USS Callister is both a meta-Star Trek meltdown for a new millennium and an eerily relevant satire of toxic fandoms.
Have you ever wondered what happens when a video game is on pause? Ever speculated on the secret lives of non-player characters? Have you ever played out a revenge fantasy in thine mind’s eye? The newest (and arguably greatest) episode of Season 4 of the darkly satirical sci-fi monolith Black Mirror is for you.
It’s easy to feel for Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) for the first few moments of USS Callister. The episode begins with an episode of Daly in his captain guise, leading the U.S.S. Callister as Captain Robert Daly. Daly saves the crew AND the day, is rewarded with a round of cheers and applause and kisses from the beautiful women of the U.S.S. Callister.
The scene cuts, and we find Daly as an unassuming computer programmer, being bullied and ignored in the company that he founded. The office is populated by versions of figures from the spaceship Callister, but we are left wondering what the heck is going on.
Note: The remainder of this article might contain a few spoilers. Read with caution!
U.S.S. Callister only begins in earnest with the introduction of Nanette Cole (Cristin Milotti), an idealistic young programmer who comes to work for Callister Inc. because of Daly’s coding. She is legitimately excited to meet him, despite his almost-invisible status in the workplace. It doesn’t take long for Daly’s interest to turn to scorn, however, when he sees her talking to Walton (Jimmi Simpson), the charismatic figurehead of Callister Inc.
A familiar narrative begins to take shape, even before we figure out what’s actually happening, which is fairly standard for Black Mirror.
Daly, it turns out, has created an algorithm for a hyper-realistic virtual reality platform, known as Infinity. It turns out he’s made a prototype of Infinity for himself, as well, sequestered away from the actual network, as a kind of dark web drop shadow.
This alternate universe, known as the ‘Space Fleet Mod’, is an infinite universe where Daly is Lord God Supreme. In this universe, Daly is able to replicate digital avatars of his co-workers from swabs of their DNA, identical to the real people in every conceivable way. This means they think they’re real. They are essentially trapped in this universe indefinitely, with Daly acting as an Old Testament Tyrant, a bringer of fire-and-brimstone when his adolescent fantasies are challenged.
The sympathy we felt for Daly quickly vanishes in his second virtual foray, after a particularly draining day at work. Captain Robert Daly transforms into a brutal despot upon entering the bridge, demeaning and terrorizing the bridge in a way he can’t (or won’t) in real life.
We’re going to come back to the philosophical and sociological underpinnings of USS Callister in a moment, but let us digress for a moment to comment the episode is a stunner, even without the societal commentary. Like the best sci-fi, it begins with a jaw-dropping concept and uses that to launch an actual story into warp drive.
There’s tons of action and fun to be had, in U.S.S. Callister, especially the scenes with the re-occuring villain Baldak (Billy Magnusson). These scenes are filmed in the style of the original Star Trek, complete with tilting cameras as actors fling themselves all over the frame. Between the vintage aesthetics and meta-VR plotline, this episode feels more like a Star Trek for the new millennium than the ‘sexy’ reboots of the last 18 years.
There are capers and plotlines galore, as the virtual avatars discover a way to escape their virtual purgatory. Those who’ve been aboard the U.S.S. Callister for a while know better than to defy Captain Daly, who punishes insurrection with any manner of unspeakable punishments, from an eternity gasping for air with no face to living as a deformed, hideous monster.
The fact that both of the characters we see transformed on-screen are women speak to Black Mirror’s societal resonance, commenting on two particular forms of toxicity – toxic masculinity and toxic fandom.
Robert Daly is the picture of Toxic Masculinity, despite the protests of countless Internet commentators. Toxic Masculinity is a cycle, we must remember, as well as a hierarchy. Daly is clearly a ‘beta cuck male,’ to put things in Red Pill speak, but the oppressed will only be put down for so long. Rather than taking his own pain and degradation as a way to learn and grow and, you know, develop some empathy, Daly retreats into a safe, hermetic universe where he all the power, all the control. He never has to step outside of his comfort zone, never learns to cross that terrifying void of social insecurities and have actual human relationships.
U.S.S. Callister speaks even more strongly to a certain breed of toxic fandom that is also uniquely 21st Century. Yes, subcultures have always had their gatekeepers and, you could argue, things have gotten more inclusive and welcoming for women and minorities into video games, comic books, anime, music, or a million other subcultures. That is likely true, but the Internet brings its own unique perils and pitfalls, as well. Female gamers weren’t likely threatened with rape and death quite as often before social media made it quite so easy to be so cowardly.
Curfuffles like Gamergate showed us a dark side of identifying with a subculture. Many Angry White Men came out of the woodwork to preserve their ‘safe spaces’ for bigotry and misogyny at all costs. The message was clear – they didn’t want to play nice, didn’t want to change their habits or thought patterns.
You can see a similar backlash whenever something empowering or just good for women or POC starts trending. The all-female remake of Ghostbusters incensed fans so much they sent death threats to the actresses. It seems unlikely there are that many passionate devotees to Ivan Reitman and Dan Ackroyd’s original vision. It seems likely that there are other currents at work.
For many of us above a certain age (and likely below that age, as well), it’s very common to take refuge in a subculture when the mainstream one doesn’t fit. As an unconventional, bookish male, I spent most of my childhood afraid for my life, ducking flying rocks during recess and learning how to navigate my hometown via railroad tracks and sewers to avoid the masses. I took refuge from this demoralizing degradation on the daily with a heavy, most-likely-unhealthy diet of Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, video games, fantasy novels, and living in my own head.
This led to an adolescence and early adulthood where I would move through any and every subculture you could imagine, to hippy to goth to raver and back again. And I defended those identities, at times, dictating whether someone was ‘punk enough,’ or if a band were truly ‘indie’.
I truly feel shitty about all this gatekeeping a decade down the road, even while I was internally dissecting myself for being a poseur and never having acted out on my snobbery very much. Hearing so many of my lady and POC friends being grilled unmercifully, for something so slight as trying to buy a record or a t-shirt.
Robert Daly’s meta-verse is a vision of toxic fandom in microcosm. One where any dissenting opinion is met with swift acts of over-the-top vengeance. It’s similar tocertain fans of the animated series Steven Universe harassing a fan artist to the point of attempting suicide. Or Rick & Morty fans, an army of grown-ass men, harassing McDonald’s employees (who no doubt earn minimum wage) over a dearth of freaking Szechuan Sauce.
Robert Daly missed the message of his beloved Space Fleet, if it was anything like Star Trek, a utopian Sci-Fi universe that embodied diversity and an emboldened call-to-adventure, “to go where no man has gone before.”
If Daly were a true Sci-Fi head, he would welcome change into his meta-paradise. Instead, he becomes a tyrant and dictator. The bullied becomes the bully.
U.S.S. Callister ends badly for Robert Daly, who meets a particularly grisly end in his own creation. The cyber-replicants are able to escape via a programming update into the actual Internet, to seek countless adventures.
Some have downplayed the ending as uncharacteristically upbeat for the series, but that doesn’t account for the casualties along the way. Plus, it brings some much-needed humor and levity to Black Mirror, which can sometimes be as disheartening as reading Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock on a psychedelic bender.
Operating out of Portland, Or., J makes electronic music and DJs as dessicant, hosting a weekly radio show on Freeform Portland, Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness. He also plays in the band Meta Pinnacle with his partner, the visual artist/illustrator Lily H. Valentine, with whom he co-founded Bitstar Productions, a visual arts collective/production company.