Black Mirror season 4: USS Callister “more homage than attack”

We chatted to Black Mirror’s creators about Star Trek: TOS, despots and having your cake and eating it with USS Callister. Spoilers...

Warning: contains spoilers for USS Callister.

“I don’t want it to be seen that we’re attacking fans of classic sci-fi,” explains Charlie Brooker about Black Mirror season four’s brilliant Star Trek spoof/nightmare romp USS Callister. “We wanted it to feel more like an homage than an attack.”

The episode sees disgruntled programmer Daley (Jessie Plemons) take out his frustrations on the co-workers he feels undervalue him by uploading digital replicas of their consciousness to a virtual realm every byte of which is under his control. A super-fan of vintage sci-fi TV show ‘Space Fleet’, Daley has modded the realm to mimic that show’s premise – a starship exploring the universe. In his virtual world, he gets to play the heroic captain while his real-life rivals are forced to submit to his every whim.

It’s a terrific episode, a feature-length romp that’s cleverly layered and filled with comedy, tension and classic Black Mirror darkness. (Read our spoiler-filled review here). We chatted to Brooker and Black Mirror producer Annabel Jones about its development. Spoilers ahead…

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This is a brilliant ‘have your cake and eat it’ episode, in that you start with the spoof of the ship navigating the asteroid belt, then by the end I’m watching like this [mimes learning forward, tense] thinking ‘are they going to get through the asteroid belt?!’ How did the layers of that story evolve?

Charlie Brooker: We were on the set of Playtest from the previous season and we were saying ‘we haven’t done a space episode. What’s a Black Mirror space episode?’ and quite quickly we went ‘well, it couldn’t really be in space, it would have to be in a simulation’, then quite quickly again it was like ‘what if there are people who are copied in and they’re trapped in there and it’s like a prison?’

Like White Christmas?

CB: Yeah! And then the captain is the baddie, so it’s like Playtime Fontayne from Viz, who’s a grown man who makes everyone play games like a child. It’s like a nightmare, he’s a tyrant, he’s mad! So then we started calling it Toy Story or Adult Toy Story, we kept calling it…

Annabel Jones: …which then sounded wrong! [laughs]

CB: Relatively quickly those thoughts came together. Then the notion of it being a sort of vintage show that he was obsessed by kind of came in slightly later because we thought, what’s even more unexpected? A), because the world he has created is a throwback and a simplistic interpretation of shows like that. It’s his interpretation of that show, rather than what that show would have actually been, it’s his simplistic fable version of it and it’s quite reductive and out of date. We’re not saying that shows of that nature are reductive and out of date, because they were actually very progressive at the time. His warped version of it.

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Partly it also came about because we wanted to have an opening where you go ‘what the fuck is this?’.

AJ: And also that world gave us very defined roles, so Daley could choose his characters, people who didn’t give him the respect or common courtesy in the real world, he could then put them into the Callister world and they would have defined roles and he would understand who he was within that.

CB: When he’s barking orders at them or forcing them to obey his whims, or applaud him, or swoon.

He starts as the underdog and I thought I was going to like him, he seemed like my kind of socially awkward guy. Then you see him behaving like a cruel tyrant, ignoring the irony of the speech he gives about the utopian ideals of Space Fleet. He’s like ‘actually, it’s about ethics in space exploration!’ Was that intended as a comment on online fandom and that sort of character?

CB: Not really. It’s interesting because that is a thing that a couple of people have said. That worries me slightly because I don’t want it to be seen that we’re attacking fans of classic sci-fi, that speech is more meant to be a bit of a joke really. He delivers this speech, which presumably he has lifted from an episode of Space Fleet, about the noble ideals of this progressive UN-in-space, and then he turns around and goes “…and you arseholes are fucking it all up!” It’s meant to illustrate the gulf between his fantasy heroics—he wants to be the hero in this make-believe world—and the stupidity and tyranny of what he’s actually doing.

That episode is probably also to blame for the hike in my Netflix subscription rate last month – all those special effects! It must be the most effects-heavy Black Mirror episode yet?

CB: By quite a long chalk. That was partly why it came about. When we were doing season three on the set of Playtest, we were doing a scene with special effects where he does a whack-a-mole thing and we were chatting to one of the effects guys there and that was what sparked the conversation – why don’t we do more special effects? It was Framestore who did the effects.

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Did the creatures come out as you’d written them?

CB: The Arachnajax was described as a sort of arachnoid… you’re shown lots of different iterations of it and you go, hmm, [mimes nodding and pointing] that one. It was a bit Starship Troopers in my head, and it is a bit.

Speaking of influences, there are echoes of that Twilight Zone great episode with Anthony Fremont, the little kid who controls his town and turns people into Jack-in-a-box. Was that an inspiration or just somewhere in the back of your head?

CB: I think at some point I thought ‘hang on, it’s not a million miles away’ because he’s a tyrant, that kid is a dictator that everybody has to be extremely mindful of, that lives in a fantasy world so probably unconsciously there was an element of that. Certainly you could draw a parallel there.

Are you a Star Trek fan? What’s your relationship with that franchise?

CB: I was probably more of a Doctor Who fan as a kid, or Twilight Zone or Tales Of The Unexpected but Star Trek was kind of an anthology show as well in a way. I never really watched the 90s Star Trek series. Will Bridges, who co-wrote the episode, is a big, big, big Star Trek fan, so he was delighted at the chance to do all that. He knew a lot of the lingo.

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The episode has a lot of fun with early Star Trek…

CB: Tropes, yes. A lot of that came from Will, he was like ‘Oh, I know! This and that can happen’, so he was having a lot of fun in that respect. I watched The Original Series when I was a kid and would find it terrifying a lot of the time. I think we wanted it to feel, generally, with classic sci-fi, we wanted it to feel more like an homage than an attack.

An affectionate ribbing?

CB: Yeah. There’s a bit of piss-taking going on but really it’s aimed at Daly.

So incurring the wrath of Star Trek fans isn’t something you’re worried about?

CB: Well it’s worrying, because you don’t want to upset people unnecessarily. We’re not saying that is a rubbish show, or it’s a throwback, because again, it was wildly ahead of its time. He says at one point that it was visionary, and that’s true!

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