Black Mirror: USS Callister (Netflix)
Written by William Bridges & Charlie Brooker
Directed by Toby Haynes
Robert Daly is the successful Chief Technical Officer of his own gaming company that produces a popular online game called Infinity. Daly is a fan of Space Fleet, an obvious nod to the original Star Trek. He spends his evenings after work in his own offline mod of Infinity where he takes on the Captain Kirk role, and the crew members are subservient replicas of the coworkers he feels slight him on a daily basis. It’s when Nannette joins the company that we learn the creepy secret behind Robert’s game. The other characters are created from the DNA of their originals, and they continue all the memories and personality of their real selves. Robert has placed them in a digital hell where he is a god, and they must serve him.
The more have I thought about this opening episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season the more I have grown to like it. The entire piece makes a statement about two areas of modern culture that has increasingly disturbed me in the past few years: submission to the technocracy and the fetishization of fandom. Brooker and co-writer Bridges manage to craft both an entertaining story and homage to Star Trek, as well as a biting bit of satire about the lack of imagination that comes out of certain corners of fandom.
In the last year, there were messages of warning from people like Elon Musk about the dangers of artificial intelligence. These cautions made our minds recall the villainy of Skynet from the Terminator franchise. Yet, Black Mirror posits that humanity could be infinitely worse than any artificial intelligence we could conjure up. In a lesser show, Robert would be the protagonist fighting a rebellious A.I. and heroic destroying the program. This was the smarter choice and the one that leads to more interesting questions. What if an A.I. could do better? Why shouldn’t we hand the reins over to them? There’s no immediately easy answer, but it is a philosophical idea to ponder. Brooker drops an obvious nod to Harlan Ellison’ “I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream” horror short story where a global A.I. enslaves a small group of humans. The flip is intentional here.
I’ve found the increasing adulation of tech industry giants in the last decade or so to be troubling. Bill Gates has gone from being the founder of a company that was found guilty of creating a monopoly into a benevolent philanthropist. While I think Bill Gates is likely a decent human being he still a human being with all the frailties and flaws we all possess. Being the founder of Microsoft doesn’t elevate him above the rest of us. For years, I’ve argued that it is his extreme wealth that makes him increasingly inhuman. While you or I worry day to day about everyday expenses and needs, Gates never concerns himself about having a roof over his head, food on his table, or a bed to sleep in. He cannot connect with the rest of us in a way that we connect with each other. As rumors of Mark Zuckerberg making a presidential bid abound or how the reins of the space program appear to be handed over to Elon Musk’s private interests, I worry that democracy is being replaced with technocracy.
USS Callister also hits on the blandness of fan fetishization. Early on, the Space Fleet Nanette discovers everyone inside the program is playing along with the cheesy recreation of Robert’s favorite television series. She rolls her eyes as they are forced to cower to empower Robert’s sense of heroism. We have to assume Robert has no interests outside of Space Fleet as well. His office contains VHS, DVD, and BluRay copies of the show and he mentions it is also streaming. The fact that Robert spends hours of every evening lost in his digital recreation implies this show is his life. But rather than use the series as a jumping off point for his own creativity he just mires in nostalgia and power fantasies.
This is made even more ironic by the fact that he has authored a gaming platform, Infinity, whose name implies a myriad of possibility. Instead, he just recreates a thing he has watched countless time on multiple platforms for decades. I would guess Robert is also one of those people obsessed with spoilers, which is funny because people like him live in a state of perpetual familiarity and zero surprises. Watch this episode I couldn’t help to think about horrible fanfiction I’ve come across since getting on the internet in the 1990s. Fanfiction is where my dislike of nostalgic fans started, seeing this massive output of content that rarely exhibits a sense of creativity and definitely little originality. I would argue that the fan who becomes a writer on a television series has a much substantial understanding of art than the fan like Robert.
USS Callister is not a perfect episode by any means, but with anthologies, you have varying quality from episode to episode. It is definitely a bit overlong but still works. The purpose of Black Mirror, in my opinion, is to invoke philosophical questions, particularly questions surrounding our relationship with technology and popular culture. If this opener of season four stings a little and raises your hackles, I would ask, “Is that because it rings a little too true?”