Stop What You're Doing And Watch Black Mirror's 'USS Callister'

Ever since I heard Netflix's Black Mirror was going to do a parody of Star Trek, with a focus on totalitarianism, a million ideas ran through my head. Was this going to be like Star Trek: Discovery, exploring the conflict between military might and scientific exploration - or, was it going to be the Mirror Universe brought to life, showing what a man like Captain Kirk would become if he'd been given more control? As it turns out, "USS Callister" was nothing like I expected, and it's an absolute must-see.

Spoiler warning, I will be talking about what happens in the episode. If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend waiting to read my thoughts until you have. You have been warned.

Warned, I tell you.

I'm not sure how many guessed what was going to happen in "USS Callister," but it was a complete surprise to me. Granted, the episode does start like you'd imagined, with Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) and the crew of the USS Callister trying to negotiate with an adversary over some stolen crystals, but you slowly start to see that something is amiss. Captain Daly may be beloved and praised, kissing all the women on his bridge as the men cheer him on, but there's also an undercurrent of fear.

Turns out, this isn't a Star Trek-style TV show, but rather a video game recreation of it. The real Robert Daly, a video game programmer, has made his own secret video game based on his favourite TV show Space Fleet inside an MMORPG called Infinity, which he helped create. We see Daly in his normal life at the company, called Callister, being mocked and mistreated by his coworkers... some of whom are actually characters inside the game. In the real world, they laugh at him - but in his digital fantasy, they're literal pedestals at his feet. So, did Daly create video game versions of his adversaries so that he could command them in a way he can't in real life?

No. He prefers the real thing.

In the episode's most-heartbreaking scene, new Callister employee Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) wakes up inside Daly's ship, bewildered and confused. Daly has stolen some of her DNA from a tossed-out coffee cut and digitally copied her into the game. Like everyone else, she's trapped inside the USS Callister as a digital recreation of herself. All of her personality traits and memories are intact, but in this new world, she cannot sleep, she cannot fuck, and she cannot anger the captain. He controls everything, and if he is displeased with someone in it, he can torture them in endless horrifying ways. For example, all the monsters in his game are former crew mates who angered him.

The rest of the crew has resigned to being playthings in Daly's game, but Nanette refuses to surrender. This has dire consequences for many of the people on the ship, but she still holds strong... although giving up would have been a lot easier. This world threatens to break her, but it never succeeds. The episode has a happy ending - except for Daly, that is - but it's only through extreme trial and sacrifice. And you're left wondering about all the casualties left in its wake. For example, is Tommy's body still floating out there, gasping for air? We may never know.

This might be one of the most fascinating episodes of television I have ever seen. It hits on so many themes, all at the same time. There's the dark side of nostalgia, as we see how Daly's obsession with Space Fleet has bled into how he views and treats the world - for example, he doesn't give any of his characters genitals, as sex is "not the Space Fleet way." There's the danger of virtual life, as we see how people can become darker versions of themselves when hiding behind a screen. Then, you've got the timeless theme of how absolute power corrupts. Daly is basically running his own Sims game, relishing trapping his characters inside burning buildings with no toilets for his own enjoyment.

"USS Callister" reminded me a bit of last season's Doctor Who episode "Extremis," where all the characters found out they were digital versions of themselves inside of a simulation. There's a real fear of being trapped in something beyond your control, unable to choose how you live. It's like being in a totalitarian state. But when it's virtual, there are no borders to cross. There's nowhere to run. I'm going to be feeling the effects of "USS Callister" for a while, and I imagine a lot of you will be too. Black Mirror trapped all of us inside the USS Callister, and we may never escape it.


Comments

    It took a few minutes to get into it but I did enjoy that one.

    What scares me the most about the episode is the simple fact that with this tech existing imagine the possibilities. Serial killers can legally murder and torture people in digital form, a whole market would exist for people stealing the DNA of famous people.

    Basically a way for the worst of humanity to live out their most depraved fantasies with a digital version of someone who is has the same memories, feelings, body, etc

    It's fucking terrifying

      The Iain M. Banks novel Surface Tension covers this theme beautifully with digital copies of people fighting virtual wars and even suffering in a virtual Hell because... well, because religion, I guess. There's a subsection of society who care a great deal about their digital copies while others don't care because they aren't considered to be "real."

      I mean is it any different to what you can do in modern day video games? I mean its more realistic but its essentially the same. Video games allow a person to go on mass murder spreees or committ terrorist attacks.

        At the moment quite a bit.

        Game characters are basically animated chess pieces today which is different from a digital avatar that basically IS the person, that feels emotionally and "physically" that acts identically and has all the same memories.

          At the end of the day though its still AI. Its not a "real" person. All you are affecting is some pre programmed 1's and 0's.

          The real question is though. If such a technology was created. Would you rather these type of people be living out their fantasies in the virtual world, Potentially stopping them doing it IRL?

            That would be cold comfort for the virtual being being tortured.

            It does make me think of these people who are looking forward to having their minds uploaded to computer so they can "live forever"

              It is still 1's and 0's though. Its still an AI programmed to respond in different ways. I dont know. Sentient AI might be a different question but its still something to think about.

                Oh totally agree about something programed to respond in a certain way but this is a whole different scale, a sentient AI representation of an individual down to the smallest details

    This episode reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone 'Its a good Life' (An absolutely petrifying episode BTW) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0734580/

    The Captain has the same powers as the protagonist child (played by legend Bill Mumy). I'm pretty sure (if I recall correctly) he even removes the mouth of one of his victims too.

    so stealing DNA steals the whole personality too... Uh huh... and memories.. sure.. Bzzzzt not really plausible ... black mirror is just rinse and repeating mostly the same theme, a personality being transferred to a digital form and subjecting to star trek mods, torture, jailing, etc etc etc.. its not moving on much these season from already trodden ground.

    Beth,

    I watched this episode purely because of your headline.

    You are spot on ... this must be one of the finest films I have ever seen.

    It explains in the episode that Tommy was frozen in space and broke “like a porcelain doll”. So I guess technically he died. Just to ease those minds.

    Your use of the word 'f***' was entirely unnecessary and gross. There is simply no reason you could not have used the correct word, sex.

    Also, my comment on this was removed because it used the same word in full that was used in the article above it. Stupidity.

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