Early Emmy Plea: Black Mirror's Cristin Milioti reinvented sci-fi heroism in 'U.S.S. Callister'
Black Mirror won two Emmys last year for “San Junipero,” a sweetly reality-twisted love story set in a digital ’80s heaven. The Netflix anthology’s feature-length Emmy play this year represents a very different flavor of nostalgia. “U.S.S. Callister” is a monstrous satire of sci-fi reboots — and an action parable of toxic masculinity, a bracing revenge tale for the #MeToo era.
It will always be known, more simply, as “the Star Trek episode.” “Callister” initially seems to star Jesse Plemons as a symbol for prelapsarian nerdery. He’s Robert Daly, a balding and shy start-up executive, devoted to an old pop culture franchise called Space Fleet. When he goes home to his lonely apartment, he downloads himself into a digital world, where he’s surrounded by a devoted starship crew; his hair is perfect. You get the joke: He’s a grown-up fanboy who still wants to be Captain Kirk.
Plemons is great in the part, hilarious even when you realize he’s the insidious villain, a toxic demigod trapping people in a world only he controls. But I hope Emmy voters don’t overlook the real star of “U.S.S. Callister.” As Nanette Cole, Daly’s new coworker (and latest prisoner), Cristin Milioti creates a new kind of science-fiction protagonist. Milioti — a familiar face from her work in Fargo and her late-arriving turn as the title character of How I Met Your Mother — gives a performance that’s as funny as it is fist-pumpingly triumphant, evolving quickly from freaked-out everywoman to fierce feminist avenger. For that reason, she deserves a nomination for Best Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie.
We meet her at the office: She’s a young programmer who admires Daly’s work, and perhaps she imagines that she has a lot to learn from a senior colleague with so much experience. Daly has other thoughts that point in another direction. When she’s not looking, he steals a bit of her DNA and downloads a version of her into his Space Fleet simulation.
This version of Nanette is, for all intents and purposes, a real person: A simulacrum with all Nanette’s memories, who’s very confused to find herself living in somebody else’s nostalgic reboot. It’s at this point that Milioti really takes over the screen. In her new world, Nanette is confused, frightened — and moved to laugh at the cosmic absurdity of her situation. (Digital Nanette is dressed in a pastiche of ’60s retro: big hair, neon-blue polyester miniskirt with matching boots.)
And then, when she tries to challenge Daly inside his own game, she finds out just how truly malicious her new world’s god can be:
In this world, Daly is god. Should anyone dare challenge him, he’s ready with a counterattack. He can deliver a big speech about the philosophy of Space Fleet — higher ideals that are, for him, a justification for cosmic abuse.
Transformed into a plaything for her new dictator, Milioti briefly gives in. Even at Nanette’s lowest point, Milioti gives this material a spark. When the Callister’s Away Team lands on a planet, she’s the one crewmember without a cool space weapon (“Least you’ve got a gun,” she tells one of her fellow prisoners.) Attacked by a giant monster, she embodies a familiar type of genre parody, a regular person playacting towards old tropes of TV action:
But the turn comes with a final degradation. While Daly returns to his regular life, the Callister crew reveals that — here in the digital simulation — they’re not quite entirely human. They’ve got no genitalia: Flesh-and-blood people reduced to action figures. “Stealing my p—y,” Nanette exclaims, “is a red. F—ing. Line”
Milioti gives that line a percussive rumble, half-Hollywood swagger and half-revolutionary declaration. From there, “Callister” follows Nanette and the crew on what amounts to a heist across two worlds. We’re lousy with variations on recognizable sci-fi archetypes, but there’s a depth in Milioti’s character that suggests a sharper perspective. Part of Nanette’s struggle in “Callister” is metafictional — what’s it like to be trapped in someone else‘s nostalgic reboot? — but Milioti makes the real-world implications palpable. Here’s a regular person imprisoned by her horrible boss — and a repressed human leading her fellows in an escape effort that’s also an uprising against oppression.
A lot to juggle, and the kind of material that could feel heavy. But Milioti’s performance is a multi-dimensional delight, exultant with possibility even when her character is most freakily entrapped. The final act of “Callister” becomes a performance within a performance, as Nanette tricks Daly into her trap. As an act of subterfuge, she can play Daly’s notion of sultry servitude to perfection, “Captain,” she breathily intones, “You’ve come at just the right time…”
But Milioti also lets us see how Nanette’s desperation, her fear, becomes the fuel for the desperate acts that power the Callister crew. Seeking salvation, they wind up embarking on what amounts to a suicide mission — which, Nanette boldly argues, is a better option than their current status. “We would cease to exist,” she tells her crewmates, “But we’d be free.” She emphasizes that last part again. “We’d BE. FREE.”
“Callister” feels like a lighter-hearted entry in the Black Mirror pantheon, not least because Milioti gives Nanette such a playful energy. But that moment stands out to me for pure call-to-arms emotional power, invocating non-existence as a better option to this miserable status quo. It’s a testament to Milioti’s brilliance in the part that you nod your head, that she gives this material a legitimate spirit of rebellion.
Rumors of a “Callister” sequel started buzzing around the internet almost immediately, and I think that’s entirely because of our last sight of Nanette: Her smile promising a whole new kind of adventure, and the possibility of a better world ahead. Emmy Voters, take note!