Every time I watch Black Mirror, I’m left with a feeling of extreme bleakness and slight nausea.
As any seasoned watcher will tell you, that’s the exact feeling you’re supposed to have when tuning in. The series is set in a futuristic world where various devices have the ability to record memories down to the finest detail, create lifelike approximations of deceased loved ones from their social media feeds, and store our consciousnesses in the cloud, among other things. Black Mirror doesn’t focus on the positives of such groundbreaking tech, though — it knows we get enough of that from Apple keynotes and startup advertisements. Instead, through a collection of discrete episodes about an hour long, the show explores how fucked up advanced technology can be when circumstances go very, very wrong.
Note: I will be discussing the first episode in the fourth season of Black Mirror below in detail, so this post will contain spoilers on spoilers on spoilers. It’ll basically be like a gigantic double-decker spoiler sundae, with colorful spoiler sprinkles and sweet spoiler cherries on top. You have thus been warned. Also, I am not a paid reviewer, nor am I a professional critic of any sort. I am just another opinionated kid on the Internet, and everything written below consists of my thoughts and my thoughts alone.
I headed over to a friend’s apartment to watch the newest season with high hopes and a large pack of ramen. A few hours later, I felt like I had lost whatever innocence I’d still had left, and my stomach hurt from stress-eating all of those noodles. The fourth season of Black Mirror has a way of drawing audiences in and putting them straight in the action.
I’ve decided to only review select episodes and give each installment its own separate review, because they are all so intricate in detail and heavy in topic that I want to give each one proper attention. This post will focus on Season 4, Episode 1: USS Callister.
Revenge of the Lonely White Male Nerd
Robert Daly is the CTO of Callister, Inc., a company whose main product is a virtual-reality online multiplayer game called Infinity, where players can command their own spaceships and engage in intergalactic battle with their sworn enemies. Despite being a brilliant programmer and the chief technology officer of his own company, he’s socially awkward and generally disrespected by everyone in his workplace. Robert is basically an older, more successful version of the white male coder nerd stereotype, right down to his obsession with Star Trek — I mean, Space Fleet. It sucks for him IRL, so he creates his own version of the game where he’s a handsome and capable space captain who talks in that weird, self-important way all white dudes do in old-timey science fiction movies. Captain Robert Daly is surrounded by his loyal crew, all of whom bear eerie resemblances to his real-life coworkers.
When Nanette Cole, a programmer who greatly admires Robert’s code, starts working at Callister, we see what’s really going on — Robert steals a coffee cup that Nanette drank out of, and uses the DNA on it to create a copy of her consciousness in the game. Nanette wakes up inside Robert’s modded version of Infinity wearing an impractical retro space get-up, without any clue of what’s happening. It’s revealed that everybody inside the game — from the crew members to the “villain” that they chase to the monsters that they fight — is a copy of their human counterpart in the real world, and that Robert ported them into the game after they committed various slights, such as “bringing him the wrong sandwich” and “insufficient smiling”, against him.
Robert’s virtual self is everything his real self is not. He’s vindictive and almost childishly tyrannical — he completely removes Nanette’s face when she won’t cooperate, leaving her unable to breathe, and shows no qualms in turning another crew member into a giant, horrifying monster — and although literally everybody is sick of his shit, they have to play along, or else.
Or do they?
In a very non-Black Mirror-like sequence of events, many involving some very close calls that left me stress-eating my ramen, virtual Nanette manages to lead the crew to escape Robert’s evil clutches. They become free to explore the endless universe in front of them, while Robert is left alone to die, both in the game and in real life.
Jesse Plemmons does a great job portraying each side of Robert Daly — I found myself duly creeped out and disgusted by Robert’s character throughout the episode. The dude’s had some really awful things done to him by other people, but that doesn’t justify stealing other people’s DNA, killing others’ children, and forcing his co-workers to be his slaves by any means, virtual simulation or not.
USS Callister raises many questions about toxic masculinity, the potential dangers of increasingly advanced technology over our own autonomy (someone may not be able to clone your DNA, but, like the lollipop that little Tommy carelessly leaves on the desk, we sure do leave a lot of personal information around for others to just pick up), and how “nerd culture” panders to a mostly white male audience. Though it’s set in the future, this episode is one of the more politically relevant ones.
Aside from a few plot holes — what happened to IRL Nanette after she stole the DNA samples? Did Robert … actually die after he was left alone in his game? How exactly does the split-consciousness thing work between the virtual crew members and their real-world selves, if they share the same memories? — USS Callister was captivating and easy to follow. I found myself openly cheering for virtual Nanette multiple times while watching; she is the action/adventure heroine I have literally been waiting for since childhood. It was so refreshing seeing her brazenly slap Robert across the face when he tries to kiss her after “winning” a battle, and use her programming skills to make contact in the real world.
Besides providing relevant and much-needed social commentary, USS Callister does for women and femmes what most action/adventure films have done for guys for ages — it has a character who looks like them outsmart the bad guy, overthrow his evil regime, and become the captain (literally, in this case) of a brighter future. For that reason alone, it’s absolutely worth a re-watch.
Overall Rating: A-
This article is part of the Morning Content Challenge, where I write a blog post each morning before going to work. It’s an exercise in imperfection, timing, and self-discipline. If you have any questions or topic suggestions, don’t hesitate to reach out!