Black Mirror: How “USS Callister” Rewrites Star Trek Fan History
Black Mirror's "USS Callister" does some things very well, but erases major parts of Star Trek fan history in the process.
This Black Mirror article contains spoilers for “USS Callister.”
A new season of dark science fiction anthology series Black Mirror is out and, as is often the case when new episodes are released, viewers have latched onto one episode in particular as the season’s favorite.
This season’s clear fave is “USS Callister,” a cautionary tale of virtual reality technology and male entitlement, all wrapped up in the aesthetics of Star Trek: The Original Series. It’s a smart, shiny episode that is good at exploring a number of topical issues: How women navigate male entitlement in pop culture. Star Trek references. The neglect and responsibility of Silicon Valley leadership.
On top of all that, it is incredibly well-directed by Doctor Who and Sherlock veteran Toby Haynes. The thing is: it erases a whole lot of fandom history and fannish practice in the process.
In some ways, Robert’s Infinity reimaginging of Space Fleet is a transformative work—transformative work being the umbrella term used by fan scholars for fan-created works like fanfiction, fanvids, fanart, meta, etc. In Robert’s imagining, Space Fleet is transformed into a world where its most problematic aspects are emphasized, where white men have all of the power and women and people of color are expected to happily follow along.
Fandom is a diverse place where many different people have the power to tell stories the way they would like to see them told. While that sometimes means men trying to regress popular stories into their most sexist, racist elements, historically, it has more often meant women leaning into the more diverse aspects of canon and filling in the world to include more diverse characters, themes, and emotionality. “USS Callister” completely ignores that element of fandom, as most popular stories do.
While the above tweet is appreciated, it also ignores the fact that there are many women who are parts of these fandoms associated with toxic masculinity and male entitlement. And it’s not that the women just showed up, either. When it comes to Star Trek fandom in particular, women have always been a huge part of the audience and active fandom audience since Day One.
In the great Revelist article “Women who love Star Trek are the reason modern fandom exists,” Victoria McNally outlines just how important women have been to the history of Star Trek, fandom, and Star Trek fandom.
“Star Trek redefined the classic nerd to be much more inclusive. There were more women involved,” Stuart C. Hellinger, one of the organizers of the first ever fan-led Star Trek conventions, told Revelist. “The entire show was diverse in many ways, including the people that worked on the show. You had women writers and women story editors, and that wasn’t as common back then. A lot of different areas were opened up because of Gene [Roddenberry]’s vision, and a lot of the fannish community took that to heart.”
The first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia, was created and run by two women, who would draft the zine on a manual typewriter and copy it with mimeograph machines. It ran for three years, between 1967 and 1970, totaling five issues, and was considered required reading for the Star Trek writing staff by Gene Roddenberry. It was one of many in existence. These zines set the analog template for much of what online fandom does today.
The most toxic of fandoms tend to come from the most toxic of stories. While it is certainly true that every fandom has its toxic elements, there are stories that tend to attract more racist, sexist, homophobic fans because those sorts of world views are encouraged in some way—if not by actively reinforcing them, then by failing to subvert them in any real way by offering counter narratives.
This is another reason why using Space Fleet as a Star Trek stand-in in “USS Callister” falls a bit flat. While The Original Series fell short in some ways of executing Roddenberry’s vision of a more inclusive future, the ambition was there and remains part of Star Trek’s very foundation: “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.”
To modern eyes (which, to be fair, is part of Black Mirror‘s point), The Original Series may feel regressive, but, at the time, it was a relative beacon of multiculturalism, featured the first interacial kiss (a moment that is referenced and mocked in “USS Callister”), and was built on the kind of radical utopianism we rarely see today. While some modern fans may use The Original Series‘ contemporary flaws as a vision of “better” days, the franchise has continued to update its progressivity. It’s why Star Trek: Discovery has a woman of color as its star, a female co-showrunner, and boasts the franchise’s first canon queer characters and couple.
“USS Callister” not only erases those nuances of fandom and Star Trek‘s ambitions as a story, but implies that it’s not Robert’s imaginging of Space Fleet that is horrific, but also Space Fleet and fandom itself. His fannishness is seen as the illness as much as his toxic masculinity and psychopathy are. They are conflated into one and, with no other examples of what fandom or fannishness might look like, they are the only narrative.
There is a possibility for a fannish counter narrative in the episode’s true protagonist: Nanette. From the beginning, Nanette is set up as a counter to Robert’s character. Like him, she is a coder. And, like him, she eventually becomes the captain of the ship (though, notably, throws out the hierarchy of the world and asks to simply be called “Nanette” by her shipmates).
Imagine a version of “USS Callister” where Nanette not only has a talent and appreciation for code in common with Robert, but also a love for Space Fleet. It would have been an easy tweak that would have added something nuanced to the exploration of fandom. Nanette could have used her knowledge of Space Fleet in addition to her knowledge of code to break out of Robert’s Infinity world.
Instead, Nanette’s understandable repulsion for Robert is conflated with a derision for the Space Fleet story itself. The Original Series is simplified to its most regressive aspects: its short skirts, consent issues of its captain, and blatant racism. Yes, these things are all worth interrogating, but they are not all that The Original Series was, or all that it inspired in its diverse fanbase.
The ultimate conclusion of “USS Callister” is that this fictional world should and does belong to women and people of color, as well as the white male characters it has historically canonically served. The episode ends with Nanette and the rest of the crew as the storytellers in their own lives and in the world of Infinity/Space Fleet. This conclusion would have only been bolstered by recognizing the role women and people of color have always played in imagining themselves into these stories.
I want to let Black Mirror off the hook for this. “USS Callister” doesn’t so much erase, as never looks in the direction of, Star Trek‘s more diverse fandom, and fannishness. Furthermore, it’s only one example of a larger cultural pattern. On the other hand, every story is just one example and, if we don’t start pointing out the pattern in specific stories, then it will never change. Critiquing a story is not the same thing as dismissing it—a nuance we could all stand to recognize more when it comes to these conversations.
It’s not that I don’t think “USS Callister” has some great points, or that Star Trek fandom doesn’t absolutely have these toxic aspects of it, it’s just unfortunate that we see this stereotype of a Star Trek fan as a straight white man who lives alone (or in his mother’s basement) again and again and never see other representations of what a Star Trek or science fiction fan can look like. We rarely see more positive representations of what science fiction fandom can look like.
“USS Callister” is a stirring, brutal, necessary critique of toxic male entitlement in pop culture, but, in its treatment of fandom, it also takes something that, for so many, has been an escape from that world of toxic male entitlement and gives it to those same men.