Black Mirror Uses Star Trek Tropes to Critique Male Nerd Fantasies

The worst part about Black Mirror’s Star Trek homage “USS Callister” is that for ten minutes, I felt sorry for Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons). Despite being CTO of a major company making the best in immersive space adventures through the game Infinity, he is nonetheless recognized as neither a leader nor any sort of admirable man. Softspoken, awkward, downtrodden, he inspires no small measure of pity, and enough sympathy that we viewers don’t begrudge him his forays into simulated space. Plugged into a VR experience hearkening back to his beloved science fiction series Space Fleet, he is Captain Daly, a Kirk lookalike in charm and talk: suave, brilliant, courageous, beloved, victorious. In a complete 180 from how he’s treated in real life, he gets to live out his fantasies of being a hero. What’s the harm in that?

Spoilers for Black Mirror’s “USS Callister.”

Daly’s existence is the character arc we’ve been fed in countless narratives: the misunderstood (often white) man, ignored, underestimated, unappreciated. In this case, he co-founded Callister and created the code and universe for Infinity, yet his buddy Walton (Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson) takes all the credit for the company’s success and enjoys those rewards, while Daly toils away in the literal and figurative backend. Yet not even there does he have any control over his staff; his developers walk all over him, the female employees giggle behind his back at his absence of charm and self-assuredness, and he’s not even the beta to Walton’s alpha; he’s so far down the pecking order that his employees forget that he’s actually their boss. All he wants to do is make Infinity great, yet he gets no appreciation. This archetype has become so ubiquitous that we as audiences fill in the emotional gaps: Poor guy, there must be a reason that he is so inept at engaging with his peers. Good for him—he’s created his own way to fit in, even if it’s another world. He’s brought so many people joy with creating Infinity, of course he deserves his own happiness.

Black Mirror "USS Callister" television review Star Trek homage tropes critique male nerd fantasies

Thankfully, because this is Black Mirror, at the ten-minute mark of a 74-minute episode (its longest this season), Charlie Brooker reminds us that it’s not technology that’s the problem, it’s the people using it. There is a breathless moment, in which Daly snaps on a pair of gloves and fishes a coworker’s coffee out of the trash, that his seemingly harmless awkwardness solidifies into full-on creepitude. Space Fleet isn’t Daly just playing around in a VR game populated by bots that happen to resemble his officemates; he has systematically stolen their DNA and uploaded self-aware, sentient digital copies of real people to his own private server not connected to the larger Infinity universe. His “loyal crew” are his prisoners, trapped in an eternal pocket universe playing out the fantasies of an asshole god. Suddenly the forced cries of “hip hip, hooray!”, the female crew members swooning into Daly’s arms for his expected celebratory kisses, and the neverending loop of inane Space Fleet plotlines take on a sinister tint.

Black Mirror "USS Callister" television review Star Trek homage tropes critique male nerd fantasies

This is Daly’s playground, and these are his toys.

Or, in fanfiction terms: This is Daly’s work in progress (WIP), one in which he is the Gary Stu. That’s the male equivalent of a Mary Sue, the ultimate self-insertion character who can do no wrong. The Space Fleet pocket universe is a masturbatory (figuratively, since there are no genitals in Space Fleet) fantasy in which he is the brightest, the strongest, the bravest, and most importantly, invincible—but it’s also self-preservation, a precaution against a crew who would gladly murder him on an away mission or when he goes AFK to answer the door for the pizza delivery man. Robert Daly may be trod upon by his subordinates and superiors alike, but Captain Daly cannot be defeated.

Black Mirror "USS Callister" television review Star Trek homage tropes critique male nerd fantasies

Until, that is, he brings in his shiniest new toy. Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) is a brilliant coder, and Daly’s biggest fan to boot. With this adoring new hire looking for a mentor figure, his real life should be looking up… until his officemates, like chatty customer service rep Shania (Michaela Coel), warn Nanette away from her awkward boss. So it’s into Space Fleet for her, and that’s when “USS Callister” switches from being Daly’s story to Nanette’s, as she cycles through disbelief, horror, and panic to anger and resolve to escape.

Interestingly, Nanette is very much not a Mary Sue. There’s a moment where her character seems that she could lean that way, in her simple but noteworthy exchange with developer-turned-diagnostics crew member Dudani (Paul G. Raymond) about hacking into Daly’s program. “You won’t hack it,” he says. “I’ve tried.” She just looks at him: “I haven’t.”

Black Mirror "USS Callister" television review Star Trek homage tropes critique male nerd fantasies

Photo: Jonathan Prime/Netflix

It’s the kind of self-assured statement that is usually followed by a Mary Sue listing her dozens of other accomplishments, or what singular training/Chosen One-ness has granted her this ability. But that’s not the case here; Nanette is a brilliant coder, yes, but just as she says about Daly, a coder is not a god, a coder is fallible. This Nanette, the copy in the Space Fleet simulation, responds to the crushing news that they can’t escape with rashness, with a blind need for action that doesn’t take into account how her plan could fall apart—and that’s thanks to real-world Nanette, who is too trusting of her idol Daly to believe that the message she receives (HELP PEOPLE TRAPPED IN ROBERT DALY’S GAME) is real, and who asks him about it outright instead of suspecting that something might be wrong. Real-world Nanette is more easily manipulated than Space Fleet Nanette, which initially hamstrings the trapped crew but then also delivers their salvation in the episode’s best little twist:

What saves them, and what dismantles Daly’s private universe, is revenge porn.

It’s an audacious move by Brooker and co-writer William Bridges, who also penned last season’s shocking episode “Shut Up and Dance.” In that episode, victims are blackmailed with incriminating photos or information into performing a series of tasks, from seemingly innocuous stuff like delivering a cake to desperate fights to the death. The spoiler in that case is that Kenny, the hapless teenager whose awful day we follow, actually deserves to be put through the wringer for watching child pornography.

But in Nanette’s case, she didn’t do anything wrong; the photos were private, from a lost weekend with a forgotten ex-boyfriend. It’s not even clear if her ex saved the photos, as Space Fleet Nanette hacks into her own photo cloud to produce the incriminating evidence; even when Nanette is the sole owner of the photos, they’re still used against her. The male crew members don’t understand how this could ever be enough leverage, but Space Fleet Nanette grimly responds, “I would do anything to keep those from being released.”

Black Mirror "USS Callister" television review Star Trek homage tropes critique male nerd fantasies

This is just one of the concessions that the female crew members undertake for their own self-preservation, but they’re all the same theme: reducing themselves to objects, to playthings. If you watch the episode more than once, you see how stiffly receptionist Elena (Milanka Brooks) holds herself in Daly’s arms for the kiss, how widely and fakely Shania grins to cover her revulsion, how Nanette learns to soften her eyes and stroke her captain’s ego. Daly’s way to self-preservation is to raise himself up, to become untouchable; by contrast, Elena, Shania, and Nanette let themselves be lowered to Daly’s view of them. The scene in which Nanette must distract Daly on an away mission with an impromptu dip in the water is fascinating to watch; she’s tense to tautness, her wide smile belying her shifting eyes as she hopes that her romping around in a bikini is enough to convince him to join her. Her splashing Daly to keep him in the water with her is a testament to Milioti’s acting, as she giggles like a ’60s beach babe, but every time the water momentarily blinds him, her smile drops and she looks utterly revolted, only to yank the mask back up when he’s cleared his eyes.

It’s layers upon layers of nuance that Daly couldn’t even begin to parse. It’s clear from the start that this man is emotionally stunted, his habits and desires childlike in their simplicity: chocolate milk, play Space Fleet, strawberry milk, use his real-life condescending boss as a footrest, vanilla latte, throw a digital copy of his boss’ son out of the airlock. He is a one-dimensional character, which makes his ultimate fate worthy of applause: trapped in his Space Fleet mod as it shuts down around him, his controls taken away like a child’s favorite toy so that his cries of “exit game” go unfulfilled. And the real Daly sits slack in his computer, still connected to his game, behind a door that says “Do Not Disturb” and a ten-day Christmas vacation. It’s an update of the ending to “White Christmas,” in which the villain isn’t exactly being tortured, but is a pathetic prisoner of his own devices.

Black Mirror "USS Callister" television review Star Trek homage tropes critique male nerd fantasies

Photo: Jonathan Prime/Netflix

Never, however, does Black Mirror criticize the notion of escapism. Infinity is a celebrated game with a healthy fanbase, a rich digital universe that promises rewards to its most intrepid explorers. Earlier in the episode, Captain Daly tells Nanette, “Space Fleet is a belief system based on the very best of human nature,” with its ultimate goal the betterment of the universe. Daly’s own words turn against him; he is not interested in the betterment of the universe, in the good fortune of anyone but himself, and so he does not deserve the escapism the way that others do.

Which makes the ending of the episode bittersweet: Nanette, Shania, Elena, Dudani, Packer (Osy Ikhile), and bro-villain Valdack (Billy Magnussen) escape Daly’s pocket universe through a wormhole that deposits them into the real Infinity—complete with sleek costumes and enough lens flares to make J.J. Abrams cry with joy, in a sly nod to his Star Trek reboot. Walton has sacrificed himself to give them that final push through the wormhole, which leaves Nanette as the acting captain. (“Really, Nanette is fine.”) Freed from Daly’s control, they can explore Infinity as they choose. Can they die? Is this still a form of torture, an afterlife they never asked for while their real selves go on with their lives unaware of their copies? Black Mirror doesn’t answer these questions, and the series’ worldbuilding with regard to these digital copies is fodder for an entirely different essay, but for the moment, the answers are not important. There’s exploring to do.

Black Mirror "USS Callister" television review Star Trek homage tropes critique male nerd fantasies Cristin Milioti

Other Reflections

  • Redshirts are universal in any sci-fi homage: Shania getting turned into the arachnid monster, but then also (and I didn’t even get this) with Daly’s fate.
  • Did you catch the mini Breaking Bad reunion at the end with Aaron Paul as Gamer691? There was also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of none other than Kirsten Dunst (who’s engaged to Plemons) in the Callister offices.
  • Along with “White Bear” and “Shut Up and Dance,” “USS Callister” marks the third time that Black Mirror has used the narrative trick of introducing viewers to a character in a universally sympathetic situation (chased by killers; blackmailed; ignored and underappreciated), so that they automatically assume that this is the protagonist. I remember there being some backlash last year with regard to using it in “Shut Up and Dance,” but I don’t think this episode has earned the same ire, probably because Daly’s true nature is revealed early on.

There are so many more details and moments in this episode that I didn’t get to, but that’s what the comments are for! Tell us what you thought of “USS Callister.”

Natalie Zutter got to see Cristin Milioti onstage in the stirring sci-fi play After the Blast and can confirm she is just as badass in person. Dissect this season of Black Mirror with her on Twitter!

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