Warning: The following post contains spoilers for Black Mirror Season 4, episode 1, “U.S.S. Callister.”
After three seasons of exploring the perverse perils and promise of technology, we know what we’re signing up for with Black Mirror. In its fourth season – second on Netflix – Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ twisted reflection of our society works like a well-oiled machine; they’re adept at quick world building, judicious with plot twists, and clearly full of endless ideas on how technology may unravel us yet.
The Season 4 premiere, “U.S.S. Callister,” opens with a pitch-perfect Star Trek parody that gives an irresistible glimpse into the showrunners’ comedy background. Jesse Plemons plays Captain Richard Daley with a sly but not campy dash of William Shatner’s James Kirk. Daley is adored by his crew and feared by his enemies; he always chooses the right course of action and saves the day, winning everyone’s admiration and a few kisses from the females aboard the Callister (fun space fact: one of those is actress Michaela Coel, who also plays a small part in the Resistance in Star Wars: The Last Jedi). Daley’s life is like a dream.
We cut from the low-res Callister to reality, where Daley works at a company specializing in VR gaming. His workplace, where he’s constantly sidelined and mocked, is full of the same faces who fawned over him aboard the Callister, including Walton (Jimmi Simpson, Westworld) as the partner who shunted Daley aside as they grew successful. The only person at the office who’s nice to him is the new employee, Ninette Cole (Cristin Milioti), a genuine admirer of Daley’s coding skills.
We learn after another stint aboard the Callister that it’s Daley’s own personalized module of his company’s game, Infinity, modeled to emulate his favorite space-adventure TV show. He’s populated the game with versions of his real-life detractors, and inside the Infinity module they have no choice but to obey his orders and go along for the ride.
But this is Black Mirror, and the sinister twist is still around the corner: The characters in Infinity aren’t just avatars; they contain the actual consciousness of their real-life counterparts, imprisoned forever in the game to play pretend at Daley’s beck and call. He took their DNA to create these counterparts and has it stored securely so that he can re-upload them if he ever needs to. Any slight against him could wind someone up in the game, which is how Cole wakes up aboard the Callister after participating in a conversation where someone implied Richard might be a bit creepy.
Yeah, ya think?
Cole refuses to accept her fate, despite her peers repeatedly telling her that resistance aboard the Callister is futile. She refuses to report to the bridge for duty and tells Richard to go fuck himself, to which he does not take kindly. A forbidding smile creeps across Plemons’ face as he stays in character as the benevolent captain while exposing who he truly is; he makes Cole’s face vanish. It’s truly twisted, and she sputters and gasps continuously as Richard explains that in his world, people play by his rules.
Terrified, Cole plays along, but she’s not giving up yet. As soon as Richard pauses the game, she’s looking for a way out, and her fellow prisoners halfheartedly play along – with the exception of Walton, who reveals that Richard tortured him uniquely in the early days of the game.
Daley took Walton’s son’s DNA and brought him into the game, only to launch him out of the airlock and into space without a suit. Simpson, who straddles a nice balance of arrogance humor in the episode up to this point, goes all in on the monologue explaining Walton’s history in the game. It’s haunting and it holds you as you pray the show won’t give us a visual. Showing his son’s frozen, cracked body would only add horror and shock value; staying on Simpson’s agony gives the scene a sharp emotional edge.
Cole and the others move forward with a plan to escape the game through a wormhole (a.k.a. software update), while also involving her actual self from the outside world and some light trespassing to secure their DNA. Daley chases them in a personal spacecraft as they close in on the wormhole, despite their best efforts to keep him away by abandoning him on another planet and preventing him from un-pausing the game too early. When the engines fail, Walton knows what he has to do; He has to fix them manually and then burn to a crisp in the engine room – burn without dying. He sacrifices himself to save the others, but not without a last missive for Daley: “Fuck you to death.”
With that, the Callister team shoots through the wormhole and into a whole new part of the final frontier: The Cloud. Daley remains trapped beyond the wormhole – out of reach of the Callister and unable to exit the game. The remaining crew have survived in full human form, with updated uniforms, a fully operational ship, and the entire universe ripe for exploration. Captain Cole takes to the bridge to command their first mission: These are the voyages of the U.S.S. Callister, a fake ship inside a video game where it gets yelled at by Aaron Paul.
At over an hour, Callister is Black Mirror‘s longest episode and the story packs a powerful punch. It cleverly rations out the humor and parody with the pacing of a riveting space adventure – indeed, it feels more like a movie than an episode in many respects.
The rest of the season follows suit, with each chapter of the anthology leaning into its respective genre and rules while never stepping out of the Black Mirror sensibility. “Metalhead” is striking in its minimalism and shot, for the first time, in black and white; “Black Museum” does some truly warped things with human consciousness, and “Hang the D.J.” might be one of the show’s most arresting chapters to date. Binge them all or spread them out – but the future is here, and it is streaming.
Black Mirror Season 4 is now on Netflix.