TL;DR – This is a bleak dissection of fan culture and what would happen if you were given ultimate power, and it is a problem we need to talk about
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
So Black Mirror is one of those shows I have heard about and had full intentions to give it a watch, but whenever I went to take a look something else came up. Well, Season Four just came out on Netflix, so now is the best time to dive in. It does help that their first episode is examining the fan culture created around science fiction shows like Star Trek, a subject very dear to my heart. Now of course, just like I had been warned Black Mirror then took a knife and stabbed it in my heart and then held up a mirror to show me that I was the one doing it, so some complicated emotions happened during the watching of this episode. Look this is one of those episodes where it is best to go in knowing as little as possible and even my setting the scene is probably too much. So quickly before we move on, the acting is superb, they capture the essence of classic Trek warts and all, and it has something very important to say about how we relate to the media we consume, especially power fantasies. I do recommend.
So to set the scene, we open on the USS Callister as Captain Daly (Jesse Plemons) is battling a villain, the dastardly Valdack (Billy Magnussen). As the spaceship explodes around him and Lt Walton (Jimmi Simpson) begs the captain to retreat, the captain pulls off a daring tactical maneuver, defeats the enemy, saves the galaxy, and gets the girl. But well, all is not as at seams, because the next thing we see is Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) slouching into work the next day. He is not the captain of the spaceship keeping the world galaxy on behalf of Space Fleet, instead, he is the Director of Technology at Callister Inc for a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Virtual Reality Game, or MMORPVRG for short, called Infinity. But here is where it gets odd, all the crew of the USS Callister are also the staff members at Infinity and Daily is not the charismatic leader of a spaceship, but someone who even the interns don’t take all that seriously. This is the first but not the last twist in the story because now there is a new programmer at work Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) and things are about to get odd. Now as I said it is best to go in with as little information as possible, so any point after this there is a chance that you will read a spoiler. So what I am going to do from this point onwards this will be a full [SPOILER] review, so if you have not watched it I do not recommend reading past here, but hell I am not your supervisor, you do you.
So the one thing I really loved about this episode of Black Mirror is how it used misdirection at the start of the episode to keep you from working out what is actually going on, which makes the big reveal so much more powerful. So you start by thinking it is going to be a straight-up homage to classic Star Trek, but with the office scenes, it casts everything in a new light. Then you are wondering what the USS Callister sections were, was this what he dreams about, how he gets through his day as everyone undermines him, pretend he is the boss. Or is it some kind of wish fulfilment situation, where he can’t talk to his co-workers in real life, but on the internet, he feels more confident. We soon find out that the starship portions are a modded version of his Infinity game, a place where he retreats to when not at work. There was a moment there where I was really seeing part of myself in Daly, which as will soon be made apparent is not something that shows me in a, particularly good light. Then things go from odd to weird real quick because his friendliness to the new staff member quickly starts deteriorating into obsession and soon he steals a used coffee cup lid of hers. He brings it home takes a DNA swab and uses that as a template to build their avatars in his game, and now a final [SPOILER] warning because I am about to reveal the big conceit of the episode. For you see Daly does not just use the DNA to create a physical template, it captures all of that person, so for them when they wake up in the game, it is like they went to sleep one day in the real world and in the next they are in a world where an egotistical git with unlimited power who punishes them for the transgressions of their real-life personas while playing out his fantasies.
Deprivation of liberty, abuse of power, kidnapping, long-term, persistent abuse by someone who has all the power against those who have none. You have no control over your body, you live to service this asshole’s every whim, and there is no hope of escape. What do you do when if you don’t play along he can turn you into a monster and abandon you on a rock to be a plaything for his adventures? What do you do when you find out just what lengths Daly is prepared to go to break you?
It has been interesting to see how this has really made waves in the social consciousness, and sure the timing may have had something to do with it as the systemic abuses of power in all parts of society including Hollywood can to light, or more likely have just started to come to light. Indeed, form reading this is not the first time Black Mirror has headed down this particular road. However, what sets this episode apart is the setting, namely science fiction in general but Star Trek specifically. Star Trek is in many ways a beacon for the future, it is a world where teamwork, diversity, respect, and cooperation are all the norm rather than the exception. However, it is not a show without flaws, and no I am not just talking about the 5th movie and that one Voyager episode Threshold. Classic Star Trek is still a product of its time, a time when one of the reasons the first pilot was not picked up was because people could not see a woman as being a second officer. Add to this Daly very much captures the style of how they wrote Captain Kirk, and while he may take it to an extreme the groundwork is already there. However, it does not just stop there, for all the good Star Trek has done throughout the years, they still insist on cat-suits, unnecessary striping scenes, and characters that get very little or in some cases very stereotypical character arcs, let alone some of the issues behind the camera that have happened. This is in a world where one of Star Trek’s core mottos is “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” yet fans freak out about a diverse cast list for Star Trek Discovery (see review). All of this creates a unique arena to tell a deeply disturbing story that resonated with so many. Now also to be completely fair, you don’t have to look too far into the world today to see examples of Daly in public life.
A story this compelling would simply not work unless the cast was willing to give everything to their roles, and this is exactly what happened here. You have Jesse Plemons playing two very different roles, drawing you in with bombast or sympathy before revealing how awful his character truly is. You have Cristin Milioti showing such emotional range, and who hands down gets the best line in the entire episode which I will not repeat here, mostly because I have already pushed the boundaries with asshole, and also because I think you should hear it for the first time in the show. At every moment her character fights, even what all looked hopeless, and there was no hope of overcoming the entrenched power structure that was oppressing them for their own personal gain, she still fought. They are reinforced by a wonderful supporting cast who convey such depth in not a lot of time. Indeed, I would watch a show just about them and their travels.
As well as the acting, one thing that is clear is that the writers, set designers, composers, costumers, location scouts, every part of this production understood that feeling of classic science fiction and they lovingly recreated it on screen. You have Daniel Pemberton’s beautiful score, which is so good I recommend not skipping to the next episode at the end so you can hear it in its entirety. The sets and uniforms beautifully hint back to that classic Star Trek feel, and I loved how as the episode progressed you saw its evolution in the style of filmmaking even down to the aspect ratio and a well-timed lens flare. I mean they also used a quarry for a location of an alien planet, you can’t get any more Star Trek than that.
In the end, do we recommend the USS Callister? Yes we do, and I think a lot of people should see it. It encapsulates not only the power structures that exist in the world but also in ourselves and both can be deeply damaging, to us and more importantly the people around us. The best recommendation I can give USS Callister is that it forced me to look at my own motivations and actions, if I was given this power what would I do, and I don’t think I liked the answer. It also made me reflect on the field that I work in during the week, International Relations. There is a famous quote that was recorded by Thucydides who was documenting the Peloponnesian War after the fact. During the Siege of Melos, the noble Athenians said to the mostly neutral and surrendering Melians “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. This is a much-lauded statement and almost the basis for the political discipline of Realism, and frankly, after 2017, it is long due that we stopped looking at it so fondly. Catch it on Netflix as soon as you can.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Black Mirror
Directed by – Toby Haynes
Written by – William Bridges & Charlie Brooker
Created by – Charlie Brooker
Music By – Daniel Pemberton
Cinematography By – Stephan Pehrsson
Edited By – Selina MacArthur
Starring – Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel, Billy Magnussen, Milanka Brooks, Osy Ikhile, Paul G. Raymond, Hammed Animashaun & Tom Mulheron with Aaron Paul