Transformation and exchange are two of the most thematically interesting ways to explore gender and relationships in fiction. This isn’t a new idea, with the story of Tiresias providing an example from Greek antiquity. Such stories can range from ignorant and banal to nuanced and powerful. As a trans woman, I have long held a fascination with them, and they ultimately helped me come to understand what I wanted from my body and my life. “Striking Vipers,” the first episode of season 5 of Black Mirror, is neither of these, instead being a tragic, wasteful misfire that perhaps handles some of its other themes better than this one.
“Striking Vipers” presents a classic scenario for gender-transformation fiction. Its main characters gain access to a virtual-reality game that gifts them with digital avatars of their choosing. One character, Danny, takes on the form of Lance, and the other Karl, takes on a female form named Roxette. Far from being a mere visual overlay, these computerized forms directly transmit their experiences into the players’ minds; for the duration of the game, Karl is Roxette, and he experiences her anatomy as if it were his own. The titular “Striking Vipers” is a fighting game, but the sensations the avatars offer are far more complete than that implies, and Karl and his long-time, decidedly non-romantic friend Danny soon discover that sex with one another in these forms brings them both levels of pleasure they cannot access in their ordinary lives.
Gender-transformation fiction has a lot of places it could go from a setup like this. A more mainstream piece might force Danny and Karl to navigate social situations in their virtual forms, drawing humor from the idea of a man “forced” to imitate womanhood. These stories are abundant and widely reviled within the trans community for encouraging the idea that trans women are men pretending at womanhood, who could just as easily not pretend, and mercifully, “Striking Vipers” does not take this route. A more thoughtful piece would instead show us Karl having to think hard about what it means that he’s so comfortable as Roxette, and especially what it means that he so urgently desires more time with her body as his and that he experiences deep and mutual attraction to Danny/Lance while in this form. More than a few stories, biographical and otherwise, about trans people start with us taking on fictional personas that help us determine what sort of body and life we want, and more than a few stories about discovering one’s sexual orientation involve borrowing the sort of body that could make one’s attractions seem more heteronormative, and therefore permissible to oneself, than they are.
“Striking Vipers” takes neither path. Karl reacts to the pleasure he can experience as Roxette as if her body were an addiction, a pattern familiar to transfeminine people who have only transient access to safe places to be ourselves. His other relationships suffer as he becomes more and more fixated on the game and on having more sexual encounters as Roxette, with Danny-as-Lance. But he never considers this pastime as anything more than that, and fights Danny on the idea that it could be anything but a hobby. Danny, in turn, struggles to process what these trysts must mean about him and Karl, becoming increasingly closed-off. His other relationships, particularly with his wife Theo, also suffer. Danny ultimately confronts Karl in the real world, insisting that they test their attraction to one another without the filter of the digital, and this ends in a definitive statement that their connection is particular to their Lance and Roxette shapes. The story ends with Danny and Theo agreeing to open their marriage on a regular basis, with Theo seeking casual hookups and Danny returning to Karl-as-Roxette in the game.
“Striking Vipers” does not encourage us to question either character’s sexuality or gender. Within its frame, Karl’s fondness for digital sex as Roxette is somewhere between a fetish and a sex toy, and Danny’s participation an extension of their friendship. It removes from its premise any notion that Karl or Danny might not be the cisgender, heterosexual men they imagine themselves to be, and instead presents a narrative where advances in virtual reality can so warp minds that both men feel compelled to alter their relationship structures to make this game fit into them. Black Mirror visits this topic one other time, as one of the vignettes in its famous “Black Museum” episode. There, a cis male doctor uses a special helmet to experience others’ sensations, including the female half of his heterosexual encounters, and the helmet ultimately drives him to violent, lethal sadism.
That’s the problem with “Striking Vipers.” It isn’t a story about gender, sexuality, or even relationships. It’s a story about technology upending all of the above that, as part of its dystopian mission, refuses to allow clear answers to any of its questions. Karl’s time as Roxette never calls his gender into question, even in his own mind, and seems to weigh on him only insofar as it’s become an unusual, captivating sexual thrill. Danny and Theo open their relationship, but on such limited terms that it’s clear ethical non-monogamy was never a possibility they seriously considered. Karl flippantly describes the pair’s liaisons as “us being gay,” both men too timid to suggest the rather more obvious conclusion of bisexuality. When Danny finally confronts Karl, the show backs away from the somewhat predictable but ultimately far more satisfying ending in which the two men discover that they are attracted to each other in the real but require the framing device of a fight to properly enact it. That there are words and names for all of the situations “Striking Vipers” posits never enters its equation; its premise is that these things are discomfiting, alien consequences of technological advancement, symptoms of the terrifying fallen world that is Black Mirror’s central thesis. The show cannot give us a story about Karl recognizing himself as a trans woman and Danny’s relationship with Karl and Theo becoming an openly polyamorous V. If it did, the fact that it is presenting ordinary human possibilities, with all of their anxiety and hope, as a cyberpunk nightmare would be far too obvious, and far too distasteful.
“Striking Vipers,” then, is an oddity among gender-transformation stories: a lurid cautionary tale minus the spectacle of “Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde,” promising much and delivering little. As a writer who explores this topic from many directions, seeing the makers of such beacons of futurist wonder as “San Junipero” make something so ultimately backward is deeply disappointing.
Perhaps that’s the dystopia this episode actually gives us: that our technological marvels could advance that far while our social possibilities shrink to nothing, needing to be reinvented.