*WARNING: spoilers for Black Mirror season 5 episode 3 to follow*
Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too is a rare upbeat episode of Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ sci-fi anthology series.
Though the story deals with some dark themes, somewhere around the middle of the episode it turns into a caper, with Miley Cyrus’s Ashley O and two teenage sisters Rachel and Jack, played by Angourie Rice and Madison Davenport, at its heart.
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The first strand of the story is centred around loner Rachel, her brooding sister Jack and their father, who runs a humane mouse control service (it probably doesn’t help Rachel’s cause that he picks her up from school in a car adorned with mouse ears).
We see Rachel struggle to connect with her fellow classmates, and devote all of her emotional energy to her love for her idol, Ashley O. On Rachel’s birthday, her dad buys her an AI doll called Ashley Too, which has been modelled on the star.
The doll mostly spouts meaningless motivational speeches, and convinces Rachel to enter a dance competition at her school, which causes her some embarrassment after she falls off of a chair during her performance.
Strand two gives us a look at Ashley O’s life behind the scenes, and it ain’t pretty. She is depressed, and under the control of her aunt/manager who is using medication to keep her true creative instincts (which tend towards nihilistic rock music) at bay. It becomes clear that she has stopped taking her medication, which leads her aunt to give her an overdose which leaves her comatose.
The two strands meet when Rachel’s Ashley Too doll watches the news report on the TV about the real Ashley O slipping into a coma and freaks out. Rachel and Jack then hook her up to a device their father created to build AI Mice, and accidentally allow it to access the entirety of Ashley O’s personality, which has been built into its software.
From here, the whole thing turns into a romp, as the girls and the doll head on a mission to save Ashley O from the clutches of her evil aunt.
RadioTimes.com got the low-down on all the episode’s talking points from Brooker and Jones themselves – check it out below.
How was Miley Cyrus cast in Black Mirror?
Brooker and Jones thought they had no chance of getting Miley Cyrus to star in the episode.
“After the script was written, we were just discussing who could play the part of an international pop star, and we were like, well, in a dream world it would be somebody like Miley Cyrus,” Brooker said, adding: “But we thought that was f***ing stupid talk.”
Still, they sent her a script and thankfully Cyrus was already a fan of the show. After a quick Skype call, she had signed on.
“I think there were quite a few things in the script that she identified with,” Jones said. “She’s very acerbic, she’s very funny and she delights in subverting things. Her whole career has been about the Disney pop star who tries to carve out her own identity and as a result has faced a lot of opposition from her label and her fans in some respect, so she’s been on that journey.”
According to Brooker, she said: “Oh, it’ll piss people off and pissing people off is kind of my thing.”
Cyrus then helped to bring the character to life, offering insights into her own career.
“She talked a lot about her experiences and the details of her life have been engineered into the script,” Jones said, “and she had a lot of thoughts about the music and the performance of the music and the look and, you know, the relationship between the idol and the fan, which is a very interesting and powerful relationship.”
Brooker added: “I think about a week before we’d spoken to her, she’d made an appearance on stage with some act that was aimed at an older generation – I don’t know who it is, like the Grateful Dead but not them – and she went on stage and looked out into this massive auditorium and no one was filming it on a phone. They were all looking at her, and I think she hadn’t seen that for about 10 years.
“There was was just a sea of human faces, and that had affected her quite a bit.”
How did Charlie Brooker come up with the idea for Rachel, Jack and Ashley too?
“The story came about in a strange way. It was an idea I’d had for a while,” he said. “Originally I’d had an idea about a punk band being resurrected from, like, 1977 in the present day. I tried to write a sitcom about that – it was quite different. Then at one point it was going to be a rapper. We were having a conversation about Alexa and things like that at one point, and I seem to remember saying soon there’ll be one based on celebrity personalities.
“And then you kind of remember this other idea about a musician in a coma and people extracting music, and the two things sort of collided.”
All of Ashley O’s songs are Nine Inch Nails tracks turned into bubbly pop hits – which lead singer Trent Reznor found “very funny”
“Every song that [Ashley O] performs, they’re all Nine Inch Nails songs that we adapted into pop standards,” Brooker said. “So, that was actually one thing that was in the script early on, that we had to get permission from Trent Reznor to sort of rewrite a few tracks, and then at the end she does a f***ing good job of doing ‘Head Like A Hole’. “
Reznor agreed “pretty quickly” after taking a look at the script. Jones added that he “found the dark comedy [in the script] very entertaining”.
“I got to rewrite his lyrics in a chirpy way, and I”m not the best lyricist in the world,” Brooker added. “In the first one she’s singing, ‘I’m stoked on ambition and verve’ – that was ‘you’re gonna get what you deserve’”.
Check out the full version of Ashley O’s bubblegum pop interpolation of Head Like A Hole below.
How realistic is the Ashley Too doll?
“Oh my god, the team behind that, how they suffered,” Jones recalled. “We wanted the doll to feel plausible. We wanted it to feel like something you could buy in the shops if you wanted to. And so, it was a matter of trying to make it as simplistic as possible, but trying to give it as much animation for when the limiter comes off. Trying to achieve both of those things is very difficult, but I think they did a great job.”
Brooker says they wanted to avoid straying into “Toy Story” territory, and is thanking his stars that they did – as the plot of the episode might have clashed with the upcoming Child’s Play reboot.
“It was very important that it was plausible, and also could express a lot – we needed it to have two degrees of expression. At the start it has to look sort of non-threatening, and feel like an Alexa-type device. And then in the second half the same sort of eyes, suddenly they get a lot more expressive and it can pull facial expressions that it wasn’t before. And its movements also become more fluid, which was deliberate.
“We didn’t want it to be too Toy Story, it to be too much like a Buzz Lightyear thing running around. And beyond everything else, thank f*** we didn’t do that because the new Child’s Play film has got an evil AI uploaded into a murderous doll and it might have wandered into that territory.”
Why Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too has a more upbeat tone
Brooker and Jones said that this episode is more of a “romp”, and lighter in tone than a typical Black Mirror episode because the story called for it.
“I think often people expect Black Mirror to be like frowning at a transparent phone until their life falls apart basically, so it’s quite nice to occasionally upend that,” Brooker said.
“We always know that some episodes are going to piss people off, and that some people are going to appreciate one type of story more than another. I think if we just kept doing nihilistically bleak stories, then it just becomes very, very predictable. It really depends on what the story is that we’re trying to tell.
“[Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too] suited [this tone], because it’s quite heightened and the world of it is quite silly and glossy. There are so many big flavours and elements in it that it made sense to sort of take it in this direction.
“So, sometimes we like to go a bit Pixar. And other times we like to go a bit Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It really depends on our whim.”
Black Mirror season 5 is streaming on Netflix NOW