Gugu was born in Oxford, England, she appeared in TV series Bad Girls, Bonekickers and Doctor Who. In 2013 She starred in Amma Asante's film Belle.Followed by starring in Gina Prince-Bythewood's film Beyond The Lights. Also starred in Jupiter Ascending, Concussion, Free State of Jones, Miss Sloane and Beauty and the Beast.
In January 2015 the humourist Mallory Ortberg summed up Charlie Brooker’s tech-anthology series Black Mirror as “What if phones, but more so?”. The science fiction show focuses on how high technology and low entertainment can magnify our flaws and destroy our relationships.
We greet innovation with open arms, says Brooker, only to find ourselves embracing disaster. But among the cynicism, one episode offers a more optimistic outlook, and that is two-time Emmywinner San Junipero.
The episode was hailed as a classic immediately for the way that it combines Black Mirror’s trademark futuristic vision with a beautifully told love story. And, unique in Black Mirror history, it offers a happy ending. Here, the machine that gives the story its science-fiction edge doesn’t destroy our humanity; it offers a sort of mechanical heaven for its users.
That was a deliberate break from the norm for creator and writer Charlie Brooker; an attempt, he told Vanity Fair, to “upend the notion of what a Black Mirror episode was”. It was the first episode Brooker wrote for Netflix after the show left Channel 4, and he didn’t want to be predictably nihilistic, nor settle into too strict a formula.
So San Junipero became a “palate cleanser”, a reinvention that offered a different vision of what the show could do. It was Black Mirror’s first period piece, its first American-set story and the first one to show more than a tiny glimpse of hope for the future. Yet at the same time it packs in enough philosophy and nuance - and enough gut punches - to avoid any suggestion that Brooker has gone soft.
San Junipero’s initial spark came to Brooker from two clashing ideas. The first was tackling the question of how Black Mirror could possibly do a period-set episode. Brooker wanted to subvert expectations of viewers expecting a focus on new phones or computer programmes.
Yet time travel per se is too far-fetched for the show’s relatively grounded tone. The answer he landed upon was to set his story in an immense and convincing simulation, one that’s more advanced than existing virtual reality software but not impossibly out of reach.
At the same time, Brooker read about nostalgia therapy, a promising treatment for anxiety and even dementia. The therapy uses happy memories and recreations of the past to alleviate current suffering, which sounds counter intuitive but has proved effective.
“It’s kind of unusual that we’d approach a story from a relatively dry starting point like that,” he said of the process. “Usually we’re starting just with a dilemma.”
Yet that dry start led to Black Mirror’s most emotional episode. The period setting gave Brooker the simulation; the nostalgia therapy peopled it with the dead and dying, escaping to a better place for a few hours.
Thus the two heroines are not what they seem. Mousy, shy Yorkie (Halt & Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis) and flamboyant, fascinating Kelly (Belle’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw) meet in a 1980s club in a small California holiday town by the sea and hit it off.
The twist is that both have already lived for decades and are now approaching a crunch point. Will they die and leave their consciousness in San Junipero permanently, or continue to make only brief visits until the end?
Yorkie, whose character has been in a coma for 40 years in the real world, is ready to rush in. But Kelly – a widow and bereaved mother in reality (played by Denise Burse, who worked closely with Mbatha-Raw to make Kelly feel consistent across the decades) – is hesitant.
“It’s that thing of taking an 80-year-old voice and transporting them back to the time of their youth, but where attitudes have changed,” executive producer Annabel Jones explains. “It’s not just go back and live your life again, but go back and live your life through different attitudes and different social norms, which is fascinating.”
The result is an emotional and, at least until we realise it’s a simulation, not obviously science fiction story. Only on a second viewing does the viewer pick up on all the verbal clues that something isn’t quite as it seems. A surfer dude droning on about his operations might not have been injured while getting radical after all; perhaps he’s old and sick. A nerdy guy talks about video games in the past tense rather than the present, suggesting that time travel element. There are unexplained casual remarks about “full timers” and a Cinderella-like midnight deadline. And we miss the clues initially because the love story holds our attention.
Though Brooker originally conceived the story with a heterosexual couple, he thought twice about his own assumptions and decided to make his lovers women. “I think it gives it an extra resonance,” he told EW, “because they couldn’t have legally got married in [the real] 1987, so we’re gifting them that in this world, in this story of second chances. That adds a whole extra subtext about reliving your life and exploring things you didn’t have a chance to do.”
“It’s about human beings and love and souls,” says Mbatha-Raw. “And it’s not about [sexuality] being a problem. That wasn’t the focus of the story and I think that’s actually really refreshing.”
The upbeat tone also moves the show away from the “dead lesbians” TV trope, where a disproportionate number of lesbian characters are killed off tragically onscreen (Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lexa in The 100 are notorious examples). Brooker conceived the happy ending partially to subvert that trope – though technically both characters do die to achieve their idyll.
The film shot in and around Cape Town, which episode director Owen Harris says allowed him to “create a version of California that felt slightly heightened because of this slightly strange quality.
"That heightened feel is only emphasised by the on-the-nose use of Belinda Carlisle’s hit Heaven Is A Place On Earth – a song the production cleared before doing anything else. “I would have been absolutely distraught if we couldn’t have done it,” Brooker said of Carlisle’s song.
“It’s also a wry joke in a way, that heaven is literally a place on earth, as we reveal the absolute cold reality of what’s going on [where the womens’ minds are now stored in tiny data clips and moved around by robots]. Hopefully it leaves people with a smile on their face, which is an alien experience after watching Black Mirror.”
One has to wonder, as that robot tends the San Junipero databank, whether the ending is entirely uncomplicated in its happiness. Even Davis said, “I think it is joyful, but there’s all these little undercurrents communicating that there’s darkness under this joy.”
Fans have wondered if the plane seen flying overhead in the final scene means that there are other parts of the San Junipero world that consciousnesses can visit, and how wide a world the simulation offers. But the deeper questions are even bigger. Does San Junipero play host to true consciousness or just a simulacrum of it after death?
Like Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier in The Prestige, are we watching the survival of a copy or the real thing? Maybe the entire promise of ‘survival’ is just a sop to ease the distress of the dying. And what does San Junipero mean for religious believers? Might they embrace it as a guaranteed afterlife or see it as a threat? The philosophical implications are endless, and barely developed. No wonder there are calls for a sequel.
Harris, who has worked with Brooker twice now, advises that fans be careful what they wish for, saying “Charlie Brooker might not want to do two happy endings!" Yet Brooker himself has considered it.
“I think we almost might do it in a completely different form if we were doing a straight sequel,” he said. “Maybe not even as a normal episode. It’s difficult because I don’t think we’d revisit those characters. That felt like such a story and we wouldn’t want to open it up again.”
Such reticence comes as a relief. Black Mirror has never been hesitant about showing lives ruined by technology, but surely Yorkie and Kelly, at least, should be allowed to survive in their private little heaven. As its awards success shows, their story gives us all hope.