My name is TC Martin, and I’m a sophomore in Ben Franklin College studying English. I’m also a staff writer for The Politic. This column is the first of my television review series entitled “What’s on, TC?”, which we hope to publish biweekly. If there’s any theme to this column, it’s omnivory: anything from The Golden Girls to Game of Thrones is fair game. If you have any suggestions for shows to review, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org—but for now, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!
Firsts are important. Your first job, your first car, your first serious partner (position available, see author’s byline for email): you probably remember all of these things distinctly and, I would hope, somewhat fondly. Sentimentality aside, firsts are crucial because they set precedents. For anthology shows like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, the first episode of a new season can be either a chaotic jumble or a masterful relaunch. What distinguishes the two is the episode’s success at plucking out the strands that will allow the season to cohere. “USS Callister” shoots for the stars as the fourth season’s premiere episode—and it hits them dead on.
When you first click the Netflix “play” button, you might think you’ve stumbled onto an old Star Trek rerun. The first five minutes of the episode give you a glimpse into the private virtual world of Robert Daly, a VR gaming executive who, despite being the creator of a hyper-realistic multiplayer universe, leads a lonely, manchild-like existence. He is generally ostracized at the office, and at home, his solitary dinners usually include pepperoni pizza and a carton of chocolate milk. At first, Daly is somewhat of a pitiable, if not sympathetic, character. In Daly’s virtual reality, however, he plays the beloved captain of the spaceship USS Callister, lording over a reverent crew of artificially intelligent bots who…hey…hold up a minute…isn’t that Elena, the receptionist at Daly’s gaming company? And that’s Shania, the office gossip. And wait, is that Nanette Cole, the new coder Daly just hired?
You’re not seeing double—well, actually, you are. To get revenge for petty office slights, Daly has secretly been stealing the DNA of his coworkers and virtually cloning their consciousnesses into his private game world, forcing them to adhere to his self-aggrandizing sci-fi scripts, or else. That “or else” includes turning the AIs into hideous monsters as punishment for backtalk, or ejecting them into the viciously rendered vacuum of space for greater offenses. At this point, I find it a journalistic duty to ask Charlie Brooker:
Hey man, are you okay?
It’s fitting that this season’s premiere shifts the narrative onto Cole—who emerges as the inventive protagonist—considering that the other five episodes in the season also center on the stories of women. (Okay, “Hang the DJ” technically centers on a woman and a man, but let’s be honest: Amy was the heart and soul of that episode, and Frank was, frankly, second fiddle.) In season four, female characters are portrayed as helicopter moms and rebellious daughters, callous criminals and compassionate lovers, brilliant hackers and committed arbiters of justice. In other words, season four allows women to be human.
The premiere also picks up on the element of virtual human consciousness. Longtime Black Mirror fans will recognize the concept of “cookies”—human thoughts and feelings simulated by computer code—from “White Christmas” in season two and “San Junipero” in season three. It seems in season four that the technology has proliferated, with “USS Callister” (as well as “Black Museum”) pushing it towards its most harrowing, sadistic end: virtual torture. The episode alludes to a “cyber police”, indicating some effort by law enforcement to regulate and, presumably, protect simulated human consciousnesses from undue harm. The fact remains, however, that Daly’s activities went unnoticed for a very long time, and he was no doubt protected by his wealth and his position at a highly esteemed corporation.
Daly’s character is the juvenile misogyny of GamerGate and the unsupervised privilege of Silicon Valley distilled into one man. Sociologist Michael Kimmel coined the phrase ‘aggrieved entitlement’ to describe the sentiment among white men of feeling wronged by the world. For these men, this feeling “justifies revenge against those who have wronged [them]; it is the compensation for humiliation.” Daly’s workplace indignities clearly inspire such feelings of maltreatment in him. The only difference is that the game enables him to seek revenge silently by inflicting pain on people who are cognitively, emotionally, and—if one believes—spiritually real.
All of this is made more frightening by the fact that, at the outset, we felt a little sorry for Daly. He’s the guy with the asshole coworker breathing down his neck. He’s the guy in glasses who has to say “excuse me” three times to get off the elevator because people ignore him almost instinctively. He’s the guy who gets flustered when he talks to women and likes old space shows a little too much, the lovable misogynist à la The Big Bang Theory. Perhaps the episode’s most important move is its exposing of a cultural script, one that focuses on and favors immature white men as heroes. The success of Brooker’s bait-and-switch with his protagonist reveals just how deeply ingrained that script is.
As illuminating as Daly’s character is, the episode primarily owes its substance to Cole, the newest arrival to Daly’s three-ring circus of virtual hell. Besides singlehandedly advancing the plot, she also provides a fair amount of the episode’s dark humor and delivers what was probably the most epic line on television in 2017: “Stealing my pussy is a red fucking line.” Cole concocts an ingenious escape plan that includes blackmailing her human self with racy photos, seducing Daly with a near-skinny dip on a distant planet, and a healthy dose of teamwork among her fellow captees-turned-rebels. The group ends up escaping via an update in the game software, essentially liberating them from Daly’s private server and allowing them to explore an endless cosmos together for eternity. Or as long as their coding executes, anyway.
Black Mirror seems to be developing a hearty appetite for justice. In the end, Daly is trapped within his own game, cut off from both the public server and his body’s physical consciousness. As his constructed world goes dark around him, the camera pans out, and his outraged screams become softer and softer. Meanwhile, Cole and her crew whisk off to the nearest star cluster at warpspeed. And, because Brooker just can’t let us have a happy ending, their ship is chased off by a territorial male gamer, shouting “Uh-huh, you’d better run. King of space right here!”, reminding us that there is always another Robert Daly out there.