Ed Power it is less sci-fi and more a chance for us to study where humanity may be headed.

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Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror is reflecting reality

Charlie Brooker is has just released the third series of Black Mirror on Netflix. He tells Ed Power it is less sci-fi and more a chance for us to study where humanity may be headed.

Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror is reflecting reality

In Black Mirror, the cult dystopian drama coming to Netflix this week, writer Charlie Brooker whisks the viewer off to a nightmarish Neverland. A place where technology corrodes the soul, social media mires us in crippling psychological anxiety and politicians are dangerous rabble-rousers surging to power on a toxic tide of populism. Does he ever suspect the real world is trying to put him out of job?

“After the pig thing with David Cameron all bets were off,” he laughs. “I thought, ‘f**k me that was weird. People asked if I thought I was living in a Black Mirror episode.”

The ‘pig thing’ was a 2015 claim — quickly dismissed as an outrageous fabrication — that former British prime minster David Cameron had committed a lewd act upon a disembodied pig’s head as part of an initiation rite at Oxford. Four years previously, a Black Mirror episode has posited a chillingly similar scenario, in which the PM is, for reasons of national security, is required to become physically intimate with a swine live on TV.

“I genuinely thought reality was a simulation I had created,” says Brooker. “Obviously that isn’t a healthy thing to think.”

With the UK economy is in the midst of a post-Brexit referendum meltdown and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign still gaining infamy, he acknowledges the “end of days” atmosphere is a challenge to Black Mirror. The show arrives on Netflix for a much anticipated new six-part series, having gained an international cult following across two seasons on Channel 4.

“You really can’t predict what is going to happen. Who would have predicted Brexit this time last year? No one thought that was going to happen. A referendum where a lots of people don’t bother voting and you find out half the country doesn’t think the way you do. Are we living through a Black Mirror episode at the moment? We’ll see. I alternate between being a worrier and an optimist. Maybe we’re a warning to the rest of the world at the moment.”

SEARING CRITIC

Brooker (45) is a lowly journalist turned conjurer of zeitgeist-defining drama. As a critic he was searing to the point of scatalogical and his television is in much the same vein. Ten years ago, Nathan Barley (co-written with comedy subversive Chris Morris) predicted the rise of the hipster hordes currently besieging our cities with their beards, black jumpers and fixed-gear bikes.

Then came Screenwipe and Newswipe, commentaries on television news that didn’t take a pick-axe to British TV as much as get stuck in with a jackhammer.

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But Black Mirror is his biggest and strangest success. He conceived of the show as a means of addressing what he felt was an absence from the schedules of thought-provokingly weird television. Growing up, he’d adored the Twilight Zone, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected and all those creepy one-off BBC tele-plays that the sent you to bed with a head full of nightmares. Television has in the interim become safe, sanitised and formulaic. Black Mirror seeks to restore some of the otherworldliness.

“It’s quite a popcorn show,” says the father of two who’s married to TV presenter Konnie Huq. “You’re coming up with these ‘what if’ scenarios, trying to get a strong reaction. We take it to 11. The Twilight Zone was concerned with the worries of the day — the Cold War, the Space Race. We are dealing with contemporary subjects… contemporary worries, though hopefully with humour.”

Brooker and co-producer Annabel Jones suspect they’ve hit a sweet spot when an idea strikes them as simultaneously amusing and horrifying. “I know when we’ve got an idea — I find it hilarious and [Jones] finds it upsetting. Then it’s a very Black Mirror idea — it straddles that fence of funny and upsetting.”

Black Mirror is unconventional in other ways too. It’s an anthology, with each episode featuring a different story, cast and setting. A 2014 Christmas special starred Mad Men’s Jon Hamm; the new series sees appearances by Bryce Dallas Howard and Michael Kelly from House of Cards.

Among the topics addressed across its first two seasons were cloning, 21st century surveillance culture and the perniciousness of reality television. If Brooker and Jones feel the subject is worth delving into, they’ll put it on the table.

“One of the stories in the new series is set in the present day,” says Jones. “It has no sci-fi element whatsoever. Black Mirror isn’t really a sci-fi show or a technology show. It’s about people.”

CONTROVERSIAL MOVE

With Netflix as sugardaddy, Black Mirror’s scope has widened even further with series three. Several episodes are set in the United States, some in the UK and one in Scandinavia.

However, the move from Channel 4 to Netflix has not been without controversy, with Brooker contentiously taking his creation to the streaming giant after a $40 million bidding war.

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This provoked disgruntlement at Channel 4 which feels it made a star out of Brooker.

For his part, Brooker has expressed unhappiness that Channel 4 wanted to retain exclusive UK rights while, by his telling, expecting him and his team to sort out distribution in the United States.

“Black Mirror makes perfect sense on Netflix because it’s an anthology show,” he says today. “The genre has in the past struggled to build an audience. You may have loved Tales of the Unexpected — but you’re not necessarily burning to watch the next episode.

“With streaming, you get a lot of word of mouth. It’s perfect for something like this.”

There’s a perception that Black Mirror represents one endless tirade against technology and how it has eroded our humanity. Brooker feels such an interpretation is far too simplistic.

“I used to be a video games journalist,” he says. “We all find technology very seductive. For me, [the show] is really a means of allowing the protagonist mess up their lives. Black Mirror isn’t science fiction in the sense of having aliens with weird foreheads standing around in robes. I can’t relate to that.

“These are paranoid nightmares – the series is exploring nostalgia, romance, the future of military technology, waves of populist anger. We are standing back, looking at all of these things and thinking ‘oh God, what if this or that happens?’”

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Black Mirror is available on Netflix from today

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