Black Mirror's 'USS Callister' Is Much More Than a Star Trek Parody
The first episode of the Netflix show’s fourth season finds a new angle on tech horror through sci-fi satire.
Sophie Gilbert and David Sims will be discussing the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, considering alternate episodes. The reviews contain spoilers; don’t read further than you’ve watched. See all of their coverage here.
When Black Mirror’s third season premiered in late 2016, it began with “Nosedive,” a wrenchingly comical episode about the horrors of a connected world, where every interaction or transaction with another person is rated and judged on social media. Its fourth season begins with an opposite horror: a hermetically sealed world, disconnected from the rest of the internet, a sci-fi fantasy perversely controlled by one man. In “Nosedive,” escaping the online universe was the goal; in “USS Callister,” it’s the opposite. Credit to the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker (who co-wrote this episode with William Bridges): He can conjure nightmares from anywhere.
What I liked most about “USS Callister,” which makes for an exceptionally strong start to this new season, was the nasty, winking twist of its set-up. Our sad-sack protagonist, Robert Daly has the profile of a misunderstood nice guy. He’s an unheralded genius at his job, where he created an online gaming world that his publicity-minded boss Walton (Jimmi Simpson) takes all the credit for. He’s shy and retiring, he’s played by the adorable Jesse Plemons (Landry from Friday Night Lights!), and he spends his nights fantasizing that he’s the great Captain Daly of his favorite show, Space Fleet, using the high-end tech he invented, a forehead-mounted brain-projection chip.
But even though the ’60s-era Star Trek knockoff he’s playacting seems chintzy and harmless, there are signs of creepiness from the get-go, with Daly treating not one but both of his female crew members to a passionate kiss at the end of another “episode.” After a friendly interaction with Nanette (Cristin Milioti), a new employee at work, things go from creepy to truly disturbing, as Daly steals her DNA from a used coffee cup and creates a digital version of her within his Space Fleet program.
Nanette is now the ship’s science officer, clad in the familiar miniskirt and go-go boots of that kitschy decade; but more importantly, she’s trapped. Unlike the online multiplayer game Daly invented, this program is walled off from the rest of the internet to serve as his private playground. Nanette and other co-workers are Daly’s ensemble cast, and anytime he enters the program, they have to shower him with obsequious praise as he acts out his childish fantasies. Apart from that, they’re stuck in the program, with nothing to do except wait for their tyrannical master to return.
Any Black Mirror episode is going to invite comparison to the real-life excesses, and dangers, of the tech world; prior entries, like Season 2’s “The Waldo Moment” and “White Bear,” seemed outlandish when they debuted but harrowingly apt now. “USS Callister” is darkly funny and at times delightfully surreal (these computer versions of the crew lack genitalia, giving them a Ken-doll physique). But it’s also a knowing satire of the male power fantasy that’s been playing out online since the dawn of the internet, and that seemed to go from bad to worse in 2017.
As the commander of his own private starship, Daly demands adoration and total acquiescence from his crew members, or else he harasses them by removing their faces or turning them into alien monsters. They can’t even escape their predicament by dying, as much as they’d like to; only Daly has control over life and death within his universe. When Walton resists him, Daly torments him by creating a digital clone of his son and killing it in front of him. As cute as the set dressings of Space Fleet might look, this sci-fi world is one of drudgery mixed with emotional abuse—Daly thinks he’s a hero captain, but he’s little more than an online troll.
So many of Brooker’s Black Mirror fables warn against the terror of being connected, so I was delighted that he opened this new season with a story about just the opposite. After all, so much of 2017’s news has been defined by a lack of communication, by polarization, and by political leaders who, like Daly, seem to crave unprecedented levels of control along with hollow compliments. In “USS Callister,” the only way to defeat Daly is to open his secret network up to the rest of the game, visualized as the crew piloting the ship into a wormhole while their boss is momentarily distracted by real life.
“USS Callister” was perhaps a mite too long at 75 minutes (its epic conclusion, while tense at times, was very drawn-out). But its concept was perfect for Black Mirror: a mix of fizzy pop culture and genuinely bleak drama. More importantly, it had a happy ending—the crew escapes, Daly is stranded in his now-empty program, and Nanette’s online clone finds herself in a comparative paradise, a multiplayer video game. Who’s the first person she encounters there? An egotistical fool (voiced by Aaron Paul) who lamely proclaims himself the king of space battles. Yes, there’s more than one Captain Daly out there—but at least this time Nanette can warp to another galaxy. Sophie, do you share my take on the topicality of “USS Callister?” Don’t you want to drive into a wormhole as 2017 winds to a close?
Read Sophie Gilbert’s review of the next episode, “Arkangel.”