Non-Fiction Reviews


Inside Black Mirror

(2018) Charlie Brooker & Annabel Jones, Ebury Press, 20, hrdbk, 320pp, ISBN 978-1-529-10258-1

 

Black Mirror is arguably one of the leading, innovative SF television series of the decade (2010 '20) with four seasons broadcast to date (2018) and a fifth due in 2019, this anthology series of quite separate stories is a font of originality. (Season 1 trailer here.)  Indeed, back in January 2011 we (the SF² Concatenation team) cited the show as one of the best televisual offerings of the previous year and the show has been nominated for a number of awards including the Hugo in 2017 and also 2018 (it usually takes a while for the general population of Hugo nominators to catch up with our such as they are insights.  ;-)  )

True, many of the stories are not what some consider out-and-out science fiction: they are not set in the far future or on distant worlds; they are instead for the most part set in either tomorrow or in a possible world that might perhaps exist in a decade or two's time. So nonetheless they really are science fictional even if inspirationally they spring from thepresent day.  They are also dark the 'black' in Black Mirror as well as being a mirror that is a reflective fiction of a future that is, as just mentioned, somehow rooted in our present reality.  In this sense the stories are a little disturbing and thought-provoking, which is no bad thing and which adds to the show's value.

Inside Black Mirror is a guide to the show's creation, its history and its first four seasons. To cut to the chase, non-fiction books about television shows generally tend to fall into one of two camps: either those that are thrown together to capitalise on a show's popularity even if they do contain interesting material, and those that are both useful reference works and genuinely provide a sense of what it really was like (as opposed to a PR vision) behind the scenes.  Inside Black Mirror comes into the latter camp hitting all the right buttons: informative, visually appealing, of reference value and engaging (the reader does feel that the authors and other contributors are speaking to you). In short, this book is not only a 'must have' for the show's fans but also an essential addition to a visual-SF aficionado's bookshelf: it is that good.

So what do you get?

This is a full colour, large format hardback, richly illustrated with stills from the series. So far, so good. But this colour and visual appearance in a very real sense is only the eye-candy that wraps the real treasure of this book that is its text. The authors, the show's executive producers, have in their own words as well as those of the cast and others in the production team, given us a real insight into the show's creation and history. Here, not the nuts and bolts facts but more the thinking behind what went on. The bottom line is that Inside Black Mirror provides the reader with a sound sense of getting an insider view as to the show's gestation and each episode's creation through to delivery. Few non-fiction books on television shows genuinely do this, even if many may perhaps aspire to do so.

The book naturally begins with the show's origins and its original pitch to Channel 4. Here its SF foundations reveal themselves. Charlie Brooker took much of his initial inspiration for the show's territory from The Twilight Zone (the US series) and even viewed that series' box sets by way of research. Annabel Jones came more from a Tales of the Unexpected (the Brit television anthology series), more fantasy, perspective.

The book is divided into the four seasons with each beginning with paragraph-long statements and quips from the (cited) authors and those involved in its production. These are presented in a quasi linked way so that the seasons' introductory pages almost reads like a coherent article: a neat trick that works well.

Following on from each season's introduction are sections on each of the episodes with conversational quotes not only from the show's production team but key members of the cast.

Entering the book's final sections we get a look forward to the future of Black Mirror and the show's forthcoming fifth season.

There are also two interesting and/or useful appendices. The first is something of a quirky addition you do not normally see in non-fiction books about television series and that is a checklist of other series, books, films , music and games that influenced Black Mirror, or more likely influenced Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones creative thinking. Here it has to be said that SF novels barely get a look in, but the films and TV series are virtually a fantastic-genres aficionado's desert island wish list. (Here there is the occasional humour. For example the listing Game of Thronesis captioned "little-known fantasy show".)  The final appendix is a subject index and this also includes other genre works (such as Soylent Green) referenced in the book but not included in the first appendix, in addition to people associated with the show that are mentioned or quoted.

On reading Inside Black Mirror several things become apparent. The first is as to how rooted and relevant the show is to current events and even how at times it has almost been prescient!  Second, several important questions about the show are answered. Here, perhaps one of the key ones is how and, more importantly, why did the show transfer after series two from Britain's Channel 4 to Netflix? The answer is not as simple as you might suspect and it seems that we might have been close to it being a joint production (which would have meant that us Brits could carry on seeing the show without being online and having a Netflix subscription).  Finally, Inside Black Mirror does give its readers an inside track on the creative processes at play in the making of a modern drama television series and so this book may even attract a readership (such as media studies diploma students) beyond that of the show's followers?

Decidedly recommended.

Jonathan Cowie


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