Black Mirror: Here's the secret inspiration for 'USS Callister'
And no, it's not just 'Star Trek'
Note: This story discusses spoilers from the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister.”
When footage from the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister” was first released, it’s a safe bet that everybody had pretty much the same thought: Why, it’s an episode based on Star Trek!
And of course, to some degree, that assumption is perfectly correct. USS Callister tells the story of a classic sci-fi show called Space Fleet that’s very much in the vein of Star Trek. But as is revealed in the episode, it’s really the story of modern-day tech company’s quietly monstrous CTO (Jesse Plemons) who virtually escapes into an immersive virtual version of an old TV show — and drags clones of his coworkers into his sci-fi world so he can torment them mercilessly as an all-powerful god.
As part of a series of interviews with Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker talking season 4, we briefly discussed “USS Callister” and the other inspiration for the episode — which wasn’t initially Star Trek at all, but rather another 1960s-era TV series, the one that most directly inspired Black Mirror in the first place, The Twilight Zone. Remember the 1961 episode “It’s a Good Life,” about a town terrorized by an all-powerful 6-year-old (who even looks a bit like a young Plemons)?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When we last spoke, you hinted that a certain other piece of material inspired “U.S.S. Callister” beyond Star Trek. I’m wondering if it was the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”?
CHARLIE BROOKER: You may well be right! We were on the set of an episode from last season, “Playtest,” and we were talking about virtual reality and video games, and the conversation went to, “Well, you could be the king of the castle in there, you could have an evil emperor or tyrant.” Which reminded me of that episode, a story they revisited again in The Twilight Zone movie. I watched the episode again not that long ago and it’s still utterly terrifying. It’s like a depiction of what it must be like living under King Joffrey. You’ve got to watch your step. That was the starting point. What if we do a story about an all-powerful tyrant who cast himself as the hero?
There’s a lot to metaphorically unpack in this episode: Workplace sexual harassment, criticism of classic science-fiction tropes, white men who long for the entitlements of yesteryear, and even possibly a critique of our current president. What were you trying to say with this one?
It was written in November last year, so certainly when we came to film it in January 2017, it was around the time of the inauguration. There was a certain mood among a lot of the cast that we were dealing with a new regime coming in. That’s an aspect of it. It’s not where the idea came from. But as soon as you get into the workplace stuff, forcing people [into the virtual prison] for what he perceives as slights in the workplace, that then gets to a whole other level of stuff. So often with our episodes, really, there’s not a central message or certain thing we’re trying to evoke, but it comes out alongside of that. Certainly, a lot of those things resonate in that episode, but it’s not directly about any one of those things. Really “USS Callister” is about someone who is wielding absolute power who shouldn’t be, and people overthrowing him.
More Black Mirror season 4 postmortem interviews:
— Black Mirror creator explains that ‘Metalhead’ robot nightmare
— Black Mirror creator reveals what Jodie Foster changed in Arkangel
— Black Mirror creator answers our burning ‘Crocodile’ questions
— Black Mirror showrunner reveals the ‘Hang the DJ’ ending you didn’t see
— Black Mirror: We rank all 19 episodes
Black Mirror season 4 is streaming now on Netflix.