Yesterday, all six episodes of the Fourth Season of BLACK MIRROR finally reached Netflix, and as a huge fan of that show (and Charlie Brooker's work in general), I couldn't be more pleased. And so, I have decided to review each episode in order, as I watch them, and share my thoughts with all of you here on the Mediavore. Enjoy! - Jerky
With “USS Callister”, the first episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season—if you’re watching the episodes in their semi-official, “suggested” order—Charlie Brooker and Co. have decided to kick things off with a bit of a dud.
Not that it’s bad. If this were an episode of any other anthology series, it would rightly be considered high grade entertainment. The actors all acquit themselves nicely, and the production values are great, with some truly excellent special effects. It’s just that… well, it doesn’t have that Black Mirror feeling.
Which is odd, because at first glance, this episode appears to build directly on concepts introduced in two previous Black Mirror episodes: “San Junipero” and “White Christmas”. And it certainly isn’t lacking in Brooker’s trademark misanthropic cynicism, what with videogame developer Daly, an apparently mild-mannered doormat who secretly harbours a serious sadistic streak, being the most unambiguously nasty lead character in series history.
Maybe therein lies the problem. Because there’s been far more to Black Mirror than just eyeballs hazing over and intermittent stabs of nihilistic ugliness. Perhaps one of the most powerful weapons in Brooker’s arsenal up until now has been precisely the kind of ambiguity that is sorely lacking in “USS Callister”, with its stark, binary set of good guys and bad guys.
The above could probably be forgiven if the speculative, “hard science” elements of the story were exceptional. Unfortunately, this episode more than any other in the series stretches the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point and beyond.
The worst example is the mechanism by which Daly acquires, then inserts, his victims into the game world of Infinity, the episode’s stand-in game for No Man’s Sky… or, at least a stand-in for the game that No Man’s Sky was hyped to be, before reality came crashing down around it like so many Tetris blocks. It feels lazy and rushed, particularly when compared to how the same issue was handled in the magnificent “White Christmas” episode.
It should go without saying, but the idea that our DNA contains an up to the minute model of our identity and memories is farcical, and even sci-fi writers of the 1960’s wouldn’t have taken such laughable liberties with technology.
Actually, there’s a lot about the technology in “USS Callister” that seems poorly conceptualized. Seeing as it was created by a former videogame critic (Brooker), it’s actually quite puzzling to me that the game seems so boring and uninvolved. I don’t think I know anybody who would want to play Infinity, no matter how big a Star Trek—I mean “Space Fleet” fan they might be.
Another issue is the lack of consistency. At one point in the episode, it’s made quite clear that the victims have no real power in the game world. The buttons on the consoles are meaningless. Randomly punching any button will perform whatever task it is that Daly has most recently asked his underlings to perform. But later on, Walton manages a heroic, self-sacrificing “fix” of the ship’s engines.
That said, the episode is not without its charms. As previously mentioned, the actors are game. And the episode looks fantastic, both in game and in the real world. There are also a bunch of in jokes and Easter eggs that fans of science fiction will have fun picking out, including an episode ending coda involving an upgrade that references a certain contemporary auteur's love of lens flare. And yes, some of the ideas about the ways in which highly advanced AIs might one day be able to interact with (and wreak havoc upon?) the “real world” from inside a simulation are very much worth developing further.
To sum up, “USS Callister” instantly ties the second season’s “The Waldo Moment” for my least favorite Black Mirror episode. I hope the creators’ suggestion that it be the first watch of the new season has something to do with them recognizing its shortcomings, and that the season only gets better from hereon out.