Today, something a little bit different. For the tenth anniversary of Black Mirror’s first episode, I’ve dug this out of the archive and dusted it off a bit – it wasn’t written for this website originally, as will probably quickly become clear, but I think it still stands up reasonably well.
If there is one thing that defines Black Mirror, it is clarity of vision. The series – loosely a speculative fiction anthology, though originally commissioned by Channel 4’s comedy department – is the brainchild of screenwriter, satirist, and former journalist Charlie Brooker, who, as showrunner, is involved in every aspect of making Black Mirror. Notions of auteurism can, of course, serve to obscure the contributions of Brooker’s collaborators: most obviously Annabel Jones, who has executive produced every episode of the series alongside Brooker, but also occasional co-writer William Bridges, the director of each given episode (particularly after Black Mirror moved to Netflix, and higher-profile creatives began to work on the series), and so on and so forth. Indeed, Brooker himself has been dismissive of the idea that Black Mirror can be understood as his work alone, charging viewers to “never trust anyone” who “discusses a film or TV show as though it’s the work of one individual”, describing each instalment as “the product of months of heavy lifting by literally hundreds of people” (Brooker, 2017, p. 12).
Nonetheless, it is difficult to reduce the show from Brooker’s perspective, and his particular creative vision: though the realisation of his ideas is the work of a dedicated production team, the starting point is always, per Annabel Jones, Brooker “writing all of the scripts and [coming] up with all of the ideas” (Strause, 2017). Of course, Black Mirror is something of an idiosyncratic production, and the specifics of its development illustrate how Brooker came to be an unusually influential showrunner. Up until relatively recently, the ‘showrunner’ role was a largely American affect: the term was first coined by industry magazine Variety to refer to one particularly influential producer (Hong, 2011); it was later understood primarily in terms of Davids Chase, Milch, and Simon, three contemporaries of one another at HBO in the late 90s and early 2000s (Gilbert, 2014); the role was strengthened following strike action by the Writers Guild of America in 2007 (Collins, 2007). Across the past decade, a similar position of near-ultimate authority has been carved out in British television (Royal Television Society, 2015), with Brooker’s role on Black Mirror arguably an early antecedent of that. Even before Black Mirror’s move to Netflix (an ostensibly-international-but-functionally-American platform, much of its programming the domain of influential showrunners), Brooker was acting in such a capacity, largely because of the anthology’s comedy roots. “There’s a culturally different approach in drama, compared to comedy,” explained Shane Allen, the former Channel 4 executive who first commissioned Black Mirror. “In comedy, the writer is king or queen and is usually the creative centre of gravity […] Charlie and Annabel have always been showrunners in the US sense rather than the UK series-producer sense, in that they are the key creative influence on the show” (Arnopp, et al., 2017, p. 17).
Black Mirror, in short, always afforded its creators a somewhat unusual (for British television, at least) degree of freedom to express their artistic vision; it is a product of and articulates Charlie Brooker’s worldview first and foremost. This is what lends the series that aforementioned clarity – “what Black Mirror is” feels, if not sharply defined (a key part of the series is its unpredictability, after all), then at least easy to characterise. It is a series about the digital age, and the underlying tensions and anxieties that animate it; as Angela M. Cirucci and Barry Vacker (2020, p. ix) argue, “Black Mirror expresses the philosophical angst and technological fears for millennials in the twenty-first century”. That is not to say Black Mirror is a show about technology, exactly. One oft-repeated joke about/criticism of Black Mirror, widespread to the point Brooker acknowledged it (Strause, 2019), summarises the series as “what if phones, but too much?” (Lavery, 2015). The joke is funny, if imprecise, obscuring the aims of the series somewhat; certainly, Brooker refutes the idea that Black Mirror is “a show warning about the dangers of technology”, suggesting such a reading is “like saying [Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic] Psycho is a movie warning about the dangers of silverware” (Arnopp, et al., 2017, p. 321). Instead, Black Mirror is not so much about the excesses of technology, but rather how such developments might expose and exacerbate underlying flaws in the human condition. Put another way, Black Mirror does not try to predict the car; rather, it aspires to be about the traffic jam.
Such aims are easily contextualised, situating Black Mirror within a lengthy tradition of speculative fiction. The most obvious antecedent for the series – and, per Brooker (2011), an explicit influence – was Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, an anthology drama broadcast in America from 1959 to 1964. Serling, a dramatist whose television career began in 1955, was “a liberal whose moral convictions influenced the tales he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell them” (Murray, 2016, p. 97), but often faced interference from television’s corporate financiers. On one occasion, Serling wrote a script that alluded to the lynching of Emmett Till; “at the behest of the sponsor […] all references to racism in the South were generally expunged”, leaving Serling with the sense he was “striking out at a social evil with a feather duster” (Murray, 2016, p. 96). He later remarked that “drama, at least in television, must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state” in the American South (Murray, 2016, p. 96). His solution was The Twilight Zone, where his more controversial themes were shrouded in a cloak of ambiguity and metaphor: use of allegory and science fiction liberated Serling from corporate and network interference, allowing him to articulate striking political and moral ideas about McCarthyism, nuclear proliferation, racism, capitalism, and more that he otherwise would have been prevented from writing. “A Martian,” as Serling observed, “can say things that a Republican or Democrat can’t.” (Murray, 2016, p. 97).
When developing Black Mirror, Brooker and Jones explicitly positioned their series within the same mould as Serling’s: one pitch document read “just as The Twilight Zone would talk about McCarthyism, we’re going to talk about Apple” (Arnopp, et al., 2017, p. 17). Critics have drawn parallels between the two series, arguing that both “confront the existential conditions of modern technological civilisation” (Cirucci & Vacker, 2020, p. vii), and noting that “episodes of The Twilight Zone are as intimately connected to the Cold War as Black Mirror is to the first decades of the twenty-first century” (McSweeney & Joy, 2019, p. 3). Though Brooker and Jones did not face the same overt censorship as Serling (who, in another similarity, is often understood as essentially being one of television’s earliest showrunners (Gilbert, 2014)), their efforts to channel the zeitgeist and dramatise the fears of the day are done under the same guise: Black Mirror deploys the same allegorical techniques to represent “where not just the worst tendencies of our society will or might take us, but where the dominant tendencies already have taken us” (Sculos, 2017, p. 6). As a result, then, Black Mirror is a lens to understand digital society and culture because that is explicitly how it positions itself. If the production can be characterised by the clarity of Brooker’s vision, it matters where he sets his sights: the digital monsters of an analogue world that is dying and an electronic world that struggles to be born.
Various themes recur across Black Mirror: surveillance culture (The Entire History of You, White Bear); artificial intelligence (Be Right Back, White Christmas); virtual reality (San Junipero, USS Callister); Big Data and algorithms (Smithereens, Hang the DJ); so on and so forth. However, it is not strictly accurate to say that Black Mirror articulates these themes through “the lens of tomorrow” (Cirucci & Vacker, 2020, p. 12). Again, the series must be understood as an expression of Charlie Brooker’s vision first and foremost: this is not a neutral depiction of digital culture, but one filtered through the perspective of a particular individual. (What else would a black mirror reflect but its creator?) That aforementioned clarity of vision seems less like a virtue, and more like a fundamental limitation – everything that makes Black Mirror discerning can also make it myopic.
Certainly, that Brooker self-describes as “not very political most of the time” is revealing, albeit perhaps not in the way it was intended (Brooker, 2016). This bleeds into Black Mirror, which has been criticised for taking an “irksomely non-materialist” (Sandifer, 2015) perspective in its approach to digital culture – for example, Gerry Canavan (2019, p. 260) suggested that the fourth season episode Black Museum displayed a “shocking […] level of optimism about the possibilities for liberal reformism to successfully manage the challenge of emerging” technologies. Canavan considered this unusual for the series, but his is far from the only criticism of Black Mirror’s liberalism; indeed, others have gone further, highlighting not just an individual episode but damning the entire series as “shambling around like the liberal consensus is going to save us from itself” (Sandifer, 2015).
What is particularly striking, though, is the journey Booker has taken in the years since Black Mirror’s debut in 2011. It is helpful here to contextualise Black Mirror within Brooker’s wider satirical and comedic career here – as noted earlier, Black Mirror was first commissioned as a dark comedy, and structurally often still resembles a comedy. (Donavan Conley and Benjamin Burroughs (2019, pp. 139-140) wrote extensively about Black Mirror’s signature “narrative bait-and-switch” technique, which they dubbed a “traumatic twist” apparently without realising they were in effect describing a punchline.) As a satirist, Brooker positioned himself as “an angry outsider” (Jacques, 2020), though the contradiction between the exasperated iconoclast and his mainstream broadcast slot was always lurking in subtext. Even James Brassett – who mounted a committed if unconvincing defence of Brooker’s supposed capacity for radicalism without noticing any incongruity between that and his “place within the acceptable mainstream of British society: BBC programmes [and] Guardian columns” (Brassett, 2016, p. 169) – was forced to concede that Brooker was not an outsider by any stretch. A white, middle-class centrist, Brooker’s work failed to escape “class and racial hierarchies”, and he himself occupied “an increasingly privileged position within (mediatised) British society” the more successful he became (Brassett, 2016, p. 187).
The most obvious marker of this success is Black Mirror’s move to Netflix. While broadcast rights were initially with Channel 4, negotiations broke down with the publicly owned network ahead of the third season of Black Mirror; the streaming service Netflix, who held the international rights to the series, made a bid to fund production of a subsequent two seasons upfront. The angry outsider is now, plainly, an insider, and the changes in his output can be easily observed. Consider Smithereens, part of Black Mirror’s third season on Netflix, which is conspicuous for its remarkably credulous depiction of the type of person Brooker (2014) once condemned as “evil” and “sinister”. Smithereens suggests the problem with tech CEO Billy Bauer is that his product is too addictive, exposing the limits of Brooker’s increasingly apolitical, non-materialist approach; Bauer’s real-life counterpart, Jack Dorsey, is more often criticised for his wilful negligence in allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to use his platform Twitter freely and without censor (Levin, 2019).
Moving to Netflix does not just represent diegetic narrative changes, however; it has also shifted Black Mirror’s vantage point, the series now no longer a lens to understand digital culture but in fact a piece of digital culture, as illustrated by the 2018 interactive special Bandersnatch. Much of the writing about Bandersnatch focuses on its thematic content, what it says about free will, surveillance, and simulationism – each an interesting line of thought in their own right, albeit ones that obscure the real significance of Bandersnatch. Netflix, Jesse Damiani (2019) argues, “has been a data company longer than it has been a content producer” – and Bandersnatch represents both an evolution and an escalation of that practice. Even “seemingly inconsequential” choices offer Netflix “valuable advertising insight” – the interactive film is “a new form of data mining that has the capability of […] collecting data indicative of real-time decisions, such as musical taste, product preference, and engagement with human behaviour” (Elnahla, 2020, pp. 508-509). Little transparency is offered by Netflix to subscribers over how their data is used, what exactly is collected, or whether third parties are given access. These are exactly the sort of opaque data practices Black Mirror would once have warned against – notably, Netflix was one of the corporations that Brooker (2014) described as “evil” for their “sinister mass manipulation” of user data – yet now Black Mirror is an active participant in the datafication of consumer culture. How different is Black Mirror from the technology it depicts?
Bandersnatch was not Brooker’s idea. The interactive storytelling format was pitched to him by Todd Yellin, Vice President of Product at Netflix (a role largely dedicated to leveraging vast amounts of data) – though Brooker initially turned Yellin down, some weeks later he relented. While Brooker wrote a labyrinthine script for Bandersnatch, Netflix developed new – and proprietary – data mining algorithms to accompany it (Strause, 2018). A little over a year and a half later, Brooker and Jones signed a “landmark deal” with Netflix, which saw the streamer invest heavily in their new production company Broke and Bones, with the option to subsequently buy it outright as well. If that option is acted upon, Netflix would hold exclusive rights to any future “series and interactive projects” (emphasis added) the pair might work on (Cremona, 2020). Their first Broke and Bones production for the platform, Death to 2020, imitated the format of Brooker’s previous BBC Screenwipe projects; it contained integrated advertising for Netflix properties such as The Crown, Tiger King, and Floor is Lava (Kanter, 2020).
More than anything else, ironically, this commodification and neutralisation of Black Mirror recalls the first script Brooker wrote for the series: Fifteen Million Merits. This early instalment of the series offers an exaggerated yet compelling caricature of capitalism, depicting a world organised around a television talent show; the main character, Bing, uses the show as a platform for an incendiary critique of society. He threatens suicide – but is offered a regular broadcasting slot of his own. Bing accepts, his radicalism subsumed within the entertainment industry. Brooker has joked that this is broadly autobiographical, comparing Bing’s show “where he rants and raves and there’s no point to it” to his own (Arnopp, et al., 2017, p. 66) – yet it bears a genuine resemblance to Black Mirror, too, foreshadowing the move to Netflix. At Channel 4, Black Mirror satirised digital culture; at Netflix, Black Mirror doesn’t just celebrate big corporations in episodes like Smithereens, where unrepentant surveillance saves the day, but does their data-mining work for them too. One struggles to imagine what, exactly, Rod Serling might have done had The Twilight Zone been co-opted the same way.
Ultimately, it is this that makes Black Mirror such an apt lens to understand digital culture and society. Yes, its thematic content is often an engaging avenue to approach the anxieties and fears that define the new digital Anthropocene – but so might any given piece of speculative fiction. Black Mirror, after all, has inspired plenty of imitators, from Electric Dreams (2018) to Soulmates (2020) to a rebooted version of The Twilight Zone (2019). These are often quite compelling themselves, occasionally moreso than a given episode of Black Mirror; Kill All Others, an episode of Electric Dreams written and directed by Dee Rees, is in some ways a more substantive take on spectacle and hyperreality than Black Mirror has offered. But it is not Black Mirror’s diegetic narratives that make it such a potent way to understand digital culture – rather, it is the narrative of its production, and Black Mirror’s gradual transformation from observing, chronicling, and satirising digital culture to becoming an active tool in some of its worst contemporary excesses.
The full bibliography for this article, with details on each piece cited, can be found on the next page.