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Now that your mind has been blown by six different flavors of dystopian future-shock, get at least a few answers to your burning questions. Below we interviewed Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker about each episode of the terrific fourth season of his Netflix series. Note: Spoilers abound, and most of these answers have been previously published in separate stories.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: “USS Callister.” When we last spoke, you hinted that a certain other piece of material inspired “USS Callister” beyond Star Trek. I’m wondering if it was the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”?
CHARLIE BROOKER: You may well be right! We were on the set of an episode from last season, “Playtest,” and we were talking about virtual reality and video games, and the conversation went to, “Well, you could be the king of the castle in there, you could have an evil emperor or tyrant.” Which reminded me of that episode, a story they revisited again in The Twilight Zone movie. I watched the episode again not that long ago and it’s still utterly terrifying. It’s like a depiction of what it must be like living under King Joffrey. You’ve got to watch your step. That was the starting point. What if we do a story about an all-powerful tyrant who cast himself as the hero?
There’s a lot to metaphorically unpack in this episode: Workplace sexual harassment, criticism of classic science-fiction tropes, white men who long for the entitlements of yesteryear, and even possibly a critique of our current president. What were you trying to say with this one?
It was written in November last year, so certainly when we came to film it in January 2017, it was around the time of the inauguration. There was a certain mood among a lot of the cast that we were dealing with a new regime coming in. That’s an aspect of it. It’s not where the idea came from. But as soon as you get into the workplace stuff, forcing people [into the virtual prison] for what he perceives as slights in the workplace, that then gets to a whole other level of stuff. So often with our episodes, really, there’s not a central message or certain thing we’re trying to evoke, but it comes out alongside of that. Certainly, a lot of those things resonate in that episode, but it’s not directly about any one of those things. Really “USS Callister” is about someone who is wielding absolute power who shouldn’t be, and people overthrowing him.
“Arkangel.” Should we take this as a critique of helicopter parenting?
Helicopter parenting is something I have a great deal of sympathy for because I’m probably quite a helicopter parent myself. My kids are 3 and 5 years old and I worry about them constantly. Rather than a critique, it’s sympathetic. I’ve walked out of the room when they’re watching something on YouTube and the algorithm plays video after video, and I walk in and my 5-year-old is watching a trailer for The Thing and I was a bit concerned by that. I have sympathy for the parental need to protect so certainly that’s where it comes from — hopefully Marie’s motivations are understandable throughout even though she does become more and more interfering, you can see why.
You said previously that Jodie Foster changed some things from your original script. What was changed?
She had lots of thoughts about Marie’s relationship with her father. She beefed up the role with the father; that role wasn’t really in there. It was very slight before. She thought we should say something about Marie’s relationship with men, generally, so the brittle relationship she has with her father — he’s kind of a tough character — she added that in there. She also had a lot of observations about how the technology would work. Also, Marie’s motivations to do something about Sara’s relationship with [her boyfriend], and that there would be a great sense of protection and a sort of sense of anger in a way because she’s sacrificed a lot of things to bring up her daughter. There’s a flare of anger in there that isn’t just to do with protection, there’s something else going on there. She had thoughts across the board but those were ones that occur to me right now.
I was surprised at the level of violence in her attack on her mom. Was there some discussion of how many whacks mom deserved?
Well, yeah, weirdly. Because it’s seeing the sensor from her point of view, there had to be a certain number of whacks so you the viewer understood what was going on as well. You also needed enough to knock her unconscious. And just on a pragmatic level, it needed to be more than a couple because she’s not really aware of what she’s doing fully until the system shuts itself off again. I think we did dial it back, actually. There was quite a few extra whacks in there. There was more that you saw in a longshot that weirdly felt more brutal.
“Crocodile.” This was a nasty piece of work with great performances. What was the inspiration for choosing the Icelandic setting?
CHARLIE BROOKER: Originally, the first draft of the script said “Scotland” and then I think Netflix actually suggested Iceland as a stunning backdrop and we went, “Yeah okay! That sounds good.” Actually, the night we shot the accident with the pizza truck, they had their biggest snowfall in 40 years. So we got around a continuity problem by having a character say they think it’s starting to snow at some point. Nobody’s noticed, but it got us around a massive problem because suddenly there was a snowfall after we turned the cameras the other way.
As an American, I have to say the automated pizza truck is the best Black Mirror innovation ever.
I like to think that it must make your pizza in the truck.
That’s what I was assuming. It’s like a traditional food truck, except fully automated. And I love that even your pizza truck isn’t entirely benign technology — it still manages to take out a pedestrian here and there.
Yeah. You order the pizza using an app, and it comes and finds you like an Uber. There was another sequence with the truck in it — it’s the same pizza company that comes and delivers a pizza in “USS Callister,” if you’re eagle-eyed. Because once we’ve named a company it’s easier to just re-use it. We had lots of debates about the design and look of that truck, but I think they did a really good job creating it.
About the ending: How would they get the hamster* to recall a specific memory — in this case, a murder — and not just keep showing them images of food pellets and shavings?
Now there is a good question. I think they would do what we saw Kiran character doing throughout the episode where she uses odors and sounds to evoke memories.
I so want to see a trial where a hamster is the star witness.
[Laughs] That was the darkest twist. That was one where I was going, “I don’t know if I’m going to get away with this.”
“Hang the DJ.” I absolutely loved this episode. My co-worker was obsessed with wondering: How did you decide on “5 years” as being the right amount of time for a possible relationship to tease our lovestruck hero with before the app started re-calculating?
We did have a conversation about that, actually. We figured it was long enough so you’d think that it’s not devastating news, but it’s not forever. He does react like he’s disappointed but not reassured. Five years is long enough so you might think, “Maybe we’re going to drift apart.” Because we realized it couldn’t be infinity, so he knows she’s not going to be his ultimate match. Five years seemed like you’d go, “Okay that’s a reasonable amount of time for a serious relationship, a serious bond.”
Like “San Junipero,” “Hang the DJ” is emotionally a very happy ending yet intellectually perhaps less so since the superiority of technology triumphs again. What should we take from that final moment?
I think it’s a very happy moment and I think Tim did a brilliant job of directing it, and Georgina and Joe did a fantastic part playing that final scene. They know they are destined to have a very serious relationship and they’re each others’ chosen ones and I think they go through a gamut of emotions. You see them finding it exciting and taking on the weight of it, and then you see Georgina quite playfully just steps toward him at the very end. I hope the takeaway is that it’s playful and hopeful. So though there’s an algorithm that brought them together, and now they’re about to take the first step on that journey together.
If they didn’t rebel at the end, what would our simulated couple have experienced instead?
That is a very good question! Now we do see at the end, [the app] runs it 1,000 times and two didn’t rebel. So I would think they would be matched with a random other person and their world would end. We did have a lot of torturous conversations about what’s really going on. We decided it’s a cloud-based system that’s simulating 1,000 different run-throughs of yourself and a potential partner to see how many times you’d rebel against it. And it deliberately is setting a tight framework. And if they do rebel, that means they’re destined to be together. So if you don’t rebel, the system has served its purpose and your reality ends.
“Metalhead.” Also loved this episode. It’s inspired I assume by those Boston Dynamics videos on YouTube crossed with Night of the Living Dead?
CHARLIE BROOKER: That’s actually scarily correct. It was from watching Boston Dynamics videos, but crossed with — have you seen the film All Is Lost? I wanted to do a story where there was almost no dialogue. And with those videos, there’s something very creepy watching them where they get knocked over, and they look sort of pathetic laying there, but then they slowly manage to get back up.
You never filled in questions such as: How did the robots take over? Is anybody controlling them? Did you figure that out and is there any backstory you can share?
We sort of deliberately decided not to flesh out a lot of the backstory. Originally in my first draft, we also showed a human operator operating the dog robot from across the ocean at his house. There was a bit I liked where he leaves the [control unit] while the robot is watching her while she’s up in the tree and he goes and gives his kids a bath. But it felt a bit weird and too on-the-nose. It kind of felt superfluous. We deliberately pared it back and did a very simple story.
Why did you shoot black and white? Was it just to be evocative? Or did it also save on CG costs to render the dog?
That was the director, David Slade. He wanted it to be black and white. Like you say it does put you in mind of old horror movies and it fit with the sparse, pared-back nature of the story. I don’t think it saved money on CG. It felt like something I hadn’t seen before — doing lots of CG in black and white.
In the end, the crate sought by the humans is revealed to contain teddy bears. Why that? Other than the lost humanity and a possible callback to another action-filled episode, “White Bear”?
The bears were actually yellow, but because it was [shot] in black and white, they’re white bears — I was happy with that being a little Easter egg. We went back and forth on what should be in that warehouse. Originally in the script, it just said “toys.” The idea was a box of toys for a dying child. David wanted it to be the only soft and comforting thing that we saw in the entire piece. He wanted it to be something softer and more immediately comforting. So we went for bears. Which is probably just as well because a crate full of fidget spinners would have been ridiculous.
“Black Museum.” You’ve had characters trapped in digital worlds a few times since “White Christmas,” and a couple new ways here. Do you feel that needs to be off the table for next season or do you think that’s a trope you can find new angles on?
It’s tricky because on one hand you always want the show to be surprising. On the other, we were aware that this was fairly close to the kitchen egg in “White Christmas”; it’s a similar tech. But it was so irresistible, this notion of being trapped inside a toy where you only have a couple of emotional responses. I don’t know if I’d ever put anything completely off the table but certainly, we’d be thinking of wilder shores. I’m glad that that episode has a lot of crazy concepts thrown at the viewer very quickly, it’s quite a lot of horrific traps people find themselves in, so it’s quintessential Black Mirror in many ways. But I hope its Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt-feeling comes across.
Yes, it’s got a Stephen King-y vibe. I was convinced the character “Rolo Haynes” must be an anagram for something, but the online anagram decoder told me no.
No! I don’t know where that name came from. We have a type of candy in the U.K., Rolos, I think I probably had some on my desk.
For our complete ranking of all the Black Mirror episodes, head here. Black Mirror is available on Netflix.
*Yes, I now know the pet was, apparently, a guinea pig in “Crocodile,” not a hamster; I apparently don’t know my domesticated suburban Rodentia very well. I deliberately left the text unchanged to maintain the accuracy of our conversation. Besides, “hamster” is funnier.