mutual admiration society.”
“I had a rough idea for a story and we found out that Michael Schur and Rashida Jones were fans of the show,” Brooker says. “They got in touch with us and we got back in touch with them and said, ‘We have this idea. Can we tell you about it?’ Then, we effectively had writers’ meetings on the phone.”
It’s fitting that Schur and Jones were tapped to write the episode, as the tone is more “playful,” as Brooker describes it, but also comes along with some inherent terror — the perfect paradoxical clash of emotions that most Black Mirror episodes eventually instill.
In addition to the onscreen star power for Black Mirror season three, Brooker and company brought in some dramatic heft behind the camera, as well. The Lady in Black director James Watkins directs “Shut Up and Dance,” while 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg both writes and directs “Playtest.” For the thematically and tonally difficult “Nosedive,” Brooker tapped Atonement director Joe Wright.
“I was a big fan of the show,” Wright says. “Out of the blue I got asked if I wanted to do an episode and I said, ‘Yes!’ It was very simple. I don’t know why he asked me, really. I’m very glad he did.”
Once granted the job for “Nosedive,” Wright jumped at the opportunity to work with Bryce Dallas Howard.
“I met Bryce many, many years ago when I was casting Atonement,” Wright says. “I thought she was the most wonderful human being. Bright and smart and just fantastic. It was a great meeting. Unfortunately, she was completely wrong for the part. But I always had this admiration and this warm feeling towards her. When I read this script, I thought of her. So I sent her the treatment and said, ‘You wanna come and do this with me?’ And she immediately said yes.”
Howard, Eve, and the rest of the actors are natural fits for the Black Mirror universe, but what about the only consistent character through each episode of the show: technology?
Naturally, technology is everywhere in season three: from smartphones to futuristic weapons to drones to an almost literal cloud. To Brooker, speculative fiction isn’t just about speculating about how technology will change; it’s speculating about how people will stay the same.
“We can use technology to tell stories in the same ways you’d use the supernatural,” Brooker says. “We’ve grown accustomed to miracles. The iPhone is a miracle. It’s like something from Blade Runner. But we never want to be the show where technology is inherently evil all the time.”
Wright feels similarly about what the show is really about.
“To me, Charlie uses the speculative fiction as a vehicle for exploring very pertinent and ever-present human problems,” he says. “Especially in terms of how we interact with each other. The whole terrifying positioning and status anxiety is something that’s always existed and is perhaps magnified by the social media age. The whole idea of how we judge ourselves against other people is deep within us and isn’t about technology.”
Having a strong grasp on both the human condition and possible future technological advancements has allowed Brooker and company to create depictions of the future that are both dramatically satisfying and logically valid. Sometimes, those depictions even accidentally become predictions.
Remember the aforementioned prime minister pig-fucking episode from Black Mirror’s first season? It was called “The National Anthem” and Brooker describes it as the most divisive of all Black Mirror episodes, perhaps because of how absurd it seems. That was before an unauthorized biography of now ex-British Prime Minister David Cameron was released in 2015 and claimed that Cameron once put his “private part” into the mouth of a dead pig as an initiation to a secret society at Oxford.
Brooker says that this season, all of the episodes, save for maybe “Shut Up and Dance,” are a touch more outlandish as a result.
“Reality felt like it was slightly catching up with us,” he says. “We felt like we had to pick up our pace.”
But what if reality continues to mirror Black Mirror?
“I wouldn’t be worried about the show,” says Brooker. “I would worry about reality.”