The Black Mirror creator, who knows something about dystopias, discusses the cognitive dissonance of this "boring apocalypse" and the continued importance of satire.
Charlie Brooker may have been more prepared than most for the coronavirus and the subsequent global lockdown.
The creator of the hit sci-fi show Black Mirror has been thinking about dystopias for at least a decade, creating worst-case scenarios for each episode. Originally produced by Channel 4 in Britain, the show moved to Netflix in 2013 and continued to offer warnings — albeit with a bigger budget — on the dangers of technology in the age of late capitalism.
This is perhaps why he saw the signs before many of us: When Wuhan, China, went into lockdown in February, Brooker, 49, knew the virus would reach Britain. "People were looking at me like I was mad because I was going, 'Well, we'll probably have to shut everything down,' " he said in a recent interview.
Brooker is also well known in Britain as a TV presenter, fronting a series of satirical news shows, Wipe, which cut together real news clips with withering commentary to skewer the government, the media and the public. The show returned to the BBC for a pandemic edition, Antiviral Wipe, this month. In the 45-minute show, Brooker sat on a couch in his living room or behind a cardboard desk and described Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a "mega Womble" and a "downbeat Santa." Behind the scenes, his wife did hair and makeup and operated the iPad teleprompter using a PlayStation controller.
In a conversation over Zoom this week, Brooker discussed the complications of making a TV show in lockdown, the future of dystopian storytelling, and how the pandemic reminds him of the threat of nuclear war in the 1980s. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How did doing a "life under pandemic" special come about?
A: The BBC said, "Will you do a Wipe show?" And I said no. Because as soon as I stopped doing them, I didn't miss them at all. And so we were exploring other things we could do, and with all the restrictions, it became apparent the Wipe format was sort of ideal.
Q: How do you even make a TV show under lockdown?
A: We used more writers than usual, because we knew all these writers were sitting around waiting for stuff to do. So we had lots of long Zoom calls with lots of people, which almost started out like a therapy session.
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It was surprising how well a lot of that worked, actually. You didn't have to commute and it was a little more humane, because normally when we're doing an edit, you'd often end up there until 3am for weeks on end.
Q: In the special, you said there's been more unity in Britain than you expected, and less looting — so far, at least. Has anything else surprised you?
A: This might be an idiot talking in the very low foothills of the crisis, but it feels like we've got a common purpose for the first time in five years.
It's the most, on some levels, boring apocalypse you could imagine. You'd never think it was possible to get bored in the middle of a pandemic, but it turns out it really is. And so there's a cognitive dissonance between how quiet it can be versus how alarming it is.
It reminded me of growing up in the 1980s and thinking I was probably going to get annihilated in a nuclear missile strike. But I grew up in a small village and I'd walk around, and birds were singing and people were walking their dogs. The disconnect between the internal angst and terror I had, versus the bucolic English countryside, was constantly jarring to me. It's informed a lot of the stuff that I write and my sense of humour.
Q: Maybe this pandemic wouldn't make for a good Black Mirror episode, because everything is so hidden away.
A: It's very slow and it's very quiet. I do think, though, that if you were to write now about society collapsing in five minutes after the pandemic breaks out, that cliché dog-eat-dog scenario, people would reject it. That would look like a falsehood and people would say, "Well, that wasn't my experience of what went on."
Q: Is there going to be a Black Mirror Season 6?
A: I'm not allowed to say. I have been keeping busy. I've been writing.
Q: Is it harder to write satire or dystopian worlds now that the reality feels so surreal?
A: If you look at the film Dr. Strangelove, which was made in 1964, a period of time where nuclear extinction looked like a real possibility, that's the darkest of satire, depicting an unfolding dystopia that people were in. So I don't know that there isn't an appetite for that sort of thing.
In a way, lots of comedy shows are dystopian because it's a humour in which the worst thing is constantly happening, even on the small scale, even if it's like, "Oh, no, I hope my housemates don't walk in and catch me doing this embarrassing thing." Sure enough, they will. It must be a way of your brain expressing itself in some way, and obviously in the midst of all this, there are a lot of worried brains around.
Q: Talking of worried brains, I was struck by something Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science reporter for The New York Times, said: Now that the virus is everywhere and "there's nothing left to warn against," he can finally sleep at night.
A: I totally recognize that feeling, because, although I wasn't specifically concerned about a pandemic, I'm generally super vigilant about a threat, and I think that's partly growing up in the '80s. There was a reaction I had when 9/11 happened: On some level, it was a similar sort of "Now everyone is worried about terrible things happening, I can take the day off." I don't know how common that is to anxiety in general.
If you're walking around expecting a trap door to open and the world to completely be destroyed any minute, when that sort of happens, there is a sense of — relief isn't the right word, but there is a sense of something lifted. Of course, I'm starting to find new things to really panic about.
Q: Is there anything you feel positive about?
A: When you look at the human behavior that's going on at the moment, it's something that could be seized in the right way. After the Second World War, we created the National Health Service because the public was ready. In the wake of this, it should be possible to galvanise people.
So is this the final element of a perfect storm that's been brewing for years, or is it something that will sweep some of that away? Is it going to be Trump's undoing? I don't know. Could go either way.
Q: How has lockdown been treating you otherwise?
A: Well I fell off a pullup bar that was in a doorway. Smashed my head really badly, and I was concussed for a week. I didn't go to the hospital and instead called a friend who used to be a doctor who did some triage over the phone.
And I've been running every day, but I haven't had this many snacks in years. I think the running is on a level pegging with the snacking.
Written by: Eleanor Stanford
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