Jonathan Prime /Netflix
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TV Show
S4 E1
December 29, 2017 at 08:00 AM EST

As with any short-story anthology, Black Mirror can oscillate between rapturous peaks (“San Junipero,” “Fifteen Million Merits”) and less-impressive valleys. This episode belongs squarely in the former category. Turning a riff on Star Trek: The Original Series into an exploration of fandom and the ways it gets twisted is one of the show’s most remarkable achievements so far. It might be the best episode the show has done.

We start with a straight-faced parody of Shatner-era Star Trek, with Robert Daley (Jesse Plemons) in the captain’s seat. Daley and the rest of the U.S.S. Callister crew are tracking an outlaw named Valdak, who has made off with a precious crystal and now taunts Daley in extremely Khan-like fashion. If you’ve ever watched a male-driven sci-fi story, you probably know how this goes: Daley risks everything to dip into a nearby asteroid field, but succeeds at charging up his ship’s weapons enough to take out Valdak’s ship while commanding cowardly crewmates like Walton (Jimmi Simpson) to buck up.

Valdak escapes his exploding ship to a nearby planet, but there’s no time to chase him right now. Instead, Robert Daley has to go to work at his job in real life. This episode is set in a slightly futuristic world with improved technology, such as the virtual reality multiplayer online video game Infinity. Daley created the code for Infinity but has been pushed aside in his own company by the real-life Walton, who bosses him around with the same cruel condescension that Daley uses on Walton’s video-game counterpart.

Rather than stand up to his bullying cofounder or his catty coworkers, Daley escapes into Space Fleet, a show that greatly resembles the original Star Trek. Daley’s office is adorned with Space Fleet posters, toys, and DVDs, as he shows off to new hire Annette Cole (Cristin Milioti). When Cole notes that the female characters’ miniskirts would be slightly inappropriate for the coldness of space, Daley laughs it off with some deep-cut reference to the Space Fleet canon — just like any nerd who refuses to acknowledge the prejudices and objectifications inherent in his beloved sci-fi silliness.

Cole is actually nice to Daley, claiming that his coding work inspired her to join Callister (Daley’s company is, of course, named after the Space Fleet flagship). But he isn’t interested in her real self. He mostly just wants the lid of her coffee cup, so that he can scan her DNA into his personalized Space Fleet modification of Infinity. That’s right — not only are the U.S.S. Callister crew members based on Daley’s real-life colleagues, but they’re literal clones of them, complete with the same looks, minds, and personalities.

Cole’s real mind does not react well to suddenly waking up inside the Callister. This is the first big turn of the episode, when you realize that Daley was not the true protagonist of this story. That would be the woman he’s now trapped inside his own private video game based off his nostalgic recreation of outdated, sexist genre fare. (Recap continues on page 2)

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