Ever since I heard Netflix’s Black Mirror was going to do a parody of Star Trek, with a focus on totalitarianism, a million ideas ran through my head. Was this going to be like Star Trek: Discovery, exploring the conflict between military might and scientific exploration—or, was it going to be the Mirror Universe brought to life, showing what a man like Captain Kirk would become if he’d been given more control? As it turns out, “USS Callister” was nothing like I expected, and it’s an absolute must-see.
Spoiler warning, I will be talking about what happens in the episode. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend waiting to read my thoughts until you have. You have been warned.
Warned, I tell you.
I’m not sure how many guessed what was going to happen in “USS Callister,” but it was a complete surprise to me. Granted, the episode does start like you’d imagined, with Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) and the crew of the USS Callister trying to negotiate with an adversary over some stolen crystals, but you slowly start to see that something is amiss. Captain Daly may be beloved and praised, kissing all the women on his bridge as the men cheer him on, but there’s also an undercurrent of fear.
Turns out, this isn’t a Star Trek-style TV show, but rather a video game recreation of it. The real Robert Daly, a video game programmer, has made his own secret video game based on his favorite TV show Space Fleet inside an MMORPG called Infinity, which he helped create. We see Daly in his normal life at the company, called Callister, being mocked and mistreated by his coworkers... some of whom are actually characters inside the game. In the real world, they laugh at him—but in his digital fantasy, they’re literal pedestals at his feet. So, did Daly create video game versions of his adversaries so that he could command them in a way he can’t in real life?
No. He prefers the real thing.
In the episode’s most-heartbreaking scene, new Callister employee Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) wakes up inside Daly’s ship, bewildered and confused. Daly has stolen some of her DNA from a tossed-out coffee cut and digitally copied her into the game. Like everyone else, she’s trapped inside the USS Callister as a digital recreation of herself. All of her personality traits and memories are intact, but in this new world, she cannot sleep, she cannot fuck, and she cannot anger the captain. He controls everything, and if he is displeased with someone in it, he can torture them in endless horrifying ways. For example, all the monsters in his game are former crew mates who angered him.
The rest of the crew has resigned to being playthings in Daly’s game, but Nanette refuses to surrender. This has dire consequences for many of the people on the ship, but she still holds strong... although giving up would have been a lot easier. This world threatens to break her, but it never succeeds. The episode has a happy ending—except for Daly, that is—but it’s only through extreme trial and sacrifice. And you’re left wondering about all the casualties left in its wake. For example, is Tommy’s body still floating out there, gasping for air? We may never know.
This might be one of the most fascinating episodes of television I have ever seen. It hits on so many themes, all at the same time. There’s the dark side of nostalgia, as we see how Daly’s obsession with Space Fleet has bled into how he views and treats the world—for example, he doesn’t give any of his characters genitals, as sex is “not the Space Fleet way.” The idea of fandom as ownership, whether it’s over ideas, stories, or even characters. There’s also the danger of virtual life, as we see how people can become darker versions of themselves when hiding behind a screen. Then, you’ve got the timeless theme of how absolute power corrupts. Daly is basically running his own Sims game, relishing trapping his characters inside burning buildings with no toilets for his own enjoyment.
“USS Callister” reminded me a bit of last season’s Doctor Who episode “Extremis,” where all the characters found out they were digital versions of themselves inside of a simulation. There’s a real fear of being trapped in something beyond your control, unable to choose how you live. It’s like being in a totalitarian state. But when it’s virtual, there are no borders to cross. There’s nowhere to run. I’m going to be feeling the effects of “USS Callister” for awhile, and I imagine a lot of you will be too. Black Mirror trapped all of us inside the USS Callister, and we may never escape it.