Warning: Major Spoilers for Black Mirror Season 4 Episode 1: USS Callister. I’m going to reveal the whole plot. If you haven’t seen it and you plan to, come back after. And if you don’t watch Black Mirror, start immediately (I would start with S1: Episode 2: “Fifteen Million Merits” but it’s your call).
Okay, now that that’s out of the way. “USS Callister” is the eagerly awaited first episode of season 4 of Charlie Brooker’s unparalleled “Black Mirror” series. All we knew going in is that it was some kind of Star Trek parody, so no one knew quite what to expect.
What we got was a classic Sci Fi trope of the weak, mild-mannered, bullied guy who suddenly is gifted with great power and uses it to terrorize everybody. It’s poetically appropriate as it’s the kind of idea that was seen in genre shows of this era, like “The Twilight Zone,” and the original “Star Trek” itself, but of course, with that Black Mirror twist that it’s modern technology that is causing all the problems.
In “U.S.S. Callister,” Jesse Plemons, who really is a tremendously, tremendously gifted actor, plays Robert Daly, a former digital wunderkind who has created the INFINITY game engine, a state-of-the-art MMORPG (Massive multiplayer online role-playing game), which is all the rage. Think “World of Warcraft,” but Sci-Fi and better. Of course, being the creative type, he is mostly relegated to the background of his company “Callister,” which is built around the game, while his partner, the marketing genius, CEO and face of the company, James Walton, played by Jimmi Simpson, gets all the credit and glory. While Walton is worshipped, Daly gets little respect from his employees, who don’t seem to understand that all of their jobs only exist because of his genius.
But this is not how we first meet Robert Daly. The story cleverly opens in a Star Trek-style pastiche scenario, where “Captain” Daly, sporting a classic Shatner-esque Captain Kirk accent, is leading his crew on a bridge that looks suspiciously like that of the Starship Enterprise through a perilous conflict. Captain Daly naturally wins the day, to the considerable admiration of the crew, at which point, Captain Daly says “Exit Game,” and we are in Robert Daly’s apartment, where we learn that the entire scenario took place in a special “Space Fleet (this world’s version of the actual Star Trek)” mod of the Infinity engine that Daly has sealed off from the online game universe for his own private amusement.
So far so good, right? Our introverted tech genius spends his spare time pretending to be a space hero in a virtual world video game, no harm, no foul. But of course, in Black Mirror, like The Twilight Zone before it, things are not always as they seem.
We get another look at Daly’s real life, and it’s easy to see why he prefers the game. At one point, a new coder arrives, in the form of Cristin Milioti’s Nanette Cole, who is in awe of Daly and his own coding genius. Daly’s awkward appreciation of Cole’s adulation is short lived, as Walton quickly arrives to sweep Cole off her feet, and Daly later overhears another co-worker, Lowry (Michaela Coel) basically telling Cole to give Daly a wide berth because he’s a bit of a creeper (don’t worry, she’ll get hers later. Sort of.)
Frustrated by his impotence, Daly steals a bit of Nanette’s DNA from a coffee cup. Why? To create a digital doppelganger to put in his game, where he has ultimate control. We then meet the digital Cole, who, like Jon Hamm’s hapless victim in “The Black Mirror Christmas Special,” seems to feel as if she is just as real as the IRL original.
As “Lieutenant Cole” meets the other residents of the digital U.S.S. Callister, we learn that everyone in the game feels just like their real life counterparts, being forced by Daly to role play for his amusement, on penalty of being subjected to horrible punishments like being forced to asphyxiate but never die, or being turned into a horrible, slobbering monster trapped on a barren planet.
Cole, who we soon come to realize is our hero, is undaunted by the godlike threat, and devises a plan to save the stalwart crew, involving communicating with and blackmailing her real world self (who has no way of understanding her digital counterpart’s predicament), into aiding them by threatening to expose the sensitive photos on her hacked “PhotoCloud,” account.
After some harrowing detours, Cole’s plan, to steer the ship into a “wormhole” (actually an update patch) and join the isolated game mod with the rest of the online Infinity universe, not only works, but frees the digital copies to explore the new universe on their own, while trapping the real Daly in his rogue mod, which is deleted by the system with him in it, leaving the real Daly a comatose, drooling mess at his computer chair at home, locked into the game, where he will no doubt be long dead before he is discovered, as everyone is away on Christmas holiday.
So, a fairly upbeat conclusion for a Black Mirror story, right? The heroes escape with their lives and freedom, while the villain is condemned to a horrible fate. Early praise for the episode touches not only on how expertly the creators poke fun at some classic sci-fi tropes, but in the way the episode allows a female character who is normally resigned to just what her digital copy was meant to, an object designed to reflect the glory of the main, male character, to actually break out and be the hero of the story.
The few critics of the episode so far seem to have complaints with the same issue. They don’t care for the portrayal of Star Trek as simply another vehicle for predatory, white males to self-aggrandize, and feel that turning the nerdy coder into an immoral, evil bully inside is just bringing us back to the pre-Bill Gates days when smart introverts were mercilessly picked on.
I would like to set all that aside, however, and ask this question:
Is Robert Daly really the villain of this piece? That assumption is predicated on the idea that the digital Cole and all the characters in the virtual world have real consciousness, and there’s no real reason for Daly to believe that this is the case.
If the “Callister” characters really are just digital copies, what’s the harm in what Daly is doing? After all, Grand Theft Auto players allegedly beat prostitutes by the score on a daily basis and no one seems to think they are evil. Allegedly. I’ve played my fair share of open-world crime action games and I don’t even think it’s possible to beat prostitutes in most of them. I’ve certainly never seen a situation where it had any game utility. But the fact remains that there are many video games where you are encouraged to explore your dark side, killing, beating, stealing and generally doing bad stuff to digital people, and everyone understands that it’s just a game. When I was a kid playing with action figures, I would on occasion have them do horrible things to each other (NO RAPE), and I never gave much thought to what the consequences were for the figures themselves. Of course, the action was all taking place in my mind, but in a way, the same is true for Daly. Granted, stealing people’s DNA to make a game copy of them for your personal use is an inappropriate invasion of privacy, but I wouldn’t exactly elevate it to the level of monstrous behavior.
How is excoriating Daly for his actions any different from the old crusaders who said that kids who played Dungeons & Dragons were budding Satanists, or, more recently, detractors of games like Grand Theft Auto claiming it encourages violence? If you want to be a son of a bitch in your virtual world so you can be nice to everyone in the real one, isn’t that preferable to the alternative?
Again, it comes down to whether the characters in the digital world are real, and the idea of artificial intelligence being sentient is not a new one. I’ve actually addressed it before. And for we, the audience, to perceive the crew of the U.S.S. Callister as “real” is inescapable. After all, no one in the stories we see on T.V. dramas are actually “real.” When Negan bashes in the head of our favorite character on “The Walking Dead,” we are horrified. We want that character to escape their fate, even though we know at the end of the day that the physical entity who received that killing blow is now sitting comfortably on their couch at home, or filling out the skin of a new character on some other drama. So out of the nature of the play-watching experience, we feel that digital Cole and her counterparts are real, we want them to succeed, we fear they will fail.
But it is fair to hold Robert Daly to the same standard? Yes, his digital characters behave with autonomy. They “believe” they are real. Walton even makes a reference to “sentient code.” But might that not just be a reflection of how great Daly is at his job? His is after all, a rogue program, a sandbox; the characters are not meant to behave the way characters in the live online game behave. If he believes, as he has every right to, that his characters are still nothing more than very clever bits of digital code, is he really such a monster?
Submitted for your approval: Computer genius Robert Daly, who tried to create a closed-off game world in which he could sublimate his baser influences, and instead became a victim of accidentally self-created malware, a Trojan Horse program that hacks people’s online photos unbidden, introduces unapproved code into the main game and then deletes itself without a trace, trapping its creator inside, leaving him to a horrible fate, “buried alive” in his own body, the kind of nightmare that could only happen through a Black Mirror. Or perhaps, in the Twilight Zone.