Black Mirror has (pretty suddenly) returned for its 4th season, with another 6 episodes bound to leave you looking at your phone with disdain and searching Nokia 3310s on eBay.
The show has appeared to find a whole new audience since it jumped ship from Channel 4 to Netflix, but Charlie Brooker’s satirical anthology series still has the power to shock despite its increased scope and budget.
With USS Callister, the series delivers one of its strongest entries to date, providing something that genuinely couldn’t happen on the Channel 4 show whilst reinforcing themes that anyone who spends 5 minutes on the internet in 2018 will be grimly familiar with.
This debut episode follows tech genius Robert Daly (played by Jesse Plemons), who co-owns a company that produces a massive online game which transports the player into the world with the use of a tiny machine attached to the temple. Think VR without the intrusive goggles, basically.
Whilst very gifted in the programming department, socially, Daly is a bit of pariah. Mocked and derided by his colleagues and stepped on by his brash and outgoing business partner, the episode initially does a good job of making you feel sorry for him in its early stages. In classic Black Mirror style, however, this is swiftly rectified.
“We meet again Captain Daly!”
USS Callister opens with a wonderfully shot Star Trek pastiche, capturing the spirit of the original 60s series brilliantly, right down to the aspect ratio and film grain. As an occasional Trek fan, part of me wishes that they’d done a whole episode in this style, though obviously with the obligatory Black Mirror dark twist.
It’s soon revealed that this is a sinister pastime conducted by Daly, using a mod for the game that allows him to live out his “Space Fleet” fantasies with his co-workers as his crew, whom he clones into the game by stealing their DNA. The clones must play along with his fantasy - or suffer the consequences.
When new office programmer Nannette Cole (Cristin Milioti) finds herself cloned into the game (unbeknownst to her real-world counterpart) she strives to rally the crew to defy Daly and free themselves from his tyranny.
USS Callister is so packed with themes and inspiration from different works that it’s quite often difficult to pin down. What’s interesting about the AIs is that they’re separate entities from who they’re cloned from. Copy and paste, not cut and paste. This creates a dynamic between who they are in the game and who are they are in the real world. In the real world, Daly’s boss Walton is a brash and confident millionaire who hits on anything that moves. In the game, he’s humble and self-sacrificing due to being constantly downtrodden by Daly.
This duality is nothing new to science-fiction, but it’s done so well here that it elevates the whole episode. Even though we only get a glimpse at the real-world Daly, USS Callister uses tropes from Star Trek and other sci-fi series to offer little hints at the psyche of the man. In Star Trek, Kirk kisses the sexy alien girl at the end. Daly does the same in his “episodes”, but he’s made it so the AIs don’t have any of the parts to take it further than a kiss. Michaela Coel’s character notes that he doesn’t use tongues - he gets his power fantasy of kissing the girl (something he can’t do in real life) but without any of the real intimacy he’s clearly afraid of.
Plemons is terrific in the role of Daly, brilliantly portraying the vulnerability masking the spiteful misogynist he is inside. Plemons is quickly becoming “prestige TV” royalty, famously appearing in Breaking Bad as the hated “Meth Nazi” as well as starring alongside Kirstin Dunst in the widely acclaimed second season of Fargo.
“Space Fleet never turns its back on those who need our help.”
When watching USS Callister, I was reminded of I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison’s terrifying short story about a group of humans tortured by an AI who has complete control over them, with their only possible victory being death. USS Callister’s Daly is thematically very similar to that story’s AM, who is torturing humanity for creating him to have vast knowledge but trapping him in a machine’s body.
Despite the grim inspirations, USS Callister still manages some classic Brooker-esque dark humour with the exasperated pizza man and the note-perfect cheesy Star Trek dialogue the AIs are forced to perform.
In fact, Brooker’s voice comes through stronger here than it perhaps ever has, with his love of games adding some authenticity to the world. If you’re into games, you’ll know the feeling of some guy called ‘420BLAZEIT69’ dropping in to ply his wares past his bedtime in an online lobby. The ending of USS Callister captures this perfectly and reminds us that, even though the clones are now free, they’re still stuck in a world inhabited by aggravating online gamers.
The episode even poses questions about the nature of video games themselves. In games, the player is frequently treated like the hero of the story and doted upon, even if he or she is doing despicable things. This is an integral part of Daly’s fantasy, but it’s something you may not have picked up on if you’re not into games yourself.
USS Callister hits a bar Black Mirror has never hit before, combining the much larger budget afforded to a Netflix Original with an idea that has enough scope for a feature film, creating what is perhaps the best episode yet. If the rest of season 4 is this good, we're in for a treat.
You can watch all of Black Mirror on Netflix right now.