When Netflix released a trailer for the fourth season of Black Mirror in August, Star Trek fans were thrilled to see that the series — known for very down-to-earth science fiction — would feature a space-based adventure very clearly emulating a voyage into the final frontier.
Fans were not sure what to expect with the impossible-to-mistake title “USS Callister“– would the adventure be set in the distant future or would it be an in-universe episode of the show-within-a-show “Sea of Tranquility”? The answer we got, when the new season dropped at midnight this morning, was something different.
The starship from hell
The Callister’s Captain Daley, played by Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights), is in fact the Chief Technology Officer officer of a company called Callister, which makes a successful online virtual reality game called Infinity. Daley named the company the ship from his favorite classic TV show Space Fleet, a thinly veiled analog for Star Trek. While the episode introduces him as a pitiable schlub, we quickly see that he hides a very dark side that he takes out within the VR universe he’s created. He might struggle to talk to girls and still drinks chocolate milk, but this man-child is far more beast than man.
Through some contrivance, Daley has managed to trap perfect copies of some coworkers who have crossed him within his personal USS Callister, running in a standalone version of his game. Unable to die or leave, they are his playthings who must act as his Space Fleet crew, or be tortured. Daley may first come off as Reg Barclay in “Hollow Pursuits,” is actually Trelane in “Squire of Gothos,” or even the evil kid from The Twilight Zone‘s “It’s a Good Life.”
When new employee Nanette, terrifically played by Cristin Milioti, best known to the 30 Rock fans from the episode “TGS Hates Women“, finds herself drawn into Daley’s starship-from-hell, she mounts a mutiny to free herself and her crew mates.
Trek tropes with a dark twist
There are a variety of Star Trek references peppered throughout the episode, but not so many that it feels like a Star Wars movie hitting you over the head with a 2 gallon jug of blue milk. The helmsman has VISOR-like implants. There’s an interracial kiss right at the beginning. A computer screen reads “assimilating” when it probably should have just read “uploading.” The in-universe bad guy looks a lot like Khan. There’s even a bit where they impatiently race through some technobabble because they know we’ve all probably heard enough at this point.
The finale includes some fitting Star Trek/sci-fi tropes like a race through an asteroid belt and a noble self-sacrifice to save the crew. Because Black Mirror’s hallmark is dystopic tragedy, you don’t know what kind of ending to expect.
Attack of the nerd
Despite some clever writing and great production values, I can’t give “USS Callister” a positive review — which I had desperately wanted to. While it provides some interesting commentary on the dangers of immersion into digital fantasy, the episode is too lopsided. It descends into cartoonish nerd-bashing. Beyond the great production values, there is very little love on display for Star Trek in “Callister.” While there are great production values, don’t expect the kind of loving homage of Star Trek in “Callister” that you’d find in Galaxy Quest or Futurama.
Whereas Trelane tortures the crew in “Gothos,” we see eventually that he’s just a kid who we can assume will grow up to learn his lesson. But the villain here has no opportunity “to relent or repent or confess or abstain.” The one opportunity the selfish CEO of the company has to make reconciliation with Daley turns out to just be a ruse. Beyond Star Trek fandom, the episode is critical of online gamers, and while that community has had some problems, it feels very unfair to paint them with the brush that’s used here.
While James Doohan used to glowingly tell stories of fans he’d inspired to become actual engineers, the fan-turned-engineer in this dark fable is a developmentally stunted tyrant beyond redemption. And the world he created for everyone to enjoy is amazing, but only once they have eliminated him from it — and that is the painfully clear message for the awkward young men who cultivated sci-fi and fan culture before it went mainstream.
Certainly Daley, as written, deserves to die, but it would have been more Star Trek for him to find rehabilitation, not oblivion. Kirk kicked Kruge off the cliff in Star Trek III only after the Klingon had rejected an effort to save him and make peace.
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker told Den of Geek:
…the world he has created is a throwback and a simplistic interpretation of shows like that. It’s his interpretation of that show, rather than what that show would have actually been, it’s his simplistic fable version of it and it’s quite reductive and out of date. We’re not saying that shows of that nature are reductive and out of date, because they were actually very progressive at the time. His warped version of it.
While many will enjoy “USS Callister,” it came off to me as a cruel parody and even a misandrous attack on male science-fiction fans. If the group on the receiving end of Charlie Brooker’s “satire” were anything but nerdy beta males, the Internet would be up in arms over it.