Around 2012, on a visit with old college friends in the United States, I once found most of them animatedly discussing TV shows. As someone who did not watch much television then – I still am very selective – I was a bit surprised and asked them if they had stopped watching films. One friend paused to reflect and then told me that television was, in fact, far more interesting than most of the films coming out.
I was not convinced and it was only much later, once I tentatively dipped my toes in this new world (for me at least), that I began to understand my friend’s point. It was not so much that films had become worse, it was that television had changed. Series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, among others, had managed to redefine what most had come to expect of television.
Yes, these were TV serials but they defied the usual safe (or worse, banal) content one normally associated with the idiot box. These were gritty, visceral dramas that often contained raw language, graphic violence, mature themes and did not come with feel-good morality tales wrapped up in 30-minute or one-hour slots. As importantly, and unlike the television of the past, their production values rivaled those of feature films. The one thing common to them all: they were produced and aired on subscription-based cable channels such as HBO, Showtime and AMC et al, which freed them of the constraints of traditional TV broadcast censorship.
Something similar has been happening around the world with the rise of the streaming service Netflix. International audiences now have access to content from around the world that would likely never make it to mainstream TV channels. But with Bandersnatch, the first full feature-length offering from the team of Black Mirror – the ‘anthology’ that began life as a Channel 4 series in the UK and that draws inspiration from an American show, The Twilight Zone, aired in the 1950s and 1980s – another breakthrough seems to have been made as far as small screen content is concerned. It is the world’s first ‘interactive’ film in the sense that viewers constantly have to choose actions that impact which direction the story will go.
Before I go any further, it is important to understand that it is impossible to watch Bandersnatch on a ‘normal’ television screen. You need the ability to make ‘choices’ – either through a mouse or a trackpad or a joystick – so a computer or a smart TV is the minimum requirement. For one thing, this upends the idea of the TV viewer as a passive receptor of what is presented — which may not be to the liking of those who use television merely as a form of zombie escapism.
But what it also does is open up myriad ‘pathways’ in the story. There are five possible main endings (with some variations) but the ways of getting to them are estimated to be in the millions, a no doubt daunting figure. What is actually mind-blowing, aside from the sheer conceit of the project, is the fact that each of the choices you make as you go along seem to meld seamlessly into the narrative. The very scope of the writing and filming is awe-inspiring.
So what is Bandersnatch about? Well, on the surface it is about a young man Stefan (Whitehead) in the London of 1984. He wants to develop an interactive computer game based on a choose-your-own-adventure novel written by a troubled and controversial genius. As he gets deeper and deeper into designing the game, he discovers that his own sense of reality is being warped. Is his mentor, the young programming whiz Colin (Poulter) guiding him or leading him on? Is his father Peter (Parkinson), who he lives with, really his father or a scientist secretly monitoring him? Is his therapist Dr Haynes (Lowe) trying to help him overcome his childhood trauma about his mother or controlling him in cahoots with his father?
But on another level, this film – extended episode? – is actually about the interaction between free will, control and the burden of technology, a recurring theme in the Black Mirror series. No matter what your choices, the storylines inexorably move towards certain predetermined outcomes. And, in some of them, Stefan begins to suspect that ‘his’ choices are not his at all but that he is being controlled by an external power. He is, of course, since that external power is the viewer. But how independent are the viewer’s choices as well? In one scene Stefan actually resists the choice I selected for him in order to assert his own control over his destiny.
But what does all this amount to? You can spend hours going down various rabbit holes of narrative – even when the narrative ostensibly ends, the show rewinds its way back to a particular position and allows you to make other choices to see other pathways if you so wish – but the ending increasingly seems predetermined no matter what you try. It does not help that every possible ending is distasteful and troubling. Does this mean that fate is stronger than will? Does this mean that nobody really has full control over what they do? At some point in the back and forth – there is really no given runtime – I was merely trying to find a pathway that would give me a different, happier ending. And when I stopped after about two and a half or three hours, it was because I was tired, not because I was satisfied about where I had got.
In comparison, I recalled playing the multiple-pathway game The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on an Apple IIE in 1984 with a school friend. We had gone into the text-only game without having read the novels on which it was based and had no clue what the narrative was. Significantly, that game – in the vein of the off-kilter Douglas Adams books it was based on – also announced that we had to discover the aim of the game ourselves. It was like trying to divine a narrative, with multiple choices along the way. It took us forever (I think at least six months to a year to figure it out) but, unlike in Bandersnatch, there was a sense of exhilaration every time we managed to make progress. Here, I felt intrigued but never exhilarated.
I have always liked the work of Charlie Brooker, the Black Mirror co-creator and the writer of this film. His work is always thought-provoking and, even though Black Mirror has stayed away from Brooker’s comedy roots, there are often sly jokes thrown in (1984, geddit? One pathway also puts Netflix itself front and centre of the narrative and there is one pathway here that is Tarantinoesquely extravagant as well).
But Bandersnatch is the sort of cerebral and visual pyrotechnics that you admire more for its technical adroitness and its concept than for its emotional heft. It will not make you think about how it has changed your life but it will long be remembered for being a breakthrough in entertainment programming.
The writer is Editor Magazines for Daily Dawn.
This was originally published in the Herald's February 2019 issue under the headline 'Remote control'. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.