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For the upcoming season of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker decided to beam himself up to space.
“The episode came about when we were on set the previous season,” the creator and executive producer tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The idea came up in conversation and it struck us. We hadn’t done a space epic before and we thought, how would that work in the Black Mirror universe? What sort of tone would it have? We ended up in this strange place.”
The result is a 74-minute cinematic journey with “USS Callister.” The episode, one of six in the fourth season of the Netflix techno-paranoia anthology, was screened for a small audience at The Paley Center for Media’s annual PaleyFest New York on Friday night. The cast joined Brooker and executive producer Annabel Jones for a spoiler-filled chat after the screening, but since going into the episode knowing nothing is all of the fun, THR won’t be spoiling anything here.
Brooker is known for crafting his episodes with shock-twists, including last season’s Emmy-winning “San Junipero” episode, which had the series’ first happy ending. “USS Callister” stars Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson and Michaela Coel, and is directed by Toby Haynes. Ahead of the screening, the season four episode titles, main cast and director names were all that had been officially released by the tight-lipped creator.
— Paley Center (@paleycenter) October 7, 2017
Similar to “San Junipero,” Jones says “USS Callister” is also a departure from past Black Mirror episodes because it’s cinematic. “This one is a big feat, visually,” she tells THR of shooting in both the U.K. and Spain’s Canary Islands. “It’s still a very personal story about Jesse’s character, but to do it properly, you have to have this big epic. So that’s a bit of a shift. I don’t think we’ve done anything like it.”
When speaking to THR this summer, the pair said their biggest goal with the upcoming season was to not repeat themselves and maintain the show’s unpredictability factor. Now that they’ve finished, Brooker says they achieved their goal. “I’m pleased that we have episodes that are unlike any ones we’ve done before,” he says of the season, which includes a Jodie Foster-directed episode that Jones has likened to being an indie film. “There’s ones that people will love, ones that people will hate. No two people will agree and in that respect, it’s traditional Black Mirror.“
When Netflix released a video teaser of the new episodes (the season is now streaming on Netflix), fans were quick to point out the Star Trek feel of the spaceship and fleet uniforms in “USS Callister.” Of paying homage to the TV classic, Brooker says, “I used to be terrified in Star Trek, of the face of Balok, the scary alien face that used to show up in the end credits. It used to chill me to the core as a child.”
Without giving away any plot details, Jones describes the episode as being about “tyranny and abuse of power.” Brooker clarified, however, that even though he wrote the episode right around Trump’s election as president, the story isn’t “explicitly about anything political in the real world.” Still, he says, “all of that real world stuff tends to seep in.”
Brooker, who brought his anthology to Netflix from the BBC, has a history of telling prescient stories. Many of his ideas — from apps to VR to personal tracking technologies — seemed far-fetched when he wrote them, but have ended up making headlines for being in development. Most recently, Apple’s new iPhone X even conjured up the series’ infamous season two episode “The Waldo Moment,” which also foreshadowed the rise of Trump. “I’m in the wrong game,” says Brooker of Apple’s similar Face ID feature. “I should be on that stage having bank notes fired at me.” His one wish? That people who created technology “would worry more.”
Since the show is an anthology with a rotating cast, all of the stars are new to the series except for one. Coel played a small but intricate part in Bryce Dallas Howard’s episode “Nosedive” last season and is one of only a few stars who has appeared in more than one episode. Thanks to Brooker opening them up to his world, they all said they walked away from set with newfound technology fears.
“I don’t have Facebook or any social media, so I’ve always been somewhat wary and then this show just preys on those concerns,” Plemons tells THR. The Friday Night Lights and Fargo star says he grew up watching Westerns, not Star Trek, and wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting into when he first got the script. “The first scene really confused me. It just seemed like a weird, knock-off Star Trek. I put it down and then watched the entire first season in a couple of days and when I picked the script back up and got to the second scene, I immediately got it and was completely in after that.”
Though Brooker wrote the episode before the election, they began filming in January, marking the return to work for many of the cast after the election. “The episode made me think about Trump, in a ‘we rise’ kind of way,” Milioti tells THR of the darkly comedic story. “It’s similar to ‘Nosedive’ in having that horrible anxious feeling. I remember having those feelings while reading and filming it.”
Simpson echoes that the episode is “about control, power, what you do when you have it and how wanting that so badly often turns things around.” Comparing it to the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last,” the Westworld star explains to THR, “It was about a man who wants everyone to go away so he can read, and finds out a bomb happened while he’s underground reading. He comes out and everyone’s gone, and he gets to read. But it’s like, is this what you really wanted? Then multiply that by seven, so it’s Brooker-worthy.”
During the panel, Brooker did confirm one burning question when talking about “San Junipero.” He has said that he and Jones are open to revisiting aspects of the episode in the future, though he’d like to leave the main characters Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in tact. “I think we almost might do it in a completely different form if we were doing a sequel,” he previously told THR.
That story, however, won’t be arriving this season. “We are not doing a San Junipero sequel because we want to keep Kelly and Yorkie there,” he said on the panel of the six new episodes. Then adding to a big audience laugh: “And fuck anyone who says it’s not a happy ending!”
The episode proved to be divisive among the Black Mirror audience, who were skeptical that the joyous ending could be true until Brooker himself confirmed it. Recalling another hard-to-believe moment from the first season — when a prime minister is tasked with having sex with a pig on live television in “National Anthem” — Brooker threw out a fun fact to the crowd about the moment that has come to be known as pig-gate among those clued into the Black Mirror universe.
When pitching the show, Brooker was asked by executives if the animal had to be a pig. “I suggested a frozen supermarket chicken, but it wasn’t the same,” he said.
The fourth season of Black Mirror releases late 2017 on Netflix.
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