Approaching the new season of Black Mirror, series creator Charlie Brooker found himself spitballing new techno-nightmare ideas to fuel the acclaimed dystopian anthology’s jump to Netflix. Once again, he took inspiration from the gadgets, apps, and programs we’ve come to rely on IRL—the digital tools we eagerly upload into our lives without considering how each like, swipe, and double tap might be changing how we’re hardwired.
Whenever he pitched a concept to co-executive producer Annabel Jones that made her recoil with an, “Oh, that would be horrible,” he knew he was onto an idea worth turning into its own episode. And yet for all the disturbing visions he served up in Black Mirror’s first two seasons and its slate of six new stories, Brooker maintains he’s an avid advocate of technology. He’d just like us all to think twice about what it’s doing to us as we scroll through our daily lives, increasingly connected and yet more disconnected than ever from one another.
“I’m quite dweeby and I’m actually really quite pro-technology, which people don’t expect,” he told The Daily Beast last month in Toronto, grinning gregariously at the irony. “The story ideas come out not from us going, ‘What’s the Black Mirror take on Tinder,’ but more like, ‘Hey—wouldn’t it be WEIRD if this happened?’”
“I’m not the Unabomber!” he laughed. “I don’t think that social media should be shut down for the millennials who stare at their phones all day long. I think that we are coming to terms with very powerful tools that we’ve invented that have ramifications… it’s like we’ve suddenly grown a massive new limb and we’re flailing it around. And it’s amazing! It’s astounding. It’s brilliant. But it’s also causing us to sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes deliberately, cause harm. So that’s what we’re coming to terms with.”
The result of Brooker’s continued meditation on our brave new tech-addled future is a new sixer of unrelated near-future nightmares that hit with more urgency than ever. Having greater resources at his disposal this time around means they’re longer—the riveting “Hated in the Nation” is a chilling 90-minute police procedural that, of course, takes even more sinister and unexpected turns involving the internet and honeybees—but Brooker also seems more thematically ambitious in his third and biggest season to date.
“Men Against Fire” tackles the ugliness of incentivized war. “Shut Up and Dance” plays on paranoia over the privacies we unknowingly give up on the internet. “Playtest” ventures into the alt-reality escapism of gaming with dazzling visuals and a visceral gut-punch.
Black Mirror, streaming Oct. 21 on Netflix, is undoubtedly the best horror movie of this Halloween season. But critics instantly noticed a shocking undercurrent coursing through this new season: optimism. The hopefulness is particularly strong in its best episodes, the social media-obsessed “Nosedive” and the exquisite 1980s neon dream “San Junipero,” which have other crucial elements in common: They’re both led by strong female performances and feature Bechdel test-shattering plotlines.
Half of this season’s episodes are anchored by fiercely written female characters, two by non-white stars, and one unfolds the most romantic thread yet in the series between two women. Brooker says that the diversity of this season came partly in the casting, and partly by shaking up the writing process—and that the show is all the richer for it.
“I was conscious that previously we had a lot of male protagonists on the show,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, what happens if I just default to female leads for a while and see what happens?’ I also don’t tend to comment on race in things that I do because I think it would be kind of patronizing. It’s more interesting to not do that; to have the most diverse casting you can get. I don’t tend to specify the race of characters. I quite often swap the gender of characters as well.”
The Joe Wright-directed satire “Nosedive” hits closest to How We Live Today, anchored by an unself-conscious turn by Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie, a woman clinging desperately to the fragile anxiety-ridden sanity wrought by a world driven by likes, people-pleasing, and her social-media profile. Brooker describes it as a “pastel nightmare,” one where Howard’s Lacie is trapped in a vortex of projection in which the façade of happiness and success belies the truest, bitterest, most human expression of all: that nobody is as perfect as they seem to be online.
But if “Nosedive” (and the also female-driven “Hated in the Nation”) are examples of how Black Mirror’s capsule allegories can instantly change your perspective on firing off that next selfie or tweet into the ether, “San Junipero” is a different kind of rarified gem. Directed by Owen Harris, who also helmed the deeply affecting “Be Right Back,” the 1980s-set tale stars Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis as a shy young woman named Yorkie, who meets Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s hedonistic Kelly one night in an idyllic California seaside town and has her life changed forever.
For Davis in particular, “San Junipero” arrives in the middle of a run of high-profile science-fiction-tinged roles including The Martian, her not-sci-fi but sci-tech AMC show Halt and Catch Fire, and the upcoming Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049, which she recently wrapped in Budapest. The showrunners initially had her in mind to play Kelly, but Davis gravitated toward the painfully reserved Yorkie, she told me. “Maybe because I felt like I had done a Kelly in some capacity before,” she said. “I understood her, but with Yorkie I’d never played a woman like this. I wanted to have some kind of interior experience with this person who wasn’t comfortable in her own skin, this blossoming young female experience.”
She strikes a crackling balance with the magnetic Mbatha-Raw, the pair unfolding one of Black Mirror’s most surprising and soulful episodes with a chemistry that carries the narrative through an unexpected conceptual leap. It’s one that also marks the series’ first same-sex love story with an unshowy sense of naturalism. “It’s the most progressive story!” exclaimed Brooker.
Davis revealed that the series’ stars are just like us: Large doses of Black Mirror doom and gloom send them into an existential panic, too. “I can’t watch consecutive Black Mirror episodes,” she admitted. “I go into a black hole and think about shit and examine my decisions and things that I’m tacitly agreeing to. It’s a very intense experience for me to watch an episode. But ‘San Junipero’ and Owen’s other episode, which is also heartbreaking, have a more palpable optimism to them than a lot of Black Mirror.”
Between her Black Mirror stint and her turn as punk programming prodigy Cameron Howe on Halt and Catch Fire, Davis is still, like Brooker, not as wary of our brave new tech future as you might think. She mostly only lurks on Twitter and deletes apps on the regular. “[But] what we talk about and think about so much on Halt is that there’s so much goodwill in creating technology and new innovations,” she said. “It’s to connect, and it’s to educate, to improve. The idea is often pure at heart and comes from quite an idealistic place. But the idea does not equal the execution and the intent doesn’t equal the reality of a thing.”
“What I like about ‘San Junipero’ is that it is very optimistic but it doesn’t end with you going, ‘It’s bad,’ or ‘It’s good,’” Davis added. “There is a darkness to it even though it is very hopeful. But it does show that everything comes from a very beautiful place. Of course we want to create a world where you have chances. But there will be people who pervert that technology or misuse it. You can’t pretend that it will ever exist in the intended way.”
Brooker himself reached a point of clarity in recent years, turned off from the alluring toxicity of Twitter so much so that he penned a warning against online outrage into “Hated in the Nation.” And last September, the news he’d been waiting years to hear seeped into the international news cycle: The very first episode of Black Mirror, in which a British prime minister modeled after David Cameron is forced to have sex with a pig, had apparently come true.
The real-life David Cameron allegations did briefly make Brooker question if he was living in his own surreal Black Mirror-esque nightmare, he admitted. “Genuinely, when that happened, it was so weird,” he marveled. “But as much as I’d love it to be true, I bet it isn’t. I did that evening think that maybe the whole of reality is a simulation that I am imagining or is designed to fuck with me, which is not a thought that you should really entertain. It’s quite narcissistic and mind-mangling.”
He considered how politics might factor into the next season of Black Mirror. “I kind of miss when everything was ‘meh’—everyone was like, ‘meh,’ and I fucking hated it. But now everything’s either fucking brilliant or a disaster and politics has gone the same way. A few years ago everyone was complaining that politicians were all bland or the same and now you’ve got Donald Trump or we’ve got Jeremy Corbyn. I miss the middle. I miss the boring, bland middle. It felt more stable. Everyone’s just so fucking angry.”
“There’s definitely something in everything becoming so polarized,” he added, furrowing his brow. “But I don’t quite know what the story is yet.”
I asked the onetime videogame journalist what he makes of Gamergate culture since in this season he tackles gaming and Twitter, but not where those worlds so loudly overlap online.
“I found [Gamergate] just inexplicable and saddening,” he said. “The fundamental thing at the heart of that, which I don’t understand, is why it’s a problem critiquing the content of games. In the ’90s, Duke Nukem was machine-gunning lapdogs. Even then it was like, ‘Well, that’s not great.’ Why it’s a controversial thought, I simply don’t understand. Maybe there was an innate defensiveness of being a sort of traditional old-school gamer where you’re being told that games are evil and violent, and I wonder if this reaction was at the core of it. It is a small minority of people who were very active in it. But no one’s deleting old games.”
Twitter, he declared to controversial reactions in his 2013 Channel 4 documentary How Videogames Changed The World, is the ultimate videogame, even if most of its 313 million active monthly users don’t realize it. “It encourages polarized debate; it means that you are rewarded for having an extreme point of view,” he explained, unintentionally echoing anti-Gamergate critic Anita Sarkeesian’s theories on the psychological rewards of trolling on the internet. “I think generally social media encourages you to be entertaining, and when I say entertaining I mean strident. It encourages that thinking and that expression. It feels like being in a pub at about 11 o’clock at night when everyone could go either way.”
The man behind Black Mirror, then, seems more cautiously wary of technology than necessarily for or against it—and hyperaware of the fact that whatever the doodad, Twitter or Tinder or Oculus or beyond, these apparatuses only amplify the human impulses that have always existed within us.
“‘San Junipero’ is the ultimate optimistic view of where we could end up,” he mused of Black Mirror’s most philosophically uplifting story yet. “But I alternate between the two. I look at my kids, who are 2 and 4, and I look at the world they’re in. In some ways I’m really jealous that the 4-year-old gets to look at something like Minecraft on an iPad at the age of 4.”
“I learned to find my way about playing Doom. I had a terrible sense of direction but playing Doom forced you to retrace your steps all the time, so I learned to find my way around London by playing it,” he laughed. “But I also had a lot of nightmares.”