Black Mirror: 401 “USS Callister” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
2017 was an odd year. Our world seems to be becoming progressively surreal, where even the most biting satire or parodies aren’t as ludicrous as reality, even ignoring the consistently upsetting, calamitous and unbelievable news stories that broke throughout the year. So exceptional timing then for a new season of Charlie Brooker’s warped brainchild Black Mirror, which dropped just in time for 2018 to drive us into lovely existential crises to kick the year off the right way. We live in a world where prior Black Mirror episodes such as The Waldo Moment and The National Anthem, regarded as too outlandish by some at first, have grown to be the most prophetic given certain world events (and people). It’s only fitting then that the new season kicks off with the most outlandish instalment in the series’ history, USS Callister.
USS Callister took centre stage in the marketing for the new season, with its hugely ambitious scale promising to change how we perceive Black Mirror. This is an episode with extraordinary production value from the word go, a Star Trek parody in technicolour glory, with cinematic spectacle that manages to poke fun at its more dated aspects- there’s even a change of style from original Star Trek to the JJ Abrams reboot when the virtual crew escape late on- with experienced television director Toby Haynes making the most of the longest runtime of the season to show off the sets. While this was the most promoted episode, it had some concerned (oddly) given we *only* saw the cheesy aspects featured here. Shockingly, there’s a lot more at play here, and the uncomfortable fawning over Captain Robert Daly (Breaking Bad and Fargo’s Jesse Plemons) seen in the trailers turns out to be as sinister as it appeared.
Captain Daly is the virtual persona of Robert Daly, the CTO of an augmented reality gaming company by the name of Callister Inc.- named so after the ship from Daly’s favourite show, the Star Trek parodying Space Fleet– who create immersive worlds well past our current gaming standards, allowing customers to really be the hero of the story (say, is one game by the name of Red Dwarf?) USS Callister sets its stall out early to convince you that Robert is a pitiable man, the protagonist of the story- it’s a jarring shift to see him come from the charismatic, brash Captain Daly of the simulation to the balding, soft spoken Robert of reality, and the way he is treated by his co-workers bolsters this, with even the receptionist dismissive of him. His peers all talk about him behind his back. The man he created the company with, Walton, clearly doesn’t see him as an equal partner, despite Daly’s genius.
The arrival of Nanette Cole (Fargo and How I Met Your Mother’s Cristin Milioti) in the company might offer some happiness for him, as she fangirls over Daly, explaining she only joined Callister to work with him. It isn’t long before the others in the office warn Nanette about Daly’s creepier tendencies, which Daly overhears. Fantastically, our sympathies are completely inverted from here, as Daly scoops up a lollipop Nanette had been eating, taking it home before uploading her DNA to his own personal Space Fleet mod of Callister Inc.’s most popular game, Infinity, and virtual Nanette joins the crew of the Callister as Science Office Lieutenant Cole. USS Callister progresses to make you feel very disappointed that you felt a shred of sympathy for Daly.
Waking up in a skimpy uniform aboard the Callister, it doesn’t take Nanette long to find the rest of the “crew” and discover the horrific truth, more than worthy of a good shot of vodka- that she’s an identical copy of herself, placed into Daly’s twisted power fantasy of being a decorated captain on his favourite show. The way USS Callister reveals its hand brings home the horror and confusion for Nanette mixed with the reactions of the rest of the crew (AKA Daly’s co-workers) who’ve seen this all too many times. Yet despite how awful being told “you’re not actually you” might be alone, the situation here is a ridiculously absurd one, with the crew not even allowed their genitals, given that Space Fleet is “wholesome”. Nanette’s reaction to this is beyond golden (and essentially how most of us would react, too!)
The technology at the centre of USS Callister is like technology we’ve seen before in the Black Mirror universe, most notably the “cookies” from White Christmas, but the way it’s deployed here is in an altogether different fashion. He uses the virtual clones of his co-workers to enact his own power fantasy over them in ways he can’t in real life. He brings them into the game to break their will- he makes the outgoing real-life Walton weak and subservient. He forces them to adore him, to give him the respect he doesn’t get in the real world, such as the constant unsettling “three cheers for the Captain!” You can understand why Daly goes through with this- he might simply be unable to mentally stand up for himself- but it’s difficult to feel sympathy given how he could do it. He doesn’t- he gets stepped on by everyone, and rather than standing up for himself and his self-worth, he takes out his anger and frustrations in the game.
The copies resolutely fear him. He’s the perennial “asshole God” of this bubble universe, and he wreaks his vengeance on his subjects with no remorse. And boy, is his vengeance brutal. For anyone who dares step out of line, there’s the possibility of being transformed into a monster, or outright having your face taken so you struggle for air with no way to breathe. The whole episode plays out as a Black Mirror version of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and the visual of Nanette gasping for air without a face is straight out of a nightmare. Eternal torture is not a pleasant concept!
Jesse Plemons’ performance is downright frightening, with a quiet intensity that makes any time he’s displeased like a death knell for those under his thumb. If you’ve never been terrified by someone getting water splashed at them, then you have now. There’s a fascinating duality between Captain Daly and Bob, the confidence of his captain identity cracking whenever his demands are dared to be questioned, Bob slipping through to make him even scarier to watch. He’s emotionally underdeveloped, dealing with situations like a child throwing temper tantrums (along with visual signifiers such as the fridge full of flavoured milk and the “wholesome” romance).
His unfortunate victims all have their differences from reality to the game, with Jimmi Simpson (Westworld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as Walton bringing great sympathy to his mentally-broken virtual clone to contrast with the overbearing boss of reality. The flashback of how virtual Walton was broken is the episode’s most moving moment, with Daly’s brutality in murdering Walton’s son Tommy and Walton’s reaction being exceptionally powerful to watch. Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel (who also appeared in last seasons’ Nosedive) also brings a mother-hen like attitude to her virtual clone, in contrast to her gossipy real-life counterpart (who was still right about Daly, in the end). The standout though is Cristin Milioti’s Nanette, a brilliant Mary Sue subversion to contrast Daly’s captain, as resourceful and empathetic as she is witty.
Despite the grim situation, USS Callister has a surprising amount of levity and optimism, with Milioti’s Nanette being the surrogate through which we can see how over the top Daly’s fantasy is, and the writers have no qualms about playing up the ridiculousness- the “storylines” they take part in are repetitive and just a bit naff, taken to the limit of absurdity, summed up when Nanette does a karate stance as the crew face off against the “villain”. When Daly kisses the female crew there’s “never any tongues”, playing up his man-child nature. That’s not to say the humour betrays the situation- after all, the fact that death is the only escape for the virtual crew is grim no matter what spin you put on it! The final escape the crew make from Daly is exciting and tense, to the level that not even the slightly rushed climax can spoil it. Even though there’s a happy ending (which fits wonderfully, as Daly finds himself trapped in the simulation, as his real body lies comatose to the strains of Silent Night. Daniel Pemberton brings a suitably Hollywood soundtrack to USS Callister)- the crew find themselves on the main Infinity server, at the will of the typical griefers and online trolls, like the King of Space (Breaking Bad and BoJack Horseman’s Aaron Paul!). But they’re free, and they can decide their own destiny, for once, no matter how “real” they are, even if they’ll never be back to their “normal” lives, they can make their own choices again. It’s all that matters.
Black Mirror’s definition is changing. That’s a good thing! Nothing memorable ever happened by standing still. In USS Callister, the show stretches the possibilities it can reach, with an ambitious, hugely impressive episode that balances top-drawer production that wouldn’t look out of place in a big-budget film, and uses the extended runtime well to throw us straight into a story that manages to achieve the balance between the typical Black Mirror bleakness and a sense of fun and adventure, anchored by fantastic dual performances of those performing the virtual clones and their real-world counterparts. Black Mirror is back. And it’s a true (late!) Christmas miracle.