‘Black Mirror’ Showrunners Say ‘Striking Vipers’ Started as a VR ‘Grease’ Musical

Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones tell TheWrap how that idea — plus porn and video games — led to Season 5 episode


(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Black Mirror” Season 5 episode “Striking Vipers”)

By now, “Black Mirror” fans should be well aware that co-showrunners Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones get ideas for their tech-paranoia-centric, sci-fi anthology series from some strange places.

But during an interview with TheWrap Thursday — one day after the Netflix show’s Season 5 launch — the pair revealed just how strange the original idea was for the new episode “Striking Vipers.” Like, the kind of strange that involves a virtual reality “Grease” musical.

Hold on, because Brooker says this was the “starting point,” so stay with the series creator on how he and Jones got to the “Striking Vipers” you’ve seen, which tells the story of ladies man Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and married man Danny (Anthony Mackie) — two old friends who get very close to each other when they face off in an updated version of a fighting game they used to play when they were younger (the titular “Striking Vipers”).

But in the new version, they physically inhabit the bodies of their characters in a way-too-real virtual reality setting, with Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin portraying their in-game avatars. Since you’re reading this story, you know what happens next: video game sex.

“Quite often with ‘Black Mirror,’ there’s two ideas that collide,” Brooker told TheWrap. “And oddly enough, we had been discussing a story idea in which — the idea was as a team-building exercise in an office, a company decides to run some sort of exercise where it puts every member of the office into a VR simulation in which they have a task to do together and the task is to stage a musical.”

“The idea was like, it was something like ‘Grease,’” he continued. “So the people in an office staging ‘Grease,’ but the key thing is that the identities are scrambled and you don’t know who is who. So like I could be Olivia Newton-John and you could be John Travolta,” Brooker said, gesturing to Jones. “And crucially, we don’t know in the office who is who.”

“Then it was like, wouldn’t it be an interesting story if you had these two characters that start an affair within this,” Brooker said. “And then the more we thought about it we thought, how do you work this in? We’d have to license all these songs and that would be a bit weird.”

So they scrapped the “Grease” musical idea, but there was still plenty more to come to get to their final product — obviously.

“Then idea number two was — I don’t know how we got onto this — but I played a lot of ‘Tekken’ in the ’90s. Tekken on the PlayStation,” Brooker said. “And I was often struck by the fact that my neighbors must have thought there was a sort of sex dungeon operating in my flat. Because it was me and my flatmate around the clock going like, ‘Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Oh, God! Oh, yes!’ And one evening we just sort of thought the neighbors must think something untoward is going on here. And it seemed like such an interesting dilemma to put two characters in, where they’re old friends and this happens and the genders are reserved in the game world. And immediately it prompted loads of debates in our office.”

Here is where Jones jumped in to tell us they were also talking about porn — a lot.

Jones: I’m gonna say talking about, not watching, porn. So we had lots of chat about porn.

Brooker: As you know, I don’t know what porn is. I’ve never seen it.

Jones: Yes, I had to explain it to him.

Brooker: And some of the mimes she did while explaining it were harrowing.

(OK, done with their banter and moving back to the story idea again.)

Jones says the writers’ room discussed how “increasingly sophisticated and how personal” porn has become.

“And in a world where it becomes so immersive, when porn stops being a healthy distraction and actually becomes an affair, was a really interesting idea,” she said. “So that’s essentially the question Danny keeps asking himself all through the film. He deludes himself that everything is fine and he’s not cheating on his wife, until the point where he’s faced in the restaurant with Nicole Beharie [who plays Theo, Danny’s wife] and she says like, ‘I know something is going on. You’re denying me now. I’ve lost you.’ And he suddenly realizes he can’t fool himself anymore. So that’s another interesting idea that came in.”

Ultimately all of these ideas came together to form “Striking Vipers,” the Season 5 episode Brooker has dubbed “Man Junipero.”

“Just this VR world where the gender becomes so fluid and they just find themselves with a unique sexual experience and unique sexual high that they cannot find anywhere else, it’s such an interesting idea. I just love it,” Jones said.

Check back with TheWrap for more from our interview with Jones and Brooker.

“Black Mirror” Season 5 is streaming now on Netflix.