For those of you who are familiar with Black Mirror, you know that this show is not for the faint of heart. It has an incredibly cynical and disturbing worldview on not just technology, but on the human race as a whole, and how technology negatively influences them. Episodes like The National Anthem, Fifteen Million Merits, and more recently, Shut Up and Dance have been infamous for showing the absolute worst qualities in the characters, and giving them the worst consequences possible. However, USS Callister changes up the formula by starting the episode with a very sympathetic portrayal of its main character. We begin with a segment from the popular 1960s TV Show Space Fleet, which is very obviously parodying the 1960s Sci-Fi aesthetic of Star Trek. In this segment, we see Captain Daly (Jesse Plemons) being worshipped by his crew as a hero in a very over the top and cheesy way. From this, there is a harsh transition from the vibrant colors of Space Fleet to the bleak and muted ones of real life. In the real world, Robert Daly is an employee at a video game developer. He is a pretty lonely and unappreciated person in real life, but in his simulation, he’s the one who calls all the shots.
The way the episode is structured is very interesting. At an hour and sixteen minutes it’s the longest episode of the season, and it has much more time to develop its characters and tell a much more full story than expected from a typical Black Mirror episode. The episode starts by making you as an audience member feel very sorry for Daly. He’s just a regular guy who gets constantly picked on and ignored by his coworkers, and we find out that he was originally one of the cofounders of the company he worked for. However, any sympathy had for this character is lost when we find out what he has been building on his spare time. It turns out that Robert Daly has been building an alternate offline reality from the game he was building. This virtual reality is an exact replica of the various worlds and characters in his favorite corny sci-fi show, Space Fleet.
To avoid spoilers, I won’t say exactly what he does in this simulation, but it is very disturbing. Not only is this episode an examination of how empowerment fantasies in video games can affect the psyche of someone who is unable to connect with other people, but it is also a very thorough examination of the morality behind creating artificial life, and how we as humans would potentially treat it if we had complete control over it. Throughout the episode, Daly’s creations become more and more resistant to his constant demands, and because of this, he finds unique and cruel ways to punish them (the most disturbing example involving a lollipop).
As someone who has played video games extensively, I can vouch for this episode’s accuracy. I don’t have the same psychological issues that the main character did, and I can tell the difference between reality and fiction, but from the way Robert was treated throughout the first act of the episode, his actions are very understandable (even if they are disturbing). Just like every other episode of Black Mirror, U.S.S Callister is an episode that doesn’t just deconstruct the system, but the people affected by it as well. It understands how technology can be used to hurt others, and it understands the people who make those bad decisions with technology. It’s just as smart, nuanced, hilarious, disturbing and fucked up as any of Black Mirror’s best episodes, and it’s one of the best episodes to date.
If you haven’t checked out this series before, I would highly suggest doing so. It’s some of the sharpest social commentary out there.