Are we supposed to feel at ease watching an episode of Black Mirror?
Just recently I was entertained, titillated, utterly compelled and, above all else, comforted by an episode, “U.S.S. Callister,” that leapt off the back of video games to perform a cultural takedown of today’s most viral villain: the white, male, entitled asshole. I loved seeing this asshole taken to pieces. In a narrative arc that dually served as an homage to nostalgic fandom and a criticism of our reliance on it, this episode of Black Mirror was focused, aesthetically cohesive, and, above all else, emotionally complete.
It was, in other words, not an episode of Black Mirror at all. It was an episode of Star Trek. And the technological catalyst for its conflict, video games, was excised of nuance, chucked backward to the time of arguments about violence and artistic illegitimacy, and flattened into a red carpet for trivial, literally fictional, victory. There is no rule that requires Black Mirror and its writers to treat video games well just because I like them, but for this lack of nuance, the episode itself would come to fail a much more essential goal, that of Black Mirror’s entire premise. There were no people in “U.S.S. Callister,” only video game avatars, and so no reflection ensued.
But the first few scenes might have you thinking otherwise. After a brief introduction of the virtual reality gaming set-up, in which coder Robert Daly gets to play the daring, Kirk-esque leader of a space crew to a resounding and reverent conclusion, the episode’s pallet switches to the muddled greys and harsh fluorescence of everyday work and an insufferable feeling of paradoxical ineptitude. Daly is actually the genius creator of the virtual reality massive multiplayer game Infinity, and what he had been playing was a modded version of his game fit to his obsession: Space Fleet, or, basically, Star Trek. His daily life does not reflect the intellectual and masculine stature in his game. Instead, despite being a co-owner of his very large, very successful company, he’s an introverted, disrespected, unloved doormat enslaved to the ideation of his favorite show and the unglamorous utility accepted by his company and his co-workers. It turns out his Space Fleet crew is occupied by virtual doppelgangers of his co-workers, and in this fantasy he finds emotional, psychological, and eventually physical power over them that he cannot attain in the flesh.
Jane McGonigal in her 2011 book "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World" describes something of a reflection to the character of Daly when she writes “they are the nine-to-fivers who come home and apply all of the smarts and talents that are underutilized at work to plan and coordinate complex raids and quests in massively multiplayer online games like Final Fantasy XI and the Lineage worlds…they’re the kids and teenagers worldwide who would rather spend hours in front of just about any computer game or video game than do anything else.” This would appear to be the thing “U.S.S. Callister” is darkly reflecting.
But then the show pulls a trick. Any sympathy directed toward Daly in early scenes, in failed attempts to flirt and the general unease with which he dispatches upon his co-workers, is deliberately swept away by the episode’s defining perversion. Daly has invented a machine that literally copies the DNA of a human being into the game, and the result is something existentially horrific: the character is sentient, fully aware, and trapped in a torture box in which Daly is God and his vengeance brutal. Daly is fully aware of this fact, and doubly revels in the torment he churns out for the fact that his office doppelgangers’ emotional terror is palpably real. Every 90’s kid that dangled Roller Coaster Tycoon characters over high-speed thrill rides or pitted sims against each other in emotional death matches felt a quick stomach turn, but after the shock wears off for characters and viewer alike, we’re left with the villain who comes into no ethical or moral qualm about the nature of his creations. Any potential for introspection on technology is paved over for a by-the-numbers plot about overcoming a tyrant.
Daly is psychopathic in-game, numbingly quiet and ineffectual in the real world, and so naturally lives every day as swiftly as he can to return to the living dollhouse hidden in his computer. There is no space for reflection in this episode on the function of digital personalities, especially as the plot barrels chaotically toward its happy conclusion. Somewhere early in this characterization, I think it’s safe to say, we lose the rosier outlook of Jane McGonigal.
McGonigal is optimistic across her entire text, to the point where it can be difficult to agree with her on the general premise that gaming ought to be integrated across the human experience. Nevertheless, she begins her argument with the basic assumption that the escape into the game is more than a running away from reality. It’s a running towards intellectual satisfaction, psychological reprieve, motivational structure, aesthetic pleasure, and so on and so on. Undoubtedly, Black Mirror ought never to be positive by default, but this episode begins with an idea of gaming that belongs to a dead but easy breed of thinking, and in so relying on such an archetype as the entitled, whiny gamer does two things: beckons a young Matthew Broderick for the lead role and eviscerates any real speculation about the future utilization of virtual reality gaming. If in this take I mistake the purpose of the episode I argue then that the episode has mistaken the purpose of the show.
If the episode is about the pitfalls of male masculinity, particularly in the workplace, then it is equally about women’s relationship to emotionally warped men. “U.S.S. Callister” hands heroic duties to Nanette Cole, who joins the Infinity office in admiration of Daly’s work only to inadvertently submit her digital doppelganger to his infantile whims. She wouldn’t return his flirtatious gaze and was thusly punished. Again, Daly is fully aware that his digital prisoners are sentient. He’s never, at least as portrayed in the episode, confronted with this realization about the nature of his invention. He’s never confronted with the nature of himself. And if that’s the statement, it most certainly is a fair assessment of certain men in power, but it’s not a fair assessment of the widespread use of video games. Daly is meant to represent badly calibrated fandom and abuse of power, but by placing him in a privileged position outside the world by default, in spite of his social malfeasances, the character never coalesces beyond caricature. If it was McGonigal’s conception of the gamer – average on the outside, yearning for validation on the inside – then the episode would have given us a compelling arc. Instead there is no change from the average to the twisted. We’re given a baseline that never morphs.
By turn, everybody else’s role in this virtual drama gets flattened into one dimension, as well. Cole refuses to play into Daly’s fantasy. She outwits him and leads the team to escape his grasp, becoming a de facto leader to the crew within the online universe of Infinity. Outside of the game? Daly rots, stuck in his fantasy simulation. Beyond that not much else. The episode has transitioned so heavily into kitschy sci-fi by this point that Cole’s role outside of the game, caught in the necessity of plot, manifests almost spontaneously the cunning of a thief in a subplot to steal real-life Daly’s DNA samples, so that he cannot produce any more doppelganger copies for torture. Her real-life drama becomes a half-finished side-quest to the heightened reality of the game. Of course, this isn’t Cole’s actual arc, since her doppelganger in the game is metaphysically separate from her physical version. And the two characters become so narratively distinct by the end of the episode that there’s really no metaphorical linkage between them by the end. Cole’s victory in-game is not Cole’s victory out of game, betraying entirely the possibility that a game could offer this emotional victory to a player. Instead, Daly, as the only character to exist both in and out of game, is our only cipher for gaming’s utility. In that light it is singularly self-aggrandizing fiction.
Less lofty properties concerning themselves with applications of highly immersive gaming, like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Ready Player One, look by comparison, intellectually uncompromising by offering at least a plurality of experience. The one live player, dubbed Gamer691, Cole and crew encounter once they escape the Space Fleet mod into the whole of the online game grants the episode a telling quota. Swiftly abandoned by Cole for his brash, childlike behavior, he espouses to no-one in particular, “King of space right here. King of space.” The argument is simple – they’re all shades of the same putrid grey.
The contract that Black Mirror has scripted over its four seasons with viewers contains, or seemed to contain, the rich ambiguity of a partially answered question. All technology goes incomplete in its mission, simply because its users are flawed, thus to tie a narrative knot around an ambiguous use of technology is to betray what ought to be seen as the wider objective of the show: discomfort, and not the other thing. Flawed does not mean villainous. “U.S.S. Callister” wants to talk about fandom and toxic masculinity on the back of a premise regarding virtual reality video games. But by, in a way, pre-rendering a comforting, stereotypical vision of the technology it exploits for the sake of the episode’s message, any message is lost, not to confusion but to blinding joy.
In a Black Mirror episode, a video game, or a simulation of any sort, is and commonly has been a vector for human reflection. In Star Trek, it’s a vector for self-satisfactory philosophical and emotional wholeness. The difference there is what lingers. If anything, a Black Mirror episode ought to linger, but after “U.S.S. Callister” I was only happy.