Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Black Mirror: USS Callister
Black Mirror season 4’s “USS Callister” episode explores the dark side of sci-fi fandom, as well as the perils of escaping to digital worlds. As dark and bleak as Black Mirror can be, the show does occasionally get comedic, even if it’s usually a pitch black type of humor. This can actually be seen in the series’ debut episode, “The National Anthem,” in which the U.K.’s Prime Minister is pressured into having sex with a pig on live TV in order to save a hostage. More conventional instances of comedy can be found in season 3’s “San Junipero,” and season 4’s “Hang the DJ.”
Netflix went out of its way to keep plot details about Black Mirror season 4 from getting out there prior to its debut, and as such, most tended to assume that “USS Callister” would be season 4’s comedic-leaning piece. After all, the preview images featured characters dressed up in uniforms clearly meant to invoke the original Star Trek series, and sitting on a set very much like Capt. Kirk’s USS Enterprise. This led many to believe that “USS Callister” would be a Star Trek parody, albeit filtered through Black Mirror’s lens.
Now that “USS Callister” is out there for fans to see though, it’s readily apparent that the episode is anything but comedic. It turns out that most of the characters pictured above are being held captive inside a digital world by genius computer programmer Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons, Breaking Bad). Daly – a shy and quiet type – is a bit of a social outcast at his company Callister Inc., despite being the chief technical officer and co-founder. At the end of each work day, Daly escapes to a digital world he created, modeled after his favorite old TV show “Space Fleet.” In this universe, Daly is the suave, Kirk-like Captain, and his colleagues have all been turned into his faithful crew.
Or at least, that’s what Daly wants. His digital crew isn’t just a normal computer creation. They were created using samples of Daly’s colleagues’ DNA, and they retain the entire personality and memories of their real world counterparts. Unfortunately, Daly’s drive to live out his nightly fantasy is so strong that if his digital comrades don’t behave the way they’re instructed to, bad things happen. Torturous things. Things most people likely wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies.
It’s no coincidence that all but one of Daly’s crew are women and people of color; his nostalgia for the ’60s is not limited to campy sci-fi. The women are forced to wear skimpy outfits and submit to being kissed by their Captain at the end of every “episode,” but the universe is also deliberately sexless (downstairs, everyone looks like a Barbie doll), so that the crew cannot even have sexual relationships with one another while Daly is away. The episode is particularly timely, given the changing face of the biggest science fiction franchises, which have seen women and people of color take the lead as the heroes of their own stories. “USS Callister” even plays on this structurally, by setting up the episode with Daly as a seemingly beleaguered and sympathetic protagonist, only to reveal that he’s actually the villain.
While Daly is eventually outsmarted by his own creations and left stranded alone in his digital world, it is made clear that time is different for those who were trapped, and there’s no telling how many times they’ve hellishly been made to take part in the same scenarios. In the pursuit of living inside his ultimate dream, Daly went mad with power, and eventually took pleasure in indulging his godlike status within that realm. While “Space Fleet” obviously didn’t make Daly a bad person, his obsession with it played a big factor in his desire to escape what he came to feel was an unfair reality. One assumes he’ll now have a long time to contemplate his sadistic and cruel actions – at least until someone discovers his body.
Black Mirror seasons 1-4 are now available to stream on Netflix.
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