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Black Mirror’s “USS Callister” turns white guy nerd fantasies into a terrifying trap

A man obliterates the fine line between loving something and fetishizing it.

Black Mirror
Is that Star Trek? Not quite. It just looks like it.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This article is a recap of Black Mirror’s season four episode “USS Callister.” It contains spoilers and discussion regarding the episode’s plot.

“USS Callister” is maybe the most hopeful Black Mirror episode this side of “San Junipero.” The premise: Everybody will be happier after white men die.

The white men who are good will bravely sacrifice ourselves so that the people of color and women might live. The white men who are terrible will have our minds wiped by our rage and desire to possess those we feel have slighted us. (Okay, I guess the handsome, lunkhead jock gets to survive. A victory for white mankind!)

This is normally the point at which I get a bunch of emails taking me to task for reading themes of racial and gender representation into a work that didn’t require it, except everything I just described is the text of “USS Callister,” right down to the rage-filled white nerd whose mind is destroyed by a video game.

What’s more, “USS Callister” was co-written by one powerful white guy (Charlie Brooker, who became well-known thanks to his writing about video games) and directed by another (Toby Haynes). (I could not tell you the race of a co-writer, William Bridges, so I won’t speculate.) And I should mention that I, your humble critic, am also a white man.

All I’m saying is 2017 is wild.

“USS Callister” savages the limitations of nerd imagination

Black Mirror
Nanette finds herself in a very strange predicament.

To be fair, I don’t think the writers of “USS Callister” believe that society’s ills would be solved by the disappearance of all white men. Charlie Brooker is too much of a cynic to ever think there’s an easy solution to anything.

But there are very good reasons the episode paints the seemingly mild-mannered genius programmer Bob (Jesse Plemons) as the very worst sort of human being, who literally desires to possess the people in his office, but especially his cute new coworker, Nanette (Cristin Milioti).

Nanette loves Bob’s code, and it’s not hard to think, in the early going of “Callister,” that it might be about Bob coming out of his shell, or leaving behind his nerdy affection for the obvious Star Trek ripoff Space Fleet, into which he invests many hours each night, playing a hacked online virtual reality simulation of the cheesy ’60s series.

Except no, not really. Bob is stealing the DNA of his coworkers, feeding it into his computer, then introducing digital clones of all of them into the world of the USS Callister, the USS Enterprise of Space Fleet.

He doesn’t want to get to know Nanette, or even go out with her. He wants to possess her, and the boss he feels humiliated by, and the receptionist who never greets him as effusively as he’d like, and the underling he never pays attention to. The world, for Bob, isn’t one of infinite possibility. It’s one of infinite disrespect.

I should be clear here that the incredibly lacerating portrayal of Bob feels like a Brooker special. Brooker often lays most heavily into the cynical geeks he could have been a member of, but for the fact that he created a massively popular TV show (or two). And as a slightly-less-cynical-but-still-pretty-cynical geek myself, I cringed a bit at Bob.

Bob’s sexlessness, for instance, felt a little strange. Why would he want all of his creations to be sans genitals, other than the writers’ need to eliminate as much horrifying sexual content from an already horrifying scenario as possible?

Yet I’ll admit to feeling a little upset when the episode ended with his mind wiped and forever trapped in a rogue universe of his own creation, one deleted by the endless possibility of a world open to everyone. It felt cruel to me to close him off from that possibility, but, then, Black Mirror often does feel cruel, and if any of its characters is a stone-cold villain, it’s Bob. I, perhaps, recognized just enough of myself in him, and that must be Brooker and Bridges’s nastiest trick.

The most savage takedown in “USS Callister” isn’t even its depiction of white guy nerds’ toxic sense of entitlement because they’ve become so lost in pop culture. It’s the portrayal of their lack of imagination.

Something like Space Fleet was so seemingly catered to Bob’s desires that he doesn’t aim to improve upon it, or bend it, or subvert it. He longs to slavishly recreate it, then disappear into it as its protagonist. He doesn’t want to be an author; he wants to become part of the canon.

This is why the depiction of clone Nanette, a smart programmer herself who immediately starts fucking with Bob’s plans when she pops up in a scenario where he’s a literal god, is so important to the episode’s ultimate success.

Nanette has to adhere to certain elements of Space Fleet canon — how the technology works, for instance — and has to work around the fact that Bob’s centrality to this scenario allows her only so much latitude. But she immediately starts crafting fanfiction within a universe she’s just coming to understand, learning how to write her own stories, with herself at the helm.

And her reward for it is a whole other universe, one full of infinite possibilities, where she isn’t just a digital puppet but someone who has her first taste of free will — once she jets away from an enraged gamer (voiced, in a cheeky cameo, by Aaron Paul), of course. Everywhere you go, foul-tempered dudes are there to ruin your fun.

It’s impossible to play video games and not have some of the thoughts that spurred “USS Callister”

Black Mirror
Yeah, it’s basically Star Trek.

I have no idea how much of themselves Brooker, Bridges, and Haynes see in Bob, but I find it almost impossible to think that Brooker, especially, hasn’t been thinking about the ideas that animate “USS Callister” for a very long time. It’s almost impossible to play any sandbox video game — or maybe any video game — where you build something miniature and watch little simulated people walk around in it and not wonder if, on some level, they’re real people.

You know, for instance, that the denizens of the little houses in The Sims aren’t actual people, but I’ve always felt that brief twinge of wrongdoing when I yank away the ladders as they swim, ready to watch them drown with no way to get out of the pool. (Also good: Setting a room on fire and removing the door.)

Black Mirror is perpetually interested in inhumanity, and “USS Callister” is interested in the early days of digital sentience, in people who are people but maybe seem like they should be slaves, because you can’t be “real” if you live inside a computer, right?

This is perhaps why I like “USS Callister” but don’t quite think it achieved everything it set out to do. I have no idea, for example, how the cloning technology, which seems to insert Bob’s coworkers with their full memories intact, is supposed to work.

Another problem: Nanette, Bob, and the CEO played by Jimmi Simpson — who profited off Bob’s code without really cutting him in and, thus, is doomed to be tormented endlessly in the Space Fleet reality — are fleshed out, but the other characters are mostly quick sketches. They exist mostly to serve the episode’s symbolic ends and little else. (Also very strange: Bob turns one minor character into a monster, which feels like it’s supposed to mean something but then is largely ignored by the episode.)

Similarly, a mid-episode complication involving a young boy who exists (or maybe doesn’t) within Space Fleet reality mostly just extends the episode’s running time past the hour mark (thus allowing it to compete as a TV movie at the Emmys). It drives home that Bob is horrible, but that’s something I was already on board with.

“USS Callister” does better in shifting its focus from Bob to Nanette when she arrives in the simulation, the way the center of the story’s gravity shifts to her. I like the elaborate escape plan at the episode’s end, too, which has the form and function of a movie prison break, but like no other movie prison break you’ve seen, given that it involves two planes of reality.

And I love Plemons’s performance, which blends a surprisingly great William Shatner riff with a slow-building sense of odiousness. Plemons, outside of his somewhat unconvincing work on Breaking Bad, has mostly played good dudes; “USS Callister” made me think he has a full Bryan Cranston-style villain in him.

Mostly, I liked how much fun everybody making “USS Callister” is clearly having with creating a Star Trek riff, but also tweaking it just enough to serve their own ends. I called the episode hopeful because it depicts a world largely free from the toxic influence of white men who mean well, but only when they get their way.

The episode is kept from becoming a sociopolitical screed in the way Brooker, Bridges, and Haynes broaden that depiction. Those left unspared include white men who fancy ourselves allies and everybody who has ever failed to question the righteousness of their power over others, which is to say, almost everybody alive.

Watching “USS Callister,” I couldn’t help recalling the simulated universe hypothesis, the idea that we might live inside a digital universe, on a computer in some other universe, which might be on a computer in some other universe, and on, ad infinitum. Were this to ever be proved as our reality (and it’s, I should say, distinctly unlikely that we do live in a simulation — nor would it matter for our ethics and morality if we did), we would always be looking for a giant hand to come down and pluck out our ladders while we were having a swim.

“USS Callister” has it truer than most depictions of this idea, I think. If we create miniature digital people, they will have our best impulses and our worst ones. They will reflect everything we are. We might create some universe existing within this one, hoping it will right our wrongs, only to be bitterly disappointed when new men are created in the image of new gods.

We might look to a universe above us to see bitter, frustrated men, who don’t quite catch their reflections in their bitter, frustrated creations — an endless continuum of male frustration, all the way up and all the way down. And, standing beside, the many people who have to live with us.