“Black Museum” (2017) self-reflexively ponders both Black Mirror (2011–) and dystopian science fiction anthology series in general. Even as Rolo Haynes has curated his own dark archive of technological attractions, each with stories behind them, so do Black Mirror and other series, such as Electric Dreams (Amazon, 2017–) and the forthcoming Twilight Zone (CBS, 2019–), constitute a renaissance of dystopian sci-fi anthologies across networks and streaming platforms. As inherent to the anthology itself, episodes of these series need not be watched in any particular order. Instead they can be viewed ad hoc, furthering the neoliberalized mechanisms and technological affordances by which viewers are able to exert a degree of control over when, where, and how to engage with serial media.
One might also question the why behind the resurgence of the sci-fi anthology series. Several scholars have noted key industrial shifts in production, distribution, branding, as well as contemporary audience on-demand viewing practices which have helped foster increasingly complex serial storytelling. Some critics have even credited the return to shorter, more cinematic, more digestible television narrative forms to experiences of audience burnout after a glut of complicated, hyperdiegetic serial narratives in today’s mediascape.
Given that fan speculation plays so vital a role in the sci-fi genre, I propose that audiences are also drawn to these anthology series not only for the symbolic diegetic settings and narratives they present, but also for the anticipated novelty of each permutation. Sci-fi TV already invites fans to engage affectively with the pleasure and anxiety of speculation. The serial-standalone hybridization afforded by anthologies, however, allows for settings, characters, and narrative arcs to reboot while maintaining key thematic throughlines. This kind of variation provides an element of surprise in terms of what stories creators can tell and in which order audiences can choose to experience them. Black Mirror’s interactive installment, Bandersnatch (2018), is perhaps the ultimate example of anthology series’ re-iterative potential to operate interstitially between film and television, as well as within a field of limitations and choice. Since viewers can now negotiate control over digital streaming platforms, archive, and now even the texts themselves, I argue that the sci-fi anthology series function differently in the current moment than they did in previous decades when anthologies held sway.
In the case of Black Mirror specifically, novelty and interactivity seem to have replaced much of the narrative continuity and affective speculation upon which other sci-fi media forms hinge. In an age of increasingly fragmented audiences across platforms and texts, interactivity and performances of control over viewing practices and storylines perhaps are necessary to maintain the sci-fi genre's stickiness. This tension between the genre's symbolic storytelling and its new material realities are what I hope we can unpack this week.