Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker is flattered that fans of his show are thinking of him whenever they track him down to point out how frightening technology is to them, but he’s getting tired of hearing it. At New York’s Paley Fest over the weekend, he told an audience how Black Mirror has changed his life: “I’m immediately alerted to any horrible development in the world. People email me and tweet me about it, saying ‘This is very Black Mirror!’ Oh, thank you so much!” Whether he likes it or not, his show, an anthology of horror stories about technologically oppressive futures, has emerged as an uncanny symbol of humanity’s headlong leap into a self-devised digital hell.
Brooker was at Paley Fest to share a special sneak preview of “USS Callister,” an episode from Black Mirror’s upcoming fourth season (which still, maddeningly, doesn’t have a release date). He and his actors, with executive producer Anabel Jones, took questions from the audience. But first, a Paley Center executive read a diplomatically worded request that the audience refrain from sharing any details of plot, or posting advance reviews, so “fans not seeing it for several more months” can go in fresh. (That isn’t a firm release date, but it suggests one in early 2018.) With that in mind, and taking into consideration the snippets of footage unveiled in a previously released preview teaser, this is what we’re comfortable saying at the moment.
- There’s some Star Trek-type business afoot in “USS Callister,” but it’s in service of the usual Black Mirror obsessions over privacy, power, and how technology can change the way people relate to each other, both on an individual and a societal basis.
- The cast includes Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Michaela Coel, Billy Magnussen, and Jimmi Simpson.
- This is probably the most technically involved — and potentially pricy — episode that the series has pulled off yet. During the Q&A, Milioti mentioned shooting for a week in the Canary Islands, and Simpson recalled marveling in dropped-jaw awe at the elaborate sets the crew constructed. Explaining his budgeting techniques, Brooker said he’ll pour a lot of money into one or two event episodes, then shoot others on what Jones called “a smaller, more indie” scale. “USS Callister,” he said, “is one of the big ones.”
- It’s a solid, entertaining episode.
Going into more detail would incur the wrath of Netflix the Great and Powerful, which picked up Black Mirror from Britain’s Channel 4 in 2015, producing the show’s third season and the upcoming fourth season. But without spoiling the plot beats of an episode that most people won’t be able to see for months, it’s worth exploring how it heralds a bold, expansive future for a show that’s always nurtured a healthy fear of what comes next. The show is growing more self-assured and daring with every passing year.
The move to Netflix bumped Brooker up to the big leagues. It let his show evolve from a transatlantic curiosity for especially twisted anglophiles into a bona fide cult smash with the zeitgeist in a stranglehold. Some high-profile Emmy wins last month for “San Junipero,” a fan-favorite fantasy of sapphic love in the Cloud, proved to everyone else what viewers knew from the season 3 pilot, which has the British Prime Minister blackmailed into porking a pig on live television. Brooker’s brainchild is major. There’s a strong argument to be made that it’s the defining series of our era.
But the Paley Fest panel wasn’t about the show’s present, it was about what’s to come. Brooker is optimistic about the elastic quality of the anthology format, and its potential for genre-hopping experiments like the “USS Callister” foray into science fiction. He admits he wrote “San Junipero” as “a deliberate attempt to blow up what I thought the show was… They had all been nihilistic and bleak and horrible, and I thought, ‘Fuck that.’ And I saw someone online complaining that we’d Americanize it now that we’d gone to Netflix, and I thought, ‘Okay, fuck you.’ I gave them a happy ending. I was nervous about writing that episode, because it was a different tone. But I realize that that keeps it interesting.”
“San Junipero,” a tender romance between characters played by Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, set in a totally rad virtual 1980s, stood out as much for its willingness to be different as for its excellence. Season 3 also saw Brooker trying his hand at a war picture in the dystopia-inflected tradition of Starship Troopers, in the episode “Men Against Fire.” He’ll continue to expand his repertoire in this new season beyond the longform Trek homage of “USS Callister.”
Some of that episode is surprisingly thorough in its mimicry, going so far as to ape the look of classic TV, with beat-up stock and an aspect ratio to match. The still-unseen episode “Metalhead” goes dystopian and shoots in black and white so utterly drained of life, it could be part of the Satantango Connected Cinematic Universe. An entire universe of storytelling opened up when Brooker realized that the connecting thread of humanity’s relationship to innovation was strong enough to sustain all sorts of tones and genres. “USS Callister” moves more like a blockbuster than any previous Black Mirror episode, and while Brooker’s statement suggests that spending strategy meant smaller budgets for the rest of the season, it does give Netflix a showcase episode. It’s little wonder that the service chose this particular episode for public preview, even though it’s the fourth entry from the new season.
Has Black Mirror also entered the big leagues in terms of resources? That question has a less clear-cut answer. The big outer space effects shots of “USS Callister” look professional-grade, and not even relative to TV’s dinkier standards. But the show hasn’t attracted A-list talent on par with, say, a Fargo. When Q&A moderator Dave Itzkoff asked Brooker whether he had his pick of the litter in terms of casting the new season, Brooker parried with an evasion about how wonderful everyone in “USS Callister” was. (Of course he’d be reluctant to admit it if someone onstage was actually a second or third choice for a role.) Excepting “Arkangel,” in which Jodie Foster directs Rosemarie DeWitt, the new batch of episodes doesn’t boast much star power, at least compared with season 3’s lineup of Bryce Dallas Howard, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Kelly Macdonald.
When I last saw Brooker speak at Vulture Fest a few months ago, he expressed anxiety about a Trump-governed America and looked to the silver lining of “how good it’ll feel once this is all over.” Political matters unsurprisingly came up this weekend as well, though Brooker played it coy about how pointed this new season would go with its commentary. Black Mirror has always preferred to criticize politics on a conceptual level rather than with specificity, denouncing the whole game as a popularity contest (as in “The Waldo Moment,” which sees a blue cartoon bear come dangerously close to winning public office) or a depraved sideshow (see: the beastly bestiality of “The National Anthem”). Though the show comments with rare candor on up-to-the-second issues from the tech sector, Black Mirror has largely remained insulated from specific politics.
Ultimately, this show can only be itself. “USS Callister” does feature a big, shiny Trek homage, but it’s still a Black Mirror entry through and through, full of twists and familiar future-panic anxiety. This hour grapples with the same questions of ability and responsibility — that perilous push and pull between what we can make happen and what we should — that hearken back to Rod Serling’s morality plays on The Twilight Zone. There’s a distinct pleasure in the gradual realization of the metatextual game this episode plays, but once everything’s out in the open, viewers get that cherished sinking feeling that always accompanies Brooker’s dark prophecies of our impending computerized doom.
Altogether, the show about the grim postmodern future awaiting us has, ironically, given us a lot to look forward to. A little bit of air rushed out of the Paley Center when Simpson dropped the bombshell that he considers Black Mirror on par with The Twilight Zone, another show that took full advantage of the anthology format’s infinite capabilities. Simpson effused about Brooker, “He’s not just drawing on all these fears we already have, he’s inventing our new ones. They’re tomorrow’s nightmares.” At least we’ll be able to sleep comfortably for a few more months, while we wait for season 4 to arrive.