Review: Black Mirror S4 Ep1 “USS Callister”

USS Callister was intended to be the big quasi-movie sized feature of Season 4 of Black Mirror. Just scraping into eligibility with a December 2017 release it had a substantial CGI budget and slick production values. Spoilers from this point on.

The premise mixes together a number of elements from classic science fiction – Star Trek is the most visible, but also Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’ (which is also referenced in a visual pun in a particularly horrible moment) and also the Twilight Zone “It’s a Good Life”. It is hard to imagine a more Hugo-tailored piece than this.

The story flicks between two settings:

  • A darkly lit modern day/near future in which we learn about a gaming software company called “Callister” and their socially-awkward Chief Technology Officer Robert Daly (played by Jesse Plemons).
  • Colourful spaceship (the USS Callister) which initially appears to be a Star Trek-like show but which we soon learn is a virtual reality environment.

Daly’s dark secret is that he has constructed a modified version of the companies virtual reality gaming environment and modified it to resemble his favourite classic TV show. He has also populated the ship with simulations of his colleagues – in particular colleagues who have in some way aggrieved him in real life. The added nightmare is that these simulations are self-aware and are forced to play along due to Daly’s effectively god-like powers within the environment.

OK – so that part is nonsense and way beyond the kind of virtual reality shown in previous Black Mirror episode San Junipero. Daly’s method for simulating people (DNA samples) makes no sense either (how does that capture people’s memories exactly?) but this is essentially a dark fantasy or horror story. Examining the premises too closely isn’t the point – the idea is to take the existing way our identities and selves can be co-opted by technology and push that into a more visceral horror.

Into this picture comes Nanette Coles (played by Cristin Milioti) a new programmer at Callister who has an existing professional admiration for Daly. Finding herself also simulated in Daly’s ersatz reality she reacts with understandable fear but then begins to seek a way out for everybody.

Coles drives the story which maintains fear, tension and humour throughout as she plots multiple ways to escape Daly’s computerised tyranny. Her plans even place her in a situation where she is the antagonist to her own real-world self in the kind of irony that Black Mirror delights in.

It’s clever and fun and scary. It also, as you might expect from Black Mirror, looks at toxic behaviour, identity theft and broader questions of identity.

I’ve got some issues though. The story does a clever shift in sympathy for Daly – our first introduction to the USS Callister reality is sympathetic and silly, it is only in the second outing does it become clearer that Daly is monstrous. Likewise, our first encounters with Daly in the ‘real’ world are designed to provoke our sympathy for him and it is only as the story progresses that we learn how he is violating the privacy of his colleagues. Story-wise this is cleverly done, making Daly a more complex person rather than just a power-mad guy with no sense of right and wrong.

But it is also a deeply lazy attempt at a character. The story uses wholesale the idea that the most dangerous people are the socially awkward (doubly stereotyped here as a guy with a fandom obsession) who are bullied and then seek revenge. It is a stereotype we’ve seen repeatedly asserted in the context of school shootings in the US, in which it has been frequently deployed without regard as to whether the shooter actually fit this model.

While the episode makes it clear that Daly’s victims do not deserve this horrible fate (particularly Cole who is entrapped primarily because Daly likes her) the implication remains that Daly’s behaviour is a response to being bullied an exploited. The supervillain moment for Daly being his treatment by the company co-founder, James Walton in the past. Walton has exploited Daly’s talent for years whilst marginalising him in the company and psychologically bullying him. Dramatically, this allows for the juxtaposition of how Daly is treated in reality against how Daly treats Walton in the game but it is still lazy and it is still exploiting harmful stereotypes. It’s pretty much using the same stereotypes used by the alt-right with their “gamma” classification coupled with a bunch of cliches (Daly is shy, clumsy, successful only because of technical skill and has highly focused interests).

It’s a shame because so much thought and consideration was put into this episode and it goes a long way into looking at the abusiveness of online male culture, and technology companies stealing personal data (here literally stealing people’s minds) but at the root of this examination we are given the same diagnosis that the most toxic and abusive people on the net give – it must be the weird kid with obsessive hobbies. I’d have hoped given the setting that the episode could have presented a different answer than the one Gamergaters would have given for “what should an unpleasant online guy be like.” Yes, I get why they didn’t make Walton the villain and the story worked but it is a hefty flaw in this genuinely clever episode that I can’t get past.

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13 comments

  1. Cora

    I liked this episode a lot and actually nominated it for the Hugo. I also wrote about it on my blog around the time it first became avaiable. However, you are right that the socially awkward and toxic tech bro is a stereotype. I also particularly didn’t like the Walton character. No, he did not deserve what Daly did to him, but that doesn’t mean that Walton wasn’t a jerk.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lurkertype

    Really engaging with the whole toxic idea would have made the villain a techbro interested in trendy food and booze, artisanal whatevers, being a PUA teacher, driving a fancy car, etc. A smooth operator, not the nerd. The bully, not the bullied.

    Lazy and trite characterization and writing. Borrowing the tropes but getting the details wrong (unlike San Junipero). Particularly since I have many friends who are both big-time SF nerds and computer people who aren’t bullies and in fact get grief from Gamergate et al.

    But then I’m still pissed that “The Expanse”, which is by-god SF all the time, based on Hugo finalist books, didn’t get a nod this year, along with SHIELD never getting in, esp. since the LMD/Framework arc was so good. Heck, so was Ghost Rider.

    No Award is in play for this category, you betcha.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cora

      I’m really furious that The Handmaid’s Tale, which won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe, apparently isn’t good enough to get a Hugo nod. But I guess some people are upset over what Margaret Atwood may or may not have said more than ten years ago. The Expanse and SHIELD would have been nice as well, ditto for Outlander, Lucifer, one of the DC shows, The Orville, Dark Matter, etc… Hell, if my Mom had gotten Einstein through, it would have been nice. But then the best dramatic presentation short category has a history of missing good shows (Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, Being Human, The Fades, Agent Carter, etc…), while others (Doctor Who, cough) are nominated more out of habit than anything else.

      And yes, I will be using No Award in this category, but not for “USS Callister”, but for “The Good Place”, which I find completely unwatchable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bonnie McDaniel

        I nominated two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale (“The Bridge” and “Night”) and one episode of The Expanse (“Home”). It’ll be interesting to see what the long list looks like.

        Liked by 2 people

      • lenorarose

        If I’d been nominating, I’d have probably picked an episode or even two of the Expanse, probably not Dark Matter but I’d have to review, and not likely SHIELD (I kinda lost interest.) I wouldn’t have been watching the Good Place yet so I would have been kicking myself now that I am. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the Handmaid’s Tale.

        Liked by 1 person

      • camestrosfelapton

        I’m glad the Good Place got nominated but it is weird it was two episodes – particularly with EPH. Maybe there was little overlap between the groups who nominated different episodes! It will be interesting to see those numbers.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. KasaObake

    If I was going to nominate an episode of Black Mirror for an award this year, it would’ve been the Black Museum episode. I’d say it’s a standout amongst the whole series; the rest of this season felt decent but unexceptional.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cora

      Black Museum was another excellent episode and would have been a worthy finalist. But it was also very dark. Plus, “USS Callister” riffs on Star Trek and the Hugo voters love themselves some Star Trek.

      Liked by 1 person

      • karakasa7

        I’m one of those rare weirdos who doesn’t particularly care for either Trek or Wars. I’ll watch both but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lurkertype

        I guess I thought the whole thing of this episode was trying too hard and had the wrong villain.

        Also I may still be unreasonably mad about Cristin Milioti’s treatment in HIMYM. I am NEVER getting over that ending, people.

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