Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and Its Philip K. Dick Influences
The video game stuff is cool, but, the real triumph of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is its love for all things Philip K. Dick.
The following contains spoilers for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Depending on which path you choose, some versions of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch will give you a scene in which Stefan hangs out with fellow video game coder, Colin, at his apartment while they get high and talk about the nature of reality. Prominently displayed in Colin’s apartment is artwork from the original book cover of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, which is much more than an Easter egg. The Ubik nod overtly states what some readers probably already noticed: Bandersnatch is a basically a giant tribute Philip K. Dick. The Netflix interactive movie isn’t technically an adaptation of any of Philip K. Dick’s stories or novels, but for all practical purposes, it might be the most successful PKD adaptation of all time.
When Colin and Stefan drop acid, we get a better look at Colin’s blow-up of the Ubik book cover and we see groovy spray paint is pouring out of a paint can. Ubik is arguably Dick’s most respected and revered novel. In 2009 Timenamed it one of the best 100 novels since 1923, Michel Gondry held the rights to turn it into a film for years and gave up in 2011, and author Jonathan Lethem has a tattoo of the spray can cover on his arm. What is the spray can? It’s a fake sci-fi product, which can reverse certain events, but also might be God leaking into our own world. Basically, if you get sprayed with Ubik, you get linked to something called half-life, in which you start to become aware of other timelines.
The fact Bandersnatch references this book so overtly makes sense when you realize that Ubik was also a video game released in 1998 for Playstation and Windows 95. Released by French video game developer Cryo Interactive, the game was a commercial a critical failure. At least in our universe!
Obviously, the notion of parallel worlds is not only the subject of Bandersnatch, but also the goal. You could say that in a sense Bandersnatch actually creates miniature parallel worlds because of its interactive feature. Dick didn’t invent the concept of alternate universes in science fiction, but he arguably perfected it.
The most famous example of a PKD alternate universes story is easily his 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle (now a streaming series of its own on Amazon Prime); which depicts a parallel future in which the Allies lost WWII to the Axis powers. And yet, the vast majority of other PKD parallel worlds have slightly smaller stakes, and it’s these more personal bizzaro worlds that Bandersnatch is connected to. In Dick’s 1974 novel, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, alternate realities are created because certain characters have done a specific kind of hallucinogen. It’s eventually revealed that one character’s personal alternate realities can influence the universe of other people, simply by proximity.
Drugs Show You the Truth
Though it shares similarities in setting with The Man in the High Castle, Dick’s 1967 short story “Faith of Our Fathers” also has huge Bandersnatch connections. In Bandersnatch, Colin tells Stefan that “the government puts drugs in your food.” In “Faith of Our Fathers,” it’s revealed that a powerful reality-altering sedative exists in the drinking water, and that taking certain psychedelic drugs serve as an antidote to the lie, revealing that the elected officials of the world are actually monstrous beings.
Similarly, the novel Now Wait For Last Year features an addictive drug called JJ-180, which straight-up causes characters to move into parallel futures. Dick’s 1977 novel, A Scanner Darkly, also revolves around a fictional hallucinogen: “substance-D.” In that book (and excellent film adaptation) assumptions about people’s basic identities are questioned, which of course connects to Bandersnatch when Stefan discovers his basic memories may have been created by drugs and specific stimuli.
The Author Believes He’s Being Controlled By Beings From Beyond
The central theme of Bandersnatch concerns to the notion of free will and whether it exists at all. In Bandersnatch, Colin says “PAC” (as in Pacman) stands for program and control. In Dick’s 1977 novel VALIS, those letters stand for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. In VALIS, and its related novels — The Divine Invasionand Radio Free Albemuth— Dick creates a reality in which alien satellites are guiding the actions of humans.
Obviously, Stefan questioning the nature of his choices in this interactive film echo that theme, but it becomes more on the nose with Bandersnatch faux-fantasy author, Jerome F. Davies. In Bandersnatch Davies is painted as a brilliant fantasy author who went insane after he believed he was controlled by beings from beyond. This feels like a direct reference to Philip K. Dick’s “exegesis,” an event where Dick did claim he came into contact with forces beyond humanity’s comprehension. Dick didn’t kill his wife or anything grisly like that. Actually he arguably did the reverse.
Though doctors claimed Dick’s infant son wasn’t sick, Dick believed there was something wrong. Upon insistence from Dick, doctors eventually discovered a inguinal hernia in the young child. If it hadn’t been taken out, the child would have died. Dick later claimed this was a straight-up intervention from VALIS and had VALIS not given him this information, his child would have died.
This detail feels very much in-line with everything Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker seems to believe about storytelling. In countless episodes of Black Mirror— from “Fifteen Million Merits” to “San Junipero” and especially “USS Callister” — characters are all caught in larger system in which their own personal truth doesn’t matter. As much as anyone in a Black Mirror episode tries to control his or her fate, Brooker is the one really in charge. And now, thanks to Bandersnatch, he’s in control of us, like Philip K. Dick before him.
Black Mirror Season 5 is arriving on Netflix...sometime.