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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Black Mirror beams into a familiar nightmare as season 4 begins

Illustration for article titled Black Mirror beams into a familiar nightmare as season 4 begins
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“USS Callister” isn’t really about Star Trek. Oh sure, it has the trappings. There’s a ship crewed with people in colorful outfits, a paternalistic white guy captain, a fair amount of sci-fi jargon. The episode’s ultimate villain (aforementioned white male captain) gives a speech at one point outlining the ideals of Space Fleet that, given the context, could read as a pretty nasty riff on the Federation and its vision for the universe. And yes, there are definitely women in unnecessarily revealing outfits. One of them is blue.


But this isn’t a satire of Trek; or if it is, it’s not a particularly sharp one. It’s more like the sketch-show version of the franchise, a series of shallow nods you might have gleaned through decades of pop culture without ever actually paying attention to the source. And that’s fine. Because “USS Callister” isn’t interested in the stupidity of Klingons or just what the heck people were thinking when they invented the Ferengi. Instead, it’s about exploring the fallout of a particular kind of male nerd entitlement, using some familiar technological ideas to create a hell of one man’s making.

The episode’s best trick hits about 20 minutes in. We start off seeing things through Robert Daley’s (Jesse Plemons) eyes; the disgruntled co-founder of a company that produces a kind of virtual reality MMORPG, Daley spends his off hours getting revenge at his co-workers’ disrespect inside a modded version of the VR program that made his company its fortune. After the seemingly lighthearted (if self-aggrandizing) opening Trek riff, we see Daley stuck in the ongoing humiliations of his “real” life. The only bright spot is the arrival of a new employee, Nanette (Cristin Milioti), a massive fan of Daley’s work as a programmer. But Nanette quickly gets the attention of the more charismatic head of the company (Jimmi Simpson), leaving Daley to go back to stewing in his own sullen juices.

It’s all kind of unbearable. Awkward geeks getting shat upon by life isn’t a new idea in genre fiction (or anywhere), and while it’s possible to feel some pity for Daley’s isolation, his sullen responses to everyone around him and tendency to stare too long at the ladies make him an unlikely identification figure. Black Mirror has had unappealing protagonists before, and for a while, it looks like this is going to be the latest entry in the show’s small collection of “Well, this person is morally compromised, but do they really deserve this?” episodes. (See also: “White Bear,” “Shut Up And Dance,” “White Christmas.”)

That’s challenging storytelling, and one of the things that keeps this show from being just a long drawn out sneer is its willingness to question the black and white morality that often drives anthology shows. But “challenging” doesn’t necessarily mean “enjoyable,” and so it’s a relief when we finally meet the story’s real star: Nanette 2.0. It turns out Daley’s VR space simulation isn’t just populated by characters who look like his coworkers; he steals their DNA and creates digitized, self-aware copies inside the machine. And now he’s decided he wants a new playmate.

Like a lot of the twists in Black Mirror’s fourth season, the concept isn’t exactly new; the show has done digital, self-aware copies before. But what makes this work is the delivery, and the way the focus shift from “sullen nerd indulges power fantasy” to “likable heroes fighting back against a monster” re-contextualizes the episode completely. It stops being a miserable cringe-fest and turns into something much zippier and more immediately entertaining. In fact, you could say it goes from being a bog standard Black Mirror and becomes more like classic Trek: a crew of good people facing a sci-fi threat with only their wits and grasp of technobabble to sustain them.


Which is a relief, really. The horrors don’t exactly end—Daley is a sadistic creep with specific expectations and a willingness to punish his digitized playthings if they fail to meet those expectations. When Nanette 2.0 (look, I’m just going to call her “Nanette” from now on, okay?) balks, he takes away her face for a while, and that’s one of his nicer tortures. In one flashback, we find out that he forced one duplicate into obedience by creating a copy of his young son and than throwing said son out the airlock and letting Dad watch. He also has a habit of turning people who really bother him into spider monsters.

So yeah, there’s still a fair bit of nastiness. But by shifting the lead from Daley to Nanette, that nastiness is no longer queasily uncomfortable. We can root for the heroes without any ambiguity whatsoever, and by the time said heroes are racing for a “wormhole” and the sweet release of death, the episode has fully committed to its crowd-pleasing new premise. And everything turns out in the end even better than we might have hoped. Instead of being erased, the copies are set free in a virtual reality universe where they’ll be unfettered by Daley’s tyrannical whims. (Also, they have genitals again.) And Daley gets deleted, trapped in his program by the ingenuity of his own creations and, uh, irony I guess.


It’s all very chipper and delightful, and maybe a bit much. While the episode is the longest of the season, the sudden good vibes ending still feels rushed, because it works too hard to make sure everything ends up fine for the people we like. Daley’s death smacks of narrative convenience. Nanette and the others go to great lengths (namely, blackmailing her physical world self) to ensure that Daley’s fridge full of pilfered DNA gets raided, but if he’d survived, there was nothing to stop him from just doing it all over again. He had to die to take care of loose ends as well as to provide some karmic payback for his misdeeds. But structural necessity doesn’t automatically translate to well-built storytelling.

Look, this is getting nitpicky, and nitpicking is the bane of good criticism. The problem isn’t exactly implausibility. The episode doesn’t even really get into how the DNA “copying” works, or how the copies all have the memories of their original selves; after a certain point, it’s pretty much all magic that you either go with or you don’t. The problem is more that while sacrificing the uncomfortable for the triumphant makes for a more crowd-pleasing episode, a certain tension gets lost. Daley goes from unpleasant to boring (although Plemons makes the most of the role), and while there’s definite satisfaction in seeing such a petulant twerp get his just reward, it can sometimes feel a little too eager to please.


But hey, maybe the trade-off is worth it. I’m not sure we need more stories about the woes of self-pitying fanboys (comment section: unleash hell), and the final scene does feel like it might be a fairly pointed comment on the necessary future of Trek and genre properties in general. A brief conversation with a physical world gamer (voiced by Aaron Paul) helps to keep Nanette and the others’ triumph from being completely straight-faced, but the image of a female-led crew is still both exciting and unfortunately novel. If geek franchises want to move forward, they’re going to need to learn how to leave the dead weight of the past behind them. Even in the techno-nightmare future of Black Mirror, sympathy has its limits.

Stray observations

  • The fact that Daley insists on kisses (no tongue) from the female crewmembers after each successful mission but won’t allow any of his characters to have genitals is clever. It’s the closest we get to understanding him, because it suggests the sort of arrested development manchild who wants the power trip of romantic conquest without any of the scary intimacy. (I suppose you could read it as a joke on Trek prudery as well, although given that the original series often plays like an office party where everyone has had one drink too many, I’m not sure it lands.)
  • Elements of this reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream,” with Daley’s whims in the place of the short story’s cruel artificial intelligence.