Review: Black Mirror 4×01 – USS Callister

Black Mirror kicks off another round of dystopian goodness with this ingenious Star Trek homage…

 

It’s typical, isn’t it? You wait over a decade for Star Trek to return to the small screen and then three separate series come along all at once. Following on from the official Star Trek: Discovery and Seth McFarlane’s loving spoof The Orville, Netflix’s sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror kicks off its fourth season with yet another homage to the adventures of Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise crew. Though, of course, this is Black Mirror so all is not what it seems…  

As with all the best BMs, “U.S.S. Callister” plays with our expectations at every turn. We begin with a classic Star Trek scenario, as a heroic captain defeats an evil alien and wins the admiration of his adoring crew. It is then soon revealed that this is all a virtual reality fantasy of Robert Daly, an underappreciated genius who is routinely mocked by his colleagues. Though his actions are a wee creepy, we can still sympatheise with Robert and feel for him when he meets friendly programmer Nanette Cole. However, it soon transpires that Daly’s game is far more sinister than it first appeared.

From here, writers Charlie Brooker and William Bridges prove their fanboy status by cleverly inverting an old Trek trope: that of the evil godlike entity that enslaves the crew. Here, however, the corrupt deity is the Kirk figure – as Robert Daly rules over his fake Space Fleet with an iron Fist. There’s also a touch of the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” to proceedings as Daly transforms those who displease him into anything he wants (poor Shania).

The ensemble cast does a lot of good work, with a special mention to Jimmi Simpson who is a blast as the cynical first mate Walden. However, those who deserve the most plaudits are Jesse Plemons and Cristin Miloti. Firstly, Plemons gives a first-rate William Shatner impression while in the game but then impresses as a shy, quietly sinister nerd in the real world. Miloti possibly steals the show, however. She makes Nanette smart, resilient and funny. I’d happily watch a spin-off watching her take on aliens and misogynistic nerds.

Speaking of which, through its premise, “U.S.S. Callister” also tackles some very timely themes of not only artificial intelligence and virtual reality but also sexism in gaming and powerful white men misusing their positions to torment their employees. Though it is clearly made with a lot of geeky love, the episode nevertheless acts as a message to fans to truly take the teachings of your favourite franchises on board. Something many irate fanboys out there could do well to remember.

 

Connections And Cameos:

  • Black Mirror episodes are often full of callbacks to previous installments that reveal how each one is set in the same universe. In “U.S.S. Callister” for example, the buds placed on the temple to connect someone to the Infinity are very similar to those that allowed Kelly and Yorkie to upload to a kind of afterlife in season 3’s “San Junipero.”
  • As for cameos, the episode has a couple of awesome ones. Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul can be heard as the angry gamer who talks to the Callister crew at the end of the episode. Meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst is seen among the Callister employees near the beginning. She wasn’t supposed to appear in the episode but just dropped by to see her fiance Jesse Plemons.

 

Rating:

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