Black Mirror - U.S.S. Callister

Nice guys finish last in Black Mirror's 'USS Callister'

Contributed by
Jan 8, 2018

The Black Mirror episode "USS Callister" opens on an Enterprise-esque ship captained by a beloved leader, played by Jesse Plemons. His crew adores their captain—the miniskirted women on the ship want to be with him and the men want to be him. But as we learn quickly, it’s not real. In reality, Plemons’ Robert Daly is a quiet put-upon CTO at a company which produces Infinity, a multiplayer online game devised by Daly. His staff ignores him or laughs at him behind his back, and his CEO and partner Walton (Jimmi Simpson) treats him like a joke.

A lifetime of watching film and television has us trained to feel bad for Daly. The world is cruel to him, even though he’s clearly smart and talented if a bit awkward. When Cristin Milioti’s Nanette Cole enters the picture, kind to Daly and impressed by his coding skills, we know we’re supposed to feel bad for him when Walton pulls Cole away and she becomes tighter with the staffers who seemingly mistreat Daly.

In other versions of this story, ones that have come before and ones that will no doubt come down the road, Daly would be vindicated. He would be rewarded for his struggles of having to deal with a world that doesn’t respect him or his talents. He’d probably get the girl and the admiration of his whole team - because he’s a nice guy, and in stories like this, the nice guy always comes out ahead.

But that’s not this story. And that’s what makes it so spectacular.

The titular USS Callister turns out to be a special simulation within a version of Infinity that Daly has created for his own use based on his favorite TV show: a Star Trek stand-in called Space Fleet. Cole learns that the hard way when she wakes up aboard the seemingly fictitious ship after Daly uses DNA from a discarded coffee cup to reproduce an aware, sentient version of her within the game - one that can, feel, think, has all her memories and none of her genitals (neither she nor her similarly reproduced co-workers have genitalia or even functioning bowels, in keeping with the G-rated nature of Daly’s TV-inspired haven). In this game, Daly demands total love and loyalty from his crew—who’ve learned to respond in kind lest they face a kind of in-game eternal torture. For questioning or refusing to do as she’s told, Cole is suffocated and threatened.

It was an episode that reflected an experience so many women have had: the seemingly nice, timid guy lets his guard down and with it his mask as he informs you that you are a thing to be had, a thing he wants to possess and own, a thing he is entitled to possess and own, and he would if you would just let him. As stories of sexual assault and harassment have unfurled like a dropped spool of ribbon over the past several months, themes have emerged connecting them all. Men feel entitled to say what they want, touch what they want. While the people on the receiving end must remain amenable as an act of survival. They must accept and tolerate while these men do as they please, lest they face the consequences.

There is nothing more chilling than the entitled man when faced with a woman who is not being as amenable as he would like. The cold, calculating stare of a man ready to put you in your place and the knowledge that “your place” is wherever he wants it to be and doing whatever he thinks you should be. And the toxic resentment of the entitled man denied what he feels he deserves? It festers until it bursts. When that resentment meets entitlement meets fandom, you get Gamergate. You get attacks on Star Wars for shifting the focus away from white males. You get what many women continue to face in geek spaces unless we are “allowed” the courtesy of basic civility. You get "USS Callister." And that’s what made this episode so compelling but also so terrifyingly familiar.

In the episode, Cole takes charge to free herself and her fellow co-workers and crewmates, who have had to play along to keep Daly happy to protect themselves even as he robs them of their dignity, their freedom, their hope, even their own body parts just to keep them as in line as possible - specifically his idea of "in line" that suits his needs. Pretending you are fine with the horrendous and humiliating in order to avoid more or worse is a survival skill women have to learn at an astonishingly young age. It’s a skill so commonplace most of us don’t even realize we have it until we are forced to ask why, to look at why so many of the #MeToo stories are so normal and universal, why we’ve written so many things off as boys being boys and men being men as “just the way things are.” Even as Cole leads the rebellion, she must first lull Daly into a false sense of security by swimming with him, flirting with him, giving him what he wants to use it against him - which is ironically what Daly and so many of his real-life counterparts see as their tragedy, the cruelest act of a crueler sex, refusing to see what nice guys they are, how deserving they are of our bodies and hearts.

Perhaps what makes it a Black Mirror episode is that Daly doesn’t win, because reality tends to skew the other direction. But if "USS Callister" was pure wish fulfillment, it was certainly the exact wish fulfillment we needed right now.