**Black Mirror Season 4 Episode 1 Spoilers**
Black Mirror over the years has treated us to some excellent TV, sometimes falling along the lines of intended cliche, moral dilemmas, horror and in USS Callister’s case, empathy. Empathy will be something I discuss a lot in this review as it’s something which really intrigues me, the idea that uncontrolled revenge can often be worse than what the victim has actually been through themselves. That’s where conflict of emotions comes into play, which we’ll get into. Something like I Spit On Your Grave or Kill Bill is an example of a lead character who is treated disgustingly through one means or another and exacts revenge after they’ve hit their lowest point. Rooting for the underdog once they’ve been at the mercy of their torturer in a physical of mental sense is empowering for the viewer and good to watch, as we see the villains of the piece get their comeuppance, but where do we draw the line?
Referencing I Spit On Your Grave again, we see the lead character go through a terrible and traumatic experience and we hate the villains so much that watching unfathomable things happen to them is actually satisfying, which is surely messed up, or is it? Hatred and jealously is a natural emotion for a human to experience and we’re all forgiven for feeling it once and a while; and whilst I say it’s natural, acting on it is where our common sense comes into play. Just because we hate somebody or somebody wrongs us, it doesn’t mean we have the right to beat them up or worse, and the repercussions of this would be astronomical even if we were angered enough to act on these emotions. We have what I like to think of as a firewall in our brains which restricts (most) of us from doing insane things. We’ve all had that experience where we’ve stood on a high cliff or looked over a balcony and thought “If I wanted to I could just jump off this” and of course we don’t because that would be insane. Or just somebody’s done something to hurt one of our family members, or wrong us in some way, we’re not going to go “end them” for God’s sake! The firewall stops us due to the repercussions or compassion we feel as humans. USS Callister explores somebody who is absolutely broken and slightly unhinged mentally who does act on these feelings and whilst some films like the aforementioned, have you rooting for the underdog, episode 1 season 4 of Black Mirror, really doesn’t.
The first episode of the fourth series, written by Charlie Brooker and William Bridges and directed by Toby Haynes gives us a taste of how it feels to sympathise with a monster, whilst also rooting for his puppets. This isn’t uncommon in modern day TV and film (Game of Thrones does it amazingly), but what USS Callister does best is conflict your reasoning and empathy towards every character in the show. We follow the lead character Robert Daly, an expert coder who has dedicated his life and career to creating a giant gaming MMO (Massively multiplayer online game) which sees people enter a fully immersive VR gaming platform where they can completely lose themselves in a reality skinned to their choice. Unfortunately we don’t get to see much of this game in action, as what we experience is Robert Daly’s offline version of the game, which he has modded, himself. We’ll get into that shortly.
Robert Daly is a complex character and as with most people who struggle socially, whilst he’s great at what he does, he’s not quite there in terms of leading people and running a business, so whilst he’s the brains of the outfit, his partner and co-founder Walton generally runs the show and is the face of the company, Infinity. Daly’s stumbling antics and awkwardness around his co-workers see them mock him on a regular basis and really makes you feel for the character. He wants to be loved and he wants to be respected, but he doesn’t have the fire in him that his partner Walton does, which cleverly convinces you is the reasoning behind why his character turns so dark. And when I say dark, it gets very dark. In his office environment, he’s a joke who people avoid, laugh at a talk about behind his back, so when he’s home his only real choice is to take himself out of his miserable reality and immerse himself into his own modded version of his game Infinity, skinned as his favourite old school TV Show, Space Fleet (a Star Trek homage, clearly).
By using a simple disk which attaches to the temple, you become unconscious and integrated into the game, but there’s always a link to the outside world, for example if you were to hear the telephone, door or somebody tapped you on the shoulder, the in-game version of your can simply pause the game and enter back into the real world. So it all seems pretty simple, but what Daly has also done is hook up a gadget which when given DNA to process, can clone and create a human replica, including consciousness and spit it out into his Space Fleet universe. There’s been a lot online about the science behind this, as clearly using DNA to clone something is not going to also copy over consciousness, but this is Black Mirror and sometimes you have to realise, that it’s less about the detail and more about the bigger picture, and that isn’t me glossing over it, it’s a fact which is also intended by the writers. Their message to the viewer is not about how to become the perfect science engineer, it’s more about the repercussions of what could happen if such science existed.
We mentioned Daly’s partner and co-founder Walton, who is a complete arse to him on daily basis (see what I did there?) and many other characters in the workplace are also either very dismissive of him, rude to him, or simply aren’t working hard enough for him; including company reps Shania and Valdack, receptionist Elena, intern Nate and computer whizz Kabir. What Daly does is use DNA from coffee cup samples and other weird means of acquisition and clones these people into his game where suddenly he has the power, he is God. He uses them to build back up his broken self-esteem by being the boss in this make-believe Space Fleet game. Here he’s leader and taunts them if they do something wrong or punishes them if they make a mistake, just like what happens to him in the real world. He only really does to them what they’ve done to him in real life, but it does end up spiralling out of control when he meets new employee Nanette Cole, a coder who is a massive fan of his work and really seems smitten by him. You get the feeling that Nanette is the first person in years who has treated him well and actually respects what he’s built, but when she meets Shania who warns her how much a creep Daly is, he hears the whole thing and it leads to Nanette isolating him and avoiding him like the others.
So what does Daly do? Coffee cup time. He uses her DNA and integrates a perfect clone of her into his game, which gains him control over her as with the others. It’s then that we find out that the ship crew in Daly’s Space Fleet game have been in there for years and also have consciousness. They remember their outside world and have come to terms over however many months and years, that they are just clones of their real life selves. They’ve learnt that Daly will punish them for not playing along with his little games and if they step out of line, the threat of not being part of his “play” is far worse. He uses torture techniques to make crew members suffer whilst not dying and promises eternal suffering to those who won’t play ball and Nanette finds this out he hard way in a few scenes including one where he removes her face leaving her gasping for air and threatens it to be never ending. There’s some dramatic irony that he knows all about his co-worker’s clones and their real life selves just go about their daily routine without ever knowing that he’s used their DNA to recreate them for his sick little out of office games and the invasion of privacy here is extreme.
Something else notable is that none of the clones have genitalia, which I found interesting as I thought his character was a little childish. His obsession with Space Fleet, his lack of ability to have an adult conversation. Even the scenarios he dreams up in his version of Infinity are a little childish, think back to “Look a naked lady”. There was never anything sexual or perverted about his intentions, let’s make that clear. It was always about power and control, which he has when he was in the game. Daly does however over step the mark quite a lot more and that’s when you see the real depth to how dark this character is. When he doesn’t have control, Daly flips and tortures the clones as mentioned but none more so than Walton, who recites a story to the rest of the crew about when he was first integrated into the game. Using DNA from real life Walton’s, real life son Tommy’s lollypop, he clones Tommy into his game and mentally tortures Walton but shooting the boy out into space and forcing Walton to watch. This was perhaps the darkest part of the episode, as we see poor Walton screaming helplessly as his son is obliterated by the pressure of being released into space. Daly threatens to do this to Walton as many times as it will take until he plays ball, and of course Walton does. Suddenly as the viewer, you feel that the line has been completely crossed by this point and are no longer rooting for underdog any more and more for the helpless clones who have been thrown into a torturous situation they’re unable to break away from.
Anyway, moving along, Nanette figures out a plan to escape through a wormhole which has been created by an update for the game. If they can make it through the wormhole before update is completed and the hole closes, they’ll leave the current old version of the game behind and be transported to somewhere else, or simply obliterated. Death at this point seems an amazing option to the entire crew as opposed to the endless games and torture at the hands of Daly. Nanette distracts Daly in-game and the crew communicate with the outside world using the device Daly uses to pause and exit the game. They succeed in this by blackmailing her real life self, threatening to release nudes from her iCloud if she doesn’t break into Daly’s house and steal the DNA he keeps in a mini-fridge next to his desk. Nanette knows her real self would do anything to stop hackers releasing these images and real life Nanette succeeds in doing this by calling a pizza to Daly’s door, which means he pauses the game and she’s able to sneak in the back and steal the DNA. It’s here we see a slightly douche bag side to real life Daly too, as he gets a free pizza but fails to tip the pizza guy, leaving a Do Not Disturb message on his door. He resumes game but the crew are already on course to the worm hole. Daly uses his transport ship to chase the crew down but is not quick enough to catch them as they escape. Daly is left in his in-game world as the wormhole closes and we realise that he was so hellbent in catching his crew that he failed to exit the game in time, for it to then be deleted completely and replaced by the new update. He screams “End Game” countless times but nothing happens, as his real life self lays limp and unconscious in his computer chair at home. We never find out what happens to Daly but it’s safe to assume there is a high possibility that he dies. We think back to the Do Not Disturb sign on his door, to the 10 day break the company has just started for Christmas and the fact we left to assume he’s a very lonely guy with no family or friends. He’s left at his computer with no food or water for 10 days and no way for his in-game self to release him from the game’s shackles. It’s a grim end to a very grim character.
Meanwhile the crew lead by Nanette end up in the new updated version of the game, where they encounter a real life player in Infinity who trash talks them before they escape. A bit of trivia, the gaming trash talker is actually Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), which is a random but fun fact. We lead to believe that they continue to exist in their own little world (the newly updated game, Infinity) but no longer in the shackles of a madman and back in control of their own lives, all be it limited to the game itself.
Overall I really enjoyed USS Callister and it was a nice change to see the good guys win but more importantly got me thinking about empathy towards people. Like all Black Mirror episodes it helps give you a different perspective on certain things and I respect Charlie Brooker and his team immensely for consistently doing just that. I’ve said and done thing to people in the past which i regret and some things I’m not proud of and I’m sure some people feel the same about how they’ve treated me, it’s human nature. But what I will say is that I’m glad none of them is a super gaming coder who has the ability to clone me and torture me in their sick and twisted little game… or have they? Or have I?