It’s Christmas and probably time to revive this blog that has, for the past six months, gathered online dust in its unwarranted neglect. In 2018, I plan on keeping it as updated as I possibly can (or else my tendency to rant about the arts is directed at my friends who I’m sure by now have had their fill of my opinions). Black Mirror’s newest episodes were added to Netflix today so, inevitably, I will find myself slumped in a chair, immobile and mute to the world for the next week. The first and perhaps the most anticipated episode of the new series, USS Callister, is the best place to start. It’s a big-budget, feature-length dystopian pastiche of a genre that spawned generations of TV series and films. It references the kind of galactic drama that you’d skip past on channels like Dave without a second glance – only a writer like Charlie Brooker could make them relevant, elegant or, most impressively, scary again.
In the opening scene, we are introduced to the eponymous ship and its crew of sci-fi stereotypes. Naturally, a blue character steers the ship. She seems ubiquitous to the point of appearing compulsory in the context of this genre – an intentional spoof on the part of Brooker. As the space vessel’s loosely clad crew are thrown from side to side in frequent asteroid-dodging attempts, we are introduced to Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons). He is smooth, authoritarian and the commander of this ship. It’s worth mentioning that this entire scene unfolds rather satisfyingly in an aspect that is reminiscent of the 1960s space melodrama. It’s also particularly interesting to see that the female members of the vessel are required to give the Captain a quick snog after a completed mission – a reference to the antiquated, misogynistic trope common in bygone British sci-fi that men are the heroes and women are the damsels in distress. Daly, however, is not as smooth as the opening sequence might have you believe. In fact, the Captain only takes command of the USS Callister when he’s playing a version of an immersive game that he designed in his real life job at a computer game firm.
On board in his fantasy world, Daly is afforded a God-like status. It is revealed that the Space Fleet will play along with the Captain’s juvenile requests to keep him happy because, ultimately, he has a power that they don’t have. He can leave the game, they can’t. The on-board crew are all cloned colleagues from Daly’s office in real life; they are imprisoned in a virtual universe against their will. Having had their DNA swiped at work, facsimiles of their human counterparts were produced to suit their user’s needs.
Sound familiar? It should do, this episode is directly referential of plot points we’ve seen before on Black Mirror (never mind the Star Trek comparisons, they just scratch the surface). In White Christmas, the festive episode of Black Mirror first shown in 2014, we were introduced to the idea of clones or ‘cookies’ as their manufacturer described them. They fulfilled the menial tasks that their ‘owner’ wouldn’t bother doing themselves. In one circumstance, we saw a clone making toast, opening blinds, etc. This isn’t where the similarities end either, in that same episode, the cookie manufacturer who was played by Jon Hamm in the episode told one of the clones that they could operate the system by pressing any one of the buttons on the console in front of them, it didn’t matter which one. This was also the case with Nanette (Cristin Milioti), when flying the USS Callister. As well as referencing White Christmas, this episode also reminds us of the best episode of Black Mirror to date, Shut Up and Dance – our protagonist is blackmailed by an unknown number nostalgic of the anonymous abuser in the season three episode. Elsewhere, I think I even saw the computer firm’s receptionist on an app that looked similar to the one used in Nosedive for popularity seekers.
Aside from the clever references inserted throughout, the cast in USS Callister are phenomenal. Jesse Plemons fully convinces as both an introverted computer nerd and a 1960’s sci-fi trope. His occasional soliloquys on board the ship are characterised by an antiquated drawl reminiscent of the BBC’s wartime correspondents – he is both impressive and funny in this sense. Michaela Coel is brilliant and hilarious as always with a significant part that she uses to both amuse and terrify her audience – it’s good to see her as a proper character after her cameo in Nosedive. ALSO – she got to keep her British accent in this episode which is great when you think about Black Mirror’s Channel 4 days (the series was at its best when making up for a small budget with a great storyline). It has to be said, too, that while this is not the scariest episode ever, there are some incredibly dark and disturbing moments including a Kafka-esque metamorphosis. It’s sardonic and witty, but it never sacrifices those crucial, horrifying moments of revelation.
In truth, I wasn’t much looking forward to this episode – I tend to find things set in space boring. Yes, I know that’s an unpopular opinion. Star Wars, Star Trek, star whatever, I’ve never got the hype. So this one being set partly on Earth came as a great relief (and a surprise considering that none of those scenes were shown in the advertising). USS Callister is a visually stunning and entrancing thrill. I can say that with some certainty having watched it twice already.