“Black Mirror”: choose your own nightmare

Oscar Wilde maintained that Art, he always wrote it in capital letters, was the supreme lie, the resounding triumph of the imagination, and therefore deserved to constitute itself as a category superior to life and nature. Or to put it another way: it is our observation of life through the prism of Art that constructs and modifies our notion of reality, and therefore it is life that imitates fiction, and not vice versa. So, what does that have to do with “Black Mirror”?

Allow me to explain, but suffice to say that, the connection is strong, because many episodes of this dystopian series that began broadcasting several years ago on Channel 4 and now available on Netflix have become a global phenomenon, and at the time they seemed exaggerated and alarmist (reality isn’t really like that, it can’t be like that!). That was the case of course until the real world began imitating them; from popularity ratings we’re subjected to by social media, to the threat of a fascist and populist future lead by the masses via the media, and let’s not forget the rumours circulating in the British press claiming former Prime Minister Cameron had taken part in a university ritual in which participants engaged in sexual acts with animals, so reminiscent of that first glorious episode, “The National Anthem”, in which the nation’s political leader had to fuck a pig to secure the release of a young aristocrat kidnapped by terrorists.

“Bandersnatch” aspires to imitate life, in the sense that life is not an open narrative, but the result of a long decision-making process that takes us from A to B and onwards without affording us the capacity to rewind.

That is, “Black Mirror” exaggerates reality, and exaggerates it to such an extent that reality eventually imitates it, and that’s why we live in the insane world we find ourselves in. Season five, released last Friday, consists of only one episode, but this episode is of such complex architecture, that merits an entire four or five-episode season. And in one very particular aspect, it is quite unlike the “Black Mirror” style we are accustomed to, as it aspires to imitate life, in the sense that life is not an open narrative, but the result of a long decision-making process that takes us from A to B and onwards without affording us the capacity to rewind.

In this episode, viewers decide which path to take and the outcome, just as I might decide right now what to do with my own life. For example, right now I’m writing these words. This opens up a line of development for my future that might be entirely different if I had decided to stay on in bed sleeping, or to go out into the street, or throw myself off the balcony. Any decision I make opens up a completely different storyline and thus entails a potential and unforeseeable outcome. If I throw myself off the balcony, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll die. If I decide to stay in bed sleeping, then I wouldn’t deliver my work and maybe my client might feel justified in placing a gypsy curse on me rather than paying me for my services, and that could result in me living under a bridge due to my laziness. If I head outside into the street…who knows, I could find a thousand euros lying next to a tree, or a pigeon could shit on me.  

Bandersnatch“, the latest episode in the series and, as with previous episodes, written by Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, is in essence about just that: about how the decisions we make change the direction of our lives, sometimes without serious consequences (Will I have muesli or chocolate flakes for breakfast? Should I stick on the Thompson Twins or some other commercial pop drivel while commuting to work?). However, sometimes the consequences are far more profound. This multiplicity of realities, the focus of scientific investigation including the concept of the omniverse or quantum leap, an idea envisaged in literature by Borges in stories like “The Garden of Forking Paths” or “The Book of Sand” – a short story so amazing that each page allows the reader access to fantastic content, either skipping forward or jumping backwards within the same story, and in which all the knowledge in the universe unfolds in a non-linear fashion: in other words, the Internet, something that was forbidden to cinema, that is, until now.

“Bandersnatch” is a pioneering exercise and, perhaps a milestone in what defines the future of media, the point at which the technology that enables the viewer to make choices as to how the storyline develops actually now exists.

There are other leisure-time and cultural activities available to us which have introduced, with greater or lesser success, the concept of the open outcome, such as role-playing games, book-games, adventure games and  Google, when you navigate aimlessly, and that’s why “Bandersnatch” is a pioneering exercise and, perhaps a milestone in what defines the future of media, the point at which the technology that enables the viewer to make choices as to how the storyline develops actually now exists. It’s also well-worth pointing out that the Netflix episode mocks this option, and as you advance through the episode, you are offered insane choices whose sole purpose seems to be that of shoving you deeper and deeper into the mire – I was taken down a path that led to what felt like a Tarantino flick when the dealer offers Tarantino some good shit.

I don’t think Charlie Brooker is trying to create a new way of consuming cinema and television, but merely to alert us to the extent of the multiplication of our possibilities of choice – after all, that’s precisely what the Netflix homepage interface is, a hypertext, a book of sand that enables us to open the door to another future use of technology that is frankly, unsettling and personally, one which I believe is beginning to get a little bit under our skin (it’s torture having to choose between so many options on offer, and with so little time to consume them. In fact, if you don’t take advantage of the ten second window the episode affords you to twist your narrative, “Black Mirror” will always choose the appropriate option by default, proposing a closed and ordered feature, which corresponds to the author’s “vision”. In other words, the possibility of choosing is, in reality, a chance to put your foot in it and really cock things up.

In fact, more than a hypertext episode, “Bandersnatch” is a meta-referential exercise: it deals with free will, something that always leads to madness, the freedom to choose, and as such, adopts a videogaming narrative or that of “choose your own adventure” style books. And that’s why it is set historically in the era when this type of narrative language began to find its own footing, the mid-80s; the episode is set in 1984, which is also when J.H. Brennan published his “Sagas of The Demonspawn” series, considered the first mature title in the era of gamebooks, a work of swordplay and sorcery in the tradition of “Dungeons & Dragons”.

The episode itself is another hypertext packed with footnotes, references to the culture of the 80s, fantasy literature and science fiction, and even Black Mirror’s own mythology.

The main character in this episode is a young videogame programmer with a deep family trauma who tries to adapt gamebook “Bandersnatch” to computer programming language. There actually was an adventure videogame of the same name developed in 1986 but which was never released as originally intended, although after several modifications, they did release a videogame titled “Brataccas”. In “Black Mirror”, “Bandersnatch” is the swan song of Jerome F. Davis, a visionary and tormented writer deeply inspired by the later “Ubik” and “Valis” stage of Philip K. Dick’s work, when he began to have visions and to believe in the existence of a divine being that spoke to him and gave him orders.

The references to madness, psychedelia and the unconscious –Leary, Huxley, the music of Tangerine Dream, Dick’s own novel “Ubik”, all articulate the majority of the main narrative core. The episode itself is another hypertext packed with footnotes, references to the culture of the 80s, fantasy literature and science fiction, and even “Black Mirror”’s own mythology. In this regard, it’s a veritable reference orgy. And, what a fantastic choice of soundtrack – Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Depeche Mode, “Love on a Real Train” by Tangerine Dream, there is even a moment when in a music shop you are prompted to choose whether you’d like to buy an Isao Tomita album, the pioneer of Japanese electronic music.

The important thing, however, is what “Bandersnatch” means in our cultural ecosystem. Is this the beginning of a new way of watching television, or a catastrophic exaggeration of the path streaming entertainment is taking?

Let’s not forget that in an effort to replicate the formula, you may also have writers and directors literally pulling their hair out faced with the inability to organize all the narrative paths and potential outcomes in an orderly fashion – I only watched one ending, but apparently “Bandersnatch” has around ten, all different. I’m sure that, outside the metareferential cosmos the episode exists in, a different viewing experience with a different storyline and set in another era might not provide for an equally satisfying viewing experience (off the top of my head, one set in ancient Rome, which I’m not sure would work). Always assuming that “Bandersnatch” itself works perfectly, which should be questioned: very often, a wrong choice leads us to a non-ending, and we’re sent back to the beginning and returned to the point where this time we have to make the right choice (word of advice: if the psychologist asks you to talk about your mother, do it, there is no other way out).

The question, in any case, is: do we need so many endings? In the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, the experience was only truly fun when you reached a satisfactory conclusion, after a well-developed action-packed storyline.

In the end, the true virtue of “Bandersnatch” lies in its break with the traditional idea of cinema as one single montage decided by the director, corresponding to one vision and one narrative with a beginning and an end. Like theatre, opera and the traditional novel, where there is only one possible direction. The question, in any case, is: do we need so many endings? In the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, the experience was only truly fun when you reached a satisfactory conclusion, after a well-developed action-packed storyline; if you reached the ending after just a few pages, you were left not only feeling frustration (‘cause you always kicked the bucket) but also with the sense that you’d wasted your time, something that when you’re ten, doesn’t matter that much, because you’ve nothing but time on your hands, but in adulthood it can be pretty damn annoying.

And that is when you ask yourself whether the true genius of the show isn’t just this; the fact that you’ve been manipulated into believing that this type of experience is a new beginning, when in reality what you open is the door to another hellish future.

That’s kind of what happens with this latest “Black Mirror” caper: impeccable if you get it right, but dreary and overbearing every time you have to go back and acknowledge the creative team behind the show – for whom at the end of the day you are putty in their hands, and not the other way around; you think you can choose, but in reality you choices are limited for you, led by the demiurge Charlie Brooker – and in effect, there was always a better option that you just couldn’t see. And that is when you ask yourself whether the true genius of the show isn’t just this; the fact that you’ve been manipulated into believing that this type of experience is a new beginning, when in reality what you open is the door to another hellish future.

For me, I think once is enough, and whoever tries to go back, and redo things is only to screw it up royally. We already know that one of the possible slogans for “Black Mirror” could be: “more prophecies than Nostradamus (and with twice the downer)”.

Javier Blánquez (Barcelona, 1975) is a journalist specialized in culture, editor and professor of the history of modern music.
He is a collaborator of different Spanish media -El Mundo, Time Out Barcelona, Beatburguer-, as well as the Barcelona publisher Alpha Decay, and has coordinated the collective book Loops. A history of electronic music (2002 and 2018), together with Omar Morera, for the publisher Reservoir Books.
In 2018 he also published, this time as author, the continuation, Loops 2. A history of electronic music in the 21st century.
As a result of his interest in classical music, which he has combined with electronic music for years, he also writes about opera in El Mundo and publlished in 2014 the essay Una invasión silenciosa. Cómo los autodidactas del pop han conquistado el espacio de la música clásica for the Capitán Swing publishing company.