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BLACK MIRROR’s “U.S.S. Callister” Uses STAR TREK to Dissect Toxic Masculinity

Editor’s Note: Please note there are spoilers for Black Mirror season 4 in this post. You’ve been warned!

After the cheesy perfection of Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) leading his intrepid Space Fleet crew to victory in battle, “USS Callister” launches in earnest when Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) shows up in the Callister office (the one in the real world), spouting effusive praise for the poor genius boy who invented the architecture to live our dreams. It’s Daly’s coding that made lifelike virtual reality possible, and it’s his company, even if everyone (including the intern) treats him like an intern.

Seeing him bullied in the castle he built brings his fantasy life into stark relief. He’s a wealthy geek who thought power would come with invention, but he’s left playing a vindictive Woz to his CEO’s Jobs. No wonder he spends his evenings lost in his nostalgic heaven. We feel for him. Connect with him. Recognize his persecuted nerd status as our own.

Which is why it’s such a brilliant narrative fake-out when he goes full-on digital Norman Bates on everyone.

After all, this is Nanette’s story. She’s the episode’s secret protagonist, and her only “crime” is being friendly in an office filled with people Daly despises. By the time he steals the DNA from her coffee cup lid, it’s clear our sympathy was misspent, but we should have known better when the sharp-witted PR lead (played by Michaela Coel) warns Nanette that CEO James Walton (Jimi Simpson) would have sex with a sandwich if you threw it across the room and to keep “a wide berth” around Daly. The whisper network in full effect.

What we thought was an homage to swingin’ ’60s Star Trek turned out to be a revenge fantasy from a super fan which turned out to be a searing indictment of harassment in the workplace. Daly’s imprisonment of living copies of his employees and colleagues is a power fantasy birthed from the man cave womb of toxic masculinity. Daly believes that, because of his accumulated money and sci-fi gift to the world, he’s due something. Respect, definitely. But also, as shown by his creepily chaste post-adventure kisses, sexual conquest.

The fake-out offers a dark version of Ready Player One, where the bullied geek with encyclopedic knowledge of a pop culture relic morphs into an angry deity, inflicting a terrible amount of pain on the people he sees every work day. Plemons is a key to making it work. Delivering Daly as a blend of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Matt Damon, he pulls double duty as the diminished and the dominant. In fact, the casting is roundly good in this tricky adventure. Simpson—fresh from visiting Westworld—is a master of jumping between pathetic worm and swaggering charisma monster.

Thrust into the bubble universe of an asshole god, Milioti’s Nanette is the woman with no more fucks to give. The digital clones have long since accepted Captain Daly’s invincible cruelty and their imprisonment as “just the way it is,” but Nanette has fresh resolve, and decides to fight back in earnest when she discovers Captain Daly has robbed her of her vagina. The symbolism really isn’t subtle here. He’s a creep who wants to own people, to make them kiss him at the end of the day, and he’s stolen the very source of his crew’s sexuality. It’s an act that clearly humiliates every crew member, but they’ve needed Nanette’s lack of fear to lead them to action.

The price for challenging Daly’s supremacy? He turns you into a monster for all to see, publicly ruining your identity and making you disappear. The only two people we know of that he transforms into hideous beasts are women, and, as brave as she is, Nanette can’t topple Daly alone.

In the age of sexual assault survivors speaking out and bringing down powerful icons, “USS Callister” is an amazingly topical bit of satire delivered in a tense, sarcastic thriller. While the others have dual roles, Milioti has three: the doe-eyed ingenue, the comic relief, and the Bourne-esque hero.

The visuals match up with the ethos by refusing to exploit any of the women in spite of their not-suitable-for-combat uniforms. Even when Nanette strips down and uses her sexuality to lure Captain Daly into the water as the key diversion of their great escape, the camera spends its time gazing at Daly’s pale, flabby dad bod instead of Nanette in her bikini. It’s a clever cinematographic subversion, but it’s also a signal that the tables have turned in the story. Subtle, genius work.

In the realm of subversion, the advertising has been an excellent first act for the episode, tricking all of us into thinking this was a full riff on Star Trek by refusing to show us the dreary real world where Daly gains motivation to victimize others by feeling victimized himself. It was a Trojan Horse of geeky fandom and homage with a powerful allegory hiding inside.

The tone shares a lot of DNA with the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” where a tyrannical six-year-old telepath holds his town hostage by threatening to turn disobedient people into weird objects and to send them away forever to a cornfield. Daly might as well be that child, his arrested development as plain as his uniform.

Unlike “It’s a Good Life,” there’s a depth to the characters aboard the USS Callister, and the mystery of what those people evolve into becomes an ethical question of their treatment. Once again, Charlie Brooker and Black Mirror have made us care deeply about digital copies.

It’s the ultimate irony that Nanette, bobbing her head through normalcy in the real world, is blackmailed with revenge porn by her digital self in a desperate bid to escape an everlasting hell. The key to getting out involves sexually harassing her real-life DNA twin. In Real Nanette’s version of the story, she left a job with a bullying boss to work for her coding hero, got warned about him by a colleague, kept her head down during crunch time, and then got blackmailed into breaking into his penthouse apartment to steal a lollipop from his mini-fridge. The next morning, he was found locked into his Infinity system. Nanette may never know there’s a copy of her and her co-workers traversing the virtual galaxies, relishing the immeasurable possibilities for adventure and encountering lame gamers voiced by Aaron Paul. But even though it was her copy that led the rebellion, there’s a good chance Nanette knows that she’s capable of fighting back.

Black Mirror Joy-Binge Discussion Questions:

  1. What happened to Daly? Is he stuck in a coma in real life? Or will he be free and on the warpath when someone finally pulls the Infinity node off his temple? What will floating alone through space for the holiday break do to him?
  2. If you get a spam invite on a social network, how can you be sure it’s not your digital clone trying to get your help to escape a looping nightmare?
  3. If Infinity drops you into an immersive virtual reality, but other people can still pester you, is the technology really all that great?

Read more of our recaps for Black Mirror season four!

Images: Netflix

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