A Critique of Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch aka why all Novelty isn’t Revolutionary

I recently re-watched Bandersnatch, the most recent Black Mirror episode that got a lot of hype in Dec 2018 because of the “choose your own adventure” thing. I remember being disappointed when I watched it 2 yrs ago and I’m here to say, I am still disappointed.

Okay. So, the concept was cool, and I don’t want to take away from that (those programmers deserve 100% of the credit), because the choose your own story stuff is a much needed change of pace from the filler nonsense that most streaming sites were releasing at the time. No one had done something like Bandersnatch before, and in a really competitive streaming landscape it was a strategic differentiating factor for Netflix’s own content.

BUT

Have you ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five? Well, if you have, skip this entire movie. If you haven’t, use this time to read this book instead (get it? It’s like Choose Your own Adventure.)

Acting? Great. Cinematography? Alright. Concept? Fantastic. Holy shit. Have you ever baked a really awful cake even when you were in Martha Stewart’s kitchen? That’s what Black Mirror has become. Every ingredient was literally given to them. But the script writers, with their shallow understanding of middle school philosophy, still managed to screw it up. It could have been great and I’m mad it didn’t reach its potential.

Time

The first thing Bandersnatch tried to do was Slaughterhouse-Five — oops, I mean a unique discussion of linearity and parallelism in time. It was mentioned directly twice: in Colin’s acid rant and the Jerome F. Davies’s documentary. This, coupled with his childhood, fueled Stefan to have weird-kid-flashbacks that were never fully explained (what do the script writers think parallel timelines mean? Even Rick and Morty understood quantum physics better). The idea was largely brought up via dialogue instead of through plot, and it was never fully fleshed out.

Parallel/alternate timelines were never properly explained, and even the straight dialogue (by Colin) made no sense. Parallel timelines shouldn’t influence each other!! They’re just permutations so its frustrating that this show doesn’t have a grasp on that, considering it’s the whole premise.

What I thought the writers could have done pretty easily is connect the timelines idea to the overall “Choose your own Adventure” concept. If the idea is that one’s individual decisions don’t matter because there are an infinite number of timelines where they make an infinite number of possible decisions, then like hello isn’t that this episode??? With multiple possible pathways coexisting (and therefore influencing each other) and leading to multiple outcomes, Bandersnatch would have been a small physical embodiment of the fact that nothing matters because everything is gonna happen anyway. Huge missed opportunity.

Free Will

The second discussion point was that there is no such thing as free will. Like time, it was largely discussed through Colin’s acid monologue, the documentary, and further emphasized by rash actions Stefan made because he no longer feared consequence.

I was super excited by complex philosophy’s first appearance on Black Mirror, but it was short lived because Bandersnatch did nothing more than @nietzche and do this weird pac man bit.

It was interesting, sure, but was pac man really the only way to talk about free will on a show literally (or supposed to be) about it? ALSO, if there’s no free will, then how are there multiple endings??

Take a second and think about it.

Instead of several distinct endings, there should have been only one to really show that no matter what choices the viewer/Stefan made, nothing would have changed. And that’s probably the most insightful way this could have ended, effectively proving Nietzsche right.

Simulation/the Fourth Wall

Stefan goes about his life, gradually becoming aware of “something,” i.e. the viewer, guiding his decisions. At one point, he even communicates with the watcher via computer signals.

This concept was very cool, and its Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra undertones go hand in hand with Nietzsche’s no free will argument, but it just wasn’t expanded on at all (outside of that one “joke” storyline.)

Black Mirror missed the opportunity to tell us that, like Stefan, none of our choices are ours and are always guided by some impulse, as he describes it. Obviously, there’s no viewer clicking buttons that dictate our life, but the series of external factors that we consider when making decisions begs the question of whether we have unique choice or whether circumstance, or “simulation”, renders these choices inevitable. Bandersnatch could have looked us in the eye and told us that we have no independent agency and “choose your own adventure” is just a much more literal description of the modern day “simulacra,” but IT DIDN’T. It chose to say nothing instead, and that’s so so frustrating.

FINAL THOUGHTS

They should have focused ONE of these three concepts and really made a profound, Black Mirror-esque statement rather than throwing a bunch of buzzwords into a show and expecting “insight.”

I used to watch Black Mirror in awe. Each episode expertly critiqued modern technology in such a unique and jaw-dropping manner. Sadly, in the last two seasons with Netflix’s adoption of the show, it seems like instead of actually insightful critique, the screen writers have opted to throw random seemingly-philosophical topics into episodes with high-profile actors. This is in an effort to, I guess, serve the original show justice? But it doesn’t.

Instead, it offers none of the educational value it originally did. It becomes a a show that people throw around to show !! they are smart about tech stuff !! Black Mirror has the ability to educate society about hard-to-approach philosophy, about the dangers of technology (and other unrepresented philosophical concepts), and it gives that up for half-assed, click-bait episodes about nothing for money.

head of tech @alevelcapital, vc @sandscapventures

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