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Black Mirror – USS Callister (Review)

What is Space Fleet? I’ll tell you what it is. It is a belief system founded on the very best of human nature. It is a goal for us to strive towards for the betterment of the universe, for the betterment of life itself.

And you assholes are f%$king it up!

Black Mirror originated in the United Kingdom, broadcast on Channel 4 and written by Brass Eye and The 11 O’Clock Show writer Charlie Brooker.

The first two seasons of Black Mirror tended to focus on British talent, drawing in a wealth of talent from the British Isles to tell a set of stories about technology run amok: Daniel Kaluuya, Rory Kinnear, Jodie Whittaker, Toby Kebbell, Domhnall Gleason, Lindsay Duncan, Jessica Brown Findlay, Rupert Everett, Hayley Atwell, Rafe Spall and Oona Chaplin. Jon Hamm appeared in White Christmas, but Hamm is arguably an honourary citizen of British television, having appeared in shows like Toast of London and A Young Doctor’s Notebook, and the film Absolutely Fabulous.

In contrast, the third and fourth seasons of Black Mirror moved over to America. This shift was most obvious in the change in locations and talent employed by the series: Bryce Dallas Howard, Jodie Foster, Wyatt Russell, Mackenzie Davis, Rashida Jones, Mike Schur and Cherry Jones. However, it is also quite clear from a shift in emphasis in the stories being told. In particular, the two stories being told that bookend the fourth season of Black Mirror feel uniquely American. Black Museum plays as an allegory for one of America’s foundational sins, its exploitation of its racial minorities.

The feature-length season premiere, USS Callister is transparently a riff on the larger Star Trek franchise and a broader cultural war raging over ownership of established franchises like Ghostbusters or Star Wars. There are undoubtedly ways in which this story could be told with an emphasis on British experience, but USS Callister is very firmly a story about the ownership of one of America’s most beloved and abiding pop cultural mythologies. It is at once a deconstruction of certain strains of fandom and a love letter to the idealism at the heart of such stories.

USS Callister is fundamentally the story of fannish entitlement. It is a story about grown men who believe that they “own” certain pop cultural artifacts, and that anybody else is simply a guest. These are the fans who bristle at concepts like an all-female version of Ghostbusters or a version of Star Wars where the two lead characters are a black man and a white woman. Even in the context of the Star Trek franchise, they worry that minorities and women are over-represented in entertainment that they believe should be catering exclusively to their tastes.

To be fair, only a few relatively vocal sections of fandom express these anxieties in these concrete terms – that is, very few of these fans openly admit that they are uncomfortable with female and minority leads because they are female and minority leads. Instead, these fans tend to fall back on appeals to nostalgia and the canon, trying to assert control over these fictional worlds in ways that just so happen to continue to marginalise women and minorities. They idly wonder how there can be black stormtroopers. They claim to be tired of reboots in general. They cite the canon.

Of course, it would be possible to tell a version of USS Callister rooted in British pop culture. In fact, the choice of director Toby Haynes hints at a rather direct parallel. Haynes is a frequent collaborator of British writer and producer Steven Moffat, having directed for both Doctor Who and Sherlock. Indeed, Haynes is one of the strongest directors to work on the rebooted Doctor Who, being the only director to have directed three consecutive stories of the series in its fifty-plus year history: The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, A Christmas Carol, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.

Doctor Who fandom is going through its own identity crisis at this moment in time, with the change in showrunner from Steven Moffat to Chris Chibnell. More controversial is the regeneration of the traditionally male lead character from Peter Capaldi into former Black Mirror star Jodie Whittaker. Despite Moffat carefully spending more than half-a-decade setting up the transition, this shift has outraged certain purists. The type of traditionalist hardcore fan exemplified by Robert Daly is not a uniquely American construct, even if USS Callister does frame it specifically in terms of Star Trek.

However, part of what makes USS Callister feel particularly American – beyond choosing to parody Star Trek over Doctor Who – is the way in which this sense of fan entitlement has become a part of American culture wars. The United Kingdom has never had its conservative strains of fandom coalesce into anything like Gamergate. In the United States, political movements like the alt-right are built upon the sense of entitlement of a young male digitally native generation that formed from various messageboards and communities largely anchored in internet fandom.

As such, USS Callister feels very much rooted in a cultural moment that is particularly American, even beyond the obvious allusions to Star Trek. Of course, Star Trek itself is a distinctly American institution, an extrapolation of Kennedy era optimism about the “new frontier” channelled through an extension of liberal optimism into the distant future. The series cast deep space as a logical extension of the frontier myth that defines American identity, a vast wilderness that offers limitless opportunities and represents endless potential.

There is something quite clever in the way that USS Callister weds this “new frontier” to the digital frontier. After all, there is an argument to be made that the frontier of the twenty-first century is virtual, with pioneers exploring and claiming conceptual space that only exists in network and code. This reflects the anxieties articulated by cyberpunk writers like William Gibson during the eighties and nineties, and might perhaps be best literalised by the way that crypto-currencies like bitcoin have become a twenty-first century gold rush.

Within USS Callister, the only glimpse that the audience gets of the fictional Star Trek stand-in “Space Fleet” is filtered through the realm of Robert Daly’s digital video game inspired by it. The real Star Trek celebrates an incredibly vast frontier where anything is popular, but the bulk of USS Callister unfolds within a much more limited world. Robert Daly has set boundaries on the final frontier, imposed limits and restrictions on what it can and should be. Much is made of how tightly this version of “Space Fleet” is locked down, a “development build” that is “sealed off.”

USS Callister is constructed in a very clever manner, one that very cannily wrongfoots the audience. Actor Jesse Plemons is credited as the lead actor on the episode, his name coming first in the credits and featuring prominently in the publicity. This is not unreasonable, as Plemons is almost certainly a bigger name than his co-star Cristin Milioti; when the two appeared in Fargo together, Plemons had the larger and more prominent role. Indeed, USS Callister constructs its first act largely from the perspective of Robert Daly, inviting the audience to see the world from his perspective.

The opening scenes of USS Callister unfold within Daly’s fantasy, filtered through his own perspective as represented through the shifting aspect ratio and simulated digital grain that evoke the memory of watching classic Star Trek in syndication. Indeed, one of the episode’s delightfully subtle accuracies is its approximation of sixties-style model work for this introductory sequence; it makes sense that Daly would have little patience for any sort of remastering of his beloved franchise.

The introductory sequence is cute and camp, a playful fantasy. There is no indication of the vindictiveness that becomes evident in later sequences, no hint that the non-player characters are anything by sincere in their devotion to Daly’s heroism. It is a little creepy when the two female crew members line up for a kiss-and-dip at the end of the sequence, but it seems basically wholesome. The opening sequence suggests that Daly’s fantasy isn’t hurting anybody, and instead provides a place in which he can be himself.

USS Callister very cleverly builds sympathy for Daly through its introduction to him in the real world. The initial suggestion is that the simulation is a space-age riff on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In several nice nods to William Shatner, upon whom Plemons based Daly’s in-game performance, the real Robert Daly has a little bit less hair and a little bit more belly than his fantastical counterpart. The early scenes of USS Callister suggest that the fantasy is just a means of escape for this nerdy programmer.

The real Robert Daly is far removed from his digital counterpart, his life a constant stream of humiliations from people who treat him with minimal respect. Elena makes him ask to be allowed into his own company. Nate simply declines to add Daly to the company coffee order. James aggressively berates him. Shania member seems to forget that Daly is technically her boss; she happily tolerates James as “a bit of a player” but dismisses Daly as “a bit starey.” It is a welcome reprieve when new programmer Nanette Cole clarifies that Daly is gifted, responsible for “some beautiful code.”

These sequences are designed to evoke pity for Daly, to invite the audience to consider whether the character is unfairly ignored and overlooked by the character around him. It allows the audience to understand the story from Daly’s perspective, to see USS Callister as the story of a misunderstood and sensitive genius who never gets the respect that he deserves from his co-workers. This is a stock narrative, particularly for male characters. It is a familiar fantasy, the idea that people would love Daly if only he could find the confidence to come out of his shell.

This is a common enough narrative in speculative fiction, perhaps reflecting the very real social anxieties that many nerdy young men feel. Within the Star Trek franchise, the episode Hollow Pursuits might be the most obvious parallel. In that story, Reginald Barclay is an awkward member of the engineering staff who retreats into a holographic fantasy in which he has cast his co-workers as non-player characters. The episode does acknowledge the invasiveness and creepiness of this premise, but glosses over it in favour of extending sympathy to this insecure character.

Barclay would go on to become one of the most endearing supporting characters in the Star Trek canon. He recurred throughout the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He got to make a small (but memorable) appearance in Star Trek: First Contact, in a scene that played up the idea of Barclay as a stand-in for the socially-anxious Star Trek fan. (He had actually been introduced as a stand-in for the social anxieties of producer Michael Piller.) The character proved so popular and so beloved that he even migrated over to the recurring cast on Star Trek: Voyager.

USS Callister plays upon the audience’s familiarity with this basic story structure, and then brutally pulls the rug out from under the viewer. Following these workplace humiliations, Daly retreats into his fantasy and vents his anger upon these artificial constructs. Daly’s insecurity is no longer cute or sympathetic. Instead, his awkwardness has festered and curdled into resentment and that resentment has boiled over into rage. Daly is a twenty-first century revision of that socially-awkward nerd archetype, one informed by years of coverage of “trolling” and “doxxing” and “swatting.”

In a virtual space, Daly is anything but harmless. Indeed, James memorably (and accurately) describes the virtual space within which Daly operates as “a bubble universe, ruled by an asshole god.” Daly is all-powerful in the virtual realm that he has created for himself. However, USS Callister repeatedly insists that Daly’s actions in that virtual space do not merely affect himself. After all, there is an argument to be made that a large part of the 2016 election was fought (and won) by reactionary trolls in virtual reality.

Indeed, USS Callister touches upon the difficulty in elucidating boundaries between real and virtual spaces. Nanette is able to reach out from within the game and influence her real-world counterpart, perhaps reflecting the way in which online presences and bots seem to have had a very real impact on how people think and act within the real world. Like a lot of Black Mirror, there is a sense that the central premise of USS Callister is simply modern trends expanded and explored through allegory, touching on the suffering created by “asshole gods” in their “bubble universes.”

This perhaps explains the (rather improbable, even by the standards of Black Mirror technology) reveal that the virtual models in Daly’s simulation all have the memories and personalities of their real-life counterparts. USS Callister reveals that Daly has been harvesting his co-workers’ DNA to create facsimiles that he can torture and humiliate, which explains how he created perfect likenesses. However, the episode never bothers to explain how these creations can have the memories and awareness of the people upon whom they are based. DNA (obviously) does not work like that.

However, this connection between the virtual creations and their organic counterparts underscores an important thematic point. It has been suggested that one of the reasons why people tend to indulge in extremist behaviour online is because they do not think about the people with whom they are interacting as real people. The decision to literally humanise the artificial constructs in USS Callister by assuring viewers that they are indistinguishable from their real-world counterpart serves to reinforce this idea of tangible connection between Daly’s virtual world and the real world.

That said, the weird memory-snapping DNA technology in USS Callister does hint at something approaching a blind spot in the interesting handling of artificial intelligences across the fourth season of Black Mirror. The fourth season of Black Mirror repeatedly emphasises that artificial intelligences should be treated as worthy of human rights, that dehumanising them is a very dangerous path, and something that reveals a disturbing lack of empathy at the heart of modern culture.

Repeatedly over the fourth season, Black Mirror invites the audience to feel sympathy for beings trapped in digital purgatory – to wonder what really separates these digital individuals from flesh-and-blood human beings. The audience comes to root for the action figures mounting a daring escape from their sadistic tormentor in USS Callister, to invest in the romance between the artificially-created Frank and Amy in Hang the DJ, to feel compassion for the perpetually-suffering Clayton Leigh in Black Museum. We come to acknowledge the humanity of what Rolo Haynes calls “cookies.”

However, there is a weird limit to the empathy that runs through the fourth season of Black Mirror, one that is made very clear by the contrivance at the heart of the digital clones in USS Callister. Quite simply, why does it matter that the artificial copies in USS Callister share the memories and experiences of their real-world counterpart? Would their suffering be any less legitimate if they weren’t copies of real people, like all of the “cookies” in the fourth season? Would it be too much to ask the audience to feel empathy for simulations that were more than one step away from human beings?

This common thread running through these three episodes – the idea that empathy is needed for digital clones of real people – feels like a rather shallow way of broaching an important theme. Black Mirror repeatedly emphasises the horrors that people can inflict upon one another when they dehumanise each other, but there is something unsettling in the show’s strange insistence that these creatures are worthy of our sympathy because they can be tied pack directly to real people in the real world.

It might have been bolder for USS Callister to argue that these creatures are deserving of empathy because they are autonomous and self-aware, regardless of any tether to the outside world. Empathy increasingly seems to be in short supply in the modern world, applied only to that which is recognisable and familiar. Suggesting that the characters in USS Callister deserve sympathy because they are effectively the same people (comprised of the same memories and with the same personalities) as their real-world equivalent feels like a problematic way to tackle an important theme.

Although USS Callister opens with a strong focus on Robert Daly, the emphasis soon shifts to reveal the real protagonist of the story: the digital copy of Nanette Cole created from the lid of a coffee cup that Daly opportunistically scavenges from the office trash. Daly’s true colours are revealed in a manner that is shockingly brutal. Black Mirror has never been a subtle show, but the episode’s commitment to establishing Daly as a monster is striking. There is no hesitation, no moral shading, no suggestion of nuance or complexity.

The audience discovers Daly’s villainy in quick succession: Daly literally cannot wait to harvest Nanette’s DNA at the first opportunity; Daly tortures those who oppose him, whether by leaving them to suffocate for eternity or transforming them into monsters; Daly “broke” James by cloning his son Timmy and forcing James to watch repeatedly; Daly refuses to even tip for pizza on Christmas Eve. There is no hint of redemption for Daly, no suggestion that his aggression might be excused by years of bullying, no sympathy for his emotionally stunted psychology.

USS Callister makes a point to emphasise Daly’s irredeemable villain in the final conversation with James as he struggles to fix the engine. The conversation hints at the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation, at the possibility that James might somehow understand how years of abuse and victimisation turned Daly into something horrible. Again, this is a narrative beat that audiences have been conditioned to expect from stories like this, the idea that bad men can be redeemed, no matter how horrific their crimes. (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Last Jedi beautifully subverts this idea.)

“Bob, I wanna talk to you here!” James yells in the middle of the climax. “I was thinking I should say sorry. You created Infinity. You’re a f%$king genius. I exploited that. I treated you like a golden goose and I got fat on the profits – figuratively speaking. And I was thinking I should have appreciated you more, you know? I should have treated you better. Yeah, yeah, I was thinking I should say all that.” Daly seems almost moved by this. Then James lands the kicker, “But you threw my son out of an airlock, so f%$k you to death.”

There is something refreshingly frank in this condemnation of Daly, of this refusal to allow the character off the hook. In an era where the President of the United States suggests a moral equivalence between Neo-Nazis and the protestors who oppose them, it is worth reinforcing these moral lines. Moral relativism has often been treated as the hallmark of sophisticated entertainment, allowing audiences to reach their own conclusions about individual characters. In contrast, USS Callister arguably reflects the idealism that defined the original Star Trek: there can be no compromise.

Interestingly, some of the critical response to USS Callister has found the episode to be mean-spirited in its approach to Daly, interpreting the character as either a crass endorsement of popular stereotypes about socially awkward Star Trek fans or as a deliberate broad-side against the original Star Trek television show in favour of the more modern interpretations that are less popular with traditional fans. Jordan Hoffman even dropped in the hashtag #NotAllTrekkies, which seems ill-judged. Angelica Jade Bastién argued that it was unfair to the original Star Trek.

Star Trek fansites were similarly enraged by the perceived slight. With minimal self-awareness, Jared Whitley at TrekMovie complained that the episode was “a cruel parody and even a misandrous attack on male science-fiction fans. If the group on the receiving end of Charlie Brooker’s ‘satire’ were anything but nerdy beta males, the Internet would be up in arms over it.” At Den of Geek, Kayti Burt argued that USS Callister ignored the long and rich history of female Star Trek fandom to focus on crass played-out stereotypes.

Burt has a very fair point, there is a long-standing tendency to downplay the importance of female fandom in defining what many people take for granted about the modern fan experience; the organisation, the fan fiction, the magazines. However, this tendency to downplay the importance of female fans within the history of fandom is itself largely a result of the sort toxic entitled masculinity that USS Callister is so brutally deconstructing. There are probably many female fans of “Space Fleet”, just as there are probably well-adjusted male fans as well. But that does not make Daly an unfair character.

USS Callister is undoubtedly a scathing commentary on a certain type of Star Trek fan, and it never pretends to be anything different. It is a condemnation of fans who refuse to acknowledge that the object of their interest might change or evolve over time, that it might be redesigned or reinvented to appeal to anybody but themselves. Robert Daly is the kind of fan who prefers The Orville to Star Trek: Discovery, because it doesn’t challenge his idea of what the franchise should or can be.

(One of the most delightful little touches is the suggestion that for all of Robert Daly’s slavish devotion to the original “Space Fleet” show, he is not even fetishing his own childhood memories. “It’s a TV show,” Daly tells Nanette. “Before your time. Before my time, actually. But it was visionary.” There is something very sad about this, the way in which Daly is fixated upon a vision of the future that is rooted in a past that predates his own memory. Then again, it seems like very few people actually understand the times for which they are nostalgic.)

To a certain extent, this might also be applied to certain Star Trek purists as well, devoted and dogmatic fans who accept no substitute in their Star Trek. It is impossible to overstate the value of the original Star Trek in presenting a utopian and idealised version of the future at a turbulent time in American history. However, the progressive bona fides of the original Star Trek are often over-stated, particularly in criticising perceived shortcomings in the series that followed. There is a sense that the future was never as perfect as audiences would have wanted it to be.

It was great that Star Trek featured a diverse and multicultural future, but the treatment of these characters left a lot to be desired. As diverse as the bridge crew might have been, most of the stories were driven by the three central white characters. Uhura had her entire memory wiped in The Changeling, a plot point treated as no big deal. (Here, Shania is turned into a monster, treated as similarly disposable.) Sulu did not get a first name (“Hikaru”) until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Uhura had to wait to receive her own first name (“Nyoto”) in the rebooted Star Trek.

Elements like the yellow-face Klingons in episodes like Errand of Mercy have not aged well. There was a staggering amount of casual sexism on display in episodes like Space Seed or Turnabout Intruder, and horrific racism in scripts like The Omega Glory and The Savage Curtain. As much praise as the show gets for its progressive narratives in episodes like The Devil in the Dark, and its pacifist leanings in episodes like A Taste of Armageddon, the show was borderline imperialist in episodes like Friday’s Child, The Apple and For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.

Even some of the moments of Star Trek perceived as being progressive were much more conservative than their reputations would suggest. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is a parable about the absurdity of racism, but it largely argues that oppressed minorities should calm down a little bit in challenging their oppressors. Much is made of the kiss between Shatner and Nichols in Plato’s Stepchildren, but the popular memory of the kiss tends to gloss over the fact that it was basically sexual assault and that the two characters did not kiss of their own free will.

None of this invalidates the original Star Trek, but it does demonstrate that the series was an artifact of its time, and that there is room to improve and evolve. Holding on to the past and venerating it serves to trap these flaws in amber and leaves little room to acknowledge progress. Later iterations of Star Trek undoubtedly have their own flaws, but many of them build upon the idealism of Star Trek while moving past some of those problems. There is a sense that change is natural and should be encouraged.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine presented the first truly multicultural Star Trek, even if its treatment of homosexual characters was problematic in episodes like Shattered Mirror or The Emperor’s New Cloak. JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek might have made some awkward attempt to translate sexuality to screen and may have engaged in some 9/11 conspiracy theories, but it did give Uhura a first name and elevate her into the leading trinity. Discovery might be clumsy in its handling of Klingon culture, but it does feature the franchise’s first out-and-proud gay couple.

To insist that JJ Abrams’ reboot or that Discovery represents an affront to Star Trek or a rejection of the franchise’s core ethos is to ignore the flaws that come baked into the original Star Trek, a failure to understand that utopian idealism and progressive advancement are iterative and that even the future must keep moving forward. USS Callister understands this, and appreciates the threat that a possessive fanbase can pose to a long-running franchise. It seems appropriate that Daly’s job should involve administering patches, acknowledging this idea of iterative improvement.

JJ Abrams’ reboot is still Star Trek. Discovery is still Star Trek. Even if they are not perfect, they represent a step forward for the franchise. In its final moments, USS Callister seems to acknowledge this. Travelling through the wormhole, Daly’s retro modifications to the code are stripped away and the set (and uniforms) are transformed. The set looks more like the set from JJ Abrams’ reboot than from the original Star Trek. However, gone are the sexist (and impractical) miniskirts. Gone is the fetish for green skin. Gone is the white guy who stands at the centre of attention.

There is an acknowledgement at the heart of USS Callister that Star Trek does not belong to people like Robert Daly any longer, the character literally left behind and trapped in his own pocket universe. Instead, Star Trek belongs to characters like Nanette Cole. It should be noted that, with Robert’s noble sacrifice to restart the ending, the ship escapes into the wild with a cast comprised entirely of women and minorities. Nanette takes the captain’s chair. To quote Doctor Who, the future is female.

Interestingly, for all the criticisms of USS Callister as being mean-spirited or aggressive in its approach to Star Trek, it is clear that the episode has a great deal of affection for the franchise. Most obviously, the scenes in while Daly makes out with Shania and Elena is probably a lot closer to the famous kiss as depicted in Plato’s Stepchildren than the popular memory of that kiss. Not only is Daly’s torture of Nanette by removing her face a potent metaphor for the way in which such men dehumanise the targets of their aggression, it is also a nod to Charlie X, another story about an omnipotent man-child.

Incidentally, the episode’s handling of sex and sexuality is surprisingly clever. Having Daly strip out any genitals from his fantasy allows for USS Callister to explore entitlement and misogyny issues without getting too tied down in graphic sexual fantasies; to discuss rape culture without devoting over an hour to rape. It also allows Cristin Milioti to deliver the line, “Stealing my pussy is a red f%$king line.” Outside of being a net benefit of itself, this arguably also ties Daly’s actions back to broader (and more mainstream) examples of misogynistic masculine entitlement.

However, this smoothing of the characters’ genitals also plays as an effective commentary of certain forms of sexuality as it appeared in later iterations of the Star Trek franchise, epitomised by Jeri Ryan’s costume on Voyager and Jolene Blalock’s costume on Star Trek: Enterprise. With any erogenous zones smoothed over, the characters in Daly’s simulation look almost like Seven of Nine or T’Pol in those skin-tight catsuits, characters that might as well be naked with any offending anatomical elements removed.

As with the chaste kisses that Daly exchanges with the female crew members (“there’s never any tongues”), this suggests a very teenage view of sexuality. Later in the episode, Daly is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of going skinny-dipping with Nanette. It is a very clever and nuanced view of the complicated relationship that certain aspects of nerd culture can have with sexuality, the competing contradictory urges to covet and to protect – of being drawn to romantic ideals while looking down upon explicit sexual impulses; looking, but never touching.

USS Callister benefits greatly from its two central performances. Plemons is deeply unsettling, and able to convey a surprising amount of depth to Daly’s cruelty. Even when Daly is complete control of his artificial surroundings, Plemons lets just enough insecurity to peak through. Plemons pitches his performance perfectly, capturing the sense of a put-upon bully who projects his own ideas of strength and power to mask his insecurities; a man who waxes lyrical about romantic ideals of a utopian future without ever putting any real thought into applying it to himself.

Daly is a Star Trek fan who does not understand Star Trek. However, the real beauty of USS Callister lies in how deeply the episode does understand Star Trek. This is obvious just looking at the variety of in-jokes and references, the nods and homages buried within the episode. Indeed, the discussion of the crew’s smoothed-over erogenous zones prompts Shania to lament, “Can’t even sh!t. Can’t even have the basic fucking pleasure of pushing out a sh!t.” It seems like a nod to the long-standing joke about there never being any toilets on the Enterprise.

USS Callister also seems to owe a sizable debt to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which makes sense; it is both the most iconic Star Trek movie and perhaps the first time that the franchise broke free of the influence of Gene Roddenberry. As far as generic Star Trek antagonists go, Valdeck very clearly resembles the movie-era version of Khan. Similarly, the climax of the story finds the loyal first officer sacrificing himself for “the needs of the many.” It could also be argued that it is appropriate that Daly should face his reckoning in an extended homage to a brutal deconstruction of Kirk.

However, USS Callister‘s truest homage to Star Trek is the way in which the episode evolves into a more conventional Star Trek narrative as it goes. The first half of the episode seems a brutal deconstruction of the franchise, and a scathing critique of a certain type of fan. Robert Daly’s fantasy is a horrifically warped version of the franchise, a sandbox in which he can indulge his worst impulses. However, as the crew come together in order to escape his influence, USS Callister comes to embrace the platonic ideal of Star Trek. It becomes the story of a group of people working together for the greater good.

Indeed, the second half of USS Callister becomes an endearing ensemble adventure in a manner that recalls Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, with each member of the crew assigned a specific task or role in executing a daring plan. This combination of The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock is quite a clever narrative decision. In many ways, The Search for Spock represented a reconstruction of the franchise’s utopian idealism following the somewhat cynical approach adopted by The Wrath of Khan. Incidentally, The Search for Spock was also arguably the first time that Star Trek felt like a true ensemble piece.

Along the way, the Star Trek references get gradually more playful and lighthearted. “Packer, we ready to fly?” Nanette asks as the ship gears up. Packet nods. After an awkward silence, he clarifies, “You’re supposed to say something like ‘engage’ or ‘increase thrust.'” Nanette responds, “Just f%$king go.” There is a playfulness to these little nods and references that suggest an abiding affection for Star Trek, making it clear that writers Charlie Brooker and William Bridges (and director Toby Haynes) are conversant enough in the language of Star Trek to play with tone.

There is an endearing optimism to the second half of USS Callister, as the crew make one desperate bid to escape the “asshole god” at the centre of their universe. (This is itself something of an archetypal Star Trek plot, suggested in episodes like The Squire of Gothos and Encounter at Farpoint.) There is a noble sacrifice, a high-stakes action sequence, a risky gambit, a cunning ruse, and a ticking clock. All of this is delivered in a manner decidedly more humanist and hopeful than the typical Black Mirror episode, signalling the strange optimism of the fourth season as a whole.

The closing scene of USS Callister teases a mean-spirited nihilistic twist, as the crew escape into the open sandbox virtual reality game and come face-to-face with the sort of entitled gamers who occupy such realms. It seems like USS Callister may end with the crew having escaped Daly only to discover that the entire universe is just as cruel and malicious, that they might have broken free to be killed off by some anonymous gamer with an itchy trigger screener. It is a last minute development that finds Brooker playing with the expectations that audiences have of Black Mirror, suggesting a cruel ending for its own sake.

However, USS Callister ends on a defiantly upbeat ending, right down to the decision to have Shania transform back into a human being and having the crew mysteriously grow genitals. (Sadly, Gillian gets no such happy ending.) The episode closes on Nanette sitting in the captain’s chair like she owns it, with all the confidence of Kathryn Janeway or the rebooted Kirk. She orders, “Stick us in hyperwarp and let’s… f%$k off somewhere.” It’s not an optimistic mission statement in the style of “let’s see what’s out there” or “set a course for home”, but it is shot and delivered in a similar manner.

(That said, there is a darker undercurrent to the ending in the real world. Robert Daly winds up trapped inside his own game as it collapses, left in a vegetative state. However, the real Nanette’s fingerprints will be all over his apartment should a police investigation occur into his death. While the virtual Nanette has been afforded freedom and opportunity, it may have come at that of her real-world counterpart. Then again, USS Callister does not dwell too heavily upon this possibility, keeping the darkness on the edge of the proverbial frame.)

Cristin Milioti is impressive as Nanette, managing a performance just as effective and nuanced as Plemons. In particular, Milioti’s performance while on the planet alone with Daly is very effective. Nanette is balancing three conflicting emotions; Nanette is both disgusted by Daly and afraid of him, but she is trying to hide that behind an appealing demeanour. It is an emotional tightrope, with her forced grin slipping either when she thinks Daly isn’t looking or when one of the other emotions temporarily becomes too much to properly suppress.

In its own way, this dynamic is perhaps a more heightened version of that experienced by many women. More than half of the killings of American women are related to intimate partner violence, with Margaret Atwood famously observing, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Even leaving aside the threat of physical violence, power imbalances frequently mean that women find themselves navigating “the delicate balance of asserting themselves yet protecting the male ego.” The scenes with Daly and Nanette take this idea to an extreme.

USS Callister is a timely and effective piece of cultural commentary, but one with a lot of insight and nuance into both the dynamics that it is exploring and the vehicle through which it is exploring them. USS Callister is at once a condemnation of a certain type of fandom and a celebration of Star Trek, striking an incredibly precise balance between these two perspectives. It is an episode about a transitory moment in pop culture, one that candidly acknowledges past failings while still retaining hope for a better future.

9 Responses

  1. Wow! What an incredibly insightful and interesting review! I’m not a Star Trek fan so I found this all very fascinating. It was a long read but well worth it!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I mean, I think USS Callister can be enjoyed with only a superficial knowledge of Star Trek, but I do think that the episode really pops if you look at it through the lens of Star Trek.

  2. I was really looking forward to this episode, but found myself agreeing with the criticisms. What really disappointed me is the total lack of nuance. I don’t need to feel any sympathy towards Daly, but it would have been refreshing to get a character that felt more like a human being than a stock comic book villain. Episode 3 of this season put more work into making us empathize with a woman who killed a baby and multiple innocents. There’s no moral ambiguity there, she’s a horrible human being, but at least we understood her motivations and see her struggle with the choices she makes. She felt like a normal person caught up in something beyond her control. But Daly was just a moustache-twirling villain. I expect better from Black Mirror.

    Also, equating Daly with people who prefer Orville over Discovery is a bit much. I don’t have a dog in that fight as I gave up on both shows (the writing for both is bad), but we in fandom ought to do better letting people enjoy whatever entertainment they want without beibng chastised for it. Disliking Discovery/liking Orville ≠ alt-right.

    • USS Callister is quite explicit that some of Daly’s resentment is justified. Indeed, even AFTER everything we’ve seen, James spends the bulk of his final speech explaining that Daly is quite right to feel like he’s been sh@t upon from a height; he has. So the show has some measure of empathy for him.

      However, it also understands that having a tragic back story doesn’t justify being a sociopath. (It reminds me of how Bendis approaches writing villains, and even how Breaking Bad approaches Walt: bad things happen to people, but these bad things do not justify or excuse horrific behaviour. Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man suggests that the difference between Peter and his villains is that Peter chose to let his trauma become a source of strength, rather than using it to justify evil behaviour.)

      Which is why James acknowledging all the crap that Daly has endured doesn’t end in forgiveness or resolution. “F&%k you to death.” I thought it was an important note when you have The New York Times running stories about how hard it is to organise a wedding as a white supremacist. I’m sure it is hard, but then maybe don’t be a white supremacist.

      I have interacted with fans like Daly on-line, and (as little as possible) in person. Daly is not representative of all fans, or most fans, but he does represent a very loud and very vocal subset of fans. And so know that women and minority fans tend to deal with his kind a lot more. He’s fair game, I think.

      With regards to the Orville, you’re right that people can like what they like. More power to them. I hope they enjoy it. Life is too short and such.

      However, in the context of the piece, there are a certain brand of Star Trek fans who very performatively like the Orville for the reason I state in the review – “because it doesn’t challenge [their] idea of what the franchise should or can be.” These are the people who claim that The Orville is “REAL” Star Trek, in inverted commas, when it is self-evidently not. In that it’s not owned by CBS, branded as Star Trek, nor produced under the same on- and off-screen continuity.

      ((This isn’t just my observation. The Star Trek reddit banned discussion of the Orville precisely because it being used in such a way. As a gate-keeping effort to define what “REAL” Star Trek was, and as part as an effort to insist that Star Trek should not move past a certain aesthetic point. In that case, The Next Generation.))

      Given that Daly has built his own little universe frozen in time as the outside world has moved on, it would seem to be a fair point?

      • Completely agree about Daly’s having a tragic backstory doesn’t make him sympathetic. Even Magneto had a sympathetic backstory. But there is an important distinction between empathy and sympathy. I have no sympathy for him, but would like to empathize within him, insofar as that means understanding (just as it’s important to understand the alt-right, as Stephen Pinker recently argued). Black Mirror is usually a perfect vehicle for trying to understand what drives people to do outrageous things. For me, BM works best when the point of view character is the messed up one. We get to see the character’s reasoning as he/she falls down the rabbit hole. In some ways, Daly’s story Is an interesting one and relevant to our times, that of a normal nerd who becomes toxic. How does that happen to a person? Many nerds were bullied by jocks and ignored by women in high school, but most become well adjusted adults and find people who treat them with respect. What happened to Daly to make him so sadistic? That could have been fascinating. Instead, the point of view character is a sympathetic victim, Nanette Cole, and Daly comes across as a comic book villain. Nothing wrong with that on most shows, but that seems a waste of BM’s potential to explore the darkness within people.

        Also, I think having the POV on Daly, and as you said in the article making the avatars within the simulated world be empty rather than contain memories of their real-world counterparts, would have let the episode say more about video game violence. There’s something odd about the fact that in games we can kill – and even enjoy killing – digital representations of people. When does that become problematic? Does knowing that the person in the video game is a line of code make that much of a difference? Instead, the episode treats the avatars as if they were the real people, so those issues are never explored.

  3. Really disappointed w/ the new season of BM. The only episode worth watching twice was “Metalhead,” which had the spirit of the original, British-created series.

    The only thing more disappointing is the glowing reviews for Callister. The writers really dropped the ball for this one: it’s no homage to Star Trek or its fandom, it’s a cheap rip-off. And an ugly one, to boot.

    I can suspend my disbelief w/ the best of them, but this show really asks a lot. A genius who can hash out great code, helped create a company w/ his work, and has a DNA-replicating machine in his pad (his creation or bought w/ his saved wealth, never explained like much in this episode) yet he’s treated like dirt by crummy co-workers.

    Why? No explanation for their callous behavior. But just as in the film “Don’t Breathe” we’re shown a victim-character who quickly becomes an ugly villain doing ugly things. So here we have a Captain Kirk knock-off who treats his creations poorly as revenge for the doormat treatment in real life.

    The new girl does nothing of the kind, yet right away Plemons treats Milioti badly, like a new toy he’s already tired of. Why? I’ll tell you why; the hacks who wrote this mean-spirited episode can’t come up w/ a better way to show Daly’s misery except through rotten behavior.

    There are no characters to feel sympathy for here, real or synthetic. The cast is just fine, everyone plays their parts well (Plemons continues to look like a younger, stiffer version of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but oh well.) There were some quips I chuckled at.

    But there’s nothing to explain “Captain” Daly’s arrogance and cruelty. Does he seriously believe mocking and behaving badly towards his creations will change the behavior of their real-life counterparts?

    This show went for knee-jerk laughs and silly situations (“Come on in, the water’s fine big boy Captain! Don’t look at your gizmo, look at me swimming in my underwear!”) instead of giving us a look into the mind of someone playing God w/ his creations, and the motivations behind his doing so besides “They won’t stop picking on me, wah!”

    And why go for the obvious “escape” plot when we could have had something more sinister. Say, Milioti’s character being a wolf in sheep’s clothing herself, perhaps capturing Daly in real life a-la Tron and putting him into her little code-written world as punishment for him stealing her likeness?

    Don’t get the love for this pale episode. It’s cruel when not being silly, and the characters escape (rather implausible a great code writer would leave giant loopholes in his software) from frying pan into another, larger pan to leave Daly in the dark was lazy writing.

    I tend to see this episode as a metaphor for the idea of human souls. People believe we die, and some part of us heretofore unsensed is releaased, to be rewarded or punished for eternity. Which is kind of what Daly’s creations are; they have memory of their human incarnations (somehow) but no sense of time.

    If these beings suffer, they’re human-selves have no inkling of it…so what’s the point of what Daly does? And what happens to them if Daly keels over from an aneurysm; stuck in digital hell forever until discovered online accidentally?

    Like all but one of the six newest episodes, this one bites off more than it can chew, and went for the wrong door, ideas-wise. Felt like it was “dumbed-down” for `Murican audiences, if anything.

    • I find it very strange that people feel like Daly’s character was unrealistic or didn’t make sense. I mean… the internet is a thing, and most of us have interacted with, or observed second hand, people who behave on the internet quite like Daly does in his own virtual world. (“GIFT” is the pseudo-scientific theory for such behaviour, and my experience suggests it’s entirely accurate.)

  4. Daly fancies himself Captain Kirk, when in reality he’s the typical evil God like being Kirk would fight any other day of the week like Tremaine or the kid from Charlie X.

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