This review contains spoilers.
4.1 USS Callister
Within the framework of a Twilight Zone-like anthology show, Black Mirror‘s demonstrated a pleasingly elastic style, running the gamut from futuristic comedy (series three opener, Nosedive) to poignant drama (series two’s Be Right Back) to outright horror (White Bear, this year’s gritty Metalhead). USS Callister dips into space opera territory for the first time in Black Mirror‘s seven-year history, with Charlie Brooker and William Bridges’ plot gently poking fun at the staples of Star Trek, while serving up a thoroughly satisfying tale about cruelty and despotism.
The episode’s opening scene – a pastiche of classic Trek, right down to the aspect ratio and fuzzy CRT television filter – makes for a funny skit all by itself, but its true purpose only becomes clear later on. What we’re seeing is, in essence, the fantasy of socially awkward tech genius, Robert Daley (Jesse Plemons), who’s modified an online VR game (Infinity) to resemble his favourite sci-fi TV series, Space Fleet.
Largely sidelined within his own company, where his more charismatic business partner James Walton (Jimmi Simpson) gets all the attention, Daley satisfies his ego at home, where he plugs into his game and takes on the role of the dashing, Shatner-esque Captain Daley. Daley’s preening heroism all seems fairly harmless, until we learn the twist: the other characters on the bridge aren’t computer-controlled drones, but sentient, digital clones of Daley’s colleagues, each trapped in the simulation and forced to play along with their captain’s ego trip.
Plemons excels in his dual role, the clumsiness of his ‘real-world’ persona literally a world away from his in-game avatar. The story’s first major turn is a great one, too: initially a sympathetic character, locked away from everyone else with his office full of sci-fi tat, Daly’s revealed to be the villain of the piece – a megalomaniac who rules his alternate universe with an iron hand. By now, we’ve been introduced to USS Callister‘s true protagonist: earnest, resourceful new employee Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) who wakes up, clad in a revealing 60s space outfit, inside Daley’s hellish videogame.
Ending up on the USS Callister, we then learn, is a form of revenge. The various colleagues and underlings who’ve wronged Daley – even for an innocent word in passing, in the case of Nanette – are forced into subordinate roles on the Callister. Even the scruffy, vaguely Klingon-esque villain of Daley’s game turns out to be someone from the office.
Running at just over 70 minutes, USS Callister has more room to breathe than the typical Black Mirror episode. But while the show’s affectionate riffs on Star Trek aren’t all that new – comparisons with Galaxy Quest seem inevitable – there’s far more going on here than straight-up space comedy. For all the one-liners and sight gags (Michaela Coel morphing into a hulking, Starship Troopers-esque creature), USS Callister retains that trademark Black Mirror darkness. The moment where we learn of what happened to Walton’s son (zapped into the game, blasted out of an airlock) sends a chill running through the middle of the episode. The final race against time – a mad dash for a closing black hole – seems like good clean fun until the realisation dawns that the characters are basically hoping for the sweet release of death.
Take all the space operatics out of the equation, and USS Callister‘s another episode about technology’s less savoury effect on human behaviour. Daley may have some wildly futuristic tech in his flat – we’re not quite sure how an entire personality could be extrapolated from a trace of saliva, but damn it, Jim, we’re writers not scientists – but he’s not so very different from an internet bully circa 2017. Both get their kicks in a virtual space, and seem oblivious to the pain they cause on other people.
Then there’s the obvious parallel with real-world dictators: in essence, the bridge of the Callister is Daley’s own island nation, its residents slaves to his sadism and vanity. Maybe it’s only fitting, then that the other side of the black hole contains one of the happiest endings we can recall in a Black Mirror episode. Fitting because it’s pleasing to see such a likeable cast of characters survive their season in hell, but also because it makes a useful point about Daley and people like him.
Now at the helm of the ship, Annette blasts off with her crew for more adventures in her digital galaxy. It’s a reminder that Daley was, beneath it all, quite a sad, pathetic character: he was so obsessed with being the supreme leader on his little space ship that he never really bothered to look out at the stars.