Are you the kind of person who always remembers to say thank you to Alexa? Are you careful in how you describe the great and benevolent Google when you’re within earshot of a Home Hub? Have you had a good long look at your Facebook privacy settings and do you actually understand what all that nonsense means? In which case you’re already familiar with the themes of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a huge worldwide Netflix success (as far as we can tell with a company notoriously cagey about releasing their viewing figures) poached with extreme prejudice (and bucket-loads of cash) from Channel 4 back in 2015. Technology is a crutch for the human race, a wedge that drives us apart and the idealism of “do no evil” is an absurd fairy story. We’re being corrupted and driven to the point of madness by our own beloved, addictive creation.
Bandersnatch doesn’t make my life easy. This review is particularly hard to write. Usually I’d give brief outline of the story and then get into the nitty gritty. But everyone’s story here is slightly different, especially the multiple possible endings. So let’s cover the very basics and see where we go from there.
Fionn Whitehead is Stefan, a cute, nervy games designer trying to break into the industry with a game called Bandersnatch, based on the dark fantasy novel by his hero Jerome F Davies. Stefan lives with his father, who is distant and cold in a bumbling “I’m no good at this, I wish your mother was here” sort of manner. Stefan takes pills every morning which is obvious telly shorthand for being a nutter. And I use that precise word rather than anything kinder or more accurate because programs with that imagery are rarely ever more sympathetic than that. It’s a simplistic set-up and the characters have no real room to develop or change, bound by the vast library of genre rules – Sci-Fi, horror and Choose Your Own Adventure.
With the viewer in control of Stefan’s actions just like the Choose Your Own Adventure books the setting of pure 80s nostalgia fits nicely as this was the books heyday. The technology powering this interactive TV show is marvellous and the editing is seamless; there’s no pixelated loading screens or laggy frame rate, which actually would have been much more in keeping with the time. As soon as you start the episode you are immersed. A talking point and a lovely hook for social media or a real-life glitch in the matrix (if you’ll allow me to mix my sci-fi references) was that vintage WHSmith-style shops turned up in Grand Central, Birmingham and Old Street Station, London to promote the episode, filled with items from the show and other geeky details. And who loves details more than geeks?
The opening especially suffers under the weight of some heavy foreshadowing. Watching the neighbour’s dog digging up flower beds Stefan’s Dad says “That dog will be the death of me”. This is the narrative equivalent of getting whacked over the head by an ashtray. See, any fool can do foreshadowing. Let’s be honest, nothing about Black Mirror is ever subtle. And with Bandersnatch in particular, stuck inside a whole nest of restrictive Russian dolls, subtleties and nuance are not really an option. That level of complexity is far too hard to come by; a riddle wrapped in an enigma bound by the viewer’s choice is actually going to be a pretty dull experience.
Stefan’s dad is alright really (despite being played by Craig Parkinson, forever cast as a baddie in my mind thanks to Line of Duty). He’s devastated by his wife’s death and struggling to connect to his strange and worrisome son. Maybe on some level he does blame Stefan for her death, as Stefan certainly blames himself. Will Poulter plays Stefan’s game developer hero Colin Ritman (a Jamie Hewlett character who would look perfectly at home in Tank Girl) who seems like a good guy to get to know. Turns out old Colin is a real vibe killer and way too earnest when he’s high. Also, rather importantly, LSD doesn’t automatically make you want to jump off a building despite what Grange Hill might have taught us.
Black Mirror has always commanded a great supporting cast and here Alice Lowe as Stefan’s psychiatrist Dr Haynes and Asim Chaudhry as software moghul Mohan Thakur do a great job to flesh out the world and Stefan’s troubles with very limited screen time.
It seems obvious that taking a job working alongside your idol a leading software company is a great idea. Stefan should hone his craft with all the right support and loads of money for his project. Sure, the deadline is ambitious, but not impossible with the right team. But no. Stefan is destined to work alone whether you like it or not. And I do not. Frequently the viewer is forced down paths that you know instinctively are A Very Bad Idea, so the concept of free will is a fiction for the viewer as well as poor baffled Stefan. Uncomfortably the viewer in control of the remote is cast as the voice inside Stefan’s head. By controlling his actions (as best we can, and as much as we’re actually allowed) we’re making a bad situation worse. We’re complicit in human misery.
It’s just plain annoying that Charlie Brooker has written another version of the story that links the spark of creativity to poor mental health. It’s irresponsible to preach that all creatives must be in emotional distress to make great art. As such our artists are condemned to a miserable, usually short life and tragic end to feed the desires of their audience. With a reasonable viewer in control can’t we try to make life better for Stefan? In short, no. Stefan has to go and take drugs with Colin, and has to come off his medication – the options, if you can call them that, are ‘bin them’ or ‘flush them’. How about if I want Stefan to take them and feel better?
When Stefan finally resists you can’t help but cheer, rebelling against our demands and the plot. But it’s still bound to go south isn’t it? This kid isn’t getting a happy ending. Thankfully despite the spoilers that were everywhere as soon as the episode went live, it doesn’t actually have to end in grizzly murder, although you are encouraged to go back and look at bloodier endings. There’s some measure of pride that all Stefan did to his Dad in my ending was kick him in the balls. My better nature only lasted so long though as the carnage you have the ability to create is more satisfying. Plus, there’s a bunch of different endings so it only seems right to have a browse and see what you could have won. This is the first TV program ever where I’ve been able to link to the walkthroughs online.
I don’t think Black Mirror is a black mirror, the empty maw of a screen staring back at you. I think it’s a zoo mirror. At the zoo, any zoo, there’s a sign on the wall that asks what is the most dangerous predator in the world. Turn the handle, open the door and reveal the big mystery! You know before you even touch the handle what it’s going to be, a mirror with your face staring back at you with the caption ‘Humans!’ above it. Despite knowing the inevitable miserable outcome you do it anyway and you accept the moral kicking dished out. Yes humans really are the worst and we know it. In the case of Black Mirror humans are definitely the absolute worst and our relationship with technology is making something nasty (fish in a microwave) ever worse (fish in a microwave but now the microwave is on fire). But what are you gonna do about it? The same thing we always do; feel rotten about yourself for a few minutes, then wander off and find another distraction. Maybe ask Google for a suggestion of something fun to do. Just remember to say thank you.
Bandersnatch is available on Netflix now. Watch it by yourself so there’s no argument over the remote control, and then see how twisted your friends and family are by comparing endings. Watch this space for more interactive TV shows, surely coming your way soon.