By the end of the pandemic, Charlie Brooker had almost run out of murderers.
Like a lot of people, the creator and writer of Black Mirror spent much of the Covid-19 lockdown “hoovering up one true-crime documentary after another.” By the time things returned to something like normal, he’d exhausted his supply of moody, atmospheric six-parters about ghastly killings and had come up with an idea for a new episode of his darkly funny, scarily prescient, and hugely popular Netflix anthology series.
“Loch Henry”—set in moody, atmospheric Scotland—is the second episode of the sixth season of Black Mirror, which returns to screens tomorrow after a four-year break. Inspired by Brooker’s true-crime binge, it’s about the uncomfortable nature of turning atrocities into entertainment. “While you’re watching it, you think, ‘I’m watching some real art here,’” he says. “But you are still there to rubberneck at the scene of a crime.”
If Black Mirror’s success has been predicated on its living up to the promise of the title—a glimpse of our true selves reflected back at us from the glossy surfaces of our smartphones—this season does something different. It turns the camera on itself, and the content machine.
In “Mazey Day,” we meet a young celebrity hounded by the paparazzi in early 2000s Los Angeles (inspired by a documentary Brooker watched about Britney Spears). In “Beyond the Sea,” starring Aaron Paul and Josh Hartnett, a distant astronaut pays the ultimate price for public acclaim. And in “Demon 79”—a blood-drenched horror tale billed as the first “Red Mirror” episode—a smooth-talking politician manipulates the media to spread his message of hate.
“Joan Is Awful,” the standout episode of the new season, follows an ordinary, only moderately awful woman who finds that her real life is being turned into a slick television show starring Salma Hayek offered on “Streamberry”’—a very thinly veiled Netflix analogue. It was partly inspired by The Dropout, the prestige drama about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal. Brooker was struck, watching Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of Holmes, how recent the events being depicted seemed and how weird it must have been for the real people involved. “You had all these celebrities playing people who must be sitting at home watching this,” he says.
The episode is Black Mirror at its acerbic best: nipping at the hand that feeds, skewering the readiness with which people’s lives are turned into content, with or without their permission. “It’s designed to keep the viewer in a state of mesmerized horror,” says the Streamberry CEO at one point in the episode. “It’s great for engagement.”
WIRED: It’s been four years since the last season of Black Mirror. What’s it been like writing a dystopian sci-fi show against an increasingly dystopian backdrop?
Charlie Brooker: I started writing the season during the pandemic, and I think when I started writing it—apart from Zoom, which suddenly everyone was using—it felt a bit like things had plateaued, but obviously the world was going through a tough old dystopian time of it.
Did that make you want to lighten the mood? Or really delve deeper into the darkness?
I started in a way thinking, “Well, I don’t want to write another episode about what I’ve already written lots of episodes about.” One way to stop yourself from doing that is to almost delete from your head the idea of what a Black Mirror episode is and think “fuck it” and start writing something else.
That explains why a few of the stories in the new season barely touch on technology or other traditional Black Mirror topics at all.
We’ve got a mix of what you might call very Black Mirror episodes and ones that are less so, but certainly shaking things up a bit and getting out of the rut. It was easy for me to sit there and think, “I’ve got to do an episode about polarization on social media; I’ve got to do an episode about NFTs.” That was never what the show was intended to do at the start. We weren’t meant to be “this is what’s going on in technology this week.” It was always designed to be a more paranoid and weird and hopefully unique show.
A few episodes in this season seem to turn the show’s lens back on itself. “Joan Is Awful,” in particular, has a lot to say about turning your life into content. Was that inspired by something happening in your own life?
This is not something I consciously sit down and think about; it’s just that the stories that appeal to me seem to often be about … inauthenticity of experience would be one way of describing it.
For writers there’s always this question of to what extent you should turn your life into content. If something really horrible happens to you and you’re in a creative field, there’s this temptation to write about it or make a show about it. There’s a trade-off there, but once it’s done, it’s done, and you can’t really put that genie back in the bottle.
You can’t. It’s celebrity, right? It’s grappling with things that were traditionally the preserve of celebrities: Living a very public life and putting yourself up for judgment is what everyone is potentially wrestling with. There is clearly a human need to be seen and to be recognized. One of my kids is 9 years old, and he asked if he could start a YouTube channel. I didn’t really know what to say to that.
You’re a renowned worrier—are you worried about the existential threat of artificial intelligence?
I mean, yes, in as much as I’m worried about everything else.
But are there AI-specific things on your mind?
I’m annoyed: I wanted to do an episode about an AI standup comedian and I didn’t quite get the story this time and now I sort of feel, “Ah, does that look a bit reactive now rather than pre-emptive?” There’s been stories that we’ve been doing about AI for a long time, I think the first one was probably “Be Right Back,” with Domhnall Gleeson and Hayley Atwell, and he dies and she uses a sort of AI ChatGPT for grieving people to talk to him. In a way that sums it up for me, because he becomes a sort of bland emulation, something that isn’t actually as messy and surprising and strange and crap as the original him. It becomes this weird, watered-down echo.
The worry at the moment is that executives will use it to generate a list of crap ideas that have been mulched together from actual humans’ unpaid ideas: hoovered up off the internet and then mushed together into a mash. Great, I own this IP, now I’ll hire in human writers cheaply to actually make this serviceable, because ChatGPT cannot do that at the moment. That’s certainly a valid concern.
When it comes to the illustration stuff, I’m in two minds, because you can see it’s capable of pumping out imagery that’s really startling. It can emulate the style of existing human beings, and it can synthesize and blend it all together. If I was an illustrator I’d be extremely worried about commissions drying up.
What about its impact beyond creative industries?
What if it goes all Skynet and decides to wipe us out? I remember reading an article that said that will happen in an afternoon, if it’s gonna happen. We’ll wake up one morning and stretch and yawn, and by the time the sun goes down we’ll be sharing the planet with an intelligence that’s 50 billion times as intelligent as us, and then all bets are off as to what it could do. We can’t possibly predict it.
But maybe if these things are built in our own image they’ll just be crippled with anxiety and self-loathing?
That would make them more interesting. But the problem is they’re sort of not. I’ve seen stories about robots that suddenly develop human emotions, and I’ve always avoided that in Black Mirror because I find them hard to relate to.
Maybe I’m a robot, or maybe I’ve got too many emotions, I don’t know. But I always found it not that interesting as a storyline—maybe because I’m selfish and I think, “I don’t care about the fucking robot.” And “Be Right Back” was written as an anti-“robot develops emotion” story. The AI shows up, but it can’t ever quite get there. And it’s not really thinking; it’s not really feeling.
Society’s worries tend to shift over time: AI, climate change, and the threat of nuclear war, which comes up in one of the new episodes. Black Mirror has always been pretty good at predicting what the next thing we should worry about should be. What are you worried about now that we’ll be worrying about in 10 years’ time?
Short term, the thing that worries me is disinformation, misinformation: the unfunny end of that image of the Pope in a puffer jacket that went viral a few weeks ago and turned out to have been generated by an AI. You can obviously see what happens when stuff like that is weaponized, and that’s going to be coming very soon. That’s terrifying, because some of the gatekeepers don’t seem to give a shit or are actively encouraging that.
So that frightens me—what people do when they’re afraid and misinformed. This is depressing isn’t it? That is probably going to be our biggest challenge over the next 10 years. And then beyond that, all the rest of it: climate, nukes, you name it. Keep it light!
But a lot of things you’ve written into Black Mirror have happened—and a lot of things that do happen feel like they could or should have happened in the show. Even something like the Apple Vision Pro is such a dystopian device in many ways.
It’s weird, it’s really weird. One of my instincts when I saw that was like, “Oh my God, that’s so Black Mirror.” We haven’t got anything quite like that in this season—but then that’s because we did it! We did it all years ago. But a lot of the time what I was doing was looking at things and extrapolating, so it’s not that surprising in many ways.
But they’re warnings, right? You make these shows as a warning about not making the thing, and then they go ahead and make the thing.
I don’t know if it’s necessarily about not making the thing. Usually there’s a weak and flawed human in the story to fuck things up rather than it being the technology specifically. We did “Metalhead,” which was about robot AI dogs going around killing people—fair enough, that’s the technology. But in the “Entire History of You,” the memory playback episode, it’s this jealous and insecure husband who fucks up his own life. It’s not generally the fault of the technology within the stories.
I am generally pro-technology. Probably we’re going to have to rely on it if we’re going to survive, so I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily warnings, so much as worries, if you know what I mean. They’re maybe worst-case scenarios. I read a thing—maybe I read it in WIRED—about technology companies having “red teams” who sit around thinking, “How could someone misuse this? We’ve just invented the Apple AirTag, what if somebody stalks somebody with it?” That is often what I’m doing.
Invariably, they’ll just decide to release it anyway!
That’s the thing I find scary. Well OK, disrupt away, and just unleash the hounds and … “Oh shit, oh dear, we’ve killed everyone.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.