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Black Mirror season 3: creator Charlie Brooker discusses political polarization, artificial intelligence, and his new season

“Technology is never the villain. … It's always a human frailty or weakness.”

Black Mirror
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis star in “San Junipero,” one of six new episodes of Black Mirror debuting Friday.
Netflix

There are only seven episodes so far, but declaring that something "reminds me of an episode of Black Mirror" still tends to elicit knowing smiles and nods — a response that’s become even more common since Netflix began streaming the British series back in 2014.

Black Mirror first aired in 2011, on the UK’s Channel 4, with a promise that every episode would feature a new story and new characters, in the style of The Twilight Zone. The idea linking all of those stories is technology — every screen we gaze upon is the black mirror of the show’s title, looking back and dimly reflecting who we really are.

The series bounces from futuristic sci-fi to intimate romance to social satire and back again. It’s been credited for predicting everything from the rise of Donald Trump (in "The Waldo Moment," in which a venom-spewing cartoon bear becomes a political contender) to, uh, David Cameron’s supposed sexual escapades with a pig (in its very first episode — which is about a prime minister having sex with a pig). Above all, it succeeds because of its surprisingly soulful take on human nature, and the ways we both enhance and subvert it with our technology.

That’s thanks to Charlie Brooker, who created the series and has written most of its episodes, including at least partial credit on all six installments of the show’s upcoming third season, which launches Friday, October 21 and will air exclusively on Netflix. Both Brooker and his producing partner Annabel Jones joined me for a wide-ranging conversation on political polarization, reviving anthology TV on a reasonable budget, and, yes, David Cameron (allegedly) having sex with a pig.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff

Black Mirror has gotten a lot of credit for all the real-world events and headlines it’s foreseen. What real-world events that’ve occurred since the show debuted in 2011 stand out as something you never could have predicted?

Charlie Brooker

That David Cameron was actually accused of doing something with a pig totally blew my brain. The fact that, of all the [episodes], that was the one that has come the closest to hitting the incoming meteorite of reality — I genuinely thought I lived in a simulation when that story broke. It was just bizarre.

Todd VanDerWerff

What do you think is unchanging about our relationship to our technology, no matter how good that technology gets?

Charlie Brooker

LFF Connects Television: 'Black Mirror' - 60th BFI London Film Festival
Annabel Jones and Charlie Brooker attend a Black Mirror screening.
Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for BFI

If there is a common thread throughout the stories, it's generally about our authenticity and what constitutes an authentic experience, and what reality means in a world where you are constantly slipping into a little coma as you stare at one little screen after another.

The unforeseen consequences of powerful tools is another thing that crops up. I am a huge technology lover and an early adopter of all kind of gizmos and gadgets. I used to be a video games journalist in the '90s. We're not Statler and Waldorf, raising a fist at the App Store. Things like social media, smartphones, all the technology that's come in and sort of upended everything in the last decade, they are very powerful tools

But they have unforeseen consequences. It's kind of like we've grown an extra limb. Before you know it, [that extra limb is] knocking over that knife and injuring people. It's kind of like we've been gifted magical powers and we're learning how to use them. That’s an interesting space for stories to occur.

Todd VanDerWerff

I’ve read a lot of writing by futurists who say that the next step of evolution may be self-guided, that by enhancing ourselves with machines, we may make ourselves another species, effectively. But I sometimes wonder if that didn’t happen 20 years ago, when the internet first started expanding. How much has the web changed us, and how much has it just brought out our essential humanity?

Charlie Brooker

My gut feeling would be that we are what we are, and we always have been. I'm sure that when homosapiens first developed speech, it was amazing for an afternoon, and then a fight occurred when somebody insulted somebody else's mother. Human nature has probably always roughly been the same.

Annabel Jones

It will alter human behavior. We are evolving. We are changing.

Charlie Brooker

We are changing. The polarization that is going on at the moment feels like something that is real, and isn't real, doesn't it? In the real world, you can meet members of your own family or people you know with different political views or different cultural values. In the online world, everyone's retreating into corners and angrily waving fists at each other. That does feel like a consequence of the way we are using technology.

Black Mirror
Bryce Dallas Howard stars in "Nosedive," one of six new episodes of Black Mirror.
Netflix

Annabel Jones

The louder and more extreme opinions you have, the more…

Charlie Brooker

Entertaining you are. The more you're rewarded.

Annabel Jones

With credence, yeah. The disparity between our online persona and our real persona, how we communicate with people, how we interact — it's been in all of these small, small changes. You walk around everywhere, everyone is looking at their phone. Those moments of social interaction are being really reduced, and children will grow up looking here [looks down] first.

Charlie Brooker

Which might be a good thing! I can't tell whether it's bad or good.

Lots of people have said to me recently, "Oh that Pokémon Go, that's very Black Mirror, isn't it?" I went for a jog on the day that [the game] was launched in the UK, and there were loads of people out with smartphones, roving around like they were in the "White Bear" episode.

The reference suddenly made sense to me, and I thought, "It's quite nice they're enjoying a nice stroll because they're playing a nice game. They're all together. It's brilliant, isn't it? It's great."

Obviously there's people been walking into lakes and getting held up. All sorts of horrific things have no doubt happened, but in general, I don't know that it's bad.

In our stories, technology is never the villain, it's always a backdrop or it’s a Mcguffin that allows a human mess up to happen.

Todd VanDerWerff

It seems like the through-line of so many of your stories is that humans always find the most sinister way to use technology, and that seems to be true across the history of writing about technological advancements. What makes science fiction work so well as a warning signal?

Charlie Brooker

In our stories, technology is fulfilling the same function that supernatural or magic would on, like, The Twilight Zone. In Black Mirror, you can have something inexplicable and cool happen, but it happens for a technological reason.

Was it Arthur C. Clarke who said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"?

Annabel Jones

I don't know if it's that people are sinister. When they’re in little spirals in some of the stories, they're not exactly behaving sinisterly. They're just behaving in a way, that because the technology is so seductive, you can easily get sucked into that world. Why wouldn't you?

They are behaving in a human way, but quite a grand, incredible way. So the guy who is feeling insecure because he's losing his job and he thinks his wife is having an affair, he uses the tools he has at his disposal to destroy his own life.

It’s that theme of, in a world where you can have instant immediate access to nearly everything, or in a world in which everything is recorded, how can you live a normal life? Sometimes, we need to forget things to be able to keep sane. All of those themes are playing around. It’s less sinister and more…

Black Mirror
Malachi Kirby stars in "Men Against Fire," one of six new episodes of Black Mirror.
Netflix

Charlie Brooker

We were talking about polarization. As a writer, if you've written something down and published it, it's hard to walk back from that. If you then revise your opinion or you realize you were wrong, that's a bit embarrassing.

Now, literally, we're setting everything down in black and white all the time, our opinions and thoughts on things. It's harder to walk back from, and so you end up maintaining a more polarized position than you possibly even do in reality.

Technology is never the villain in the show, it's always a human frailty or weakness that leads to calamity. We can always fuck up in amazing ways.

Todd VanDerWerff

What is it about humanity that ensures we will keep fucking up, no matter how great our tools?

Charlie Brooker

I should say that [in season three, we're doing six episodes], and there's probably more variety in [season three] than there has been in the previous [two seasons, which were three episodes each]. It's not always about human frailty in these [new] stories.

We're probably the same as we've always been, so I don't know that I could pinpoint a specific human trait that's our downfall. We're just a bit clumsy.

Todd VanDerWerff

Black Mirror’s two past seasons both have jelled very successfully in terms of tone, where you’ll have some big, more satirical take on societal trends like "Fifteen Million Merits" followed by a more intimate story like "The Entire History of You." How do you "program" the seasons, essentially?

Charlie Brooker

Growing up, I was a fan of shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of The Unexpected. We had Hammer House of Horror, and the BBC used to put on these one-off plays that were often quite controversial and high concept.

We felt that was missing from [today’s] television. If you are doing a show where it's a five-season arc, and you've got a cast of characters, I love getting immersed in those shows. But one thing I felt was missing was the freedom to go from a domestic story to a huge hyper-realistic, hyper-bizarre reality like "Fifteen Million Merits."

You want to flex that creative muscle, so that apart from anything else, the viewer doesn’t know what the fuck's going to happen next, because all bets are off.

It's often quite amusing to see when people stumble across the first-ever episode, and they watch that. They don't know it's an anthology show, and it ends and they go, "What is going to happen next week?" Then they go into "Fifteen Million Merits," and they're like, "Oh, there's no continuity,"

We want each story to be as idiosyncratic and bizarre, as exciting and fantastical as possible. For the directors coming in, and the cast, it means they have a lot more freedom than they would in episodic television to forge something completely new each time.

Todd VanDerWerff

One of the reasons those anthologies took off in the ‘50s is that there were still studio backlots that people could utilize to film a whole bunch of different types of stories. Producers rarely have that kind of access now, so I’m wondering what the challenges are of doing an anthology on a reasonable budget are in the year 2016.

Annabel Jones

We don't just use the word "films" to sound like wankers.

Charlie Brooker

Although we do that too.

Annabel Jones

They are run like six separate films. They are all totally separate crew, directors, directors of photography. They are expensive beasts as a result of that.

Charlie Brooker

And quite a logistic challenge. There's always a point where you are having to spin several plates mentally at the same time. We've got one that is a police procedural that's feature length, and you're juggling that with a romance that's set in 1987.

Annabel Jones

There are pressure points in the schedule, where all six films are live in various stages of either pre-production or post, and you will happen to be in six different worlds, with six different directors and making them all feel like theirs is the most important film. And theirs is the most important film, because they're all our most important films. You've nurtured them all, and you want them all to be great.

Charlie Brooker

The great thing is, we have the freedom to do almost any story we want, but it also means that every episode both represents the entire season and doesn't represent the entire season at the same time. Especially because this time, we've got a lot more variance. It's quite a challenge to have six completely different stories that are all Black Mirror, whatever that is. It's a flavor, I guess.

Black Mirror
"Playtest" is one of six new episodes of Black Mirror.
Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff

We’ve talked about polarization a couple of times. Do you see a way to get out of this world where we’re increasingly stuck in our own echo chambers?

Charlie Brooker

I wish I knew. I guess someone has to tweak the algorithm, just to expose us to stuff. Before, you didn't have a choice, and you were exposed to whatever was on the nightly news. It was easier to walk back your own opinions. I'm guessing someone has to enter a line of code, or tweak a fraction, or something like that, because it is ultimately dangerous, and limiting.

We had the Brexit vote in the UK, which was pretty shocking to London media wankers like me, who woke up to discover half the country just didn't agree with us. That shouldn't be such a shock. I should be exposed to all those opinions and thoughts on a daily basis. I am the poorer for it.

Annabel Jones

People have always chosen the newspaper that they want to project back what they already think. There's always that pre-selection that goes on. Now, it's just much more cocooned.

Charlie Brooker

There's no cross-contamination. Maybe it should be a legal requirement that every morning you have to put on a VR headset and be exposed to someone screaming at you opinions you hate. But then they are a reasonable person. It turns out they were kind of okay, really.

It’s difficult, because you don't want to subject people to things they don't want. You don’t want to limit freedom of speech. I don't know. It's the great issue of our age.

Todd VanDerWerff

Black Mirror doesn’t really deal with things like artificial intelligence supplanting humanity. Would stories like that be bad for your brand of storytelling, or are you just not that worried about the robot uprising?

Charlie Brooker

I feel like I've seen that. We are more interested in the human experience and the human dilemmas. Which isn't to say that if we came up with the ideal robots supplanting humankind story, we wouldn't embrace it.

I guess that might feel a little like an evil corporation doing something. I think if we were to tackle [AI] as a thing, we'd be focusing on somebody kicking that off by accident, and I don't quite know how we would get there.

We probably should do it. Deliberately, we've been steering away from AI, because it felt like there were quite a few things that were dealing with it. That's not to say we won't do it for one of the other ones that are upcoming.

Black Mirror’s third season debuts on Netflix Friday, October 21.