Black Mirror: “USS Callister” Season 4 Episode 1 Review

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Has Black Mirror achieved blockbuster status? “USS Callister” certainly feels like the show reaching for a wider audience than ever before. But don’t mistake the episode as a nostalgia-fueled half-parody-half-homage to Star Trek in the same vein as The Orville. Creator Charlie Brooker, who co-wrote the episode with William Bridges, is not-so-subtly playing with the dangers of nostalgia as enacted by Captain/Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons, in arguably his best role since Fargo).

The episode opens with a short cheesy episode of Trek-clone Space Fleet, where Robert is the captain. In real life, Robert is the overlooked, forgotten CTO of a company that makes a wildly popular VR game called Infinity, with a lot of his coworkers having seemingly also appeared on the old TV series. But a new employee Nanette (Cristin Milioti) shows her admiration for his groundbreaking code work. Through her, and Robert’s quick taking of her DNA, we’re clued in on exactly what’s happening when Robert logs into his version of Infinity.

The tone of “USS Callister” may be funnier than most Black Mirror episodes (the lack of genitals bit is hysterical), but the show’s signature darkness still pervades. When Robert takes the DNA samples of his co-workers, he creates living digital copies that he can control and manipulate to his will, as demonstrated by turning those who step out of line into giant insects to be disposed of and then fought and defeated on a later mission. With such a diverse cast, and Plemons sort of playing an evil William Shatner while in the game, the script also injects a lot of meaning into this band of rebels, if you will, overthrowing a white man who quite literally sees himself as the savior. “USS Callister” is acting out a metaphor for what popular franchises have been doing to insert a little more diversity, from Star Trek: Discovery all the way to the brilliant Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In a way, Black Mirror is also sporting a message here of “let the past die,” it’s just less ambiguous about who the past looked like.

The actual climax itself goes into territory too familiar of these franchises to really work independently as its own thing, but it’s the crew of women and people of color who overthrow the disgruntled control freak Robert, and that still manages to be satisfying. As for the closing moments, they stick the landing in a way that Black Mirror too rarely does. Serving as a bleak, funny reminder of where these living digital copies have to spend the rest of their time, the reward of who they just overthrew still rings true. As the voice of another gamer (Aaron Paul!) shows them what populates the world they call home, they won’t be short on villains to defeat. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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