What Black Mirror’s USS Callister Says About VR and Fan Culture

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Currently airing its new fourth season on Netflix, Black Mirror has once again cemented itself as one of the best and most original shows currently on air. Episode 1, USS Callister, is no exception.

I’m sorry, but if you aren’t watching, you need to be.

Black Mirror is an anthology series that explores theoretical, and unsettlingly plausible, technology. It gets in depth with the way users react, use and ultimately abuse said tech. It’s a series that stomps all over rose-coloured glasses and proudly shows off its jaded specs. If you wanted to restore your faith in the future of humanity, you’d have better luck with literally anything else.

Black Mirror Logo, the dark side of the mirror. (source: variety.com)

*Ye be warned, tharr’ be spoilers ahead*

USS Callister

Kicking off its new season is USS Callister. It’s arguably one of the show’s best episodes to date. A mix of the typical slipstream sci-fi with one of the original genre cornerstones, Star Trek. But avid watchers will notice a whole ton of easter eggs from other shows.

It culminates in an effervescent pop-culture pastiche. Both wistfully nostalgic and uncomfortably relevant.

We open on the bridge of a 60s era space ship, where stock characters in stereotypical costumes spit out predictable lines in a paint-by-numbers space adventure. There’s the strapping leading man in his captains chair. The breathy women in mini-skirts and go-go boots. The static camera shots and crimson reds and bright baby blues and muted mustards. A victory, a celebration. The leading man swoops in to dip one of the woman for a kiss. And then, wait, BOTH of the woman? That’s kind of creepy…

Then we snap back to reality.

First look at Plemons’ Robert Daly (source: topbreakingnews)

See, the USS Callister takes place across two parallel time lines. One in the real world centering around a silicone-valley-esque tech company and the other in the virtual, video-game reality called Callister that is the invention and product of said company.

The episode explores a bit of what it is to be a part of fan culture, while strapping in for a pretty dark insight into VR technology and video games.

Unique Character Development

Yet at the heart of the episode is Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons doing some of his best work to date). A man who, at night, slots into the role of titular leading man in the adventures he designs based on his favourite show, Space Fleet. During the day, Daly is a misunderstood tech genius. The ultimate mistreated ‘nice guy’. Bullied by his subordinates, taken advantage of by his business partner, Daly takes it all on the chin.

It’s impossible not to feel vaguely sorry for him. It’s a role that’s easily sold because we’ve seen it a hundred times before. He’s the underdog. He’s the little bit of all of up that just isn’t enough.

But of course, this is Black Mirror. This isn’t going to be that story.

Daly’s is the evolution of the bullied who becomes a bully. The man that internalises his experiences, his emotional abuse. A man scorned. The man who returns home every night, plugs into VR and wallows in his masculine-power-fantasy like a kid in a sandbox with no consequences. Where he can kick everything over because he’s perfectly entitled to. Quickly we realise that all of the characters in this fantasy feature the likenesses of those at his work who mistreat him.

Crew of the USS Callister explore a hitherto unknown planet. (Source: denofgeek.com)

The story takes another turn with the introduction of Nanette (Cristin Milioti), a young woman on her first day at work. She’s our eyes and ears into learning what the heck is going on. She fangirls all over Daly’s coding genius, is hit on by the CEO, given the grand tour of the office and meets the rest of the employees. She’s our veritable ‘love interest’.

But again, this won’t be that story.

When Daly overhears Nanette admonishing another character for suggesting a romantic connection between she and Daly, the stakes jump from one to a hundred.

Thus begins the gut punching twist.

The Trouble with AI

The characters in Daly’s Space Fleet fantasy, the sycophants that participate in his adventures? Yeah, they’re not just the likenesses, they’re sentient AI clones. Returning to another technology that premiered in season two’s White Christmas, we see Daly steal the lid of Nanette’s coffee cup only to use her DNA to upload her copied consciousness into his VR. A VR we discover is a modified universe to the one he invented for the company.

Each person who has wronged him is in for an endless future of suffering. A future in which Daly has complete totalitarian control of their lives. If they act out, he removes their faces, leaving them gasping for breath without a mouth, yet unable to die. Sound terrifying? It is. Is that the worst of it? Definitely not.

Daly swoops in for a kiss on the bridge of the USS Callister (source: gizmodo.com)

Nanette finds herself a part of this facade, virtually imprisoned and forced into the role of Science Officer. The rest of the episode (probably a smidgen too long at 75 minutes) focuses on their escape, battling wits against Daly on his home turf and dives down the rabbit hole of exactly how dark the mind can be when it doesn’t perceive any consequences.

As one character eloquently puts it: ‘It’s a bubble universe, ruled by an asshole god.’

Online Gaming

With this quote in mind, it’s hard not to think of sandbox games like The Sims. Burning down houses and drowning Sims in the pool just for kicks. Or stealing cars, shooting guns and killing hookers in GTA. It would seem this episode seeks to raise the question: What would it be like if those characters were sentient? What happens when the games get more real?

It raises some very interesting questions about the power dynamic that exists in video games, not only between player and npc, but player to player as well. Questions that ought to be thought about before we dive head first into the realms of shared VR.

Nanette wakes to her new fate on the USS Callister (Source: theverge.com)

And the Fandom Menace

Alongside this, the episode dips its toes into the arena of fandom. Daly’s obsession with the show Space Fleet is the platform from which this episode launches. It’s the story of passion that has been corrupted into possession. And it’s the same story that exists in so much of pop-culture these days. That you have to love something the right amount, or in the right way or for the right reasons or you’re not a real fan. That it’s possible to be unworthy of liking something.

In the same way we take something and make it our own with fanfic and fan-art and fan-bands, in USS Callister, it’s Daly’s safe, personal space. A space where the stories told are the ones he wants to hear. It’s a cage he’s happy to be in every single night. And one he’s happy to trap everyone else in to prove exactly how unworthy each one of them is.

While most of fandom isn’t like this, it’s impossible not to see parallels between the recent Star Wars release or Rick and Morty fan culture.

Charlie Booker, the show’s creator and principle writer, proves once again that he can conjure nightmares from anything. The episode is both a celebration of the technology at our fingertips, and a dire warning against their misuse. It hardly feels like a coincidence that this show was written only a short spit after the actual release of Ubisoft’s Star Trek: Bridge Crew (a Star Trek VR experience).

With online spaces like this already on the horizon, it seems like the perfect time to rethink the way in which we interact with these interfaces, and each other, online.

If you want to know more about Black Mirror Season four, check out Louis’ spoiler free ranking of all the new episodes here, or Temmy’s terrifying article on which of Black Mirrors technologies are becoming reality. 

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