There is every possibility we may look back upon Bandersnatch, the latest episode of Black Mirror, and be amazed at just what a pioneer it was.
Black Mirror has seeped into popular culture in a remarkable way since Charlie Brooker moved from being one of TV’s most entertaining cult comedians, when it comes to analysing popular media, and into the realm of writing and producing what could be the most innovative and format breaking television show of the modern age. Black Mirror has come a long way since its first Channel Four episode, telling the disturbing story of a David Cameron-parody being blackmailed into having sex with a pig live on television.
What began as a darkly comic examination of our evolving relationship with new media, akin to Brooker’s earlier scripted series Dead Set (zombies meets Big Brother), has grown into a 21st century Twilight Zone; a dark, indeed black mirror for our own fears, anxieties and cautionary tales about the technology we are allowing to dominate and consume our lives. While Brooker’s show, on being snapped up in a savvy move by Netflix and getting a hefty budget increase in the bargain, has benefited from A-list movie stars and directors wanting to be involved, the modern day Rod Serling has always had one eye on the past as he puts one foot in the future.
Bandersnatch feels like the ultimate realisation of Brooker’s fascination with retro 1980’s and 1990’s culture, particularly gaming culture. Fionn Whitehead’s troubled protagonist Stefan Butler could be Brooker in another, alternate life.
If you look back at Black Mirror’s history, the show almost feels like it has been unconsciously building to a Choose Your Own Adventure episode, in which the viewer interacts directly with the action on screen. The Entire History of You involves an implant which records memories and allows them to replay what they saw and heard back at a later date, what is called a ‘re-do’. Playtest involves a gamer who experiences a nightmare VR scenario when a gaming world is ‘layered’ over objective reality (indeed Playtest was originally to feature the formative technology used in Bandersnatch). U.S.S. Callister concerns a programmer who manages to create sentient clones inside a Massive Multiplayer Online Game, actively restricting their free will.
Bandersnatch lacks the emotional impact of many previous Black Mirror episodes, hampered from a linear perspective by the constraints of a narrative designed precisely to be fractured and piecemeal, but it encapsulates Brooker’s ever present fascination with paranoia, control, and our own interaction with technology. As we edge closer to a world in which reality and gaming become further intertwined, do we move inexorably further away from a world where the two can be distinguished? Are we all players in a bigger cosmic game, or will we be? In the pulp, retro framework of Bandersnatch, these are all questions posed through the avatar of Stefan.
Co-producer Annabel Jones elaborates on this in conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, discussing how the choices made by the viewer have a greater impact on what you experience Bandersnatch to be:
From my limited experience with branching narratives, you ultimately end up with lots of disparate, and essentially meaningless, endings. You could find your protagonist in so many different scenarios that you’ve lost sense of the whole. Once we found a way that, as Charlie says, is absolutely baked into the story — this idea of freedom of choice and control, and the illusion of control and the illusion of choice — once you have that as a basic conceit, then you have a protagonist who you can give multiple endings, but endings that only build to reinforce the whole.
Jones talks about losing the whole, and this is an intentional problem in Bandersnatch, which often struggles to allow the viewer to maintain control over the emotional core of the story, which concerns Stefan’s coping mechanism after the premature death of his mother. The world he chooses to create in the game Bandersnatch, based on a book (which itself was based on a real life, legendary, never completed game of the same name), the Choose Your Own Adventure story which excites swarthy video game developer Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry), given it’s an antidote to the traditional command based cartridge games of the early 80’s, Commodore-era, is all about multiple, divergent paths in which the story is dictated by us as opposed to the other way around. We are no longer passive observers of narrative. We are now complicit in deeds, for good or for ill.
If you’re under the age of 30, there is a good chance you may not remember the Choose Your Own Adventure sub-genre of books which were popularised from the late 1970’s through to the 1990’s (particularly across the 80’s when Brooker was growing up). The books are still in development to this day but the rampant popularity of social media, online and video gaming have meant they do not have the reach and pull they did a few decades ago, where more than 250 million copies were sold over two decades. The books would all be set in different locations in different scenarios, but all were designed for children, and all written from a second person POV, allowing readers to direct the character’s actions and reach their own outcome. If Jonny should open the box, go to page 15. If he should throw the box away, go to page 31 etc…
Bandersnatch adapts this same concept by utilising technology that Brooker and his team developed specifically with Netflix, who had already been dabbling in these innovations for children’s entertainment. Called ‘state tracking’, it allows Netflix the ability to remember the choices made by viewers across the story, allowing the software to shape and reformat the tale, based on the paths devised in Brooker’s labyrinthian scripting, depending on what you decide to do when faced with the twofold choice presented on screen. Click right and ‘Run Away’. Click left and ‘Kill Dad’.
The story then progresses based on that decision. Annabel Jones elaborates:
You are making a decision at that point about your protagonist and what they have to do. If it wasn’t interactive, you’d just watch and probably be appalled and worried and frightened for him in that moment. If you’re making that decision, how does that affect your relationship with the film? Do you then feel more wretched?
This is key. The complicity. The effect such control has on the viewer, not to mention how aware Bandersnatch is of that effect.
Black Mirror, remember, would not be content with simply letting a traditional Choose Your Own Adventure story play out, akin to what you may have read in the 1980’s. Bandersnatch is concerned directly with free will, and quite what knowledge of said free will, or the perceived absence of it, can do to the human mind. Stefan begins as a sallow faced young programmer with a game idea who becomes obsessed with the idea of existence as a series of pathways, forks in the road, choices and directions being made. Philosophers have long pondered whether we are in control of our own actions or are driven by a greater, unseen imperative. Fate versus destiny. Are our lives a pre-determined series of events or do we directly control whatever outcome we arrive at?
The answer decided upon, collectively, by humanity right now is that we are in control. Science and logic appear to have disproven the veracity of a belief in destiny. We no longer believe all of our actions are in service to a higher power, and that our mortal lives are being weighted morally and spiritually. We believe our own destiny is made and that we control events. Nevertheless, scientists have postulated often about the Many Worlds theory, in which we are but one of infinite possible universes, based on variations over thousands of years. If I had turned right out of the corner shop instead of left, have I created a brand new reality different from the one in which I turned left? Philosophy and science combined debate these questions and they’re at the heart of Bandersnatch. Counterpart, recently, is based specifically on a moment two realties diverged and now sit side by side, each secretly aware of the other.
What the lore and narrative of Brooker’s episode does, however, through your choices made across the episode, is having Stefan actively come to believe he is being controlled. Not by a higher power, not by demons, not by a voice in his head… but by us.
Each episode of Black Mirror is designed as some kind of parable, often a warning about where we may be heading if we take technology to the extreme. Nosedive explores a world where how other rate us on everything from appearance to interactions directly affects what we can achieve in life. White Christmas allows you to not just block people on social media, but use technology to block them from your field of vision, effectively erasing them socially. The list goes on. Bandersnatch is both testing out technology which allows audiences a greater direct interaction with story and narrative, while showing the psychological degradation and paranoia on someone who becomes obsessed with the power of giving people ultimate, direct choice over someone’s fate. It is, in many respects, it’s own cautionary tale.
What is most fascinating about Bandersnatch is that many viewers will have a different experience upon watching it. Allow me to relate mine.
My experience did not allow Stefan a happy ending. By the conclusion, he was dead, having suddenly expired while Alice Lowe’s Dr Haynes tried to counsel him. This was after sojourns down multiple dead ends – Will Poulter’s reality obsessed fellow programmer Colin possibly committing suicide, possibly just disappearing; Stefan murdering his father upon being convinced his whole life had been a staged, mind-control conspiracy; and most interestingly, Stefan talking to me via his computer, being told that he was being controlled by a viewer from the 21st century via a strange entertainment platform called Netflix. Upon telling Haynes this, she questions why people would watch such ‘dull’ entertainment, at which point the scene transforms into high-concept, Bourne-style Krav Maga and swordplay action.
This may have been the experience other audiences members had, maybe not. The state tracking technology is so varied, and so adapts Bandersnatch one way or another depending on choices, that many of us may never quite have the same experience at the same time. Even for Black Mirror, a show known for playing with format, this is quite extraordinary, and revolutionary. Bandersnatch is the first piece of television to actively bridge the gap between passive viewer and active gamer, allowing for a subjective, non-linear narrative experience. This is something that could never have been achieved on traditional broadcast television, which has always been a passive watching experience. Netflix proves it has the tools to alter what we consider the act of watching television itself to be.
It also further shows the disparity between broadcast television and streaming services that is growing every day. Most recently, the BBC’s Inside No. 9 (another brilliant anthology series) with its episode Dead Line, successfully blurred the lines between storytelling and audience interactivity, by operating live in real-time, connecting Twitter engagement with the broadcast, and leading viewers to actively question what might be reality, but even Dead Line—however genuinely innovative—is ultimately limited in quite what engagement it can expect from the audience. They may be confused but they remain passive, and will not have as subjective an experience.
Bandersnatch proves that television is evolving. It proves that our interaction with technology, and our obsession with understanding and controlling narrative, are close to directly affecting what we end up experiencing. How many fans of Star Wars: The Last Jedi would have loved an option which said ‘Luke Dies’/‘Luke Does Not Die’? Imagine if they had the power to control that outcome. Imagine if viewers entered a cinema, each with a headset and controller, and started watching the same movie but by the end had an entirely subjective experience, depending on what choices they actively made. Could they fashion a film or a TV show to end in the manner they always wanted, as opposed to how the writer envisaged? Might storytellers built in multiple narratives, multiple choices and realities, into their creations as a matter of course?
This isn’t the forum to debate whether this would be good or bad for television or cinema. Many would see this as the death of the format, the point we actively cede control of the art form and it becomes a filmed, high-budget, ‘real’ interactive video game. Some may welcome it, excited at the possibilities of creating our own narrative. We are already becoming adept at choosing what to believe, at reinforcing our own subjective narratives when it comes to news and current affairs, so why would this be such a major leap for storytelling? Bandersnatch at least proves, even if the result is a fractured story which fascinates more than it emotionally engages, that the technology is possible.
And like any other episode of Black Mirror, it suggests this should be as much feared as embraced.
★ ★ ★ ★
DIRECTOR: David Spade
WRITER: Charlie Brooker
CAST: Fionn Whitehead, Craig Parkinson, Alice Lowe, Asim Chaudhry, Will Poulter