TV Recap: Black Mirror, USS Callister
After channeling Star Trek for a few minutes, 'USS Callister', the first episode of Black Mirror’s new season, begins by showing us the life of Robert Daly. He’s a pretty typical picture of a sad, nerdy dude who spends most of his time at work unable to connect with his coworkers around him, constantly put-upon and without the necessary authority for his position. Away from his job, he spends all his time alone, lost in his company’s advanced virtual reality system, which he coded himself. Within that Infinity system, he’s created a carbon copy of his favorite television show, Space Fleet. There’s an obsessive amount of detail in the hours of careful work he’s clearly put into his separate version of the Infinity program, and his office and home are covered in Space Fleet memorabilia.
Simply put, he’s every fanboy you’ve ever met, in every imaginable way. And that is decidedly not a good thing. Because, within his customized Infinity, he’s created digital versions of his coworkers that serve as his crew aboard the USS Callister. The Black Mirror twist, of course, is that these copies, created from the DNA of those coworkers, have their own consciousness and are, in almost every way, actual people being held captive for nightly torture by this secretly megalomaniacal monster of a man. The rest of the episode revolves around them and their hopes to escape their existence under the thumb of Robert.
As the writing shifts to focus on these digital characters, we get treated to some of the best craftsmanship that’s been on Black Mirror so far. The set design of the ship is fantastic, as is the costuming for the Space Fleet uniforms. Both of these elements so easily evoke the early Star Trek episodes from which they borrow so heavily, but with just enough of that modern twist to fit the overall aesthetic of Black Mirror. What really drives that imitation of campy old sci-fi home, though, is the cinematography, editing, and sound of the episode, which effortlessly switches back and forth from the bleak real world to the retro, stylized world of Space Fleet. When all these things work together perfectly, you get caught up in a feeling of nostalgia that is immediately killed by whatever moment of cruelty Robert shows next.
But, not everything about this episode works well. There are a few moments of attempted dark comedy that fall really flat when they’re used to cut tension. Also, it sure doesn’t help that this is a pretty long episode of Black Mirror that drags due to a lot of excess material. By the end, the length takes a toll on the viewer’s emotional investment. And while it’s always good to have a less pessimistic ending in a Black Mirror episode, the mostly happy ending doesn’t quite feel right for an episode that so effectively builds up a cynical tone and a real sense of dread.
Even if every little thing doesn’t work just right, there’s something to be said for the messages being broadcast here. This isn’t your standard “what if you used your phone but too much?” episodes of Black Mirror. "USS Callister" is a pretty vicious dismantling of fanboy culture and the special brand of abusive man it creates. Daly is a haunting portrait of the nerdy male character brought to an extreme; he’s the shy guy who believes the world and the people in it owe him something. Unlike those guys we know now in our world, in the world of Black Mirror, Daly has the technology to actually do something about this warped perspective.
Besides controlling a whole crew in Infinity, he’s also taking everything about Space Fleet into his own hands. He takes the work of others and puts his own chilling behavior in the middle of it, which is completely antithetical to what we can gather about the peaceful message of Space Fleet. So, the cautionary element of this tale becomes this: creators cannot allow fanboys to steer the paths of their favorite intellectual properties. Too much control from fans like Daly can twist and deform the art far from the original intent until it’s unrecognizable. Yet, if this Black Mirror episode moved as gracefully as the USS Callister itself, these themes could shine through a bit better and actually be more helpful about how we can fix these negative elements of fandom culture.