July 30, 2015
In The Mix

A Twilight Zone for the 21st Century

Charlie Brooker takes technophiles — like himself — to task in Black Mirror.

Benji Wilson

With technology now close to an evangelical religion, British writer-producer Charlie Brooker has become television’s dissenting voice.

Black Mirror — his Channel 4 series of twisted parables that took an International Emmy in 2012 — dares to venture to the dark side of the modern gadget addiction.

“When I was younger,” he says, speaking at his London home, “I always enjoyed anthology shows like The Twilight Zone or Tales of the Unexpected or Hammer House of Horror. The more I thought about The Twilight Zone, the more it became apparent that really what it was about was the contemporary worries of the day — be it communism, McCarthyism, psychologies or space travel.”

He asked himself what might be the equivalent now, and his attention turned to technology.

“It struck me that you could do a lot of these what-if stories that they used to do on The Twilight Zone, but just with slightly extrapolated technology. That's how this focus came about.”

The irony is that while Brooker’s work — seen in the U.S. on Netflix and DirecTV— is known for allegories about the perils of technology, he himself is no Luddite. He was a video games reviewer in the UK for many years before he became a columnist for The Guardian newspaper. He remains a committed gamer, and in print he praises new technology as much as he warns of its potential misuses.

“I like my tech and gizmos and gadgets, and I'm fascinated by that whole world — always have been. But I'm also a neurotic worrier. What Black Mirror tends to reflect is the neurotic worrier side of me.”

It is not, he says, supposed to be preachy, an eat-your-greens message that we should all heed or else.

“It's not a warning — it's not disapproving and frowning and saying, ‘This is all terrible, isn’t it? And what are we doing these days — you wouldn’t believe what people are tweeting, bloody hell!’ It's more an examination of a what-if story.”

The speculation has ranged from “Be Right Back,” the first episode in season two, which asked, “What if you could communicate with a deceased loved one who is being emulated from an online presence?” to last Christmas’s special, a three-part feature-length outing starring Jon Hamm, which asked, “What if you could block people in real life as you can on social media?” 

“I do worry about the potential consequences of things,” Brooker says, “because I think we, as animals, are learning how to use all these amazing new powers that technology has bestowed upon us in the last few years. They’re like new limbs. There's no doubt these are very, very useful limbs and we’d be crazy to lop them off. But there are also potential downsides.”

Ideas for new Black Mirror stories, he says, spring up everywhere, but not necessarily where you might expect.

“Often I've noticed that the best ideas seem to come about not from thinking about technology — you know, it’s not, ‘Microsoft have just announced this new gizmo… there must be a story in that.’ It usually comes back from a what-if premise, and then you apply the logical consequences to that.”

The idea for season two’s “White Bear,” for example, came from a single image Brooker witnessed making his previous series, Dead Set, which imagined zombies laying waste to the Big Brother house.

“We were shooting a scene where Riz Ahmed was being pursued by a zombie, running down the road. Some local kids stopped to watch. They were just standing there, taking photos on their phones, and I remember thinking, ‘What if, for whatever reason, you found yourself being pursued and no one is intervening and everyone was filming you on their phones?’ That was the engine — that's the nightmarish image — and then we just asked, ‘How does that play out?’”

So far there have been two three-episode seasons of Black Mirror and that 90-minute Christmas special in four years. Its limited run is a consequence of Brooker’s busy schedule in the UK, where he writes and presents the Wipe shows, a series of daily satirical looks at current affairs and the media in the mold of The Daily Show.

He has also written a pair of superb Police Squad-style spoofs called A Touch of Cloth and is the go-to guy for wry end-of-year round-ups. Now that his schedule is a little clearer, he is working on more Black Mirror. In the meantime, viewers can sit back and marvel at the regularity with which ideas from Brooker’s dystopian vision seem to come true in the real world.

“Oh, God, loads — almost every episode! It's terrifying. Like just after the “Be Right Back” episode, there was this service that offered to curate your tweets after you'd died and carry on tweeting in your style. After the Christmas episode, somebody said they'd been inspired by that and they came up with an app for Google Glass — I think it would block adverts [commercials] in the real world.”

Which brings up, he says, another thing that this neurotic worrier worries about: “You don't want to end up doing a documentary by accident.”

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