‘USS Callister’ Review (Black Mirror, S4 E1)

I’ve never reviewed a TV show before, and the only movie I’ve reviewed was more a rant about Clint Eastwood’s politics in American Sniper than a sincere attempt at film critique. But after I finished law school I promised myself I’d write about more than just MMA – and I have studiously ignored that commitment for a six solid months now.

So take this for what it is: a long-overdue effort at furthering my writing skills by engaging with a new subject matter. I also figure that since my girlfriend and I already spend a fairly large portion of time dissecting Black Mirror episodes after we’ve watched them, I might as well go the extra mile and record some of our more cogent insights.

For those of you who haven’t seen Black Mirror yet, I highly recommend you put that Netflix subscription to good use by doing so. Each episode is self-contained with its own cast of characters, so you don’t miss out on anything by jumping right into the most recent season (although I’d recommend watching chronologically anyway). Typically the plot orbits around a highly sophisticated technology (e.g. implants that can record and playback what you see) or technological process (e.g.social media ratings that determine your consumer/citizen status) that bears some resemblance to things in our contemporary society (e.g. google glasses; ‘verified’ social media accounts). It taps into our technological anxieties and in doing so explores the human condition, often with brutal twists that instantly re-direct our sympathies at the eleventh hour.

In the USS Callister, the first instalment of of Season 4, the technology the episode orbits around is that embedded in the online multiplayer game “Infinity”. The game allows players to enter a Star-Trek inspired simulated universe through the use of a neural interface, where they retain their human form and all human functionality (i.e. they can hear, smell and see just as they do in the “real world”).

Nanette Cole on her first day at Callister Inc

The protagonists of the episode are Robert Daly, the game’s designer, and Nanette Cole, a programmer, both of whom work at Callister Inc (the company that created Infinity). Daly, an introvert who is disrespected and undervalued by his employees and Callister’s CEO James Walton, is initially represented in a sympathetic light. But that quickly changes when we learn he has generated his own offline, “modded out” version of Infinity, “re-skinned to look like his favourite TV show”. Daly populates the game with “digital clones” of his workmates, who are forced to carry out his fantasy adventures on the USS Callister spaceship, on threat of torture. In the words of Walton’s digital clone to Cole’s – who is injected into the game after Daly overhears her saying she is not attracted to him – “it’s a bubble-universe, ruled by an asshole god“.

From there, the narrative orbits around the efforts of the clones (or “sentient code”) to escape the game as the depths of Daly’s depravity are revealed. In a conspicuous rebuke of the patriarchal norms traditionally exalted by the sci-fi genre, and the misogynistic video game culture personified by the Gamergate controversy, Cole embraces the role as “captain” of the endeavour. Her superior coding allows the USS Callister to make contact with the outside world, and her ingenious plan to blackmail the real-world Cole to destroy the DNA Daly used to create the simulations, is enough to rally the rest of the crew behind her.

Robert Daly, CTO of Callister Inc & resident sociopath

The episode is visually stunning and features probably the most high profile cast to date, including Breaking Bad‘s Jesse Plemons as Daly; How I Met Your Mother‘s Christin Milioti as Cole; and Westworld‘s Jimmi Simpson as Walton. The characteristically dark elements of the episode (in one scene, Cole describes how Daly tormented him by creating a digital clone of his six year old son and jettisoning him into space to suffocate to death) are also complemented by welcome injections of humour which haven’t featured very prominently in earlier episodes.

Interesting, there are a lot themes and subplots have been explored in in previous episodes. The technology that powers Infinity — or rather, the technology Daly uses to create the clones in his private version of the game — is similar to that featured in Black Mirror’s christmas episode “White Christmas”; and the ending (which I won’t give away) hints at digital immortality like in Season 3’s “San Juniperno”. Even the blackmailing of Cole bears a passing resemblance to the plot in “Shut up and Dance” (albeit a lot less sinister). It’s a testament to the writers that this plot still felt so compelling and fresh despite all the recycling.

Star Fleet
Daly’s “crew” aboard the USS Callister 

As far as social commentary goes, there is an obvious warning about the potential for Artificial Intelligence technologies to actualise people’s most sociopathic desires, which dovetails with a more one-dimensional critique of gaming/sci-fi culture. There’s also a subtle warning about the fragility of people’s privacy in an online world: Daly’s “private” universe was hacked despite being his transcendent skills as a coder, and risque’ pictures of Cole on her iCloud account enabled her to be extorted into committing a burgulary.

In my view, The USS Callister is an welcome addition to the Black Mirror series. If it’s any indication of the quality of the remaining five episodes, then season 4 could be the best season to date.

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