Black Mirror: Season 4, Episode 1 – USS Callister

(SPOILER WARNING!)

I’m a huge fan of Charlie Brooker. His TV criticism, along with that of Clive James, is what inspired me to start writing this blog in the first place, way back in January of 2007. It’s a great shame he hasn’t done his usual review of the year, which would presumably have been titled 2017 Wipe, but the reason is that he’s been too hard at work on the latest series of his thought-provoking tech-dystopia anthology Black Mirror. All things considered, I think that’s a pretty fair exchange.

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I’ve written about Black Mirror before, though not since season 2 – I found myself unable to keep up with writing about everything interesting as I just didn’t have the time. Now, however, I’m freshly single, so time hangs heavy on my hands. So I’ve been binge-watching the new Netflix fourth season (binge-watching itself being a social evolution of tech that didn’t exist last time I wrote about the show), and can pontificate as much as I like.

Brooker’s still on writing duties (though often with co-writers), so the show’s varying balances of humour and darkness are much as before. What’s changed, with the addition of cash from Netflix, is a bigger budget, a wider range of settings, and perhaps most crucially, a doubled episode count per season. Those first two seasons, courtesy of Channel 4, were of three finely crafted eps each, with a run time of 90 minutes.

I was worried that the Netflix new parameters might have compromised the amount of thought that went into those early eps, but actually the show now has a flexibility that gives it even more freedom to explore Brooker’s pessimistic outlook on new tech. Apart from that increased budget, there’s the freedom of having no fixed running time per episode, which means that the script can spend just as long as it needs on each premise without being rushed or padded.

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This season’s opening offering, USS Callister, was nominally the lightest and funniest of this run. Being Black Mirror, though, much of the humour was as dark as you can imagine. It was, at least on the surface, a terrific parody of the original Star Trek, with Jesse Plemons delivering a pitch-perfect, merciless deconstruction of Captain Kirk as a needy, neurotic egomaniac with a desperate need to be worshipped. Actually that’s not so much a parody as a fairly accurate picture, but the script, together with Plemons’ frighteningly accurate Shatner impression, made it hilarious.

The dark twist, this being Black Mirror, was that Plemons’ fearless starship Captain was just a character he played in a virtual reality game, the real reality being that he was a humiliated workplace drone in a tech company (despite being the CTO). This didn’t come as much of a surprise – it’s a well-worn scenario, and even Black Mirror has more or less done VR to death.

But it was a brave move to reveal that this poor nebbish had been driven to become even more of a monster than his thoughtless, inconsiderate colleagues. Again, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to realise that his “crew” were in fact recreations of his actual colleagues, tailored so he could lord it over them. This is in fact the basis of an actual Star Trek episode, Hollow Pursuits, in which workplace nebbish Lt Barclay creates fawning replicas of the Enterprise’s senior officers to assuage his own insecurity. I’d be amazed if Brooker wasn’t aware of that one.

Again, though, it got nastier. In a series of clever, gradual reveals, we became aware that these characters were actually sentient, and had all the memories and personalities of their real counterparts. And it then became clear that Plemons’ character, CTO Robert Daly, was well aware of this, and had actually been torturing them both physically and psychologically to go along with his “game”.

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That’s pretty bleak (no surprise from Black Mirror). Lt Barclay comes out of Hollow Pursuits a little wiser and more confident, having caused no more harm than embarrassing Counsellor Troi and bruising Commander Riker’s considerable ego. Daly, on the other hand, finds his mind trapped in a collapsing virtual universe as his tortured characters rebel, still shrieking hatred at them. Fair to say, Next Gen is a little more optimistic than Black Mirror.

Bleak though it was, this was a fairly fluffy ep of the show, somewhat light on its usual thought-provoking questions about whether you would act any better in the same situation. What with the return of the actual Star Trek in its super-dark Discovery incarnation, along with Seth McFarlane’s Next Gen tribute The Orville, it felt quite timely though, and veteran Doctor Who director Toby Haynes was plainly having a ball recreating the look and feel of the original Trek, even down to computer-generated versions of the show’s wobbly model effects.

There were thought-provoking concepts here, about workplace bullying, about power dynamics and even sexism – you’ll never look at Kirk’s frequent kisses with his leading ladies in quite the same way. But perhaps unlike the show’s usual style, there was an ending that was actually optimistic. Having chosen virtual “death” via an update patch of the game, the artificial team found themselves “alive” in another virtual universe, free of the tyranny of their creator and free to go anywhere and do anything. All right, their first interaction with this universe is a snotty juvenile gamer (voiced by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), but that aside, it actually felt like a hopeful conclusion. Whether you think that really belongs in a Black Mirror episode is of course entirely subjective…