That’s what we call plot development. Black Mirror’s showrunners have revealed that the season five premiere, “Striking Vipers,” didn’t start out as the story of two friends who discover new things about themselves after trying a new virtual reality game. It was originally envisioned as the story of a group of office workers forced to stage a virtual reality production of Grease.
The episode, one of three that Netflix released for this latest season, stars Anthony Mackie (Avengers: Endgame) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) as two longtime friends who engage in a virtual sex relationship through a Tekken-style fighting game. The episode weaves a complicated web, exploring gender identity, sexual fluidity, and the line between pornography and adultery.
This wasn’t the initial pitch for the episode, but it did stem from the previous plot. As Brooker explained, “Striking Vipers” grew from a story idea that would’ve explored the weird trend of office team-building exercises designed to put the “fun” in “mandatory corporate excursions for strategically improved communication.”
Given how Amazon has recently gamified warehouse work by turning it into a competitive video game, it’s not outlandish to imagine offices turning to virtual reality next.
While I did enjoy “Striking Vipers” and felt it was an interesting and complex piece of television, I think this would’ve been an interesting avenue to explore, too—especially when you learn what the virtual team-building exercise would’ve been: staging a musical production of Grease. It feels fitting, considering Grease is one of the most recognisable and commonly produced musicals out there.
It also reminds me of Ready Player One, where virtual reality was used as a nostalgia tool for characters to physically relive old movies and experiences from the past. As Brooker put it during his chat with The Wrap:
We had been discussing a story idea in which—the idea was, as a team-building exercise in an office, a company decides to run some sort of exercise where it puts every member of the office into a VR simulation in which they have a task to do together and the task is to stage a musical.
The idea was like, it was something like Grease. So, the people in an office staging Grease, but the key thing is that the identities are scrambled and you don’t know who is who. So like I could be Olivia Newton-John and you [gestures to Jones] could be John Travolta. And crucially, we don’t know in the office who is who.
Brooker followed by saying it probably would’ve been too expensive to licence all the songs for Grease for an episode of Black Mirror. Besides, that premise wasn’t what fascinated them about the story.
The element he and Jones found most interesting was the notion of having two people who knew each other in one context going on to have a sexual affair within a virtual simulation. So instead, they pulled that storyline out and created the episode around it, changing it from a team-building exercise about a musical into something much more complex.
“[‘Striking Vipers’ is] this VR world where the gender becomes so fluid. And they just find themselves with a unique sexual experience and unique sexual high that they cannot find anywhere else,” Jones said. “It’s such an interesting idea. I just love it.”