Sci-fi romance “San Junipero” was the breakout episode of Black Mirror’s third season for many reasons: superlative performances from stars Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw; perfectly executed ’80s nostalgia, courtesy of Belinda Carlisle; a fascinating hypothetical about the ethics and opportunities of technologically assisted immortality. But even though “San Junipero” won an Emmy award as a stand-alone TV movie, I’m convinced its popular success is inextricable from its context within the typically dour, occasionally pedantic world of Black Mirror. As my colleague Kate Knibbs wrote at the time, “San Junipero” stood apart from the series’ typical tales of technology misused by humans too weak to resist its temptations as a more hopeful vision of what the future could bring. And viewers responded to hope, especially as a respite from the show’s defining horror and cynicism.
Going into Black Mirror’s current six-episode season, released Friday on Netflix, it became something of a parlor game to speculate which story would become the so-called next “San Junipero.” It’s too early to crown a successor in the quantitative sense, but if I had to place my bets, it would be on the episode that takes the most after “San Junipero” in its tonal variation. The feature-length Star Trek homage “USS Callister” is the first episode of Black Mirror’s newest volume. Because it’s internalized the lessons of “San Junipero” so thoroughly, it’s also the best.
You wouldn’t know “Callister” would pan out that way from its first 20 minutes, which play like … well, kind of a drag. At first, “Callister” seems like it belongs to Jesse Plemons’s disaffected, socially awkward tech genius Robert Daly. By day, Daly is ignored and derided by the colleagues at the VR-gaming company he cofounded; by night, he takes refuge in his personalized version of the game, modeled after a Star Trek–like TV show and populated by virtual clones of his hated coworkers. Daly, of course, plays the confident, dashing Kirk role he’s so far from in real life, regularly outmanning a sniveling, cowardly rendition of his work partner James (Jimmi Simpson) and chastely kissing the female crew members at the end of every adventure. It seems pretty clear where this is going, or at least it did to me: Daly will get lost in the game or experience some other horrific malfunction, a warning against losing oneself in a digital second life in the vein of first-season highlight “The Entire History of You.”
But then, at the 20-minute mark, a dramatic reversal occurs — one of the most effective in Black Mirror history. The pivot arrives less than a third of the way through the episode’s hour-plus runtime, and that pacing gives writer and series creator Charlie Brooker time to explore the reveal’s implications rather than saving it for a clever “gotcha!” moment in the final minutes. And the twist is absolutely worth exploring: the coworker clones Daly casts in his game are actually sentient, fully conscious beings who retain their personalities and memories of the outside world. They experience the game as a never-ending torture chamber and Daly as their megalomaniacal captor trapping them inside his private game by harvesting their flesh-and-blood counterparts’ DNA without knowledge or consent. (Unwilling game participants who don’t play along get turned into misshapen aliens.) Daly is no longer a mistreated outcast; he’s an entitled, insecure creep enacting a juvenile power fantasy.
We learn all this through Nanette (Cristin Milioti), a smart and earnest new employee at Daly’s company who wakes up — or at least a digital copy of her does, while the original goes into work none the wiser — on a spaceship with a mod ’60s haircut and a crew of jaded fellow inmates. Daly’s transformation is told from the perspective of a resourceful young woman who didn’t ask to be literally objectified by a man who is still her boss, however aggrieved and powerless he might feel. “USS Callister” isn’t a direct commentary on Gamergate, but Daly is the best onscreen expression of the destructive white male victim complex that movement personified since Kylo Ren.
An indictment of such a high-profile group of real-life technology users is overdue for Black Mirror. That’s one cue “Callister” clearly takes from “San Junipero,” which focused on the experience of a queer, mixed-race, older couple: diversifying protagonists means diversifying the kinds of problems and villains those protagonists see as urgent problems. Massive technology companies and the warped incentive system of social media remain fraught issues, but a series-long probing of those issues alone quickly begins to wear thin. “Callister” puts its finger on a different kind of threat technology can enable and makes it just as horrifying as any public shaming campaign armed with killer bee drones.
Yet “Callister” is more than the particular tenor of its horror. Like “San Junipero,” “Callister” is more about the ability of its heroes to overcome their obstacles than the overwhelming burden of the obstacles themselves. There’s humor throughout the episode; Nanette soon discovers that her virtual self has no genitals, and at one point Daly needs to pause mid-self-important tirade to go pick up a pizza at the door of his apartment. (Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel provides reliable comic relief as an office gossip turned over-it officer.)
More importantly, though, the resourceful Nanette refuses to share in her colleagues’ despair. After taking some time to process what’s happened to her, she immediately throws herself into safe-cracking Daly’s prison, applying her drive and technological know-how into getting their ship, the namesake Callister, out of Daly’s offline mini-verse and into the massive, online main game outside of his authoritarian control. Eventually, she succeeds, though not before blackmailing her physical self with nude photos and piloting Callister through a wormhole. “USS Callister” starts as yet another sermon, but it grows into a thrilling combination of heist thriller and space adventure. This is a Star Trek homage, after all, even if it’s a twisted one.
“USS Callister” is less cerebral than some of its fellow Black Mirror high points. Beyond Daly’s particular strain of toxicity, the takeaways mostly come down to “don’t judge a book by its cover” (turns out the douchey tech bro really loves his kid!) and “flying through space is really fun” (at least when it isn’t done at the behest of a monster). There’s not much insight into potential uses of VR, nor is “USS Callister” trying to offer any. “USS Callister” is instead a tribute to one woman’s ingenuity, which may be the most important legacy the rapturous reception of “San Junipero” left in its wake. Black Mirror works best not as a show about technology, but about the people who use it.