Caragh Medlicott takes a look at ‘Bandersnatch’, the latest episode of Black Mirror, which many are citing as a watershed moment in television history.
Streaming services have irrevocably changed the way we consume film and TV. To date, Netflix has a mind-boggling 118 million subscribers, a statistic which presumably doesn’t even account for the individual users that exist per account. Spending an evening sat in front of the TV is a pastime that’s been around for a long while, yet streaming services have introduced a new dimension that has never existed in the same way before: that is, the TV binge. With millions of hours of content at our fingertips, “binging” a TV show has become synonymous with the lazy night in; it is a cornerstone of how we consume entertainment in the digital age. After all, how often do you watch just one episode on Netflix, then turn it off? So prolific is the binge, that Netflix have actually added a ‘skip intro’ button, so you can watch hour upon hour of your favourite show without even the interruption of opening titles. This kind of viewership facilitates a whole new kind of passivity; one where you don’t even need to reach for a remote, or put in a DVD. Seeking to change that is a bold move, and one that’s bound to elicit a strong reaction – and Charlie Brooker has done just that with his latest feature-length interactive installment of Black Mirror, “Bandersnatch”.
Black Mirror has always sought to raise questions. Generally, it is viewed as a commentary on the trappings of modern society and its ever-advancing technology; the show’s namesake, is, itself, a famous reference to the black mirror of our many devices when the screen is turned off. Yet, it has always been most pressingly concerned with human nature. The technology, both real and imagined, which is the backbone of the premise for most episodes, becomes fictional collateral without the human characters there to manipulate and misuse it. Even so, “Bandersnatch” marks a step into new territory. As well as being the first Black Mirror instalment to legitimately be set in the past (and 1984, no less) – the thematic subject matter, itself, is different. The examination of human nature is ever present – but “Bandersnatch” also dips its toes into a philosophical realm with its multi-layered consideration of free will.
The story follows aspiring game-maker Stefan on his quest to turn his beloved choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch into a game of the same name; Brooker’s never been one to shy away from on-the-nose meta. From early on, the viewer is given the power to decide what choices Stefan makes, with the options ranging from the mundane to the life changing. It doesn’t take a genius to wrap your head around the general idea – a narrative concerned with free will in which the viewer gets to actively select the route taken by the protagonist. In execution, however, things get a little more complex. It boils down to layers of fiction and power; Stefan may be powerless to your whims, but your whims are – in themselves – restrained to two predetermined options. When you throw in the fact there’s a time limit, and that selecting one path does nothing to prevent you being thrown into a “decision loop” where you are forced to go back and select a different option, it becomes clear that any influence you have is wholly illusionary. Even the ending you see is devised by a complex algorithm calculated through the sequence of your decisions aligned with the two and a half hours of footage available.
The significant intricacies required to make “Bandersnatch” mean that, unsurprisingly, something’s got to give; in this case, the overall quality of character suffers by necessity. Protagonist Stefan is less a person, and more an embodiment of teenage angst. Some scenes fall back on slightly clichéd-looking montages, and grey-tinged flashbacks. Though it is worth noting that these blips are less irksome than they might be, with new decisions appearing every few minutes and the narrative growing ever more mind bending, a lack of thorough characterization isn’t really the first thing on your mind. There are even genuinely comic moments; experiencing “Bandersnatch” certainly induces more emotions than the average film, ranging from slightly sadistic amusement to total perplexment. The interactive element makes it a slippier narrative than even the trippiest of films – every time you think you’ve got it pinned, it pivots in a whole new direction. Existing fans will be familiar with the what-the-hell-did-I-just-watch feeling that accompanies most Black Mirror episodes, but here it is especially acute; I even found myself questioning the long-term consequences of my decision to make tea over coffee post viewing.
It’s interesting that the first Black Mirror installment not to reflect on the modern world, has worked up the biggest online frenzy yet. No episode of Black Mirror’s past has lent itself so perfectly to social media debate, click-bait articles, and all-consuming Reddit threads which dissect the film with the detail usually reserved for David Lynch productions. While the characters on screen may not be subject to the technology of Brooker’s imagination, the viewer still experiences something new through the interactive format. “Bandersnatch” has found the space between video game and film and TV; it may have a touch of the gimmicky, but it is the first large-scale attempt at such a venture. Of course, there is no denying that Netflix reaps the rewards of “Bandersnatch” more than anyone else; with the hoards of data they’ll collect, the users who’ll be coming back for multiple viewings, and the inception of a shiny new format to draw in yet more subscribers. Still, it’d be short sighted to completely dismiss the medium. “Bandersnatch” may well give rise to a new kind of individualism within entertainment, and one that asks for more from the viewer than that of the average film.
Only time will tell how interactive fiction may continue to manifest in film and TV. The biggest shame, perhaps, is that the ample production resources required will – at least in the short term – limit those who are able to create it. Though the fan backlash has been considerable, high viewing figures and a continuing swirl of media attention ensure that “Bandersnatch” won’t be the last experiment from Netflix. With so much potential for new narrative exploration (and, of course, so much data to collect) who knows where the next choose-your-own-adventure production might take us.
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.