10 Jan 2019

Black Mirror: Brooker's 21st Century Schizoid Man

7:49 pm on 10 January 2019

Analysis - Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror has become the standard-bearer of our technology anxieties over the past few years.

A still from Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

A still from Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Photo: Screengrab

The basic premise of many episodes - what if phones, but too much? - often looks at technologies which are already prevalent, and how their usage could lead us down a dark path.

Brooker also has an eerie penchant for tapping into the zeitgeist. His season one episode National Anthem explored what would happen should the Prime Minister of the UK be pressured to have sex with a pig live on television.

Not long after, details emerged alleging the actual Prime Minister having had relations with a pig.

Another episode - The Waldo Moment, from season two - showed how far someone (or something: in this case an animated, talking bear) could go in politics relying on a base populism and television ratings, without having any real message.

His latest special for Netflix, which has become the new home for the show, is a choose-your-own-adventure story which is ground-breaking in its execution but narratively on the lighter side. As an audience, we're accustomed to Brooker taking the show to dark places - it's become a fetishized element of watching the show.

Bandersnatch certainly gets weird and dark but lacks the gut-punch of anxiety a typical episode leaves the viewer with.

The protagonist, 1980s game developer Stefan (played by Fionn Whitehead), is trying to make a choose-your-own-adventure game (yes, it's a meta-narrative) based on a science-fiction novel.

The viewer is in charge of making choices for him, ranging from what breakfast cereal to eat to decisions between life and death.

Much like in the Stefan's own game, some of these choices are dead-ends which will lead the viewer/player to circle back around and try again. Stefan explains in one illustrating moment, when watching someone test his game, it was the wrong choice.

The show helpfully allows you to cycle back to previous decisions and to fast-forward certain segments if you've already seen them. Watching on a Playstation 4 and using a controller was easy and seamless. The controller will helpfully vibrate prior to any decisions, allowing you to sit back and not worry about missing crucial choices.

In the beginning, Bandersnatch is relatively straightforward: make the game, argue with dad, see the psychologist, bond with the cool nerd and talk about the philosophy of Pacman. It's in its third act that Bandersnatch begins to fly off the handle as Stefan confronts his guilt over his dead mother and begins to question reality.

At this point, choices begin to have a much stronger impact on the story and take it in wildly different places.

Without giving too much away, there's a decision viewers can make later in the show which completely changes the basis and narrative of the show in an inventive and voyeuristic way. An eerie reference to an early, incredibly dark Black Mirror episode - White Bear - begins to pop up which raises a lot of questions about our participation in actively making decisions for the character or passively allowing it to unfold.

Ultimately, the viewer's ending - of which there appear to be four - will be dictated by decisions made along the way. There is one path - which felt like the correct one - which requires a bit of sleuthing and memory to get through, showing that the concept has potential to go much further than simple decision making.

However inventive it is though, Bandersnatch fell short on of the narrative heft we've come to expect from Black Mirror. Unlike other episodes there wasn't any particular moment that spoke to contemporary anxieties about how technology has the potential to transform our lives.

Bandersnatch instead feels more like a novelty - which in many ways it is. There's a great deal of promise in the format, and Brooker and crew should be lauded for what they pulled off.

Given the choice, I would rather watch a regular episode.