Black Mirror (S04E01) "USS Callister"

The first episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season promised to the most distinct from its predecessors, and proved to be, in an extremely entertaining tale; incorporating both the series’s most common, and rare, traits – darkness, and optimism.
Synopsis:
As indicated by the released teasers, the setting of this Trekkie-esque episode is the expanse of space (at least, a digital expanse) but there is a parallel setting that we were not shown – our own world. After a brief intro showcasing our heroic and infallible captain, Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), and his crew-members, we see the world for how it is: Robert Daly is the introverted, awkward, and geeky CTO of a company (Callister Inc.) which creates and runs the MMORPG Infinity, a lifelike space simulator. Although he has a senior position in the company, his partner James Walton (CEO of the company, and played by Jimmi Simpson from Westworld) holds the limelight, and Daly is treated indifferently by many of his co-workers. In his free time, however, he plays a modded version of the game (modded to play by his rules, and to look like his favourite Star Trek clone Space Fleet) where he is the hero and captain. His crew-members are self-aware and intelligent clones of their real selves (replicated through their DNA which he scans off objects he’s picked up around the workplace), and in his virtual fantasy he treats them cruelly and tortures them for insubordination, or when their real-life counterparts have done something mildly mean to him at work. He also keeps their (and Walton’s son’s) DNA in a fridge/freezer, so that they can never truly escape, and so that – in the case of Walton – he has leverage over them. What’s more, is that when he leaves the game they still reside in the virtual world, trapped inside his fanboy nightmare with nothing to do – oh, and he’s stripped them of their genitals too…
In comes Nanette (Cristin Milioti), a new employee who admires and is kind to Daly, and draws his attention. After creepily staring at her for some time, and in light of her revealing to a co-worker that she isn’t interested in him, Daly steals her used coffee-cup and uses her DNA to create a copy of her in the game – also forcing her to embrace his fanboy setting by wearing a skirt too short for outer-space comfort. The rest of the episode involves Nanette (2.0, as some are calling the replica) adjusting to her new reality, learning of and experiencing Daly’s cruelty, and devising a plan with the other crew-members to escape Daly’s nightmarish playground. The introduction of the latest update to Infinity proves to be the solution (by flying into the physical wormhole it creates, their data can be scattered and they can be released by death), and Nanette devises a way to not only escape, but to communicate with her real-world self and ensure that their DNA samples are removed from Daly’s reach.
The episode ends on a surprisingly pleasant note – the crew reach the wormhole, but then find themselves transported to the updated official Infinity, where they (with Nanette as their captain) are free to enjoy the boundless wonders of the simulated universe (with genitals); Daly is still inside his modded version when the update arrives, frying his mind and causing his real-life death; and life presumably goes on, minus one megalomaniacal, despotic man-child.
Review:
I, and the community at large, really enjoyed this episode. It departed from the usual bleakness of Black Mirror, and delivered a focussed story which incorporated the usual dark applications of technology, but also a distinct style, a health dose of humour, a likeable cast of protagonists, and a happy ending.
It was surprising and relieving that the visual style worked. Besides from 15 Million Merits, this is the most visually distinct episode, and the Star Trek inspired setting never felt too corny or poorly implemented – the episode obviously aimed to parodize the ludicrous outfits and tropes of old-school space operas, and effectively made a satirical point about the dangerous and often toxic masculinity that is present in lots of fan fiction.
The cast was also excellent. Milioti’s Nanette is an extremely likeable protagonist, and her feisty and strong-willed attitude cements this. She is deserving of one of Black Mirror‘s rare happy endings, and the final scene with her preferring to be called by her name (rather than the title of captain, as Daly had preferred) is a humbling gesture which starkly contrasts Daly’s obsessive need for affirmation regarding his power. Moreover, Jesse Plemons does a great job of transforming the viewer’s perceptions of Daly. While initially presented as pathetic, and deserving of sympathy (we see Daly as the genius who is exploited and not appreciated by those who have been given livelihood through his company), we soon see him as a true monster, and the villain of the episode. Nothing that has been done to him justifies his treatment of the virtual crew-members, especially since he is aware of their self-awareness and hence has complete agency in the situation, and for trying to play god (and a nasty one at that) he pays the ultimate price. He’s not pure evil, but he’s enough of it to be deserving of his fate. He’s also given a tragic eulogy of sorts in the end, when Nanette 2.0 remarks at the wonder of the universe before her, and how Daly was too fixated on his fantasy to ever notice it. Daly only found comfort in his fandom of Space Fleet, and hence his modded universe only ever catered to his memories of it, which meant it centred around adventures and moments from these memories. He created a universe so beautiful and vast, but only enjoyed a myopic slice of it.
As a result, Black Mirror should be applauded for such a solid episode, for successfully giving us morally ambiguous characters as well as strong and likeable characters, and especially for throwing in Aaron Paul at the end! I have no clue why they did it, but I love it.
The show-runners must also be commended for their usual prowess at foreshadowing events, incorporating Chekhov’s Gun, the dramatic principle I mentioned in my preview. When Kabir Dudani (co-worker and virtual crew-member) mentions the release date of the update to Daly, he’s too fixated on Nanette to really focus, and dismissively acknowledges its existence and features – an obvious foreshadow to his ironic death at the hands of the update. We see a lollipop labelled ‘Tommy’ in Daly’s fridge, and later on it turns out that Tommy is the name of Walton’s son, when we hear why Walton fears Daly so much. The show is very careful as to what information to include, and anything that catches the viewer’s eye but isn’t immediately given explanation is invariably sure to have future significance.
My only qualms regarding the episode were a few plot-holes. Firstly, even if real-life Nanette stole Daly’s DNA samples, she didn’t know what they were used for, and because the virtual crew-members had no idea that Daly would be killed, they proceeded with their plan, even though Daly could have gotten new samples just from another day at the office. His death becomes too convenient here, and I don’t like the idea that a Black Mirror happy ending was the product of convenience and luck. Additionally, Daly is initially shown to have near godlike power over his world. He can remove someone’s entire face and morph people into giant spider-monsters; however, at the end he literally has to race in a small shuttle and hope that he can reach the crew before they enter the wormhole. I think the episode needed to be more clear on the scope of his power, because based on his initial power one would assume he could just shut down the game or alter its properties to his favour.
I don’t usually rate episodes of TV series, but in the case of an anthology series like Black Mirror I feel that it’s important and worthwhile. This was a great episode – one of the show’s best.

9/10

Side Thoughts and Observations:

  • While it was great to hear Aaron Paul’s voice, and the voice of Jesse from Breaking Bad no doubt, I think the inclusion of the character he represented was especially fun and meaningful. The character, Gamer691 (take note of the 69), represents a stereotype that is truthfully drawn from many of the gamers in the online community. It’s a cheeky nod to reality and I appreciated the self-awareness of the show in that regard; as it’s bittersweet that in a truly vast and beautiful simulated universe, a gamer for whom it is designed presents a crude ultimatum along the lines of ‘fight or trade’. We really have come far as gamers, haven’t we.
  • Michaela Cole (who played crew-member Shania Lowry) has actually been in another Black Mirror episode. In Season 3’s Nosedive, she played the air-hostess who argues with Lacy. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time someone has been in two episodes (the show tries for a different cast with each one), and her inclusion does make me wonder whether the show-runners have considered or are considering reusing certain actors in future episodes. I doubt it though, and a more sensible reason is that because she’s a great actress, her inconsequential role in Nosedive shouldn’t have eliminated her chances at having a more important role later in the series.
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