Creator: Charlie Brooker (Episode Written with William Bridges)
Director: Toby Haynes
Starring: Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson
Length: 1hr 16m
(N.B. This review may contain spoilers)
The best thing about Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is that it’s anthology-style format means it can truly give you something completely different each episode, making it, when it’s at its best anyway, highly varied and unpredictable, even if it’s usually connected by the theme of technology going too far. This variety is nicely illustrated both by and within Season 4 opener USS Callister, which starts out like a Futurama style parody of Star Trek and other old sci-fi, but then swings wildly into different directions.
The first 5 minutes open on a spaceship populated by stalwart types in gloriously camp, colourful uniforms, led by a courageous captain who seems pretty much a walking parody of William Shatner as he boldly comes up with his out-there plan of stopping the baddies at the last moment. All that old 60’s Trek stuff is there, the flashing lights, the overacting, the references to the utopian “Space Fleet”, the colourful (and in the case of the female officers, revealing) uniforms, the camp villains with the weird facial prosthetics and campy name.
Though your expecting some twist since, after all, it is Black Mirror, you are wondering if most of the episode will just be pretty much a parody of Trek and the like, before the inevitable twist is finally revealed. Within this opening sequence though, this Trek-world already goes pretty much as ridiculous as it could in it’s obvious “this is fake” stuff. The captain is celebrated to an insane degree. Everyone’s cheering him, his Number One is ridiculously pathetic in comparison, and he gets passionate kisses off both the female crew members. It couldn’t really be any more obvious this is a fantasy to be honest, so it’s no big surprise when it’s revealed that yes, this is an artificial simulation in which lonely outcast Robert Daley can both pretend he’s in his favourite tv show, and get the sense of validation he never receives in his real life. You may expect the rest of the episode to be a sympathetic portrait of man living a lonely, isolated life, and for the first half you do feel truly sorry for him. His boss is portrayed as an obnoxious, cocky smooth-talker who’s profited out of Daley’s genius and who continually, carelessly puts him down. The one person in the office, a newbie called Nanette, who shows him any respect, is told he’s a weirdo and best avoided.
Where this episode gets clever is how suddenly it subverts our expectations of who we’re going to be rooting for in this. To have a loner feeling disaffected and hard done by throughout his life, someone who finds comfort in fantasy, that would be nothing new. Brooker instead examines the much darker side of this. As he goes back into his Trek-esque world we see other symptoms of his alienation beyond just his reclusiveness and escapism. We see him take out his resentment on the computer-generated avatars he’s created, and as the episode goes on it slowly shows just what a bitter, entitled power-hungry character this is as it’s revealed the avatars are not just duplicates of his real-life co-workers; they are fully realised, fully sentient copies of them. These avatars think they are real, and for all intents and purposes are so. But, when Daley enters the game, they are completely subject to his will. It’s similar in many ways to the countless episodes of Trek where the crew are subject to the whims of various omnipotent beings, and it highlights the sense of entitlement and bitterness that can often go along with social exclusion and awkwardness.
The science is a bit dodgy as to how this can actually be the case and why, if it’s all computer generated, Daley should actually need the DNA extracts he uses to create his clones. The episode also skates over why exactly Daley should want his “characters” to be such perfect copies, since it’s their sentience that allows them to resist, but I think this can be waved aside simply for the sake of being able to tell a story, and the fact, made clear throughout, that Daley clearly enjoys exerting his power over the people who usually (in his mind at least) humiliate him daily.
The horror of the situation the other characters find themselves in ramps up throughout, from the CEO’s son being thrown into outer space, to Nanette, the one character who was actually kind towards him in the real world, being made temporarily unable to breathe yet unable to die when she tries to resist. The world Daley creates here is so interesting, both on the level of the Star Trek pastiche that’s been set up, but also as a means of examining him psychologically. When the other characters anger him or try to resist they aren’t killed (indeed, death is held up as the only means of escape throughout) but are turned into hideous alien monsters. The Eastern European secretary is the one picked to be the “alien” character you usually get on Trek, appearing as blue-skinned in the virtual reality (“it’s fucked up… almost sort of racist”). And despite the women’s scantily clad uniforms and forced kisses with “Captain Daley”, the avatars aren’t equipped with any genitals, which not only riffs on the utopian future established in shows like Trek, but also speaks volumes about the insecurities and immaturity of Daley himself.
Once you’re over the horror of the virtual reality that’s been created here, the rest of the episode is a bit of a run-around. Like a lot of Trek episodes, the resolution, a wormhole that represents an update to the game and “freedom” involves a bit of technobabble. But the episode largely carries it off through the likability of most of the characters, and the extreme unlikability of Daley. The ending, in which Daley’s prisoners do in fact escape whilst Daley himself is trapped in blackness, is an unusually happy one for this show. But it’s earned, and probably needed after the darkness beforehand. Despite being as bleak as it is, Black Mirror has never really had many proper villains or antagonists, beyond just the aspect of technology or what any particular episode might be playing about with. Hell, the third season even managed to make a teen paedophile semi-sympathetic in Shut Up and Dance with Me. Daley however is truly monstrous, and it’s all the more effective in this being an episode where we go in expecting to feel sorry for him. USS Callister, then, expertly subverts expectations, is a great character study, and is certainly amongst the best of Season 4.