What 'Black Mirror's 'U.S.S. Callister' Gets Wrong About Star Trek
Spoilers ahead for the Black Mirror Season 4 Episode "U.S.S. Callister."
Framed within an old TV set's 4:3 aspect ratio and featuring fuzzy reception, "U.S.S. Callister," Black Mirror Season 4's Star Trek-inspired episode, opens with what looks and feels like an exaggerated version of what happens on the U.S.S. Enterprise. The crew's uniforms are similar to those of the '60s original, complete with all female characters wearing revealing dresses, and many of the characters have analogs in the Trek universe: Captain Daley (Jesse Plemons) is a carbon copy of Kirk; impulsive, wild, dangerous, but above all trusted by his crew and the hero of this — and seemingly every — episode. A crewman named Watson (Jimmi Simpson) acts a lot like Bones, a.k.a. Dr. McCoy. He's cautious, nervous, and questions Daley's every choice, calling him crazy. Elsewhere on the bridge there's a woman at the coms desk (Michaela Coel) who's obviously meant to mirror Lt. Uhura, and a blue alien woman with a Russian accent (Milanka Brooks) who seems like a combination of Chekov and the Orion slave girl of the original series. The U.S.S. Callister faces off against enemies in green-tinged starships that could easily mimic the Klingons or the Romulans, and they spend time in search of Plasmorphian Crystals, a stand in for Trek's Dilithium Crystals, which power their warp drive.
But after Daley has saved the day yet again and landed a kiss on both female crew members, there's a big reveal: the U.S.S. Callister is just a virtual-reality program and Daley — who's just a regular guy in a near-future version of our world — is its star. In reality, he's super smart and one of the heads of the popular VR company Infinity, but he's shy, awkward, and single. He uses Infinity to escape to his favorite childhood show, which is called Space Fleet in the Black Mirror universe but is a pretty clear stand-in for Star Trek. Posters on his walls, action figures around his home, and a general nerdiness create the idea that Daley could be just like any other Star Trek fan, only one with a VR outlet to explore his favorite galaxy.
But what empathy we may feel for Daley as a shy loner type quickly dissipates once we learn what he's really up to. You see, everyone in his Space Fleet program is essentially a clone of someone in his real life. He's stolen DNA from all over the Infinity office and created digital copies of people he works with whom he dislikes. Inside Infinity, he can make his avatars do whatever he wants, order them around, and even torture them to his heart's desire. His latest victim is the new girl, Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), who admires Daley as a programmer and is genuinely nice to him, but who Daley overheard respond to a co-worker's question about if she's interested in him sexually with a resounding "no."
The whole scenario actually mimics an episode from another series in the Star Trek franchise. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Hollow Pursuits," Lt. Barclay creates a holodeck program that uses his fellow crewmen as characters. It's where he goes to escape the pressures of working on the Enterprise. A sexed-up Counselor Troi and Dr. Crusher fawn over him as if he were an accomplished alpha male, while his rivals in real life, such as Riker, LaForge, and Picard are bumbling idiot versions of themselves. Barclay and Daley's fantasies are quite similar; they both want respect, love, and admiration. But Daley takes it by force, and uses torture as an incentive. Plus, Barclay's inventions are simply hologram avatars, whereas Daley's clones, though digital, are actually conscious of their slavery and fight to be free.
But if there's one thing about "U.S.S. Callister" that I have an issue with, it's the representation of what it considers a typical Star Trek fan. There's no question what kind of stereotype the episode is aiming for with Daley: the nerdy loner with no friends. An overweight loser who eats whole pizzas and can't get a date. A "beta" male who has lost girlfriends to his more popular "alpha" male friend. A men's rights activist who, when given a chance, would treat women like absolute crap and blames the opposite sex for all of his problems. That Daley forces the women in his program to kiss him, tortures those who refuse to follow his orders, and commits actual VR murder make him not just a repulsive human being, but a poor representation of a major Star Trek fan. Though geeks like this still exist, no doubt, Trekkies shook this stereotype as their default representative long ago.
The Star Trek universe that Gene Roddenberry created was intended to be a world of peace, prosperity, and the best that humanity could achieve. It was an idealized future wherein racism, sexism, classism, poverty, and many other negative aspects of society had been eliminated. Humans, Roddenberry hoped and imagined, would grow past their differences and come together as a species to explore the galaxy. Conflicts with other species would occur, naturally, but mostly through misunderstandings as a result of cultural miscommunication, which Starfleet would go to great lengths to avoid. It's this aspiration of peace and integrity that Daley doesn't understand, making him a poor representation of what Trekkies love about the franchise and what they strive to embrace.
True Star Trek fans embrace the vision of Gene Roddenberry. They understand that equality, tolerance, diplomacy, and kindness are the real virtues that will enhance our society and lead us down a more prosperous path. It's particularly interesting that Daley's VR program doesn't include an avatar representation of Star Trek's Spock. As a Vulcan, Spock values logic above all, and would no doubt point out just how wrong Daley's actions were and how they may violate Space Fleet's version of the Prime Directive. But Daley doesn't open himself up to that kind of criticism, nor is he an adequate representation of Trekkies today, or ever. Fans of the series come in all genders, from all backgrounds, and value the tolerant and peaceful future that Star Trek portrays. Black Mirror may be trying to show us how tech can affect our lives, but unfortunately "U.S.S. Callister" resorts to an offensive stereotype that doesn't actually understand what Star Trek is about.