The fourth season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology TV series about technological anxieties and possible futures, was released on Netflix on December 29th, 2017. In this series, six writers will look at each of the fourth season’s six episodes to see what they have to say about current culture and projected fears.
Spoiler warning: This essay includes significant spoilers for “USS Callister.” It does not reveal the ending, but does address story elements not seen in the trailers.
As we inch closer to unearthing the secrets of human intelligence by understanding the complexities of the brain, a tricky series of questions arise. What happens when sentient life exists without a physical body? If it could feel pain, does it deserve constitutional rights? Could you commit a crime against it? And what might this all mean when that life is a software copy of yourself, a simulated you existing only in cyberspace? Would you care what happens to another version of yourself, created and abused without your knowledge?
These questions define “USS Callister,” the feature-length first episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season. Charlie Brooker’s anthology series about technology and the future has always veered between horror and humor, and “USS Callister” is among its funniest, darkest commentaries, touching on everything from gaming and artificial intelligence to office life and sociopathy. This episode’s main character, Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), is a gifted game designer, the genius programmer behind a virtual-reality video game that draws inspiration from his favorite Star Trek-like television show. He’s chief technology officer at the company he co-founded, but he’s underappreciated by his coworkers, and inept at socializing with them, apart from new engineering hire Nanette (Cristin Milioti), who clearly admires Robert and his work.
Soon, however, viewers discover that Robert isn’t just the socially awkward nerd he appears to be. Every night, he goes home to live out a custom fantasy built inside his own private game server. There, he lords his power over virtual simulations of his colleagues, which he creates by surreptitiously extracting their DNA from everyday office trash, like coffee-cup lids. His simulacrums aren’t just programs: they’re autonomous simulated consciousnesses with all the sophistication and physical sensation of real humans — including confusion, pain, and fear. It turns out that, for years, Robert has forced these re-creations of his co-workers to role-play as characters in the Star Trek: The Original Series-esque setting of his favorite TV show, or face his omnipotent cruelty as the game master and Captain Kirk stand-in. His latest victim is Nanette, who’s trapped in the Starfleet game mod to serve as Robert’s love interest for all eternity, until she hatches a plan with the other prisoners to notify the outside world of their dilemma.
“USS Callister” is refreshingly different in tone from most of Black Mirror. It’s an unabashed love letter to Star Trek, with the titular spaceship replacing the USS Enterprise, and the episode’s structure resembling a classic Trek narrative arc. It’s also simultaneously a deconstruction of the aged fanbase that still holds onto Star Trek — including all its tired tropes and played-out stereotypes — as a symbol of prestige science fiction. Nanette, a quiet, diligent office worker in her physical life, transforms inside the simulation prison, taking on the Kirk-style leadership role Robert has disturbingly distorted to misogynistic, sadistic ends.
The dialogue is fittingly snarky, sarcastic, and actually laugh-out-loud funny at times. The trapped characters routinely trash the fictional show they’ve been forced to re-create, examining its sexlessness and its painfully problematic reinforcement of gender roles. The characters alternate between abject horror over Robert’s treatment of them, and cavalier, sardonic responses to eternal anguish. A virtual version of Robert’s abusive business partner Walton (Jimmi Simpson) pours everyone vodka shots every time Robert logs out, deciding he might as well get hammered, since he doesn’t have a real liver to worry about.
The seamless gear-shifting between high-minded philosophical science fiction and smirking science-fiction satire is unusual for Black Mirror: it’s making a point about how technology enables people’s worst, most self-absorbed fantasies, without feeling like it’s trying to grind viewers into dust. So many Black Mirror episodes head toward twist endings that force viewers into a pit of despair. “Humanity is screwed” feels like a common refrain for the show, which periodically suggests no safeguards, oversight, or basic common sense will ever protect the cult of technology from serving humanity’s worst impulses.
“USS Callister” is different, if only in its delivery. Similar to “White Christmas,” season three’s feature-length meditation on crime and punishment, this episode uses a dizzying buffet of clever ideas, homages, and references to paint a wild picture of the future, with the relevant message that the people we’re trusting to build us a shining technological paradise could be just as fallible and compromised as the worst of us.
Fans of gaming, science fiction, and even surreal horror will be able to point out the Easter eggs tucked away beneath the surface-level Star Trek parody here — nods to video games like No Man’s Sky and fictional ideas like the OASIS from Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. But the core conceit of the episode, underneath the pop culture hat tips, is buried deep in the philosophy of artificial intelligence. In “White Christmas,” Jon Hamm’s character demonstrates a technology that lets people create virtual simulations of themselves to use as personal slaves, in a twisted take on digital assistants and smart homes. “USS Callister” evolves that idea by suggesting a future where this technology was kept secret (or just hasn’t been mass-marketed), so one man is free to use it to whatever ends he wants, to live out his twisted fantasies in private.
The idea of victims caught in an unending malevolent fantasy has come up before in speculative fiction, like the frightening Roko’s Basilisk, a posited far-future AI that would torture reconstructed digital simulations of our minds. Or The Twilight Zone’s “It’s a Good Life,” about a godlike child who terrorizes his hometown with an authoritarian bent. The third-season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Hollow Pursuits” seems like an obvious inspiration: in that episode, a minor crewman on the Enterprise deals with his feelings of inadequacy by populating his holodeck fantasies with clumsy, foolish, or romanticized versions of the ship’s primary crew, designed to let him feel superior and powerful.
But more than any other piece of fiction, “USS Callister” is rooted deeply in Harlan Ellison’s harrowing short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” In one telling scene in the episode, Robert erases Nanette’s mouth, so she can’t breathe, plead, or even verbalize her pain. It’s his way of establishing that he has complete power in the simulated universe, and the sociopathic will to use it to torture his captives. Ellison’s short story, penned way back in 1966, imagined a far-future doomsday scenario where an AI, developed by the US government to fight an advanced form of cyberwarfare against China and Russia, gains sentience. It then absorbs competing superpower AIs and destroys the human race, save for five humans it keeps alive and tortures endlessly for having brought it into such a miserable existence. It’s a bleak, almost unbearably pessimistic view of AI that is often hard to read and not very fun to think about.
But Ellison’s story gives Brooker his most ambitious canvas. Because even not knowing the nod to the sci-fi classic or any of the myriad references at play, viewers can still recognize the episode’s ability to function on multiple levels. “USS Callister” isn’t just a send-up of old Star Trek costumes, sets, and plots. It’s a commentary about white male entitlement, sexism, and the fraught waters of overbearing fandom. It’s also a counterweight to Black Mirror’s more depressing fare, which at times feels like its end goal is to instill despair about the future.
But perhaps most importantly, the episode’s most successful flourish is crafting a convincing human replacement for what otherwise might have been a sterile, inhuman villain. Because instead of crafting a malevolent AI, which has been done better and more thoroughly in stories from The Terminator to Steel Beach, Brooker has created a nightmare version of a Silicon Valley executive. Robert is the quintessential vindictive office nerd, but also a representation of the real dangers presented by powerful, intelligent, amoral tech-industry titans like Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, who have both become rich beyond their wildest dreams while peddling a nebulous concept of technological advancement.
This Black Mirror episode suggests that while some big tech names, like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, worry about a superintelligent AI enslaving or destroying humanity, the more immediate threat is human beings, who misuse modern tools every day to manipulate and harm people in ways an AI would never dream of. Humanity has desires and impulses that would make no sense to even the most sadistic piece of software. The idea of Skynet waging a never-ending war on humans, or HAL 9000 throwing someone out of an airlock, has been played out until it feels uninspired. But none of those scenarios comes close to the sheer absurdity of a mock TV show prison run by an emotionally stunted tech exec, drunk on power and the chance to play make-believe in his favorite fictional setting. No AI could reasonably construct that, and it’s what makes Robert a more compelling villain than any evil machine god.
It’s also what makes the message of “USS Callister” fit so well within the broader Black Mirror framework. The show often comments on tech through a lens of human failure, where the vulnerabilities of tech breakthroughs are exploited due to our propensity to hurt one another, and our hunger for new and life-changing technologies. It’s fitting that this episode aims familiar themes from post-apocalyptic science fiction back at the hubris of Silicon Valley. If the world did go tragically wrong because of technology, we’d all be collectively to blame: the consumers who gave tech companies a free pass to play with society, and the creators of the technology, whose cavalier attitudes about its dangers are as self-serving and dangerous in their way as Robert’s more targeted sociopathy.
“USS Callister” ratings
Relevance: “USS Callister” is relevant today in the same way Terminator remains relevant: largely in the abstract. The ideas presented here are highly exaggerated versions of debates we will likely be having very soon about AI, virtual reality, and other simulations of life and human existence, but on a much smaller scale. We’re definitely not going to get instantaneous virtual copies of ourselves that can be uploaded into VR any time soon. (Or possibly ever.) But there are still parallels between Robert’s co-worker prison and the perils of largely unregulated technologies developed with little third-party oversight or public knowledge of the ultimate end goal. In that way, Robert most resembles Oscar Isaac’s character from Ex Machina, a brilliant man who creates breakthrough AI to satisfy his disturbing sexual urges, rather than to push the world forward.
Aesthetics: No Black Mirror episode has been as visually stunning, or likely as expensive, as “USS Callister.” The special effects here blow everything the series has pulled off before out of the water, with believable renders of a Mars-like planet, giant insectoid monsters, and spaceships darting through asteroid belts and escaping through wormholes. The realistic Star Trek knock-off costumes and lookalike Enterprise deck all create a 1960s sci-fi throwback vibe that feels even more haunting when it becomes clear what kind of story it’s servicing. It all comes together to create the first episode of Black Mirror that feels like it belongs in a movie theater.
Squirm factor: Though it’s funny throughout, this episode does involve some deeply uncomfortable scenes. Robert’s leering, vaguely sexual dominance over his female crew members is hard to stomach. So is his casual propensity for torture, and his blackmail tactics, which include child murder. But the undercurrent of self-awareness helps soften the discomfort, and the episode takes a fairly light look at some serious issues with the clever, outrageous subplot involving Nanette threatening revenge porn against her real-world self.