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.