"USS Callister" is the first episode of the fourth series of the dystopian anthology series Black Mirror. Written by series creator Charlie Brooker and William Bridges and directed by Toby Haynes, it first aired on Netflix, along with the rest of series four, on 29 December 2017.
The episode follows Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), a reclusive but gifted programmer and co-founder of a popular massive multiplayer online game who is bitter over the lack of recognition of his position from his coworkers. He takes out his frustrations by simulating a Star Trek–like space adventure within the game, using his co-workers' DNA to create sentient digital clones of them. Acting as the captain of the USS Callister starship, Daly is able to order his co-workers around, bend them to his will, and mistreat them if they get out of line. When Daly brings newly hired Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) into his game, she encourages the other clones to revolt against Daly.
In contrast to most Black Mirror episodes, "USS Callister" contains overt comedy, and has many special effects. As a fan of Star Trek, Bridges was keen to introduce many details from the show into "USS Callister", though the episode was conceived mostly with The Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life" and Viz character Playtime Fontayne in mind.
The episode's reception was overwhelmingly positive, with reviewers praising the allusions to Star Trek, the acting, and the cinematography. Critics saw the episode as being about male abuse of authority, and compared Daly to contemporary events surrounding internet bullies and sexual abuse committed by Harvey Weinstein. In 2018, the episode won four Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special, and was nominated for three other Emmy Awards.
Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) and his crew are aboard a spaceship, the USS Callister, trying to defeat their arch enemy Valdack (Billy Magnussen). They destroy Valdack's ship, but he escapes. The crew celebrates, Daly kissing both female crewmates.
The real-life version of Daly is CTO at Callister Inc. The company was co-founded by Daly and James Walton (Jimmi Simpson), the company's Chief Executive Officer, which produces the multiplayer game Infinity, in which users control a starship in a simulated reality. Daly is treated poorly by his fellow employees, who appear identical to Captain Daly's crewmates. New programmer Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) praises Daly's work on Infinity, but the more assertive Walton interrupts to take her on a tour. When Daly returns home, he opens a development build of Infinity which is modded to resemble his favourite television show Space Fleet. As Captain Daly, he berates the crewmates, strangling a subservient Walton.
After employee Shania Lowry (Michaela Coel) warns Cole to beware of Daly, he takes a disposed coffee cup of Cole's and uses her DNA to replicate her consciousness within his development build. Cole awakens aboard the USS Callister, confused and distraught. Lowry explains that they are digital clones of Callister Inc. staff members. Cole attempts to escape the ship but is teleported back. She refuses to cooperate with Daly's commands, so he removes her facial features and suffocates her until she relents.
The crew embark on a mission in which they apprehend Valdack, but spare his life. After Daly leaves, Cole finds a way to send a game invite containing a message for help to the real-world Cole. The real-world Cole asks the real-world Daly about the message, and he dismisses it as spam. Daly enters the game to interrogate his crew and transforms Lowry into a monster when she defends Cole. Once he departs, Cole identifies a distant wormhole as an uplink to Infinity's next update; she surmises that by flying into the wormhole, the firewall will delete them and they will die. Walton is very hesitant to help; he explains that Daly has previously recreated his son Tommy within the game, throwing him out of an airlock to punish Walton. Cole promises they will destroy the lollipop containing Tommy's DNA.
When Daly next arrives, Cole convinces him to take her on a mission to Skillane IV alone. She strips to her underwear and runs into nearby water; Daly reluctantly follows her in, leaving behind the omnicorder which allows him to control the game. The crew teleports the omnicorder onto their ship, and uses it to access sexually explicit images of Cole on her PhotoCloud account. They use those photos to blackmail the real-life Cole into ordering a pizza to Daly's apartment and stealing the DNA samples while he answers the door. They then teleport Cole onto the ship using the omnicorder.
As Daly resumes play, he discovers the crew are escaping. He commandeers a crashed spaceship to pursue them through an asteroid belt. The Callister collides with an asteroid; Walton repairs the thrusters manually, incinerating himself, and the ship accelerates into the wormhole. The firewall detects Daly's modded build and locks his controls, rendering him physically unable to exit the game as it is destroyed around him. In the real world, Daly is sitting motionless.
The crew reawakens in the un-modded version of Infinity with Valdack and Lowry, restored to human form. They continue their adventure with Cole leading them, after interacting with an annoyed user "Gamer691" (Aaron Paul).
Whilst series one and two of Black Mirror were shown on Channel 4 in the UK, Netflix commissioned the series for 12 episodes (split into two series of six episodes) in September 2015 with a bid of $40 million, and in March 2016, Netflix outbid Channel 4 for the right to distribute the series in the UK. The six episodes in series four were released on Netflix simultaneously on 29 December 2017. "USS Callister" is listed as the first episode, though as each episode is standalone the episodes can be watched in any order. The episode has a running time of 76 minutes.
Conception and writing
The episode was written in November 2016 by series creator Charlie Brooker along with William Bridges, who previously co-wrote series 3 episode "Shut Up and Dance". Brooker said that the episode was based around doing "a 'Black Mirror' version of a space epic", an idea that began during the filming of series three episode "Playtest". Inspired partially by "It's a Good Life", an episode of The Twilight Zone about a boy with "God-like powers", and partially by Viz character Playtime Fontayne, an adult who makes people participate in childish games, Charlie Brooker compares Daly to dictator Kim Jong-un and to "someone going online and venting". Brooker said that they also at times called the episode an "adult Toy Story", making the comparison between the toys in Andy's room having to hold still until Andy leaves, and the virtual crew having to hold back their true thoughts until Daly left the simulation. Though sometimes very bleak, the episode has comedy that may be considered atypical for the show, and Brooker thinks it is the most mainstream episode of the show. Additionally, Brooker compares it to series 3 episode "San Junipero" in that both were "a conscious decision to expand what the show was and then upend it."
As a big fan of Star Trek, Bridges suggested many tropes from it that are incorporated in the episode, as well as borrowed concepts from the film Galaxy Quest, which involved normal people suddenly pulled into an inescapable science fiction setting. Brooker tells Den of Geek that the episode is not intended as an attack of Star Trek, a show that was "wildly ahead of its time". Originally, Daly's character was more unlikeable from the episode's beginning, but this was changed so that Daly strangling Walton would be more of a surprise. Brooker states that Daly dies of starvation after the events in the episode, due to the "Do Not Disturb" sign he puts on his door. Haynes considered ending the episode with the shot of Daly in his apartment, rather than the happier scene of the crew playing Infinity, but Brooker reassured him that not every Black Mirror episode had to end unhappily.
In the episode's initial draft, every character had a "Grain" implanted in them—a device that recorded their vision and hearing, similar to what was featured in the series one episode "The Entire History of You". This explained why virtual Nanette had the memories of real-life Nanette. Brooker decided that showing the Grain contents alongside Daly getting each person's DNA was too much detail, which led to the Grain aspect being cut. Shania says "It's a fucking gizmo" in response to a question from Nanette about how Daly's technology works, as a way to comment that the technology not making sense did not matter.
"USS Callister" stars Jesse Plemons as Captain Daly and Cristin Milioti as Lieutenant Cole, both previous stars of Fargo. Director Toby Haynes notes that "they always wanted Jesse Plemons for the role of Daly", and that the filming dates and other cast were based around him. Milioti accepted the role having only seen a few pages of the script; she said in an interview that Nanette is "a woman in charge [fighting] against a small-minded, misogynist bully". Jimmi Simpson, formerly known from Westworld, and Michaela Coel of Chewing Gum are also main characters in the episode; Coel had appeared in the previous Black Mirror episode "Nosedive" as an airport worker. Simpson was ill with the flu during filming but noted that his character was intended to be skinny. The episode's main cast is rounded out by Billy Magnussen, Milanka Brooks, Osy Ikhile, and Paul G. Raymond.
Aaron Paul makes a vocal cameo appearance at the end of the episode, whilst Plemons' fiancée Kirsten Dunst makes an uncredited appearance in the background early in the episode. "Gamer691" was initially supposed to be a "geeky kid", but Brooker believed that the perception of video gamers as creepy was wrong, and "he felt like it was talking down to the audience" as he is a gamer himself. He then came up with the idea that the best voice would be Paul's character Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, which featured the character Todd Alquist being played by Plemons. They approached Paul, who was a fan of Black Mirror and had already auditioned for a different episode but withdrew due to commitments with Welcome Home. Paul accepted the part on the condition that his appearance in this episode did not preclude him from being part of another Black Mirror episode. The part was one of the last elements of the episode to be finished, and surprised members of the cast when it was screened.
Director Toby Haynes has previously worked on Sherlock and Doctor Who, and crew from Stars Wars and 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy were hired. Filming began in January 2017, and ran for twenty days. The episode was mostly shot in the U.K., with roughly three days of filming in the Canary Islands for interplanetary scenes. The scenes set on the Callister ship, Daly's apartment, and the Callister offices were shot at Twickenham Studios, with all of the office scenes shot within three days. Most scenes had to be done in two or three takes, with some scenes such as Walton's description of Tommy being filmed in one take. Haynes and Milioti both commented on the tight schedule, with Haynes feeling that the pressure helped everyone to rise to the challenge. Brooker notes that the growth of the Me Too movement meant the episode felt more timely.
The crew could not copy set elements directly from Star Trek without fear of legal action, but instead detailed the set in the same fashion as Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. The episode also presents Space Fleet following a similar history as Star Trek, first as a 4:3 aspect ratio to represent its original broadcast format of the original series, then to detailed widescreen version, and finally ending on a redesigned starship and costumes that reflect the J.J. Abrams-helmed reboot. Inspired by the style of 1960s television, the episode used Dutch angles during the spaceship scenes. Cinematography towards the end was designed to evoke Star Trek. Haynes was a fan of Star Trek, and helped to add details, such as putting Lowry in a red uniform since she was the first to be killed off. Haynes was also a fan of Star Wars and brought in at least three direct references to the films.
The spaceship initially uses orange and red colours, and the special effects were made to look like those from the 1960s; a modern version of the ship is shown at the end of the episode, more similar to the 2009 Star Trek reboot. To help the viewer distinguish between scenes set in the game and those set in the real world, Haynes had the scenes set in the game use mounted camera shots, while the real-world scenes used handheld camera techniques; in the scene where Daly interrupts the game to get a delivered pizza, the camera started off mounted and then switched to handheld to show the collision of those two techniques. Characters aboard the USS Callister wore neoprene costumes, designed to create an artificial Barbie look for the women. Daly looks like a Ken doll, with his costume making him appear more muscular. Milioti aimed to change her posture and mannerisms slightly between Nanette in the real world and the virtual world. Plemons watched Star Trek and worked with a vocal coach to play homage to William Shatner's performance as Captain Kirk.
To avoid building an entire spaceship, most scenes on board the ship were set on the bridge or in corridors; a canteen area was considered but not used. The scene where Cole wakes up on the ship was initially going to use a medical bay, but Haynes wanted to use a circular room. The storyboard design for Lowry being turned into a monster had to be adapted during filming so the viewers could see her sprouting extra legs and tentacles. For the two planets visited in the episode, the script described one as an Indiana Jones–style cave and the other as a jungle planet, but budget limitations and the filming date of February affected the choices made. The scene in which Nanette tricks Daly into swimming with her was filmed at a crater-like structure in Lanzarote, using red sand from a nearby quarry, and at a lake with black sand. A drone was used to film an aerial shot of the set. Both actors improvised much of the scene. Production companies Painting Practice and Revolver worked on graphics and the user interfaces in the spaceship, whilst special effects were done by Framestore. Brooker says the episode features more special effects than any previous episode of the show. The Arachnajax monsters were designed to be a mixture of scary and comedic, with features like their ability to shrug making them more human-like.
British composer Daniel Pemberton composed the episode's score. A fan of Black Mirror, Pemberton had worked with Brooker before on a video game magazine in the 1990s. Pemberton was between compositions for Molly's Game and All the Money in the World, but despite being busy he accepted the job for "USS Callister". Pemberton says the score consisted of three styles: the Space Fleet music, the real world and Daly's video game. He also describes the soundtrack as "almost like two film scores that slowly collide". Pemberton wrote a score with elements reminiscent of Star Trek, and other "synthetic and modern" aspects, and some of the music was inspired by Jerry Goldsmith. A 70-piece orchestra from Prague was used. The soundtrack was released on Amazon Music on 29 December 2017. A vinyl version of the soundtrack, featuring as its cover the Butcher Billy-designed Space Fleet poster seen on the episode, was released on Record Store Day 2019.
In May 2017, a Reddit post unofficially announced the names and directors of the six episodes in series 4 of Black Mirror. The first trailer for the series was released by Netflix on 25 August 2017, and contained the six episode titles. In September 2017, two photos from the fourth season were released, including one from "USS Callister".
Beginning on 24 November 2017, Netflix published a series of posters and trailers for the fourth series of the show, referred to as the "13 Days of Black Mirror". The art for "USS Callister" was released on 4 December, and the trailer on 5 December. The following day, Netflix published a trailer featuring an amalgamation of scenes from the fourth series, which announced that the series would be released on 29 December.
Prior to the series' release, "USS Callister" was described as the "most anticipated new episode" by one source; it was compared by Charlie Brooker to "San Junipero", the most successful episode of the previous series. "USS Callister" was considered to be one of the few Black Mirror episodes that could have a sequel, given the final scene; both Brooker and Jones agreed that if they ever opted to a sequel, it would likely be based on this episode as "they end up in a universe of infinite possibilities, and there's a lot of question marks we've left hanging".
The episode is an homage to Star Trek. Using a similar set design to Star Trek, the episode has been compared to another parody of the show, the 1999 film Galaxy Quest. One reviewer described "USS Callister" as critical of sexism in Star Trek and its fandom, with another calling it "a cruel parody and even a misandrous attack", though Brooker says that "I don't want it to be seen that we're attacking fans of classic sci-fi". It has a similar storyline to short story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", which features characters held hostage and tortured by a supercomputer. Additionally, it evokes Toy Story. The procedurally-generated game Infinity in the episode is considered to be inspired by No Man's Sky, a video game released in August 2016. Brooker commented in October 2016 that "there's an idea for the second [Netflix] season that's sprung from a procedurally generated universe" while playing the game.
"USS Callister" has been called "the most cinematic episode to date" for the show, due to its use of vivid colours and a huge fictional landscape. Though the episode is dark at times and raises serious issues, it also has a perkier tone to previous Black Mirror episodes, containing one-line jokes and visual gags, and a happy ending relative to other episodes of the show. Its plot twist is revealed slowly, a contrast to the "gut-punch" reveal of previous episodes.
Main character Robert Daly has an unhappy life, where he does not receive credit for co-founding his company and is mocked by workplace colleagues. Traditionally, Daly would be the underdog character, and the story might focus on him getting revenge on Walton for stealing his credit, and for his colleagues' mistreatment of him. The classic trope of a socially awkward man meeting a younger woman who appreciates his intelligence is utilised when Daly meets Cole. As a result, viewers initially side with Daly, but instead of the pair falling in love, Daly's true nature is unmasked early. As the Captain of USS Callister, he abuses his position of power, forcing his crewmates to act as opposites of themselves, such as Walton going from Daly's superior to his underling. Similar to an internet bully, Daly does not seem to care about the pain he is inflicting on the virtual clones, treating them as action figures.
Critic Alec Bojalad claims that Daly fits an archetype of white males who participate in prejudiced online echo chambers due to ostracisation in real life and a sense of entitlement. Charles Bramesco considers Daly characteristic of the nerd who assumes the role of the bully after himself being bullied. Dana Schwartz links this to the "modern toxic masculinity" movements of Gamergate and the alt-right. Charles Bramesco of Vulture notes that despite the fact that Robert never actually rapes any of the female members of the crew, he exhibits psychological traits associated with rape culture. Tristram Fane Saunders of The Telegraph calls the episode "a sharp attack on an entire genre of male-driven narrative" and equates Daly's sexist fantasy involving his attractive younger coworker with the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. Sara Moniuszko of USA Today makes the same comparison, linking how Daly kisses female crew members and threatens the crew when they disobey him to Weinstein's alleged abuse. Brooker noted that coincidentally, news of allegations against Weinstein first broke when Brooker was on his way to a premiere of the episode in New York.
Joho calls Walton "arguably the true hero of the story", for sacrificing himself to fix the ship at the climax of the episode. However, Jimmi Simpson—who played Walton—disagrees, noting that his character's thoughtlessness and selfishness were the original provocation for Daly to take revenge. Simpson opines that Walton's motive for sacrificing himself is not redemption but to "make it right for the people". Walton is absent from the ship once the characters make it into the online Infinity game; it can be interpreted that his code was deleted from Daly's modded game. However, Simpson believes that his character remains alive, continually tortured from the pain of the incinerators.
"USS Callister" features references to previous episodes of Black Mirror. In addition to Brooker's remark that the episode is in some ways a successor to the third-series episode "San Junipero," the neural implant used in this episode to transport users into the Infinity game bears the logo "TCKR," the company that developed the technology featured in that episode, the implication being that Callister uses the same software for their own games. A reference to the second-series episode "White Bear" is found in the names of two planets visited by the crew of Daly's virtual spaceship; the planets Skillane IV and Rannoch have been named for the criminal couple of Victoria Skillane and Iain Rannoch.
"USS Callister" has been described by several critics as the best episode of series four. On Rotten Tomatoes, the episode has a score of 94% based on 35 reviews, with an average rating of 9.28 out of 10. It received a four star rating in The Telegraph and Den of Geek, an A rating in IndieWire and an A– rating in The A.V. Club. Cross calls the episode "surely one of Black Mirror's best". Saunders thinks that the male abuse of power is "prescient" and "topical" and Bojalad writes that the episode's timing is "just right". However, Dileo criticises the episode as "possibly not the deepest or most insightful" of the programme and Oller writes that the episode's "mixed metaphors" cause positive aspects to be "drowned out".
The episode's parody of Star Trek has been widely praised, with Statt calling it an "unabashed love letter to Star Trek" and Franich describing it as a "knowing parody" and "loving hyperbolization". Cross believes it has a "love for the source material". Statt also praises the episode's references to other media such as No Man's Sky. However, it has also received criticism. Lambie writes that allusions to Star Trek "aren't all that new", Saunders believes that the numerous references "clobber you over the head" and Oller calls them "heavy-handed", believing they overshadow the episode's message. In a negative review, Whitley opines that although the episode has the right number of references, they are used in a "cruel parody and even a misandrous attack on male science-fiction fans".
"USS Callister" is more comedic than previous episodes of Black Mirror and explores a genre which is new for the show, both of which were well-received. Statt describes it as "laugh-out-loud funny", Sims calls it "darkly funny" and in a negative review, Oller writes that the "comedy is far better than the actual story". Stolworthy calls the genre change "heaps of fun" and Statt calling it "refreshingly different". Starkey describes the episode as proof that the show has room to grow.
The ending and DNA cloning technology have both been highlighted by critics, garnering mixed reception. Saunders says the episode's ending "might not feel very Black Mirror" but is "the kind of story it would be good to hear more often". Starkey describes the ending as "wonderfully bleak", and Sims praises the happy ending. However, Handlen calls it "sudden" and "rushed", believing that the episode is "a little too eager to please", which causes it to lose tension. Oller lambasts the episode for numerous plot holes and its "sprawling sci-fi rules and nonsense", such as the DNA cloning plot device. VanDerWerff similarly criticises the cloning technology's lack of explanation; Handlen calls it "magic that you either go with or you don't".
Other parts of the plot have also received mixed reception. Starkey believes the "early plot jumps" are "slightly heavy-handed". Sims praises the twist which reveals that Daly is not the protagonist. Lambie opines that the flashback with Walton's son adds a "chill running through the middle of the episode", but VanDerWerff criticises that it unnecessarily adds length to the episode. VanDerWerff compares the crew's escape plan favourably to a "movie prison break", though Franich believes that the fast pace causes the "dull" blackmail of Nanette to be "a too-easy gag". Stolworthy says the length of the episode is justified, though Starkey writes that the episode "occasionally meanders" and Sims concurs that the episode is "a mite too long".
The cast of the episode have been widely praised. Saunders writes that Plemons is "obviously perfect" as Daly, and he is praised by Lambie, Miller and Franich for his acting of Daly's two different personalities. VanDerWerff writes that Plemons "blends a surprisingly great William Shatner riff with a slow-building sense of odiousness". Miller calls the character "truly grounded in reality" due to the writing and acting. Simpson's performance as Walton is singled out by Stolworthy and Bojalad for praise, with Starkey describing him as the episode's "emotional centerpiece". Bojalad calls Milioti's character Cole the "real revelation" of the episode, while Cross calls her "painfully easy" to relate to. Stolworthy writes that Coel's performance as Lowry stands out. However, VanDerWerff criticises that the episode's minor characters are "mostly quick sketches".
"USS Callister" has been described as the show's "most cinematic episode to date", and the episode with "by far the highest production values". Bojalad praises the "bright, beautiful pastel color", while Dileo notes the "jaw-dropping special effects". Statt calls the episode "visually stunning", concluding it is "the first episode of Black Mirror that feels like it belongs in a movie theater". Franich writes that the cinematography "captures the effect" of the original Star Trek.
"USS Callister" is mostly in the top half on critics' lists of the 19 episodes of Black Mirror by quality:
Additionally, Proma Khosla of Mashable reviewed each of the 22 episodes by tone, ranking "USS Callister" as 5th least pessimistic.
Other critics compared the six episodes of series four in isolation, with "USS Callister" placing as follows:
"USS Callister" was nominated for several awards in 2018: