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Black Mirror: “USS Callister” Recap and Analysis

If you haven’t seen Black Mirror, well, I’m not sure why you’re here. If you have, you know it is arguably one of the most important and thought provoking shows of our era. TV Obsessive is proud to feature analyses of each and every episode. Here, Caemeron Crain digs into Black Mirror S4E1, “USS Callister”

Patriarchy is not the expression of deep and rooted masculinity, for truly deep and rooted masculinity is not abusive. Patriarchy is the expression of the immature masculine. It is the expression of Boy psychology, and, in part, the shadow—or crazy—side of masculinity. […] Patriarchy is an attack on masculinity in its fullness as well as femininity in its fullness. Those caught up in the structures and dynamics of patriarchy seek to dominate not only women but men as well. Patriarchy is based on fear—the boy’s fear, the immature masculine’s fear—of women, to be sure, but also fear of men. Boys fear women. They also fear real men. – Robert Moore & Douglas Gillette, King Warrior Magician Lover (1990)

Robert Daly is not well-respected at work. He invented a massively successful virtual reality online game called Infinity but it is his partner Walton that truly runs the company they started together. When Nanette begins to work at Callister, she tells Daly she wanted to do so because of him. She is a fan of his code. But then Walton swoops in to charismatically offer her a tour. Shania suggests that she keep her distance from Daly, because he can get a bit creepy (and he overhears). And, the office intern, Nate Packer, never brings him his latte.

Robert Daly laughs

In real life, Daly is meek and awkward. When we meet him, however, is not at work, but as the Captain of the USS Callister, in his home version of the aforementioned Infinity game. Here, he is bold, confident, and showered with praise from his subordinates. That a man like this would engage in a fantasy life like that is all too understandable. He has put himself in the captain’s chair of his favorite TV show – Space Fleet – which is so clearly based on Star Trek that one has to wonder to what degree Black Mirror intends to be offering a criticism of the real world show.

Of course, Star Trek can be praised in many ways for its innovativeness, and also for its ethos. This is a world where human beings have moved beyond money and come together to explore the cosmos. Roddenberry’s vision was a utopian one, where technology has been harnessed to end global hunger and allowed us to set off into the universe in search of new life and new civilizations; not to conquer them, but to learn about them.

When Kirk kissed Uhura, the interracial nature of the kiss on TV screens in 1968 had real world significance. Star Trek was a progressive show. And, yet, Captain Kirk can be seen as an exemplar of a certain style of masculinity that we have come to recognize to be problematic. He kisses many women over the course of the show, and the question of consent is not always clear. He is headstrong, and perhaps overconfident, though his confidence tends to work out for him. He is not a man, so much as the fantasy of one: confident, capable, sexy, dismissive of advice he does not agree with, and right to have so dismissed that advice, etc.

To be clear, I do not intend to be leveling the charge of toxic masculinity at Kirk, or at Star Trek; I am a fan of both. And there is a degree to which time provides some excuse here. Gender dynamics are tricky business, and certainly a lot has changed over the past 40 years. I don’t even want to suggest that Kirk himself is a misogynist, or anything along those lines. He isn’t. My interest, rather, is in the thinking about this choice in relation to “USS Callister.” There is something inherently unrealistic about Kirk, which relates to a certain kind of masculine fantasy.

Captain Daly guides the ship

It makes a lot of sense that Robert Daly’s fantasy would be to be like Captain Kirk. Kirk is everything he is not: bold, admired, attractive, etc. He is further in a position of power, which of course Daly feels he should hold in real life; but while nominally he does, in actuality he does not.

1) To what degree do representations of masculinity in media (film, TV, ads, etc.) play into the feelings of inadequacy of men that engage in bad behavior?

Of course, Capt. Kirk is a far better person than Capt. Daly. We learn that the latter is coercing his crew into playing along. They do not actually love and respect him – and they certainly do not want to kiss him – but he is an “asshole God” ruling over their universe. He could turn them into speechless monsters, if he so chose, like he did to Gillian from marketing.

And, of course, the crew itself is not composed simply of simulated computer models of people Daly works with – they are themselves created on the basis of harvested DNA. As such, Black Mirror once again raises the question as to moral status of such digital copies, but “USS Callister” seems to take a fairly clear position on the question.

It may not be the “real people” whom Daly is abusing, but these copies are virtually indistinguishable from their real world counterparts. They are capable of free thought, and free action. If the standard is Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, they are to the same extent as you or I. And, yet, of course they differ from the flesh and blood versions of themselves. From the point of their creation, their futures diverge from those of the employees at Callister. There is a continuity of consciousness for the Nanette who was an office worker but has now awoken in the digital world of Space Fleet, but from that point forward she clearly differs from the Nanette working at Callister, whom she ultimately blackmails. (And I think the same structure must hold when it comes to the residents of San Junipero).

If we view the copies of Nanette and the others in this episode to be beings who have, or ought to have, moral rights, shouldn’t the same go for the characters in White Christmas, “Hang the DJ” and “Black Museum”?

2) To what degree does moral culpability justify us in depriving a person of their rights? Is treating someone inhumanely justifiable because they have themselves done something heinous?

Daly is interested in the power he can exert over the digital copies of people he feels have not adequately respected him in real life. Black Mirror is smart not to make the issue overtly sexual, forced kissing to the side. But it is clear even that is not about sex, but power. There is no tongue stuff. The copies don’t even have genitals. This makes clear where the real issue lies, and where it would lie even if Daly were having sex with digital copies of people he knows, as one could well imagine in a permutation of the scenario we are shown.

Nanette has no face

He takes glee as Nanette struggles after he steals her face to get her to submit, and again after he turns Shania into a monster bug because she stood up for Nanette. He even verbally expresses his happiness about the look on Nanette’s face in response to that event.

So, Robert Daly is an asshole, and clearly a misogynist. It would be easy to leave it at that, and to condemn him along these lines. And, don’t get me wrong, I certainly do condemn him. As the episode comes to a close, after our digital copy heroes have got the best of him, and managed to escape into the broader internet instead of ceasing to exist as they thought they would, we see Daly trapped in his own game-space as it deletes itself. Because he was a dick to the pizza delivery guy, his electronic door is set to “Do Not Disturb.” Because Nanette et al. made it through the wormhole and opened his Space Fleet reality to the general update of Infinity, his controls no longer work. He cannot exit the game-space that is in the process of being deleted. It’s Christmas Eve, and everyone at Callister is off until after New Year’s. It is safe to assume that Robert Daly dies because of all of this, and hard not to be with Walton’s cry of “Fuck you to death!” when it comes to down to it. This feels like justice.

But “USS Callister” immediately recognizes that the problem goes beyond Bob Daly, as the first person the copies encounter in the broader world of the internet – Gamer691 (hilariously voiced by Aaron Paul) – is also an asshole.

We live in the world of gamergate where incels praise, and engage in, acts of terrible violence. While the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements may be a sign of hope, we face some deep questions, such as What do we do with these men?

3) What is the appropriate response to abusive men? How do we take into account the fact that there is a continuum of bad behavior at play?

It seems to me that the problem largely lies in a crisis of masculinity. The conceptual terrain of what it means to be a man has been ceded to toxic tropes, in various ways. Awkward young men who struggle with women (a problem I can certainly relate to, thinking back on my teenager years) have formed online communities and embraced calling themselves incels, instead of taking the lesson that being a nice guy entitles you to nothing. Here’s an idea: try treating women as equal persons; listen to them because they are such, and not because you expect to “earn” something from it; and good god, stop thinking there is some 1 to 10 rating system that should determine things.

If we let scared little boys (who might be in their 70s) define masculinity, we are lost. The Men’s rights movement has some points, but they are all too often laced with misogynistic garbage. We all suffer under the tyranny of the immature boys.

It is perhaps up to us men to not only be better, but to do better in terms of who we hold up as exemplars of masculinity. Capt. Kirk may not be a misogynist, but he is not the best model. Picard is far better.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos


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  1. How is the consciousness cloning technology more advanced in this episode than in the “White Christmas” episode?

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