This Black Mirror review contains spoilers.
Black Mirror Season 4 Episode 1
So much of what we consider classic or even just good television comes down to timing.
Writers can write an engaging, original script, the right cast and crew can be put into place, and a capable editor can find the story hidden within the rough cut. But when the final product is put in front of an audience – sometimes the timing has to be just right for it to make an impact.
The timing for “USS Callister” is just right.
The timing is right in a kind of superficial “hey I recognize that from the Twitters and Facebooks!” sense. And also in a deeper, almost spiritual right story/right time sense.
The superficial angle is that at its core, “USS Callister” is the story of a shitty man released at the tail end of a year whose most relevant and consistent theme has been the exposure (and in some notable, terrifying exceptions: elevation) of shitty men.
Robert Daley (Jesse Plemons) is a shitty man. He’s also the kind of character archetype who could have been a protagonist in the not-so-distant past. He’s an undeniable genius with suspect social skills just walking through life as though he’s waiting for someone to step up and say “hey, I’ve noticed you seem to have trouble talking to people. Let me take you under my wing and help you with that.”
In an era before nerd culture was mainstream culture, he could have been endearing. If Charlie Brooker wrote “USS Callister” in 1991, Robert Daley could have been a Revenge of the Nerds-style folk hero: creating a universe where there wasn’t one before just so that he could finally be in control of his life.
But this isn’t 1991. It’s the future. A future more distant than we could have possibly ever imagined. The nerds have won. Comic book movies make approximately a trillion dollars a second, and even the Luddites carry around computers in their pockets that could have somehow ended the Cold War. Most importantly, however, everyone is very, very “online.” The idea that some Tron-like techno fantasy universe can solve all of your problems is laughable. We’re already in it, baby. Worse still, creating a techno-fantasy universe and trapping your co-worker’s digital impressions within it as prisoners seems more terrifying and plausible than ever.
“USS Callister” ends up being really, really fun. We haven’t even mentioned yet that almost the entirety of the episode takes place in a simulation approximating a Star Trek-esque universe. That seems like kind of a big deal. But to understand what makes “USS Callister” so fun, it’s important to understand what makes Daley such a stomach-churning villain.
There was an essay from earlier this year that writer Drew Magary wrote for Deadspin called “The Reckoning Always Comes.” It’s equal parts personal and universal but above all else: wonderful. It’s about a lot of things but it’s mostly about Shitty Men (TM) and the closed Internet culture that let them get away without growing up for so long. In it, Magary writes:
“There’s a lot of money to be had in pretending that the internet is the same place it was back in 2006, or raging against the way it isn’t. Back then, white guys could run amok online. The disconnect between the freedom some of those guys had in real life versus online was staggering. Addicting. And so these same guys get VERY ornery when that online freedom is challenged in any way by valid criticism about racism, injustice, sexism, and privilege. They’re plunging even deeper into the online abyss now, such is their lust to operate unchecked.”
I don’t know what Robert Daley’s search history is like. But the archetype he represents is unmistakable. He’s clearly someone who feels ostracized, wrongly or not, and has retreated into a technological fantasy world. In a pre-Internet age, that’s a charming Never-Ending Story kind of tale. This is 2017 (well, soon to be 2018), though and we’re all meant to occupy online space. Daley retreating into an online space is no longer novel or endearing, it’s the norm. And him bringing the digital impressions of his co-workers along for the ride is outright horrifying.
Phew! So timing, yeah? Daley as a “Shitty Man” is just part of what makes “USS Callister” click. The other timing aspect that works in its favor is that it’s been a long year. And “USS Callister” is simply just fun, exciting, smart, and cathartic.
“USS Callister” opens with bright, beautiful pastel color as we see Captain Robert Daley guide the Enterprise-like USS Callister through a comet mine field to avoid an attack from an alien vessel. Daley is congratulated, nay worshipped for his heroics. His firstmate James Walton (Jimmi Simpson) thanks him profusely and all the women on the ship take turns kissing him. I don’t quite remember Picard getting this treatment.
That’s because it’s not real of course….or mostly not real. “USS Callister” is smart enough to know that we’re smart enough to suss out that this won’t really be the “Star Trek episode of Black Mirror.” Netflix’s advertising campaign kept the secret, bless them, but we all knew there was another shoe out there ready to drop and “USS Callister” drops it very early on.
We’re thrust back into a not-so-colorful, drab reality in which Daley has to go to work just like any other schlub. He’s the CTO of an AR gaming company called Callister Inc. Users pay to enter into sci-fi like worlds and play the hero.
The Star Trek-inspired scenario that opens the episode is a modded version of Infinity designed to look like Daley’s favorite show, Space Fleet (Netflix has all the episodes, Daley kindly tells a co-worker). In Daley’s version of Space Fleet, he is the captain of the USS Callister and all of his crewmates are the digital versions of his co-workers, including CEO Walton, intern Nate Packer (Osy Ilkhile, who delivers the line: “I’m still an intern out there?”), diagnostics programmer Dudani (Paul G. Raymond), Shania Lowry (Michaela Cole), and receptionist Elena (Milanka Brooks).
So far this could all still fall within the creepy but harmless Revenge of the Nerds trope. Problem is, Daley takes things a step further. His co-workers-turned-crewmates inside the simulation aren’t merely data, they’re created using the co-workers’ real DNA. They are digital human beings and are, for all intents and purposes, sentient beings.
The crew of the USS Callister are doomed to live inside the simulation forever, doing exactly as their Captain Daley tells them to, suffering every possible indignity, and living forever within a world of constant torment, created by a petulant, shitty god. Worst of all, they don’t even get genitals. Though perhaps that could be considered best of all.
In the real world, Daley takes a shining to newly-hired programmer Nanette Cole. Nanette is in awe of Daley’s genius, a trait that Daley clearly likes in his women. So he takes her DNA from a discarded coffee cup in her waste basket and uploads her into the simulations as Lieutenant Cole. The newly-trapped digital version is brought up to speed on the rules of this cruel new universe quickly by her crew mates.
“Listen, this is Infinity,” Lowry tells Nanette. “This modded version is designed to look like Space Fleet. You can’t leave. None of us can. You’re not actually you.”
Daley can do whatever he wants to his crew. They have to begrudgingly go along with his dumb Space Fleet fantasy, and there’s nothing they can do to be erased entirely from the simulation. Their only hope is death (or deletion in this case), and Daley is the only one powerful enough to give it to them, which he won’t.
The best part of “USS Callister,” which is by almost any measure the best episode of season 4, is that it takes what would have been the ending to a weaker episode of Black Mirror and turns it into the beginning. Black Mirror, great as it is, sometimes falls into a science fiction trapping that has felled many other fine sci-fi stories. It treats the ending as the ultimate “ta-da!” This can, of course, be a thrilling experience still but the best science fiction stories treat the “ta-da!” as the beginning.
Nanette Cole discovering that she’s been placed into a Star Trek simulator to live out the rest of eternity could have been an acceptable end to almost any episode of Black Mirror. Instead, William Bridges and Charlie Brooker’s script uses it as a jumping off point for something even more exciting: a story.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the acting talent “USS Callister” is able to bring aboard is remarkable. Plemons is obviously perfect in this villainous role. He’s somehow created a career on television playing the same archetype over and over again, though sometimes he is endearing (Friday Night Lights, Fargo) and other times he’s just a monster (Breaking Bad, and now Black Mirror).
Jimmi Simpson remains one of televisions best-kept secrets. Whether if it’s in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Westworld, Simpson just pops off the screen. Add in contributions from Chewing Gum’s Michaela Cole (pulling double duty in the Black Mirror universe after appearing as a stewardess in season 3’s “Nosedive”) and Billy Magnussen and you’ve got yourself a good time.
The real revelation, of course, is Cristin Milioti as Nanette Cole. Milioti may tragically always be known as the titular mother of How I Met Your Mother but when given the opportunity to flesh out a character here, she rises to the occasion. Though who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to play a role in which your digital self gets to blackmail your real self with racy pics?
Nanette is not just the de facto hero of “USS Callister,” she’s a real capital-H hero. Everyone else within the simulation has long given up on escaping but Nanette will not take no for an answer. Even after Daley exerts his power over her by literally taking away all her facial features so she suffocates (potentially forever), Nanette is still determined to find a way out of this hell.
The solution she eventually comes up with is ingenious and satisfying. Nanette hacks into the Infinity messaging system and is able to send her real-life counterpart a message. After it doesn’t have the desired effect, she opts for something a little stronger: blackmail.
There are moments when “USS Callister” feels like Toy Story in the best possible way. This is a story of creatures we shouldn’t necessarily see as sentient but they so clearly are. Nanette’s plan to get their ship to a wormhole created by a new patch in the Infinity server so that they can all enter oblivion together is remarkably fun and also somehow incorporates equal parts slapstick and deadly seriousness.
With the help of real-life Nanette, a well-timed pizza delivery, and Daley’s own hubris, the crew is able to fly into the wormhole leaving Daley behind. Unexpectedly they are not terminated but rather released into the actual Infinity server, where they can spend out the rest of their days going on online adventures with other, actual human beings. And in the ultimate punishment, Daley’s consciousness is left behind in the space fleet server as it crashes, imprisoning his mind in his own creation, presumably forever.
“Stick us in hyper warp and let’s fuck off somewhere,” Nanette tells her crew. Now a true Picard of her own making. So they jet off into an infinitely-generated universe of adventure…with the help of Aaron Paul’s profane voiceover.
“USS Callister” is the best episode of Black Mirror season 4. It’s also a clear indication of Brooker’s growth as a writer and storyteller. Brooker has always been clever and Black Mirror has always been an excellent representation of his intellect and sense of humor. It is stories like “San Junipero” and now “USS Callister” that reveal the real reason for Black Mirror’s success has always been the human beings, not the technology.
Even when the human beings are the technology. Soon enough there won’t be a difference.