In a deviation from the series’ preferred flavor of hopelessness, “USS Callister” offers us two experiences best served hand-in-hand: a delightful romp, and a deep, hard look at ourselves. (Content warning: Straight-up feminism.)
The wise and powerful Anita Sarkeesian, media critic and executive director of Feminist Frequency, often says that it’s important to be critical of the media that we love. It’s easy to dismiss serious flaws in a text that you deeply admire so that you can go on admiring it without shame, just as it’s easy to assume that people who criticize that text must hate it. But it is hard to engage critically and thoughtfully with the media you least want to criticize — and, when possible, to demand better from the people producing the work.
The difficulty of critiquing beloved media doesn’t just come from the uncomfortable tummy feelings it can give us — fans who are over-loyal to a work may reject, even attack, the people pointing out its flaws. And when these flaws are a product of misogyny, and when the people pointing them out are women… oh man, does it get heated.
Nowhere is the tendency to attack the feminist critic more hair-triggered than in nerd culture. Sarkeesian herself is the subject of constant global abuse because she is a human woman who has opinions about video games. Nerd fandom is at once inordinately loyal and deeply insecure: We tend to latch onto fantasy and sci-fi media from a young age, when we’re just as likely to over-invest ourselves in fictional characters as we are to be mocked for our interest in them.
So when women in particular begin to demand better of their favorite media, they can receive ugly combinations of reactionary nerd rage and blatant sexism. When you add this to the systemic shortcomings of literally all entertainment media, geek culture, despite being thought of as a bastion for the uncool, quickly becomes not so fun for the women who are part of it.
In Black Mirror’s Season 4 debut, “USS Callister” offers us not only an exploration of this toxicity, but also a richly textured and rewarding visual experience that critiques a beloved cultural franchise just as it pays homage to it — in short, is critical of the media it loves.
“USS Callister,” directed by Toby Haynes, takes a surprising departure from the series’ usual preference for melancholic world building and subdued, interior storytelling. Instead, it opens on a high-energy scene aboard the USS Callister, a set that smacks so much of the original Star Trek series that I frankly had to pause the program to make sure I was indeed watching Black Mirror. Dashing blond Robert Daly (Jesse Plemmons) strides onto the bridge of his ship through pressure-locked sliding doors. The camera cuts quickly from crew member to crew member, all of whom communicate clear and present danger to the captain. The captain eases into his chair, unfazed.
The production is comically but lovingly rendered. Everything from the location of the captain’s chair, to the incoherent beeping and blinking of the navigation panels skirting the bridge, to Plemmons’ subtle midcentury Atlantic sneer — all are the delightful and delighted details of someone who has spent a lot of time watching Star Trek. But the scene soon turns from tribute to parody, aping tropes that made Star Trek ridiculous (the crew erupts into a round of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” once the danger is dispatched) and problematic (Captain Daly grabs and smooches both female crew members in turn, as though this is a normal way to treat women or celebrate not dying).
By this point it is clear that the scene aboard the Callister comes out of Robert Daly’s fantasies. We’re given a telling look at his innermost anxieties and desires before we even meet the real Daly: a shy and glum computer genius who’s CTO to Callister Inc., a virtual-reality gaming company. Daly’s waking world is a little more run-of-the-mill Black Mirror. Near-future technologies whisper their existence through transparent computer screens and little pieces of metal affixed to the head, while dramas play out through the prolonged gazes of the characters. Tense, uneasy music plays during otherwise innocuous scenarios.
As Daly makes a slow amble through the company’s offices, we recognize faces from the fantasy scene, but his coworkers’ real treatment of him falls predictably short of their adulation aboard the Callister. Despite his C-level position, Daly is ignored and derided by his peers. Casual bullying from his counterpart, the CEO and ladies’ man James Walton (Jimmi Simpson), further grinds Daly down.
When a slightly star-struck new hire, Nanette (Cristin Milotti), knocks timidly at Daly’s door, she seems to come straight out his fantasies. She gushes at the honor of meeting him; she calls his code “beautiful.” Daly is visibly flummoxed by a person being interested in him, and after she walks away he stares for a length of time that’s just a little too long to be endearing, but perhaps not quite long enough to be creepy.
Haynes plays deftly with this tenuous line throughout the first act of the episode: Daly’s behavior is always understandable, but never sympathetic. We watch him fixate on Nanette from a distance, anxiously tracking her interactions with the rest of the office. In one notable scene, the cinematographer manages to turn a shot of Nanette drinking coffee into a sexually charged moment, all while Daly stares from across the office.
If the primary tension of the first act is to leave the viewer unsure of whom exactly they’re supposed to be rooting for, here, it is resolved immediately in the second act. After a brief blackout card, we open on a close-up of Nanette opening her eyes and gasping, as though waking from death. Decked out in a miniskirt and false lashes, Nanette finds herself aboard the USS Callister, an immersive virtual-reality game in which she is a digital — but no less sentient — copy of her real self.
Also on board are a handful of Daly’s coworkers — including a markedly swagger-less Walton. They help Nanette understand where she is: An inescapable “bubble universe ruled by an asshole god,” according to Walton. Here, Daly tests out his game and vents his social anxieties in the process. They have all been put in the game as punishment, with anything from pushing Daly around to “insufficient smiling” as reason to be made digital prisoner.
When Daly enters the game, most of the crew snap to attention, ready to play along. But Nanette resists, refusing to “play along with your space force bullshit.” Daly briefly breaks character to correct her — “Space Fleet” — and then turns disciplinarian. He snaps his fingers, and the features disappear from Nanette’s face. Unable to breathe, she falls to the floor, clutching the blank span of skin that used to be her face. It’s a ham-handed but effective extension of the underlying metaphor: Daly’s game allows him to take such an unchecked power trip that he simply erases the parts of people that are not convenient or desirable to him (strangely, this extends to sexuality in an unexpected way: Star Fleet members in Daly’s game are all sans genitalia, Ken-doll style).
The story flits effortlessly from comedy to horror and back again. The world of Daly’s game explores the most exhausted tropes of sci-fi, from desert planets to asteroid fields to convenient wormholes. The trapped players interact with this world as any rational person would, with sarcasm and incredulity, but still beg for death — for freedom — whenever it seems an end might be near. While the characters are conscious of the absurdity of life on the USS Callister, they are no less susceptible to its dangers. This makes for an immensely gratifying progression of events, where new dangers represent heightened stakes and comic relief at the same time.
This is used to best effect in the final sequence of the episode. Nanette and the rest of the crew have managed to separate themselves from Daly, and are fleeing towards a “patch” in the software update (presenting itself as a black hole in the universe). To get there, they must outpace Daly, navigate an asteroid field, and fix an engine malfunction — all the classic hiccups of the most ridiculous space chases, but never so ridiculous that we’re fully taken out of the moment. By setting the central action within a video game, where viewer and characters alike are aware that the real danger lurks just outside the diegesis, “USS Callister” has us experience the story as a character and a player all at once.
Nanette approaches her situation with this same duality: She masterminds their escape by thinking as a coder, and sees the plan through by thinking as a space captain. She is at once immersed in and fundamentally critical of this world. And this double awareness allows her to succeed: her crew (it is her crew now, by unspoken agreement) just barely squeeze out of Daly’s little bubble universe in time. They leave him trapped there, unable even to escape back into real life, perhaps doomed to rot in his gaming chair forever, while they zoom off into some unknown universe — “the cloud,” I guess?
It’s one of the more satisfying, morally traditional endings Black Mirror has ever given us. The evil has been vanquished; Nanette comfortable assumes her position in the captain’s chair; everyone’s costumes are suddenly more practical, miniskirts replaced by sturdy, pocketed pants; all present have genitals between their legs once again. It’s a brave new spacetime.
“USS Callister” does suffer from a mild case of moral absolutism, from the unequivocal evil-ness of Robert Daly. He physically tortures his prisoners, psychologically cripples them by denying them sleep — in one extreme case forcing Walton to watch a digital copy of his own son be sent into open space — and never expresses any motivation beyond petty vengeance. It makes for a fine catharsis when we get to watch his demise, but diverges quite heftily from the real-life experience the episode is attempting to comment on. The menace of embittered, misogynist nerd boys isn’t in the damage they’d inflict on people if given the power, but rather in the quotidian ways they can use victimhood and entitlement to grind down those they believe have wronged them — especially the women. Toxicity doesn’t live in extremes; it oozes through communities in subtle and unclear forms. For women especially, it is the everyday.
Black Mirror missed the mark on nuance, as it often does, but in its ham-handedness it delivered a titillating story, thrilling despite — often because of — its absurdity. What’s clear, from the opening shot of a wobbling miniature space ship to the closing line (“Let’s… fuck off somewhere”), is what a labor of love “USS Callister” must have been. Love for a canonized source text, love for the genre, and love and optimism and hope for the imperfect but ever-improving community of dorks and rejects that keep these stories alive.