USS Callister is the best Black Mirror episode made in the series so far; here's why
SPOILER ALERT: This article is based on some of the most crucial plot points from the episode USS Callister in Black Mirror Season 4.
Black Mirror Season 4 is one of the best things to watch on the small screen right now. But compared to the earlier Black Mirror seasons, writer Charlie Brooker’s latest take on futuristic technology and its effects on human behaviour is a bit of a let-down.
Originality, one of Black Mirror’s greatest strengths, takes a back seat in many of the episodes. For example, Metalhead — undoubtedly the weakest of all Black Mirror episodes so far — is just a rehashed version of The Terminator, except the Terminator is a robot dog. Crocodile is basically like a much darker Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the future. And Arkangel’s message about parenting is far too obvious.
So, what makes Black Mirror Season 4 great?
While Hang the DJ does offer a unique and intriguing perspective on romance, it is an episode like Black Museum which truly offers the kind of gripping, audacious ideas about pain and consciousness which we expect from Black Mirror. Black Museum is one of the best Black Mirror episodes made.
But the best episode in Season 4 is USS Callister.
In fact, USS Callister is the best Black Mirror episode ever made.
Yes, USS Callister is even (slightly) better than Emmy Award-winning San Junipero, the show’s beautiful and optimistic take on technology.
The temptation of playing God
There is nothing as seductive as the idea of omnipotence.
While the more casual theme of USS Callister is the abuse of power, it is when you start wondering whether you yourself would abuse power that the main message of the episode is revealed and things start to get really interesting (and disturbing).
In the episode, Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) is actually a mild-mannered, nice guy in real life. You feel bad for him when you see the timid Daly being bullied or mocked by his colleagues at his workplace.
Suddenly, it is revealed that Daly has a secret world. He has his own adapted version of the virtual reality online game called Infinity, populated by the digital clones of his colleagues. He has also designed to make it look like Space Fleet, an old TV show (and Black Mirror’s hilarious parody of Star Trek). But most importantly, Daly controls everything in that universe.
On the USS Callister, Robert Daly is God (or so he thinks). And he misuses this power to torment, torture and even sexually assault the digital clones of his colleagues. In that universe, the tables are turned. Daly turns into the villain and the viewers find themselves sympathising with the digital clones.
But something strange happens towards the end of the episode. As you see Daly collapsed in his chair in real life after his consciousness is eternally trapped in the game, you can’t help but again feel bad for the character, despite knowing how depraved he was in the game.
It’s at this point that the episode asks you the most crucial question:
If you were omnipotent, what would you do?
Critic Todd VanDerWerff, in this Vox article, says, “'I, perhaps, recognised just enough of myself in him (Daly), and that must be Brooker and Bridges’s nastiest trick.”
It is this point about human nature which makes this episode so special. It is able to accomplish something which even remarkable shows like Westworld have not done as well:
USS Callister makes you identify with evil more than any other Black Mirror episode.
It is, of course, a terribly unsettling thought. And this is primarily why USS Callister is even better than the magnificent San Junipero. If that episode (arguably the second-best Black Mirror episode) was exceptional because of its convincingly optimistic portrayal of futuristic technology in a show which usually obsesses about dystopia caused by technology, USS Callister is the best Black Mirror episode mainly because it makes you question your very own character like no other episode.
A strong female lead
All the episodes in Black Mirror Season 4 stand out because of the presence of strong, complex female protagonists/antagonists.
But what separates Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) from other female protagonists in any other Black Mirror episode is that in USS Callister, she is fighting spiritedly against toxic masculinity of the worst kind in a situation in which doing so will have unimaginably horrible consequences for her.
At a time when shocking accounts of sexual assault in Hollywood are coming out and the #MeToo campaign exposed just how deep the problem of assault goes across countries, Cole represents the woman who is tirelessly fighting against a society which is hell-bent on being patriarchal.
Milioti portrays her character’s utter disgust at the male dominance she is being forced to bow down to with strong conviction. Brooker and Bridges’ genius also shows in the way the character has been written.
Cole initially makes fun of the revealing clothes which female characters in space adventure TV shows have to wear (looking at you, old Star Trek/Star Wars movies), only to be placed in a situation in which she now has to fight to escape the fate of exactly those characters.
May the farce be with you
It has earlier been pointed out in another Firstpost article how most mainstream space adventure movie franchises have childish themes and have become (or have always been) nothing but money-making machines.
Yet another reason to admire USS Callister is the way it parodies those movies.
Plemons’ sharp performance ensures that viewers never forget about the narcissism of the protagonist in such movies. From the low, fuzzy video quality of the opening sequence to the cheesy soundtrack in many scenes, the episode mocks most of the elements of a typical 70s space adventure movie.
In fact, most of the episode’s dark humour is based on such parody. The hilarious scene in which Daly, the hero of his own game, faces the Klingon-ish ‘villain’ Valdack (Billy Magnussen) and tries to distract him by pretending to have seen a “naked lady” is the prime example of such humour. It also shows how predictable some of the so-called plot twists in mainstream science fiction films have become.
Apart from Daly and Cole, the other characters — when playing along with Daly in his Space Fleet fantasies — also make a strong point by pretending to be hollow, one-dimensional characters.
It is here that Jimmi Simpson’s performance makes all the difference. Walton, his character, is actually one of the most layered characters in the episode. But he knows that when he is playing along in Daly’s fantasy, he is supposed to be the dim-witted sidekick who is easily scared.
USS Callister, apart from offering an honest perspective on human nature, also asks its viewers to raise their standards for science fiction, especially space adventure movies.
Updated Date: Dec 30, 2017 10:43:49 IST
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