‘Black Mirror’ Study Guide: USS Callister
The first episode of season 4 is ultimately one big allegory for internet trolling and using technology as a means of catharsis.
‘Black Mirror’ is a satirical anthology series that examines the dark aspects of modern society, particularly as it relates to our relationship with technology. Each standalone episode presents a picture of a world that’s futuristic, yet believable; cool, yet horrifying. Each of these study guides will touch on some of the themes the episode explores.
“USS Callister”, the first episode of the 4th season of Black Mirror, is one big allegory for internet trolling. Callister is the video game developer the story is set in, but much of the episode takes place in the USS Callister, a spaceship in “Infinity”, the company’s flagship virtual reality online game. The USS Callister is led by Captain Robert Daly, who, in reality, is Bob Daly, CTO and Co-Founder of Callister.
When we first meet Daly, he seems like a sympathetic figure. He’s quiet, treated like a bit of an outcast, and openly disrespected, even though he was and is the brains behind the game. He spends his days in his office, door closed, and rushes home after work to dive in to his own private, “modded” version of the game. Initial guesses would be that this is to be alone and relieve stress, or perhaps because he’s more fond of single-player than online multiplayer. Nope.
It turns out Daly’s “mod” is that he has made digital clones of his co-workers in the game, using their DNA, and lives out the fantasies he cannot realize in reality. The receptionist who barely looks up from her phone to greet him now obeys his commands, the co-worker who is reluctant to get him his coffee now does so before he even finishes making the request, and the partner who co-founded the company with him and likes to belittle him, now bends to his will, often serving as a human footrest.
It’s retaliation through digital abuse. It’s online trolling. The more belittled he feels at work on any given day, the quicker he rushes to get home and into the game to avenge himself. He can’t get his way at work, so he makes damn sure he gets it online, in the game he built. In the real world, he’s treated like an ant, so in the game (a metaphor for the internet), he lives life like a God. This is akin to Twitter eggs and online trolls who spew hatred against people they don’t really know, often just to feel better about themselves.
The Internet As Escape, Refuge, Catharsis
A commonly-listed reason for playing video games is to relieve stress, or to “escape” reality for a while. The internet is slowly taking up that role, too, not so much by allowing us to “escape”, but by giving us the power to unleash our angst directly at the source. Before smartphones and social media, if your co-worker was being an asshole, there was very little you could do, in terms of retaliation. Now, you can rant on Facebook. Back in the day, Sports were one of the few forms of escapism, but you were doomed if your team failed to reach the heights you wanted them to. Now, you can tweet directly at the athletes who “failed” you. (See: Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets”)
Black Mirror has always shown us technology and the dark side of using it in certain ways, but the finger has always been pointed at us, the user. Technology appeals to our worst selves. We don’t know when to stop. When Nanette defeats Daly and he’s left floating endlessly in the world he created, it’s a message: digitally abusing people may feel good in the moment and it may feel like an escape, but it won’t change anything for you. It’ll just make you angrier, more lonely, more empty, like you’re floating around in an endless dark void of your own creation.
Bonus: Two Small Details I Loved
- The make-up difference between Callister Daly and USS Callister Daly.
- Nanette using her own nudes against herself.