In praise of 'USS Callister,' the Black Mirror space opera to end all space operas
I can’t stop thinking about the best new episode of Black Mirror. Its official title is “USS Callister,” it will forever be known as “The Star Trek Episode,” it is the most exciting motion picture space opera since last decade’s Battlestar Galactica. Go watch it now so I can start spoiling it. It’s a little over an hour — half as long as Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Alien: Covenant and that Star Trek: Discovery premiere we all raved about before we fell asleep watching the rest of Star Trek: Discovery. God, we were lousy with space operatics this year, “lousy” being the operative word. “USS Callister” doesn’t just mercilessly deconstruct those aging sci-fi franchises: It out-thrills them, too. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Start with the casting. Jesse Plemons plays Robert Daly, a brilliant double role. The first time we meet him, he’s a swaggering space commander, strolling onto the bridge of the USS Callister, a ship full of subordinates ready to yes-captain his every command. The man’s hair looks as ridiculous as the wig Patrick Stewart wore in his Picard auditions, as luscious as William Shatner’s dirty blonde hair before it trended dark-brown in the ’80s. And Space Commander Daly speaks ludicrous accent, a modern-day approximation of how you imagine every Roosevelt spoke, “Mid-Atlantic” by way of Brad-Pitt-in-Troy.
The first scene of “USS Callister” is a knowing parody, a loving hyperbolization of everything the original Star Trek was. In a few snappy minutes, Daly leads his crew into battle, tells the anxious blue-shirted first officer to chill out, defeats the bad guy, receives kisses from his adoring female crew. There’s a blue woman, a guy with robot stuff on his face, computers that spark without ever exploding. The colors are garish, the special effects primitive on purpose. It captures the effect of watching the original Star Trek on Netflix, the half-century-old images rendered with such color-popped HD that you figure Starfleet must be Belko Experimenting some weird psychology unto its unknowing officers, “The Effect Of Primary Color Wardrobe And Alien Purple Light On The Human Brain.”
There might actually be a brilliant, heavily-embedded joke in this opening. The bridge of the Callister is actually much more colorful than the bridge of the Enterprise, and there’s a slight purple tint to the lighting more suggestive of how the early Trek liked to shoot nemesis ships. Check out these roughly comparable shots from “USS Callister” and from the all-time Trek classic space-submarine thriller “Balance of Terror,” and notice how Black Mirror immediately casts its space commander in vaguely Romulan color tints:
And then “Callister” SMASH CUTS, to a world we recognize as “Real,” because it’s been 20 years now since The Matrix established the bizarre rule that actual reality is always grayscale whereas even the worst computer simulation is groovily sepia.
Here is the “real” Robert Daly: On a crowded elevator, wearing glasses, hairline receding as all true hairlines must. He walks into his office, and the camera stays close enough to him that we feel what he must feel. The world doesn’t respect him. People don’t get out of his way as he leaves the elevator. The cute receptionist is annoyed when his keycard doesn’t work, does her best not to look at him as she buzzes him in. The intern is making coffee for everyone but him. He trips over a gym bag belonging to some cute brogrammer, who laughs at him behind his back. He retreats to his office, which is full of memorabilia of a TV show he loved when he was a kid, VHS tapes, DVDs, even those figurines you would read about in Wizard Magazine when you thought the whole point of growing up was getting to buy more expensive merchandise. Robert loves this TV show, even convinced his co-founder to name their company after the franchise’s spaceship. The show was called Space Fleet and the ship is the Callister, but you’re encouraged to read between the lines. “It was visionary,” says Robert, not realizing or not caring that what was visionary in the past tense can look backwards in the present.
Plemons has a sweet spot: He is Hollywood’s Apparently Nice Young Man Who Is Unexpectedly Great At Killing People. Ironically, this was his least impressive trait on Friday Night Lights. On NBC’s smalltown symphony, Plemons played Landry Clarke, AP nerd, lonesome kicker, garage rocker so unrockerly that he self-branded his music “extreme grindcore with heavy thrash influences” like he was category-tagging a music-review blog post. Landry was either a freshman or a sophomore when Friday Night Lights started. (The timeline is fuzzy; Landry ages diagonally.) But Plemons was one of the show’s few true teenagers, almost a decade younger than prom-royal costars like Scott Porter and Minka Kelly.
The casting worked, because TV can always make more sense than reality. Plemons’ actual real-kid youth read onscreen as geeky diminution. Next to, like, Taylor Kitsch’s deity-of-wreckage Tim Riggins, Landry could only look approachably small. He was a great character, an entry-point everyman for anyone (like me!) who thought football was pretty dumb. But Landry was also a particular 2000s archetype: The Romantic Nerd, a chatty brainiac questing towards some radiant local princess like every Link quests toward Zelda.
This was not a new idea. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst spent that decade re-enacting the nerd-sacred romance between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, geek canon from when LBJ was president. Here was a tale as old as time: The chemistry-loving weirdo and the hip drama kid, the public menace and the Broadway diva engaged to an astronaut aristocrat. But those first-and-still-best Spider-Mans defined a catchy new romantic plot arc. Call it Beauty and the Geek. That’s what Ashton Kutcher called his actual mid-2000s reality show; I could’ve sworn that title sounded charming, and yet now now all I hear are the 1,500 appropriately enraged thinkpieces its mere announcement would generate in these enlightened times. On The OC, Seth Cohen and Summer Roberts were unabashedly the beach-money variation of Peter Parker and Mary Jane — except not just symbolically Jewish anymore! — and they even restaged the Maguire-Dunst upside-down kiss, a remix of a remake. Nerds can be sexy, said the 2000s! According to TV Tropes, “This is pretty much the entire point to The Big Bang Theory,” so there.
And so Landry spent most of his years on Friday Night Lights dreaming of Tyra Collette, the no-question coolest girl in school — played by Adrienne Palicki, who makes every man look like the forehead posing next to Nicole Kidman’s chin. The Landry-Tyra arc was weird, cursed with the only plot point Friday Night Lights everyone remembers hating. Suffice it to say that by season 3, they had gotten together and then broken up, and then Landry kisses another girl, and then she thanked Landry for self-actualizing her lesbianhood. Ego-bruised Landry went to local saint Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) seeking advice. “I have some sort of talent that repels females,” said Landry. “I was in love with Tyra for a long time. I chased her away.”
Tami allowed him a benediction; don’t quote me, but this might be the only time those two characters ever properly spoke to each other on the show. Tami’s words are well-intentioned, are in fact not much different from the advice any young vaguely smart-shy student probably receives at some point in their awkward adolescence. I can’t read these words now and not feel a little shiver, but so many things I used to unquestionably love have started to feel wrong somehow. See what you think:
You are gonna go to some great college. You’re gonna have a career that you’ll love. And, I’m telling you right now, women are gonna flock to you. I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s the way it’s gonna work. You are a good person, and this is just the beginning.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because you just recently watched Stranger Things 2. The second season of Netflix’s ’80s pastiche — the season where there’s something wrong with Will, not to be confused with the season where there’s something wrong with Will — ends at a school dance. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has struck out with every girl in school. So his best friend’s big sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) takes pity on the poor lad, pulling him onto the dance floor, to the general awe of Dustin’s female contempos. She tells him not to worry, things will turn out okay, not just okay, dammit, great:
Out of all my brother’s friends, you’re my favorite. You’ve always been my favorite. Girls this age are dumb. But give them a few years, and they’ll wise up. You’re gonna drive them nuts.
As we see Robert Daly sit in his lonely office, surrounded by the pop culture artifacts of his nerdy youth, you can almost imagine that he is both Landry and Dustin, all grown up. He went to some great college. He has a great career — the CTO! Of his own company! — and yet here he is, all alone.
A woman walks into his office. Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) has just been hired by Robert’s company, coding an update to the online videogame Robert invented. She isn’t just the first person who looks at him for more than two seconds. She praises him. “I just wanted to pass on my admiration,” she says, “To the person who actually designed Infinity. The procedural algorithm is amazing. Just…some beautiful…code.”
A decade-plus of Romantic Nerd storytelling has prepared us for this interaction to trend somewhere cute. Here is Robert, a geeky cut off from the world, devoted to an old science fiction idea of far-out space adventure. Here is Nanette, the only person who notices him. Isn’t this what Tami and Nancy promised him? Promised us?
Clearly, Robert thinks they belong together. So he takes a sample of her DNA left on a coffee cup, and downloads her into his own private videogame universe, and makes her his prisoner-plaything. He’s done this to a lot of his coworkers — the annoyed receptionist, the intern who didn’t look happy about getting him coffee, the brogrammer who giggled about his pratfall, and more. These coworkers are now the crew of Daly’s own version of the USS Callister. They have to be…or else.
We get introduced to this whole weird idea via a new Nanette (Milioti again), now sytlistically Star Trek-ified, with retro-hair and the kind of official uniform only Mad Men‘s Harry Crane would’ve designed. Lesser space operas always get hung up on pointless logic, but here we have Chewing Gum‘s Michaela Coel just explaining that Robert has a “gizmo.” Nanette asks her coworkers: What they did do to deserve this punishment? Shania (Coel) called out Robert for staring. Elena (Milanka Brooks), the receptionist, committed the crime of “insufficient smiling.” Nate (Osy Ikhile), the intern, brought Robert the wrong sandwich. It’s a savvy twist, operating on multiple levels. Our lovable nerd is actually a toxic boss. The self-perceived victim of a hundred social slights has created a world where he can be as monstrous as he wants to be. (Most toxic bosses just call that world “the office.”)
Robert walks onto the bridge, back in his “Space Captain” guise, no glasses, better hair, insane accent. Nanette won’t play his weird game. “The whole thing’s much better if you let yourself get into it,” Robert insists, sounding like every nightmare you’ve ever had about a frat dude. “Go f— yourself, sir,” Nanette says. And then Robert takes snaps his fingers, her face disappears.
She crawls on the ground, unable to see or breathe. She won’t die. “I could keep you gasping like this forever, if I wish,” says Robert. “Do you submit?” How can she not? “Good girl,” he says, the matter closed, more fun for him.
The equation of this is simple, in Star Trek terms. Imagine Captain Kirk was actually Q; imagine the crusading space Captain was precisely as egomaniacal as all tyrants (and certain actors) have always been. Imagine Sulu secretly hated Kirk as much as George Takei openly hates William Shatner. According to Walton (Jimmi Simpson) — IRL Robert’s swaggering co-founder, cast in Robert’s dreamspace as the simpering beta-male Wormtongue — they are now living in “a bubble universe ruled by an a–hole god.”
Throwing this out there: That also describes Star Trek for at least some portions of its history. It requires no imagination whatsoever to imagine “USS Callister” as a metafictional portrait of the experience of filming Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the Trek movie William Shatner directed and the Trek movie that is specifically about how Captain Kirk is a cool, funny, god-crushing, stripper-tossing, mountain-conquesting dudely man. And I say that as someone who kind of likes the movie! But don’t forget about Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a film about how Spock is the most important person in the universe, coincidentally directed by the man who was Spock. And there was Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek: An old-fashioned Difficult Man, alleged womanizing, his own worst enemy, delusions of grandeur.
I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole here, don’t want to say “Everyone is an a–hole!” and also don’t want to underrate the fact that the history of human art is a partially (largely?) a history of a–holes. Actually, it’s almost too easy to go back to the original Star Trek and appreciate some of its greatest stories as portraits of utopian douchebaggery in extremis. In the very first proper Star Trek episode ever filmed, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Kirk has to kill Gary Mitchell, his own best friend. He never mentions this profound act ever again in his onscreen life. An earlier viewing generation would recognize this as a function of television’s self-erasing history; watching with modern eyes, you wonder if Kirk is a sociopath, or if he never really liked Gary very much to begin with.
(Eerily, before Gary Mitchell dies, he gives us an unusual piece of biographical detail, which runs counter to everything we’ll come to understand about Kirk. Apparently, at Starfleet Academy, our brash space captain was a total nerd, “a stack of books with legs,” so unlucky in love that Gary had to set him up on a date. That date led young Kirk to almost get married, but the relationship ended as badly as all of Kirk’s relationships always do. You wonder: Was Kirk another Robert Daly? Is his own persona an act, like the shy little boy grown up to be a machismo grenade? Later canon will establish Kirk as an absent father and a thrill-seeking workaholic, fascinating character traits that defy our weird modern tendency to drape all genre heroes with life-affirming nostalgia glasses.)
Look, I love a lot of Star Trek, and it’s pointless to make any broad statements about any story cycle that has lasted through so many years and permutations. Then again: If we’ve learned one thing this year, it’s that we can would maybe be better off if we started to throw out some of pop culture’s most sanctified legacies. Or at least question them? The notion of Star Trek as a bold liberal act of utopian idealism can always run aground on the experience of Star Trek as a well-intentioned act of retrograde idealism. You can watch the original show now and appreciate its moves towards diversity — or you can notice how the all-important Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic is the ship’s three dudes solving everything for the castmates who barely ever get a B-plot. “USS Callister” doesn’t play up identity politics, but it’s all over this horrific digital prison. The chief white dude, who feels so unhappy in his own life, is a vision of malicious toxic masculinity. There’s only one other white dude onboard the Callister, and he’s the resident coward, least willing to follow bold Nanette and her renegade escape plan.
Now, the most recent iterations of Star Wars and Star Trek have made strides toward greater inclusion. This is admirable and right, but the actual texts themselves are so backward-looking that they bungle the execution. The Last Jedi is most clearly a movie about one large spaceship chasing another large spaceship with all the excitement of a glacier chasing a dying snail. But it is also a movie about a diverse group of young rebels waiting patiently for a legendary white dude to re-become the greatness he never wasn’t. I think there were four scenes where Rey asked Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi, and Luke kept saying he didn’t want to be a Jedi, but then he was a Jedi: Riveting stuff here, folks, like imagine if Samuel Beckett wasn’t funny and had to sell Porgs.
Discovery has the better cast, and the willingness to argue that two men can love each other enough to settle the day’s problems while they’re brushing their teeth. But it has largely squandered Sonequa Martin-Green, a wildly compelling screen presence. In the pilot, her Michael Burnham jumped through space (once without a spacesuit!), and fought Klingons hand to hand. Since then, she has run around her ship carrying the futuristic version of an iPad, and looked very sad about various things that happened in her past, and fallen in puppy wuv with the cutest toughest sad guy in sight. (She fought Klingons again, eventually, already Greatest Hits-ing.) Meanwhile, the show hasn’t quite gotten around to figuring out just how evil it wants Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) to be, the result being that he comes off as a typical CBS law dude who does vaguely wrong things for inevitably right reasons.
Both projects also featured pointless mutinies, where the heroic mutineers are quickly reinstated on the grounds that their commanders like the cut of their gib. If you’re a fan of this genre, or of actual drama with compelling stakes, you can’t help but remember the great mutiny in Battlestar Galactica‘s final season, which spiraled into murders and executions. But Battlestar Galactica wanted to be weird, and the Star franchises now just want to be popular.
But there’s a deeper shared weirdness. Both franchises, in their own way, want to become better progressive visions of a science-fiction future — which is great! But both franchises can never quite move too far away from their own traditions, the sanctified legacy, this idea that there is after all some purity of essence that these long-running space operas must worship towards. This subtext — this total kneeling submission to what has come before — becomes the text. So tough Jyn Erso spends Rogue One honoring the suicidal destiny her various dead dads demanded of her. And Michael Burnham spends a whole half-season of Discovery mourning her dead parents, missing her dead captain, and trying to reconnect with her emotionally distant stepdad. And parent-obsessed Rey — who, with no training, is capable of more powerful feats of Jedi strength than pretty much anything we ever saw Luke perform in the original trilogy — spends The Last Jedi trying to convince Luke to go save people, before spending the final climax hanging out in the rearguard as Luke scores a philosophical victory by believing in hope, or whatever.
(LARGE ASIDE: There are probably Last Jedi defenders who think I’m misrepresenting Luke’s final actions — that Luke isn’t actually the legend everyone thinks he is, is in fact a literal mirage in his final battle, and so his act of heroism is actually a deconstruction of heroism. This line of thinking obviously more resonance than, like, the dumbo trolls and their dumb arguments that girls are wrecking their Star Wars, said dumbo trolls hopefully this weekend watching “USS Callister” and having a good think about how a lifetime devoted to a silly science-fiction adventure franchise has warped their mind toward antisocial behavior. But Last Jedi is deconstructive the way the recent James Bond and Batman movies have been deconstructive: Not very much at all. Much time is spent establishing that the great central hero of the story isn’t quite what they used to be — Bond is out of shape in Skyfall, Batman’s got a bum leg and a bad back in The Dark Knight Rises, Luke’s a hobo. You can read this is somehow deep, an attempt to complicate the heroic legends of yore. It looks to me now like a con job, a way of passing time before the inevitable: All three movies end with the hero doing precisely what the hero has always done in movies like this. The Last Jedi even picks up a specific visual concept from Dark Knight Rises, how the little children of the world worship totems of their movie hero, the Bat signal written in chalk, the Rebel Alliance ring. I guess some truly upper-level Last Jedi devotee would claim that Luke’s actions are equivalent to, like, the twisty-theme climax of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford’s actual deconstruction of heroism, which lands on the famous idea that legends are more important than fact. The whole point of Liberty Valance, of course, is that supposed hero Jimmy Stewart is not actually the kind of guy who blows up Death Stars or saves Gotham from neutron bombs. Rarely has the attempt toward confessional deconstruction ever felt so much like ego stroking, but we live in a world where a billionaire pretends to be an outsider every day. Luke Skywalker even gets to expire all alone in his remote coastal refuge, fading into the sun in a burst of pure serenity: Precisely how all rich Californians secretly hope they’ll die someday, and Luke even has servants he never talks to. END OF ASIDE.)
We’re missing something here, and I think the word here is energy. You want to see Sonequa Martin-Green’s version of a swaggering spaceship hero. You wonder why none of the young rebels can ever just brag about how fast they make the Kessel run. The younger characters worship the older characters, and have no clear view of their faults; whereas it feels like the only way forward for humans in our own reality is to look closer at our heroes, and our own bad actions. The only character in any of these projects who actually wants to try something new is Kylo Ren, and he’s the bad guy, because people who wear black are evil, and change is scary for money-grubbing corporations and uninspired creators, and most of all for the fans, who need to feel like their whole life of love hasn’t been in vain.
What is Star Trek? What is Star Wars? “It’s a belief system, founded on the very best of human nature. It is a goal for us to strive towards for the betterment of the universe, for the betterment of life itself.” That’s actually Robert Daly, mansplaining Space Fleet to his prisoners, but I’m almost certain I’ve heard equivalent philosophical propaganda applied to our own most familiar science-fiction franchises. (No one has ever made any utopian philosophical arguments about the Alien franchise, which is why Ridley Scott’s god-addicted prequels are so pointless and fascinating. It’s like someone made a religion out of the Sarlacc Pit.)
Of course, Robert Daly isn’t striving toward the betterment of the universe, or the betterment of life itself. Neither was Space Fleet; from what we see, it was a splendidly junky science-fiction show from a long-ago era when nobody spent three months writing thousand-word prose-grenades about junky science-fiction TV shows. Robert’s just using his preferred ideology as a cudgel to hurt people less powerful than him, and those people happen to be almost exclusively People Who Aren’t White Males.
You are encouraged to see real-world analogies here, although Black Mirror showrunner Charlie Brooker (who cowrote this masterpiece with William Bridges) is clever enough make the characters precise but the themes broad. Every dictator turns their regime into a kind of psychopathic cinematic universe — there’s a reason so many modern-day despots love movies — and it just so happens that Robert’s religion is Space Fleet. He adhered to the letter of law and betrays everything about its spirit.
(Robert’s actually a lot like Kurt Russell’s Ego, the hedonistic cosmic narcissist at the center of this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, who builds himself his own private planet and wants to remake the whole universe in his own image. Guardians 2 was a nigh-plotless space opera full of secret dark resonance and individual moments that looked like Dr. Seuss illustrating a Blink-182 album, and I kind of loved it when I saw it. I love it even more now that Ego looks in hindsight like a brilliantly lacerating parody of both Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi and Michael Fassbender’s android in Alien: Covenant. What a year for lonely gods on distant planets!)
Nanette discovers that, here in this digital hellscape, the prisoners have suffered a final indignity: Their sexual organs have been removed. “Okay,” says Nanette — and holy hell is Cristin Milioti great, but this line is the one for the T-shirts — “Stealing my p—y is a red. F—ing. Line.”
One of my learned EW colleagues who suspects that this plot point was a helpful contrivance by Brooker and Bridges. If Robert could have sex in his space simulation, then presumably sex is all he would want to do — the argument everyone uses when we worry about the effect of Virtual Reality on teenage boys and most grown men. That would’ve invariably made this episode an attempt to analyze rape culture which just-as-invariably winds up helplessly furthering rape culture, which cultural theorists refer to as “Being The Movie Sucker Punch.” I would counterargue, though, that Robert’s sex-organ removal is both a hilarious sight gag and a very literal castration, and that Robert’s removal of sexual agency is its own tantalizing allegory. Late in “USS Callister,” Nanette takes off her clothes to go swimming with Robert — part of her con, and also a moment that feels designed to remind you of how every hot young actor, male and female, in the latter-day PG-13 family-friendly science-fiction movies has at least one split-second scene where they’re shirtless, got it thanks guys that’ll be great for the trailer!
“USS Callister” becomes a race against time on multiple fronts, and has one notable dull plot point. The Nanette of the digital world — bold, tough, probably plays Renegade in Mass Effect — tells her crew that to escape, they have to get in touch with her real-world self. This involves an act of blackmail. Digital-Nanette knows that Actual-Nanette has some embarrassing pictures on her phone. And it leads the IRL Nanette — by all appearances a workaholic regular-person coder — to an act of loft-thieving espionage worthy of Jason Bourne. The breakneck pace of its final act robs real-world Nanette of her own agency here; it turns her shock at the private pictures into a too-easy gag, and just assumes she’d break into the home of her hero on a moment’s notice. I’ve never wanted a sequel to a Black Mirror episode more, if only because I keep imagining the theoretical meeting between real-world Nanette and her digital doppelganger: The one too trusting of powerful men and too devoted to disappointing heroes, the other all-too-aware of what evil lurks in the hearts of nice guys.
Whatever: “USS Callister” builds to a full-scale rejection of Robert Daly-ism, and everything he represents. He’s left all alone in the universe he built. (The lights go out, just like they did in Twin Peaks.) The Callister‘s final escape involved the sacrifice of Simpson’s character — the only other white guy, in actual reality the flirty yin to Robert’s leering yang — and so there’s a pleasant feeling of mutual immolation rocketing Nanette and her crew to a brave new world.
This new digital reality looks uncannily like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, complete with the tilted angles and the lens flares. (Director Toby Haynes finds so many clever variations on the TV-starship aesthetic in just this single episode!) The crew finds can go explore the infinite universe now: They’re officially online. A ship hails them, someone playing the online game. They’re excited to communicate — and the voice the hear demands that that they trade, fight, or f— off.
“Stick us in hyperwarp,” says Nanette, “And let’s f— off somewhere.”
It’s her own personal “Make It So”! And as this ship of rescued lost souls sets off into the digital ether, we’re left with the voice of the gamer who chased them away. It’s wonderful Aaron Paul, the voice of sad slacker-ish white dudery on Breaking Bad and on Bojack Horseman. He declares himself “King of Space.” He repeats it again, sighing. “King of Space.”
There’s always another bubble universe, another a–hole god. Our most prominent space opera franchises are struggling to evolve; “USS Callister” is how it feels to fight back. Send this episode to HR, show it to the Silicon Valley microaggressionists and the dudes who insist pop culture ended in the ’80s. There’s got to be something better than endless preaching about pop culture legacies, how visionary everything was when we were kids. If not, let’s follow Nanette’s lead, and f— off somewhere better.