TV

Charlie Brooker On Black Mirror, Nathan Barley, And Predicting Humanity’s Demise

We chat to the cheerful guy behind television's most frighteningly real dystopian nightmares.

[Update July 28, 2016] We finally have a release date for Black Mirror‘s long-awaited third season!

Six new episodes will hit Netflix on October 21 and will come stacked with some impressive credits. Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) is set to write and direct one episode, Jerome Flynn (Bronn in Game of Thrones!) is starring in another, and one particularly exciting instalment will see Bryce Dallas Howard dealing with “identity in the social media age”. The latter is written by Rashida Jones and Mike Schur (Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine).

Now’s a great time to catch up on all the unsettling, eerily familiar dystopia you may have missed:

Charlie Brooker is a cheerful chap, especially for someone who spends much of his time thinking up dystopian nightmares for television shows. In 2005’s Nathan Barley, he predicted hipsters and smartphones. Now, in Black Mirror, he dreams a world where the proletariat live in gyms and compete for their freedom on reality TV, where cartoons run for office, political leaders penetrate pigs for England, and dead boyfriends are resurrected from their browser history. Each self-contained episode shows our hapless future-selves living as slaves to the media spectacle, doomed to run the inhuman maze of high-tech destiny.

For Charlie, we are about as ready for what comes next as apes are for nuclear weapons. But this fact doesn’t bring him down. Actually, he’s pretty excited about it.

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Junkee: Black Mirror is set in the not-too-distant future. Can you tell us a little about your decision to do sci-fi?
Charlie Brooker: I have minimal interest in sci-fi for the sake of it. I have to feel like it’s saying something about my boring everyday life. [Black Mirror] are what-if stories, and the sci-fi element is a McGuffin to allow us to do that. Plus, we wanted to do a show that was driven by ideas, and that ended up being sci-fi by default. Though, of course, some of the things in Black Mirror could happen today, if the world was much worse.

The future in Black Mirror is grim, but there’s no accompanying nostalgia for some simpler time.
No. Black Mirror is a bleak series but all the ideas, you know, they made us laugh. The bleakness partly came about because all the episodes are self-contained and only 50-minutes long; it would feel like a cop out to have everything reset and be okay again. We didn’t want to do a show that was about reassuring people, which most programs are.

I’m less apprehensive about the future than it would appear. And I’m pro-technology. I’m just always thinking, what’s the down side? I was doing a show called ‘How TV Ruined Your Life’, and we went out and vox-popped the public. We showed them a ‘time-phone’ and said it would allow you to call the future, so you could call yourself tomorrow and remind yourself about something. Pretty much everyone believed it. They were like, ‘Oh, that’s brilliant, when’ll it come out?’

Do you think there is any technology that could come out that wouldn’t become banal really quickly?
It’s amazing how quickly we get used to things. I think that’s what Black Mirror is saying: what if the pace of change is out of control, and we haven’t evolved to deal with it yet in the same way that we as basic apes haven’t really evolved to take responsibility for nuclear weapons? We may not be quite equipped to deal even with the potential consequences of Twitter. It’s sold to us as all upside, but how long is it going to be before the first Twitter mob forms and physically kills someone? It’s bound to happen.

You take on politics-as-spectacle in Black Mirror in the episodes ‘National Anthem’, where the prime minister is bribed to penetrate a pig, and ‘The Waldo Moment’, where a cartoon runs for local government. Were these episodes inspired by any particular incidents?
People have said, ‘Why don’t you become a politician?’ And I think, well no, that’s the last thing I want because I’m politically confused. I seem more strident and clear in my views than I am, because that’s my comic persona but actually I’d be the worst person to be a politician because I’m too lazy and feckless to run the world at any level. But at the same time, you’ve got a scenario that if people are saying that, it’s because they distrust politicians so much. That entire relationship between the public and the politician is so dysfunctional. I mean, how the fuck do you solve something like that?

The stories in Black Mirror reflect a conflict between a critical voice about the media and technology and a deep immersion in it. As a critic-comedian, do you feel you’re well-positioned to explore that?
I started doing this show called Newswipe in the UK, partly because I thought I was completely ignorant and maybe if I had to gather and mock news footage then I would, by default, pick up a lot of knowledge about the world. But the more news you watch, the less you understand — you end up knowing very little and retaining almost nothing. So it’s fair to say there’s a certain horrified fascination where I’m both criticising things and beholden to them.

I am in a strange position sometimes because I write articles that are very critical of television, but I work in television. I’m a very confused individual. Am I the gatekeeper or just an arsehole? Probably both. Is that ‘well-positioned’? Is that an answer? I feel like the best criticism does not spare the critic. I don’t like to sneer for the sake of it. We are all in the gutter. The best comedians who say all sorts of terrible things also tend to be very self-deprecating.

In Black Mirror, even though the situations are dystopian and the characters are fallible, without agency, and objects for critique, there’s still a real sense of empathy for them. They are very human in inhuman situations.
Good! I’m glad. In every single Black Mirror episode, the character is trapped. They may not realise it at first, but they are.

That’s why I wondered if this is a feeling you relate to?
I actually feel really lucky. But I am definitely a control freak so if I’m writing what’s a creepy nightmare, not being able to control what’s going on would be it. So yeah, it’s probably my psyche crying in the dark. And that’s the promise of technology, isn’t it? It is supposed to help us control our lives, but it ends up controlling us.

I think about Nathan Barley more and more. Do you feel extra clever for inventing that world, which is truer now than ever?
(Laughs) Actually, I’m quite horrified because a lot of my made-up scenarios come true. That worries me, especially thinking of existing Black Mirror episodes and ideas for things to come. I don’t want them to really happen.

With Nathan Barley, I remember early on Chris (Morris; co-creator) was insistent that Nathan had to have a video diary, and I was like, ‘No one uses video on the web, its too blocky!’ But that was the year that YouTube was launched and, of course, Nathan Barley is a YouTuber. It was vague in the show, what he was doing, but now we know it exactly.

And we sort of invented the iPhone in that series. Nathan was obsessed with his phone that could do all this stuff. Our version of apps was physical apps — he could open it up into tiny MP3 turntables and it had a projector on it. All that was sort of just about to happen with the iPhone. My favourite thing that Nathan’s phone could do was something we never showed it doing: it had a laser on it that could heat a cup of tea. Also, the look of the show… They are called hipsters now. We had a fashion designer that came up with this look that came true. It was really bizarre.

You have a dangerous power. Can you use it for good? Is there a technology that hasn’t come true that you are aching for and could write into existence or is it the tea laser?
No, not the tea laser. In one way, I can’t wait until phones are replaced with stuff you have in your eye so that you don’t have to see people with phones in their face. I want to see a time when that picture of the pope with the millions of people behind him all holding up their phones is like vintage photos where everyone’s wearing a flak cap and smoking a pipe. But beyond that there’s tons of stuff. I’m a technology fetishist. I love video games, and they are always getting better. I can’t wait for the next iteration of that. Whatever it is.

So will you be uploading your consciousness before you die?
Oh, like in that book that I read that said that basically what we need is nanotechnology that will knit the whole of humankind into one unit so we can fly out and take over the universe?

Yeah, like that.
I suspect if that ever happens, you’d end up lost in a database somewhere, linked with ‘likes’, you know, ‘If you like this person, then…’ You’d end up being a mash-up with someone else. It would just be horrible, you’d be a little bit of… you’d be a thing. But if that ever happens, I won’t have a say in it. It’ll just be some automatic IOS update one day that melds your mind and then, well, then there’s no turning back.

Black Mirror Season Two airs on SBS 2 at 9:30pm on Tuesday nights. Catch-up on last night’s episode on SBS On Demand right here.

Briohny Doyle writes about the apocalypse and other stuff in places like Going Down SwingingAmpersand MagazineThe Lifted Brow and her blog Passion Pop Pistol. She is currently completing a PhD on the post-apocalyptic imagination. Her first novel The Island Will Sink is due out later this year through Hunter Publishers.