Valley of the Dolls and Airport: Explaining the Books in Black Mirror “Beyond the Sea”

If you want to understand the twists and turns of Black Mirror season 6's "Beyond the Sea," you need only look to the bookshelf.

Auden Thornton and Josh Hartnett in Black Mirror "Beyond the Sea"
Photo: Daniel Escale | Netflix

This article contains spoilers for the Black Mirror episode “Beyond the Sea” and the books mentioned.

Black Mirror’s darkest, bleakest episode yet is stuffed to the brim with references to film, television, and music. From the obvious visual references to 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as the key name “David” taken from that film, to the romantic dance around a car in a barn taken from Witness, to the highly appropriate lyrics of the featured song “Beyond the Sea,” heard only in French in the episode, to the perhaps surprising plot similarities to Red Dwarf’s “Bodyswap,” in which Rimmer tries to convince Lister to lend him his body repeatedly, this episode is steeped in pop culture history.

But there is another set of pop culture references that really stand out in this episode. The books that come to form part of the plot are all carefully chosen mid-twentieth century bestsellers that reflect the themes and characters, not only of this story, but also of Black Mirror overall.

Airport by Arthur Hailey (1968)

Probably the least well known of the featured books is Airport, which Lana is reading when we first see her, until Cliff nags her into getting back into the kitchen to start dinner. This is not the source novel for beloved 1980 Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy Airplane!, though it is not unconnected – Hailey’s television play Flight Into Danger (1956) became the book Runway Zero Eight (1958) and the movie Zero Hour! (1957), which in turn became (more or less) Airplane!

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Airport is used primarily as an indication of the problems in Cliff and Lana’s marriage. The main character, Mel Bakersfield, is an airport manager whose job is keeping him away from his unhappy wife. Back in the 1960s, large passenger aircraft were still a relatively new technology, so this very much reflects the physical separation between Cliff and Lana caused by his vaguely-described mission up in space handling new technology, as well as the emotional space between them caused, as far as we can tell, by his charming personality.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann (1966)

Valley of the Dolls, which Lana is reading in the scene where she encourages Cliff to lend David his replica, is one of the best-selling books of all time and is the best known of author Jacqueline Susann’s novels about Hollywood women in complicated heterosexual relationships. 

The “dolls” in the title of Valley of the Dolls are amphetamines and barbiturates, as well as being a reference to the status of the female characters and the way they are often valued for the body and their looks rather than themselves; one character dies by suicide on finding out her partner cares more about her breasts than her life. Here the reference is to the more literal “dolls” that Cliff and David use to spend time on Earth, as the conversation is about Cliff lending David his “doll,” with which Lana will then form a close friendship before it all goes sour.

However, it is also a reference to the status of the female characters in the story. As noted in our review, both Cliff and David display a tendency to consider their wives (and their children) as their possessions, valuing them as much for their bodies and what they symbolize as for themselves. Cliff in particular shows very little interest in his wife’s thoughts or feelings, while David lashes out when he cannot possess Lana’s body the way he was able to possess his late wife’s. To the men, these women are “dolls” for them to play with.

The novel’s themes also point towards where the story is going. That David would become attracted to Lana was so inevitable it was almost predictable, but the utter horror of what followed was one of the show’s most shocking twists in its entire run. The ruinous potential of extra-marital affairs, and attempts by heterosexual men to replace a lost female lover with another, are all prominent themes in the book, and although its ending lacks the horrifying bloodbath of the episode’s, it is similarly bleak in the way its protagonist is forced to resign herself to a quietly unhappy future.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (1951)

The Illustrated Man, seen sitting among David’s personal items on the space station, is practically Black Mirror in book form (at a Q&A at the British Film Institute, Charlie Brooker told the audience that he has not read the book, but he saw the film, and it really stayed with him). This collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury is one of the cornerstones of science fiction literature, written by one of the greats of the genre, also the author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.

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The most directly and obviously relevant story to Beyond the Sea in the collection is “Marionettes, Inc, in which a man in an unhappy marriage buys a robot replica of himself so that the robot can interact with his wife and he does not have to. We also see plot similarities in “The Rocket Man,” about a boy who misses his astronaut father, whom he hardly ever sees, as the replicas Cliff and David use in Beyond the Sea are, of course, a solution to this problem as well as a way to keep the two men sane while they are in space.

The connection goes far beyond these plot similarities, though. “The Veldt” features a family torn apart by violence after some family members become too obsessed with a fantasy; “Kalaeidoscope” explores the loneliness and the danger of working in space; ‘The Long Rain’ follows characters driven to madness and death; “No Particular Night or Morning” is about two friends on a spaceship discussing the nature of reality, and “The Visitor” follows a fight over a person who offers exiles a means of psychological escape from their grim reality which is taken away all together when the person is killed in the process, just as Lana is killed when Cliff and David start fighting over her and the escape from the space station that spending time with her represents. And, of course, the framing device that holds together the stories in The Illustrated Man is a tattooed man whose tattoos tell stories, which reflects the importance of art and drawing to the story, as it is not only David’s therapeutic release, but also the plot device that he uses to persuade Cliff to lend him his replica on a regular basis.

But really, The Illustrated Man is significant to Black Mirror as a whole, not just Beyond the Sea. The short stories in the collection are about the dangers of technology and the impact of technology – especially space travel and virtual reality – on human psychology. It is “what if spaceships and television, but too much?” And if that is not a perfect description of a 1950s form of Black Mirror, we do not know what is.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)

This is the book David recommends to Lana, so it gives us some insight into his character and motivations at that point in the story. Author Robert A. Heinlein is also known for the original novel Starship Troopers (1959), which was the basis of the 1997 film, and his short story “Waldo,” about a disabled man using mechanical arms, has already been referenced back in Black Mirror season 2’s “The Waldo Moment.”

Heinlein’s politics and views shifted several times over his lifetime, but he was generally fairly militaristic, occasionally libertarian, while also being very sex-positive and interested in exploring unconventional relationships. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the Moon is being used as a penal colony and men outnumber women two to one, resulting in a society open to polyandry. So David may have a quite straightforward motive for encouraging Lana to read it, since a relationship threesome involving two men and one woman is basically exactly what he wants all three of them to enter into. He has obviously already read the book; its libertarian outlook is perhaps something that appealed to him.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is also another good reflection of the themes of this episode, and of Black Mirror as a whole. Two of the main characters are “Mannie” (a nickname for Manuel), a human, and “Mike” (short for Mycroft, named after Sherlock Holmes’ brother), his friend, an artificial intelligence. At the end, Mannie wants to ask God whether a computer might also be “one of Your creatures”, reflecting the questions around what it is to be human that underlie the episode and indeed the show, and that were the motivation for the brutal murder of David’s family by Manson-family-esque killers in the first place.

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Other Books Seen:

In the bookshop, when David is shopping for books for Lana, we can see a few other books on the shelf next to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Most are too tricky to make out but the two either side are The Sea of Tranquility, and Galactic Odyssey. Whereas the books above were specified in the script and are part of the story, these are simpler Easter eggs – though we suspect, given what they are, that Brooker came up with these titles as well.

The Sea of Tranquility is a Black Mirror Easter egg which has appeared in numerous episodes including season 1’s “The National Anthem,” season 3’s “Nosedive,” and season 6’s “Joan is Awful” and “Mazey Day.” In-universe, it is a TV series or possibly multiple TV series (at least one of them an anime), that has recently been re-booted on faux-Netflix site Streamberry. It has nothing to do with the real-world 2022 novel Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel, but this episode implies that the in-universe TV shows are adaptations of a 1950s or 1960s science fiction novel.

Galactic Odyssey is a real 1967 novel by Keith Laumer. This exciting space adventure does not have too much in common with Black Mirror, though it does feature a main character who takes revenge at the end of the story, as David does in a very misguided way. Its appearance on the shelf is perhaps more of a shout-out to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although there is, of course, a book of 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by Arthur C. Clarke at the same time as he was writing the screenplay for the film, putting that on the shelf might perhaps have seemed a bit too on the nose even for an Easter egg, considering how much the visual style of the episode apes the film. Galactic Odyssey is vaguely reminiscent of Clarke’s much more famous work in its title. And it also introduced the idea of a highly evolved cat who evolved from human domestic pets, as seen much later on Red Dwarf, bringing the whole circle of pop culture influences on this story neatly full circle.