Spoiler-free preview of Black Mirror: White Christmas – is this the bleakest episode yet?

Ben Dowell finds that Charlie Brooker’s seasonal special is served up with great skill – and then smashed over our faces

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“Happy Christmas!” tweeted Charlie Brooker in August along with a link to RadioTimes.com’s announcement of a Black Mirror Christmas special.

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That’s not the word I’d use having seen it. Brilliant? Yes. Happy? No.

This Yuletide Black Mirror – called “White Christmas” and airing nine days before the big day – is surely the bleakest piece of television you’ll see this December. It’s probably best summed up by Brooker’s own assessment of his approach to life and television, at last night’s screening. “I am not a glass half empty person. I am a who’s going to pick up that glass and smash it over my f*****g face sort of person.”

Brooker describes it as a “Treehouse of Horrors Black Mirror”, referring to three-in-one episodes of The Simpsons. Previous series have come in threes but for this one-off he has enveloped all three stories into one portmanteau horror with all the chills (and more) of a festive ghost story.

It begins with Jon Hamm’s nameless character running a dating service. Thanks to something called a “Z-eye”, he is able to see through the eyes of sad and lonely people looking for love. He can also talk to them, prompting their chat-up lines and researching the would-be lovers his clients encounter. As so often with this series, Brooker’s storyline eerily prefigures the recent scandals about proselytising pick-up artists, which broke after this was written and filmed.

Or as Brooker put it in the question and answer session that followed the screening: ““As we move into wearable tech, Google Glass is going to morph into something you put in your eyes or your brain Hopefully that’s, oh, at least six months off….”

Inevitably disaster strikes (I won’t spoil it by revealing any more) and the next thing we see is Hamm and Rafe Spall holed up together in a wintry outpost confessing things to each other. Who are they? What are they? Let’s just say the story develops in a compelling and terrifyingly depressing way. There’s also an absorbing subplot involving Oona Chaplin as a futuristic yuppie-type, who has taken up Hamm’s character’s offer of having her consciousness downloaded and enslaved in an egg-shaped device that does all her chores for her.

Brooker’s approach to technology sometimes seems excessively negative. He clearly has little faith in our capacity to use it for good. He spoke at last night’s screening about how troubled he is by the way the younger generation take technology for granted, the way they feel entitled to all this wonder at this fingertips. Is he just a middle-aged bloke tutting away at the privileges enjoyed by modern youth? Or a seer who really has a sense of the dangers we are storing up for ourselves? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but he seems to know himself pretty well.

“There’s nothing in this that’s going to be as bleak as whatever f*** EastEnders is going to do,” joked Brooker at last night’s screening, with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

I am not so sure about that. EastEnders seems like The Brady Bunch after this.

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Black Mirrors airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Tuesday 16 December