Black Mirror’s USS Callister may very well be one of the best episodes of the season, and in some ways it wasn’t nearly as dark as some of the other episodes we’ve seen in the series. This brightly colored episode pays homage to Star Trek — more specifically, to The Original Series. But it makes no qualms about admitting that the original series was, indeed, quite sexist. All that happens in the first few minutes, and then we quickly realize that things aren’t going to be as they appear in this episode at all. This episode leads viewers boldly through an adventure where no Star Trek has gone before. And the adventure leaves this as one of the best episodes in all of Black Mirror‘s history. This post has spoilers for Season 4’s USS Callister and shows from previous seasons, so only continue reading if you’ve already seen the episode.
We’re treated in the first scene with what just may be the most eye-rolling episode of an original series Star Trek yet. In fact, it looks more like a parody, the way everyone’s fawning over Captain Daly and acting like he’s some kind of god. We quickly learn that in this world, he is.
The Callister scenes — which are brightly colored and filled with 1960s nostalgia — paint a stark contrast to the real-life scenes, where everything’s muted and everyone is kind of plain looking. Viewers immediately realize that things were not as they appeared, and the USS Callister is actually a game. Captain Daly is Robert Daley, CTO of Callister Inc. And his second officer is actually James Walton, CEO of Callister Inc.
At first, I thought that perhaps Callister was a game where Daly went to escape. They had me rooting for him at first. He looked like he was being bullied to an extent and he was playing the role of your typical timid genius who’s really smarter than everyone else but can never speak up for himself. It seemed like he was truly underappreciated. When Shania warned Nanette not to be so enamored with Daly because “he gets a bit starey,” I thought she being really unfair to him.
And then I realized just how wrong I was. Daly created the immersive game, but he had his own version, walled off from the world. He took the DNA from people who wronged them and made perfect copies within his game, where he proceeded to abuse and torture them into submission. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it sounds a lot like White Christmas, where digital cookies were tortured into submission. The torture was different, but the end result was the same. And in both realities, the copies had no idea at first that they actually weren’t their original versions.
But either Daly is a genius far ahead of his time or this episode takes place years after White Christmas. In White Christmas, users had to wear cookie implants in their brain for about a week and then their copies could be extracted. (And, in some cases, copies could somehow be made without the user knowing it.) But in USS Callister, Daly can get the exact same results simply by getting someone’s DNA. So this is lightyears ahead of White Christmas tech.
He has everyone under his thumb until he brings Nanette into the fold. Being a very talented coder herself, she’s not ready to give up. She gets one of the crew turned into a bug in the process, but she won’t let go. Ultimately, she runs a high-risk op to blackmail her real-life self into stealing all the DNA so that Daly can’t make digital copies again, and switch out the chip that’s used to connect him to the immersive game.
Did you happen to notice just how similar that tech is to what we see in San Junipero? The tech that gamers use to access Callister is nearly identical to the tech that’s used to immerse people into San Junipero. Compare the photos below.
The tech might as well be identical. Does this mean Callister is part of TCKR? Or an offshoot of TCKR? Which tech came first? I’m just hoping this doesn’t mean that San Junipero is more of an immersive game rather than an actually place where the consciousness is moved. From the episode San Junipero, it seems like it serves as both: an afterlife and a place where the elderly went for immersive nostalgia therapy. I think there’s a strong possibly these two technologies are closely related.
Nanette’s plan buys them enough time to fly into a wormhole that’s really an update, thinking it will kill them. But instead, they’re freed into the game itself. And in the process, Daly is caught in his own game, walled off, unable to escape, pretty much for all eternity.
The episode brings up some fascinating topics that we also visited in White Christmas, when the guy who was creating the digital cookies argued that they weren’t really people or sentient life, so torturing them wasn’t truly torture. Were Daly’s acts truly torture when done to digital copies? Well, Black Mirror seems to have answered this question, at least in terms of its own universe. In the episode Hated in the Nation, we learn that cookies were considered people and given human rights. So depending on when USS Callister takes place in that timeline (if they’re all in the same universe), Daly is violating some pretty clear human rights through his actions. (Some fans imagined, prior to Season 4, that cookies gained digital rights because they found a way to access the web. Interestingly, that’s what the clones here had to do too.)
The end of USS Callister was filled with irony. We were rooting for the crew to win against crazy odds, just like we do in any Star Trek episode. They had to fly through a really dangerous debris field to get to their goal and avoid the villain, just like in many Star Trek episodes. But their goal was to die. I was rooting for the characters to die. That was really turning things upside down.
Overall, I loved this episode. I pretty much love anything that’s modeled after Star Trek, but this one had the twist of introducing a very dark character and putting everyone in a situation that truly felt hopeless. And now the characters get to live a true science-fiction life, exploring the galaxy of the game and meeting new “life forms.” I hope they show up again in another episode.