Episode 1: USS Callister
Hey folks, Jesse here again to begin my in-depth look at Season 4 of Black Mirror. If you are unfamiliar, be sure to check out my review and episode previews for the current season. I decided to take a more in-depth look at each episode in Season 4. In the years since it began Black Mirror has become less of a “television” show and more of an annual winter event. The scope and depth of each story more closely resemble a collection of movies than anything currently on television.
Black Mirror picks up where it left off using its blend of satire and pointing out the error of our ways to create compelling and unnerving cautionary tales. I’ll keep the major spoilers for myself, but you might want to stop now if you want to see it all play out for yourself. So let’s begin with Episode 1 “USS Callister”.
When I think back on old science fiction movies and television, the first thought that probably comes to most minds is the antithesis of the TV sci-fi genre, Star Trek. If you are a fan of Star Trek or even if you are only familiar with its campy dialogue, underwhelming sets, and very basic special effects, then there will be plenty in USS Callister for you to appreciate.
The opening sequence begins much like starting midway through an old episode of Star Trek. Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Fargo) is in the captain’s seat and playing up the hero. The ship and its crew are in grave peril and about to meet their demise at the hands of a deranged villain. The day is saved thanks to the cool-headed thinking of the charismatic hero! Of course, the adoring crew applauds their fearless leader. The crew goes on to worship the captain as a sort of Messiah.
The set here closely resembles that of the bridge of the Enterprise and the costumes are also a nod to the 60’s era of fashion. It also has the appearance of being shot in 35mm film to capture that golden age of television feel. It gives you the impression that this is a clever spoof meant to poke fun at the early science fiction television genre.
This reality quickly comes to halt and the real story begins. It opens with Robert Daly who is not a captain of a spaceship but actually seems to be far from the hero persona he was first presented to be. He looks tired and unkempt. He shows up to work and his presence is barely noticed. It seems like business as usual.
Although it is a little unusual because his co-workers look a lot like the crew members.
Plemons does great here making sure that you feel for Robert. We come to learn he is an unappreciated genius that created a virtual game experience only to be steamrolled and verbally abused by his business partner and CEO, Walton. Walton is played by Jimmi Simpson (It’s Always Sunny, Westworld)
I’ve been a fan of Jimmi Simpson since the early days of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and was surprised by his range in his short but memorable, plot-twisting role in Westworld. Simpson attributes to many of the funniest moments of the episode.
With Robert’s programming genius and Walton’s cutthroat business sense, the two created an immersive gaming world in a massive online space setting. The overall mechanics or story of the game itself isn’t very important to the episode and isn’t really mentioned in detail.
A new employee, Nanette, played by Cristin Milioti (How I Met Your Mother, The Wolf of Wall Street) enters and Robert is quickly taken with her and a creepy side of him begins to take shape.
It’s not too long later that Nanette finds herself waking up on the USS Callister, a fictional ship from the show Space Fleet. Space Fleet is basically Star Trek with a different name.
Nanette finds the rest of the crew on board and recognizes them as her coworkers. She finds out that they are all trapped on the ship with no way to escape. They are now crew members in a game designed specifically for Robert himself. Unknown to her, Robert took a sample of her DNA and created a way to make digital copies of people and put her inside his own private version of the game.
In this offline version of the game, he has remade the game world to look like his favorite show, Space Fleet. In it, he is a cruel and vicious ruler of his own universe. Torturing the digital clones of his coworkers gives him the sense of power he lacks in his depressing waking life. The power has twisted his mind to create horrific ways to terrify the crew into thinking that in their new world he is their god.
Nanette quickly begins to try to find a way to escape the cruelty of Robert’s virtual slavery. She proves that she is a formidable opponent when her plan begins to form and she convinces the rest of the crew that they have chances of escaping. She becomes a strong protagonist against the now-villainous Robert.
Nanette’s plan relies heavily on an update patch for the game when realizing it would also affect Robert’s private game server. In the game, the patch appears as a wormhole in space. It would be their chance at being “deleted” and no longer having to act as players in his sick game. There’s a tense heist scene involving the real Nanette as she tries to steal the DNA Robert saved in his refrigerator and it’s pretty comical how she got convinced to do it.
It all comes to a close with a space chase complete with the crew of the Macallister racing against time to reach the closing wormhole. Reaching it means ceasing to exist but it’s also their freedom. At one point as they hurl desperately forward with Robert close behind a crew member states, “I hope we all die today.” as they smile and hold hands hopeful that their nightmare will soon be over.
This entry into the series is a little longer at 75 minutes. This is probably to help build up the tension in the climactic chase scene. It had a great mix of dark humor and witty nods to pop culture that made it fun to watch. The special effects are on par with a Netflix show and the space chase through the asteroid belt was pretty intense. There was also some CGI creature effects here are there that are used in a fun way (Not all of Robert’s coworkers are on the ship).
I liked the transformation of Robert from an unassuming loser to the realization he is a demented megalomaniac that could just as easily have ended up nothing more than an internet troll. Robert himself was the victim of bullying and it once again shows us how that vicious circle plays out time after time.
I’ll stop here before giving away the thrilling conclusion but feel free to let us know what you think of how it all ended. I really enjoyed this episode and I thought it was a great first entry into Season 4. Next time around I’ll be taking a look at episode two, Archangel. Get started watching Black Mirror today on Netflix.