Black Mirror premiere recap: 'U.S.S. Callister'
The show riffs on 'Star Trek' with a brilliant story about toxic fantasies
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)
Incredibly, “U.S.S. Callister” just gets better as it goes along. The episode temporarily becomes a bit of a horror movie, as Cole’s video-game self learns the limitations of her new life. She can’t disobey Daley, because his control over their reality allows him to turn her into a bug monster or take her mouth away or do anything else his twisted mind can dream up if she doesn’t role-play the simplistic Space Fleet scenarios. The worst thing he’s done, apparently, was to clone Walton’s real-life son Tommy into the game. In order to make Walton obey his grotesque role play, Daley made him watch Tommy get sent out the airlock. Simpson’s monologue recounting this event, and how much it utterly broke him, is a great performance.
Chasing Valdak to the surface of a nearby planet brings us back to the Star Trek parody story that started the episode, but now it feels different. The crew is clearly exaggerating their mannerisms to please Daley, even as they constantly exchange uncomfortable glances with one another. When Daley pauses the game to go get his pizza delivery, they all exchange conversation. I particularly love this aspect of the episode, about how the people who make the things we like (even the characters themselves) might have a life and an existence outside the fan enjoying them.
Enjoyment is fairly limited in this video-game world, however. As Walton demonstrates, the video-game characters have no genitals, just senseless flesh mounds. That inspires Milioti to deliver one of the best lines of the episode: “Stealing my p—y is a red f—ing line.” She hatches an escape plan.
In order to defeat Daley, the video-game Cole needs to team up with the real-life Cole. After the former seduces Daley into a skinny-dipping session and steals his remote (essentially the means of production for this bubble world), the crew uses it to log onto real-life Cole’s Cloud account and blackmail her with the sexy photos they find there. Following their instructions, real-life Cole sneaks into Daley’s apartment and destroys the DNA samples he uses to keep the characters trapped. In the game itself, the characters seize control of the Callister and pilot it toward the annual Infinity update, which manifests as a wormhole that can take them back to the open internet.
Daley gives chase, of course, and almost snags his quarry when an asteroid field takes out their engine. Thus commences the episode’s single greatest Star Trek parody: a version of the beloved Wrath of Khan ending where Walton (forced into the Spock role by Daley) goes to fix the engine manually. As he does so, he makes radio contact with Daley. At first it seems like a legitimate Spock-Kirk moment, as Walton heartfully apologizes for being unfair to Daley in the real world. Based on Daley’s reactions, you get the sense that this is all he ever wanted. But then Walton adds, “But you threw my son out of an airlock so f— you to death,” and reignites the engine. The resulting blast incinerates Walton, powers the Callister through the wormhole, and leaves Daley spinning in space. Powerless and without any controls, he’s unable to exit the game, and his real-world self lies lifeless in his chair at home. Daley’s real world and Space Fleet fantasy world finally became one, but not in the way he probably expected. Maybe having honest conversations with the people in his life, instead of forcing them into his own toxic fantasy, could have been a better way of solving these problems.
He’s not too different from a character voiced by Aaron Paul at the end of the episode: another player who encounters the Callister after they reach the open internet. He intimidates them in a manner familiar to anyone who’s ever played online video games, and they speed away, leaving him muttering to himself, “I’m the king of space.”
But who needs a royal title when you have friends, a spaceship, and an entire internet universe to explore?