Bandersnatch is the new ‘choose your own adventure’ episode of Black Mirror. Like the old Choose Your Own Adventure series of books on which the concept is based, the programme presents the viewer with numerous opportunities to make a choice about what the character should do in a particular situation. Dependent on these choices, a number of different outcomes are possible. Bandersnatch was made possible by Netflix’s development of its Branch Manager software, a tool that allows for branching narratives that can loop round and lead to different endings. From Variety magazine: “Bandersnatch comes with five possible endings. Viewers who choose the quickest path, and decide against any do-overs, can make it through the film in around 40 minutes. The average viewing time is around 90 minutes. Altogether, there are over a trillion unique permutations of the story.”
Clearly, this is ‘a story’ only in one particular sense. Assuming that the eye-watering figure of one trillion permutations is actually correct, it is not readily clear that this episode of Black Mirror can actually be discussed in terms of film or TV at all. If you have watched it then you might have seen some very different content to me. In this respect, it more closely resembles a video game. But the content of Bandersnatch is very well chosen to fit with the mechanics of watching it, and not just in the sense that it is a choose your own adventure show about a choose your own adventure game. One of the most interesting things about Bandersnatch is that it points to the Gnosticism of Philip K. Dick in ways that emulate Dick’s own approach to presenting the subject in the form of popular fiction.
Bandersnatch concerns Stefan, a young computer games programmer, who in 1984 is designing a choose your own adventure game based on the choose your own adventure book, Bandersnatch. (That the preceding sentence ends up where it started is highly apt in this context). The book’s author, Jerome F. Davies, who was said to have been driven to madness by the writing of Bandersnatch, is based on Philip K. Dick. During the writing of the vast Bandersnatch, Davies is said to have been taking hallucinogens and to have become detached from reality, questioning the notion of free will. He suffers a complete mental breakdown and becomes obsessed with a particular symbol taken from the branching lines of a flow chart. He goes on to decapitate his wife. He is presented as a sort of mad guru figure. Philip K. Dick had a breakdown/sacred revelation in 1974 that led to his writing the unfathomably vast Exegesis. According to the Wikipedia page for The Exegesis:
“Dick started the journal after his visionary experiences in February and March 1974, which he called “2-3-74.” These visions began shortly after Dick had two impacted wisdom teeth removed. When a delivery person from the pharmacy brought his pain medication, he noticed the ichthys necklace she wore and asked her what it meant. She responded that it was a symbol used by the early Christians, and in that moment Dick’s religious experiences began:
In that instant, as I stared at the gleaming fish sign and heard her words, I suddenly experienced what I later learned is called anamnesis—a Greek word meaning, literally, “loss of forgetfulness.” I remembered who I was and where I was. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it all came back to me. And not only could I remember it but I could see it. The girl was a secret Christian and so was I. We lived in fear of detection by the Romans. We had to communicate with cryptic signs. She had just told me all this, and it was true.
For a short time, as hard as this is to believe or explain, I saw fading into view the black, prisonlike contours of hateful Rome. But, of much more importance, I remembered Jesus, who had just recently been with us, and had gone temporarily away, and would very soon return. My emotion was one of joy. We were secretly preparing to welcome Him back. It would not be long. And the Romans did not know. They thought He was dead, forever dead. That was our great secret, our joyous knowledge. Despite all appearances, Christ was going to return, and our delight and anticipation were boundless.
In the following weeks, Dick experienced further visions, including a hallucinatory slideshow of abstract patterns and an information-rich beam of pink light. In the Exegesis, he theorized as to the origins and meaning of these experiences, frequently concluding that they were religious in nature. The being that originated the experiences is referred to by several names, including Zebra, God, and the Vast Active Living Intelligence System.”
There is a brief glimpse of a poster for Dick’s book Ubik at one point in Bandersnatch, just to make the link between the fictional writer and Dick.
All of this is interesting enough, but what elevates this episode of Black Mirror to a status comparable with the best of Dick’s work is the way that the ‘gameplay’ in the episode is used to intervene in Stefan’s universe. As the episode progresses, Stefan begins to question the nature of reality and of free will. He feels that decisions are being imposed on him by some unseen, outside agency. Of course, the viewer is aware that this is literally the case as they are making the decisions for Stefan. Ultimately, when Stefan demands to know who is guiding his will, he learns that a streaming service from the future called Netflix is manipulating him. As the agent of this manipulation, the viewer is immediately confronted with two uncomfortable realisations. Firstly, Stefan’s breakdown is occasioned by his discovery of the true nature of reality. Far from losing his grip on reality, Stefan has discovered that his reality is not what it seems at all and is in fact a fiction designed to hide a malign force. Secondly, the evil genius responsible for Stefan’s trauma is the viewer: you. You are the outside force, the demiurge hidden behind the illusion of free will.
Dick came to accept that the Gnostic vision of the world as a place of illusion ruled by a demiurge who was antithetical to the true spiritual principle, was in fact a literal description of the world in which he found himself. He explored this idea in his work, most notably in his final trilogy: VALIS; The Divine Invasion; The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Additionally, there is also the depiction of other, contingent worlds in some of his other books: the Perky Pat world of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or the illusory world of Ubik.
When Stefan begins to realise that there is a malign, outside force intervening in his world and that the structure of his world that he had always assumed to be natural is in fact a malignant illusion, he directly implicates the viewer in this realisation of the truth of Gnostic wisdom. We are startled to find ourselves playing the demiurge to Stefan with exactly the same indifference and casual cruelty that the Gnostics ascribe to their demiurge. Bandersnatch lulls us into a seductive role of interactivity only to then force us to see the literal truth of the Gnostic vision. It’s the type of structural trick that Dick would have been proud to pull off, and in this age of ubiquitous secularism it might be the closest many of us will get to an epiphany.
- Roettgers, J. (2018). Netflix Takes Interactive Storytelling to the Next Level With ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’. [online] Variety. Available at: https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/netflix-black-mirror-bandersnatch-interactive-1203096171/
- Wikipedia (2018). The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Exegesis_of_Philip_K._Dick