‘Renaissance’ is Pi Comment’s culture column, taking a closer look at popular culture and fresh takes on the humanities. Leo Krapp reviews Black Mirror’s ‘Bandersnatch’, a dark choice-based tale with consequences and rewards and an experiment in interactive television. Could it take modern entertainment by storm or fizzle out from its own flaws?
Take your pick, frosted flakes or sugar puffs? Drop acid, or politely decline? Become an agent in your own entertainment, or consume passively? Continue reading this article, or click away? Albert Camus says that “Life is the sum of all your choices,” but are those choices really yours to make?
This is the question put forth by the latest release of the British Netflix television series “Black Mirror,” titled Bandersnatch, a stand-alone instalment named after the strange creature of Lewis Carrolls’ imagining from Into the Looking Glass. In contrast to the anthology-like nature of this dark sci-fi’s previous seasons, Bandersnatch is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tale, styled after the popular genre of 80s children’s novels and early text-only video games, and is very loyal to its roots. Choices are built into the narrative seamlessly, and once every few minutes at an appropriate juncture, a choice will be given to the audience, who will then have 10 seconds to choose between one of two answers. In the tradition of classic CYOA narratives, some of these decisions will be vastly more important than others, but it is precisely this lack of predictability that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is the new and shiny toy of the entertainment world, but can it live up to the hype?
In bringing this particular genre onto the TV screen, the writer of Bandersnatch and Black Mirror program creator Charlie Booker might just have brought about the biggest change in entertainment since the advent of streamable television. The story of Bandersnatch follows a young programmer by the name Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) and his efforts to fight against his own mania and a string of unfortunate coincidences in order to create his own CYOA video-game in 1984. What follows in this article will be partially a commentary on entertainment, and partially a review of this episode, so spoilers are coming. If you are unfamiliar with this TV show, and are interested in the genre of science fiction, and themes like the dangers of new technology and concept of free choice, I encourage you to stop now, grab some friends, and watch not only this episode, but all of Black Mirror, without the opinions of others tarnishing your experience.
Like most people, when I first watched Bandersnatch I was confused, mildly uncomfortable, and vastly unsatisfied. With a runtime that varies from 40 to 240 minutes, over a trillion combinations of different possible choices, and five “real” endings, each experience of this episode is likely to be unique. It took me over two hours before I finally grew bored of some of the frustrating time-loops, and finally realized I had already reached three of those endings. Like everything with Black Mirror, however, and especially Bandersnatch, it is only once you reach the end that you can appreciate the bigger picture. For a CYOA, this statement seems like a contradiction, because the selling-point for this genre is that the fun is in the process, rather than the conclusion. In some ways this is true. The choices in Bandersnatch, the character you control, and the impact of his (your) actions on those around him all are important, not because they are building towards a satisfying and mind-boggling conclusion, (they aren’t), but because they are able to communicate something about the meaning of entertainment, the purpose or futility of our decisions. There are, however, many times throughout the show that a character will drop in a sometimes clumsily written piece of dialogue about free will or future timelines or mind-control conspiracies. At worst, these meta moments are somewhat irritating disruptions in one’s immersion, and at best, they are fascinating pieces of narrative structure that make the audience question the very nature of the pixels that they are watching flit across their television.
For me, this episode only became interesting when I opened my laptop to look up what others thought. The narrative was honestly too bizarre and the protagonist too unlikeable for me to ever become appropriately invested, and sometimes these issues even interfered with my decision-making process. When the choice between smashing up or pouring tea over your hard drive results in the exact same scenario, and forces you to watch the same tedious flashback in order to make the appropriate set of decisions where you don’t destroy your coding, (especially if you don’t necessarily care if Stefan’s game is a success or not), it can take away from the overall experience. However, there are many who will serenade Bandersnatch as an adrenaline-fueled form of interactive television where it is the participation and the process that make it worthwhile and significant in the world of entertainment.
It is very possible that in 10 years we will look back at Bandersnatch as the beginning of a new era in media, in the same way that we look back at the demise of Blockbuster or commodification of the radio. With the rise of virtual reality technology, a combination of these two ideas could result in a form of entertainment vastly more immersive than ever before. Yet, if there is anything Black Mirror has taught us, it is to remain wary of developments like this. It is equally possible, however, that clumsy storytelling by an otherwise superb series, as well a mixed critical reception, may have killed this genre off altogether. In that case, it is only a matter of time before the next groundbreaking innovation emerges.
Bandersnatch makes you responsible for your own entertainment, and culpable for the disasters that emerge on-screen. In trying to escape reality, you end up instead embedded very deeply within an alternate one. Whether a negative or a positive experience, it is certainly one that has not been replicated anywhere else in the realm of television – yet. In teaching us about how we entertain ourselves now, it also paves the way for how we will entertain ourselves in the future. We can only hope that time and practice will result in more polished final products, but either way, Black Mirror both beckons us forwards and warns us against a new epoch in choice and multimedia.