Is The World Too Dark For Black Mirror? (Or Any Apocalyptic Narrative?)

black mirror season 5 review Striking Vipers
Black Mirror Season 5 ‘Striking Vipers’ (Image – @blackmirror)

In a recent interview, the Black Mirror creator implied that the world wouldn’t be in the mood for a sixth season right now due to the ongoing pandemic. 

The Radio Times interviewed Charlie Brooker and asked him about a potential sixth season of Black Mirror.  He stated the following:

I’ve been busy, doing things. I don’t know what I can say about what I’m doing and not doing.

At the moment, I don’t know what stomach there would be for stories about societies falling apart, so I’m not working away on one of those. I’m sort of keen to revisit my comic skill set, so I’ve been writing scripts aimed at making myself laugh.

On the one hand, if he’s working on scripts that make himself laugh as a way of coping with the ongoing pandemic, more power to him!  We all need a way to cope and if that’s his, I wish him well.  We’re going through a pretty severe global trauma right now – creatives included. 

But if he’s avoiding writing more Black Mirror because he’s thinking about what society needs and that there just won’t be an audience for dark content, I would challenge that assumption.  I don’t think things are quite that simple when it comes to what people need right now.  Our brains are complicated, messy things and it’s not quite that cut and dry. 

First, the episodes likely wouldn’t be put into production until this whole thing winds down a bit so we wouldn’t even see them for many months or even years.  The lock downs will need to be lifted in order to film new material, so the worst of it will have likely passed.  Sure, a lot of us will probably have some PTSD, but the immediate anxiety will have likely subsided and we’ll be working on getting everything back up and running.  The world will not be ‘falling apart.’  At least not due to this.  Just normal ‘falling apart,’ so to speak.

Secondly, apocalyptic narratives have strangely been helpful to a lot of people.  So even if many of us are still traumatized by the time they finally get put into production, many people could use them as a coping mechanism.  That may sound strange and prior to me doing just this very thing, I didn’t think these stories would be helpful either.  But they have been.  Not just for me but for many people around the world.

Traumatic Narratives As a Coping Mechanism

People are binge watching apocalypse themed films and television shows right now.  According to Gulf News, some of the most popular films right now are Contagion, 12 Monkeys, Outbreak, 28 Days Later, Children of Men, and many many more films that center around human survival in a chaotic world.  I’ve been hooked on the HBO show Westworld, which quickly descended into an apocalypse as the season rolled out, and I enjoyed it immensely. 

To be clear; I am not a mental health professional and have no formal training. These are my own musings on this topic. If you are experiencing increased anxiety or depression please reach out to your provider.

That said, a lot of people like myself have been using stories with apocalyptic narratives as a sort of exposure therapy to our current situation.  Watching these things somehow helps.  Going into this mess I honestly thought it’d be the opposite and that I’d want to avoid all things apocalyptic, but I felt a pull towards these types of stories, fired up Netflix, and started watching stuff just to see how it’d hit.  And I felt… better? 

One of the articles about this that I keep going back to as I try to make sense of this is an interview with Christina Scott, a psychology professor at Whittier College, that was conducted by Buzzfeed back at the start of April.

There are two reasons I personally would think we would be looking at movies like Contagion [a film about a global pandemic] right now. One of them is that it almost gives us a sense that reality isn’t that bad. It could be a lot worse, because look what a disaster is going on in this particular movie. […]

And I think the other part of it is, unfortunately, there’s a sense of almost doomsday prepping. People might think in case real life gets worse, this is the only reference point we have — because we don’t have any reference of this ever happening in recent times, in our lifetimes. […]

It’s kind of this happily ever after for adults. Maybe the world is obliterated and our favorite character bit the dust in a tragic, drawn-out scene, but in the end, the world is saved. And I think that’s part of that terror management theory of bringing us some comfort. There’s hope at the end.

Of course, Professor Scott also cautions that, for some, this method of coping could be harmful and you should pay attention to how you process it.

If you’re watching these movies going, ‘Okay, I have to go hoard masks and I have to not talk to anybody and I have to put duct tape on all of my windows,’ yeah, you’re looking at a Hollywood movie as though it were guidelines from the CDC, and that’s probably not good.

Again, consult your provider if you need assistance.  This isn’t for everyone and what works for some of us may not work for you.

When it comes to Black Mirror, I know we typically get endings that can be a bit of a bummer.  So maybe if Brooker only has stories with downer endings in mind, he might feel like he shouldn’t bum us out.  But not every story from Black Mirror is completely depressing.  Both ‘San Junipero’ and ‘Striking Vipers’ end on fairly positive notes.  Apocalyptic narratives can occasionally be uplifting with their resolutions, even on something known for being super dark like Black Mirror.

Also, even if the current stories he has in mind have depressing endings, sometimes that’s not exactly a problem for some of us either.  Westworld wasn’t finished when I was consuming it over the last few months.  It could have very well been depressing as hell, but I still watched it every week even with that risk in mind. 

Additionally, I watched both ‘Shut Up and Dance’ and ‘Playtest’ a few days ago, which are some of the more depressing and upsetting episodes of Black Mirror.  Somehow even with those endings, I experienced a sense of comfort from watching them even though they both ended on incredibly sour notes.  The world fell apart for those characters and stayed fallen apart with no happy ending in sight.

An article on Forbes that featured an interview Dr. Jorge Barraza, Ph.D., a professor in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at the University of Southern California, might explain why even darker endings could provide a sense of comfort.  I referenced in my article on Avengers Endgame Hits Different During The Pandemic (which is a film with a bittersweet ending, depending on what you take away from it)  and I think his analysis on this is relevant here as well.

It is completely natural for people to engage with content that they deem relevant to them or what is going on around them. In these times of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, we want to gain a sense of control. For some, it may also serve as a sort of detachment from the reality that the world is currently facing.

Even if these stories hit close to our current situation or don’t necessarily end on an upbeat note, it’s still possible that they can give us a sense of control and offer a detachment from our current reality.  Sometimes watching fictional characters experience a fictional world falling apart helps take me out of the current world that’s falling apart. 

That’s certainly how it was for me and WestworldI’m going to just quote myself here:

I was fairly worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy what appears to be a season that’s barreling towards some sort of robot apocalypse considering we’re, you know, dealing with a sort of apocalyptic scenario in real life. But somehow that didn’t bother me. Perhaps it’s because the scenarios are fairly different (robots vs. pandemic), or perhaps it’s because the characters are just so enjoyable that I find it easy to lose myself in the story and escape from our reality, even with the dire similarities.

Even way back in March before we officially went on lock down I was confused by my entertainment preferences, but now that I’ve done research for this article and my Avengers: Endgame article, it makes a heck of a lot more sense.  Westworld allowed me to lose myself and detach from our situation.

Writing As a Coping Mechanism

Let’s be clear here: writers are, in fact, people. They are experiencing this pandemic, too, and suffering from the same anxieties and stresses that everyone else is.  Unless someone is contracted with a deadline, they really don’t owe anyone anything right now.  They don’t even owe us something if that something would have an odd apocalyptic therapeutic value to a bunch of people, like Black Mirror would do for a lot of us as I outlined above. 

Like I said, everyone is hurting, content creators included.  I won’t speculate on the deeper state of Brooker’s mental health right now because that feels incredibly intrusive, but I will state that the part of the quote “I’ve been writing scripts aimed at making myself laugh” is something we should respect.  It’s very possible that he’s just not in the mood to explore dark content, and that’s perfectly fine.  

The type of relief that comes from writing varies drastically from person to person.  For some, producing dark content is in and of itself a relief, just like consuming it is for many of us. An article on The Culture Counter outlines the dark themes of Chuck Palahniuk, the author of many dark novels such as Fight Club, and analyzes how those themes could be related to some of the dark things he experienced in his lifetime.

In an interview with Mother Jones magazine, he described writing as “a fantastic coping mechanism. It allows you to express all of your feelings through a different persona, to record and vent the feelings, like in a diary.” If the tragic events in his life had any influence on his writing, it was not in an attempt to shock, but to record.

For others, they need to produce positive content to feel better.  This can be seen all around us right now.  There are events all over social media challenging people to share positive things and uplift one another, whether it’s fictional stories people can enjoy or non-fiction events that could raise people’s spirits.  We even share many of our own positive encounters on our weekly FEELINGS… with The Geekiary episodes.  And in my own writing circles, I’ve seen fluff fic skyrocket, too.

For others – and I’m including myself in this group – the anxiety may be way too immense to put words to a page.  I haven’t written fanfic since January, and I don’t know when I feel I’ll be able to do it again.  Instead of producing content, I’m consuming it and finding relief in that way. 

However, that’s clearly not the case for everyone.  There are Coronavirus and COVID-19 tags on Archives of Our Own, so clearly people are getting something out of directly engaging with the topic.  And, as mentioned, fluff fic is on the rise.  I just haven’t been able to put words to the page, whether they are dark or light in tone.

How is Brooker dealing with the anxiety caused by the pandemic?  I don’t know and, again, it feels intrusive to speculate.  But I hope he’s doing what feels right and whatever contracts he has doesn’t force him into writing something that hurts his mental health.  I wish him well and hope that he can do what he needs to do for himself right now, and when he’s ready to write more Black Mirror he can do so.  There are a lot of fans out there craving more content for it, pandemic or not.  We’re eagerly waiting and ready for more of his stories.

Author: Angel Wilson

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.

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