Black Mirrothon Part 14: ‘U.S.S. Callister’
Still hoping to wrap things up before the new episodes drop…that means Season 4 is going to be knocked out one after the other!
Title: ‘U.S.S. Callister’
Director: Toby Haynes
Writer: William Bridges, Charlie Brooker
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimni Simpson, Michaela Coel, Billy Magnussen, Milanka Brooks, Aaron Paul
Premise: At first it would appear that we’re joining a retro-styled adventurous space crew on their adventures, but it is in fact a simulation created by tech genius Robert Daly to torture AI replicas of the people he works with.
Review: This is one episode that piqued people’s interest when advertisements first arrived on TVs. It was clear that it was a call back to the classic Star Trek series with an extra helping of cheese. From the opening scenes it’s clear that this analogue franchise was created by people who have a lot of love for the inspiration, recreating not just the look of 1960s serials but the production style and the merchandising. Even the retro artwork is on point.
As with all things Brooker this story quickly subverts our expectations. We open on the bridge of the U.S.S. Callister, clearly establishing the wonderfully Shatneresque captain as a great hero. We then cut to Robert Daly (Plemons), the CTO of a major tech company of pioneer of simulated reality multiplayer game ‘Infinity’. Daly is the captain of the U.S.S. Callister, using the virtual reality to experience his desire to be respected and loved by those around him. You feel bad for the guy – few people alive wouldn’t have fantasised about getting back at the people they work worth and Daly is certainly disrespected in his workplace. He’s immediately shown to be the victim of bullying by the company co-founder Walton (Simpson), who steers new employee Cole (Milioti) away from him, and largely ignored or avoided by others in the office.
Even when employee Lowry (Coel) advises Cole (wait…that just got confusing) that she should be careful of Daly we still have a touch of sympathy for the guy. The only reason she gives for this is that he ‘stares’ and has a bad vibe. We’ve already seen that he’s socially awkward and perhaps we just want to think the best of people. Of course, a major component of the #metoo movement is that women need to be listened to when they make these accusations. This case is a clear example as to way, as we learn that there’s a very good reason why Daly gives people a bad feeling.
On overhearing Lowry warning Cole away from him, Daly steals a coffee cup from Cole’s desk and uses her DNA to create a digital replica within his VR world. We change perspective to Cole to learn that Daly has been ‘collecting’ the people who have annoyed him at work and trapped them on the U.S.S. Callister where they’re forced to live out his power fantasies – resist and get tortured into compliance. This is quickly demonstrated when Daly removes Cole’s face, forcing her to endlessly suffocate but never die. The perspective shift to Cole is deftly handled and a good move, recasting Daly as a detestable villain in spite of the goodwill he’d developed with the audience.
As horrifying as Daly’s actions are within the world he created there’s something disturbingly familiar to gamer culture. Many games involve shooting up endless hordes of people, crashing cars, causing mayhem but ‘U.S.S. Callister’ is more reminiscent of player The Sims of all things. If you played that game – or any management sim – for any amount of time you know that you eventually get bored and torment the virtual people for fun. It doesn’t feel like much of a stretch to go from removing the steps into the pool and letting the Sims drown to what Daly is doing. I mean…they’re not real people. Right?
This question – the classic ‘what would you do if you had this chance’ question – is what makes this an interesting story. The retro sci-fi set dressing just makes it more awesome.
That’s the bulk of what makes this work, but there’s plenty of small details to the narrative that all add to the success. Walton, within Daly’s digital world, is the most callous person trapped there. Whilst the others try to help Cole acclimatise and encourage her to play along for her own sake Walton is more flippant. He drinks non-stop, taunts them for their complacency and seems to be a reflection of the Walton we’d initially seen at the beginning of the episode. When we learn what Daly did to destroy his sense of hope he suddenly becomes the most sympathetic character in the cast. I mean…it is cold. And an incredibly well performed monologue from Simpson.
I also appreciate that the crew of the Callister don’t wind up escaping their living hell due to a slip up by Daly, an appeal to his emotional core or a deus ex-machina. That would’ve been inconsistent to the character or the set-up. They only escape through their own ingenuity and drive. The finale to the episode stops it from getting a cheesy happy ending, instead becomes a tongue-in-cheek gag about gaming culture with a fun Aaron Paul cameo.
That Moment When You Feel Your Stomach Drop: During Walton’s monologue, when we learn exactly how far Daly will go to exert control over his prisoners.
Links to Other Episodes: ‘White Bear’ is potentially the most commonly referred to story with two planets in the Callister universe being named Skillane and Rannoch, the killers from that episode. Rannoch is also a planet in the game series Mass Effect, so either that’s a deep cut or a coincidence. Receptionist Elena is using the same dating app seen in ‘Playtest’.
Daly’s routine of drinking chocolate milk, a detail which serves to make him feel more despicable for some reason, shows the dairy brand Raiman, a nod to a MASS soldier in ‘Men Against Fire’.
Not quite an Easter Egg, but there’s an additional link to ‘Nosedive’ as Michaela Coel appears in both episodes.
Ranking Black Mirror: For me, this episode rivals ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ in terms of style, world building and delivery. Like that episode it’s all elevated by the excellent cast and style. The art team were really working overtime in making this episode come to life. What helps this episode over the line is the scale of it – it’s practically a cinematic release. Some writer have shown it only a small amount of appreciation, chalking it up to being an ode to classic Star Trek, but it taps into a truth about people and technology, that it may well erode our ability to empathise.
- ‘U.S.S. Callister’
- ‘Fifteen Million Merits’
- ‘San Junipero’
- ‘White Christmas’
- ‘Shut Up and Dance’
- ‘Be Right Back’
- ‘White Bear’
- ‘The National Anthem’
- ‘Hated in the Nation’
- ‘The Waldo Moment’
- ‘Men Against Fire’
- ‘The Entire History of You’