A few days ago, I wrote a lengthy post about the treatment of mavericks and mutineers in recent science fiction, using the characters of Michael Burnham in Star Trek Discovery and Poe Dameron in The Last Jedi as examples (there’s also a detour into West German postwar cinema among other things, because I’m weird that way).
The main point was that both Michael Burnham and Poe Dameron, though normally loyal officers and typical hero material for their respective franchises, get into conflict with their respective superiors and find themselves pushed to the point of mutiny. In the past, both characters would have been proven right and their attempts at mutiny would have been forgiven, especially since we have seen plenty of characters do the same things Michael and Poe did in their respective franchises. However, both Michael and Poe are unlucky. Not only do their respective mutinies fail, both characters also pay dearly for what they did. Michael is tragically proven right and yet punished out of proportion for what she actually did and also considers herself wrongly responsible for the deaths of a whole lot of people, including her captain and a Starfleet admiral. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron is proven tragically wrong to such an extent that it’s obvious the plot is rigged against him, especially since a quick conversation could have cleared up Poe’s misunderstandings. Poe is also punished, though in proportion to the actual crime, and actually is indirectly responsible for the deaths of a whole lot of people, including a highly decorated Resistance vice admiral.
Star Trek Discovery uses its mutiny and punishment plot to initiate a redemption arc for a character who doesn’t really need one and also furthers its creepy focus on victory through pain and suffering. The Last Jedi uses its mutiny and punishment plot to make a point about individualism, toxic masculinity and the wisdom of older women. All of these are worthy points, The Last Jedi just doesn’t make them very well.
Viewed in isolation, I would have considered what happened to Michael Burnham and Poe Dameron merely bad plotting and an attempt to make a point that doesn’t work. However, two stories about heroic characters turning mutineer and failing miserably and getting punished appearing in two of science fiction’s biggest franchises, franchises which normally celebrate maverick heroes and heroines at that, so shortly after another seemed like a troubling pattern, particularly considering that there are plenty of voices already calling for more conformity, lest we ‘force’ the poor beleaguered regular people to vote for extremist parties, because everybody’s individualism is so very in their face.
Shortly after I wrote that post, however, I came across another filmic science fiction tale about a mutiny in space, a tale that’s part of a small franchise, but mimics one of science fiction’s biggest franchises. And this time around, the mutiny is successful.
I’m talking about “USS Callister”, an episode of the latest season of the British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror. There will be spoilers under the cut, so read on at your own peril:
Now Black Mirror is a series I was aware of, but never watched until last year, largely because I harbour an intense dislike for Black Mirror creator/showrunner Charlie Brooker stemming from his time as a TV critic for The Guardian approximately ten years ago. And as a TV critic, Brooker not only regularly praised shows I disliked and slammed those I liked, he was also a jerk about it. He was also influential, because a lot of people parrotted his opinions. So when Charlie Brooker switched from criticism to screenwriting, I decided to ignore his output. For starters, we obviously had very different tastes, so it was highly unlikely I’d enjoy any program he made. And secondly, there is plenty of good programming made by people I don’t find unpleasant, more than I have time to watch, so I can safely skip over programming made by unpleasant people.
So I never watched Black Mirror nor anything else Brooker did until last year, when the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” was nominated for a Hugo Award in the best dramatic presentation short form category. Since I was a Hugo voter, I sought it out and watched it and actually liked it a whole lot. Indeed, “San Junipero” was the first time I faced the “good work made by bad people” conundrum. In short, my personal Hugo voting policy is: “good work made by good people” will be ranked accordingly above “no award” (in normal years, these will be the majority of the finalists), “bad work by good people” (i.e. things I don’t like, but with whose creators I have no issues) will be ranked below “no award” and “bad work by bad people” (puppy leaders and a very few others I have personal beef with and will not vote for) I will leave off the ballot entirely. In theory, there should also be “good work by bad people”, but in practice I had never come across an example during the puppy heyday of 2015/16, simply because if I have issues with a person, their work normally isn’t to my taste either.
But then I watched “San Junipero” and here was a very good piece of television made by a person I really did not like. And mind you, I’m not calling Charlie Brooker a bad person or equating him with the puppies, he’s simply someone who’s rubbed me the wrong way in the past. I would have similar issues if e.g. a good episode of The Orville wound up on the Hugo shortlist, because I dislike Seth MacFarlane. In the end, I put “San Junipero” in the top spot in the best dramatic presentation short form category (though it lost out to The Expanse in the final voting), because the Hugos should be about the work (which was very good) and not the creator. And besides, film and television are team efforts anyway and a whole lot of people beyond Charlie Brooker were involved in “San Junipero”.
But though I’d enjoyed one episode, I still did not watch the rest of Black Mirror, if only because I have a huge backlog of shows I like a lot more and still haven’t found time to watch. However, when I saw the promos for season 4 (because of the link round-ups at the Speculative Fiction Showcase, I see a lot of trailers for and reviews of shows I don’t watch) and saw that there would be a Star Trek parody episode, I was intrigued, especially considering there currently are two other takes on Star Trek on the air, one official version, Star Trek Discovery, which is of highly variable quality to put it mildly, and one unofficial version, The Orville, which seems to be doing a better job of being Trek-like than the official show. So it would be interesting to see what a third take on Star Trek would add to the mix.
In the end, it turns out that “USS Callister”, the “Star Trek” episode of Black Mirror is only superficially about Star Trek. This shouldn’t really come as a huge surprise, since Black Mirror normally focusses on “five minutes into the future” tech dystopias and not far future space opera. And indeed, my initial reaction to the “USS Callister” scenes in the general season 4 trailer was, “Huh. Now that doesn’t look like Black Mirror at all.”
And indeed it quickly turns out that the scenes in the trailer of a day-glo 1960ish Star Trek type space adventure are just an immersive virtual reality game created by a programmer named Robert Daley, where he can forget his sad everyday existence and instead live in the world of his favourite TV show, a Star Trek clone called “Space Fleet”, as the heroic captain leading an adoring crew to explore the unknown. At first glance, this seems to be harmless enough, though it is notable that the crew of the USS Callister look very much like his co-workers. Things take a turn towards the seriously creepy when Daley steals the coffee cup of a new employee, swabs it for DNA and pushes a sample into a device attached to his computer.
The employee in question, Nanette Cole, suddenly finds herself aboard the USS Callister as part of the crew. Turns out that Daley has been recreating self-aware and sentient copies of his co-workers inside the game from the DNA samples he steals. Of course, DNA doesn’t work that way, but then the episode is less interested in scientific accuracy and more in making a point about toxic masculinity and (male) nerd entitlement. Inside the game, Daley is not just captain but god, warping reality like a particularly toxic Gary Stu. People who annoy him, whether in or outside the game, are turned into monsters, have their faces erased or are killed off in gruesome ways. In one case, Daley even throws the kid of his business partner out of the airlock.
Daley is a monster, but he is a monster we are familiar with. Because we’ve met this dude. We’ve met him dozens of times, both online and off. On occasion, we’ve even been this dude. He’s the Star Trek fan who cries that the franchise as now fallen to the social justice warriors, because the lead of Discovery is a woman of colour. He’s the Star Wars fan who first claimed the prequels murdered his childhood and now insists that Disney personally hates him and all real fans (TM) because Star Wars now features women and people of colour and because it turned out the Jedi were not such a great thing after all and that Luke was definitely bloody useless as a Jedi. He’s the Doctor Who fan who freaked out at references to modern pop culture in the show and who completely freaked out when the Doctor started kissing people and had a heart attack when the Doctor regenerated into a woman. He’s the Ghostbusters fan who cannot get his mind around an all-female reboot. He’s the Lovecraft fan who can’t handle the fact that people are discussing Lovecraft’s racism. He’s the Marvel Comics fan who’s furious that Thor is a woman now and Captain America a black man, that Ms. Marvel is a muslim teenager and that Captain Marvel has short hair and no longer wears revealing costumes. And heavens beware if there is a hint of romance or sex in his science fiction entertainment. And indeed, Daley makes very sure that there will be no filthy sex invading his personal space adventure and recreates his puppet crew sans genitals, though he does insist on melodramatic kisses from the female crewmembers. Robert Daley is what happens when such a person is given the power not just over his favourite media property, but over people as well. Though he sure as hell doesn’t see his crew of enslaved co-worker replicas as human, which is his downfall in the end.
Because when Daley is not logged into the game, his crew is more or less left stranded with nothing to do and no way to escape, because Daley’s private little playground is walled off from the MMORPG of which it is a part. And so, led by Nanette, Daley’s crew begins to plot against him. Nanette hacks into the game and sends her real life counterpart a message. When that does not work, she blackmails herself with private photos to sabotage real life Daley, while virtual Nanette seduces virtual Daley (well, as much as possible, considering they don’t have genitalia) to get him to let down his guard. In the end, Daley is trapped alone in his virtual world, unable to exit the game, while his physical self lies dying or dead in his apartment and won’t be found anytime soon because of a long holiday weekend. Meanwhile, the USS Callister and her crew blast off through a wormhole into the greater world of the space-themed MMORPG Infinity. The ship and crew morph into something more modern looking and get their genitals back as well. They do encounter another entitled male player, apparently voiced by one of the stars of Breaking Bad (which I didn’t get, because I never watched that show), suggesting that there are many Daleys out there. But he is no threat and so Nanette settles down into the captain’s chair, while the USS Callister takes off for further adventures.
Like “San Junipero”, “USS Callister” is a great little self-contained story. Once more, the visuals are excellent. Where “San Junipero” pitch-perfectly recreated a seaside town straight from a 1980s teen movie, “USS Callister” contrasts the very 1960ish visuals of the Space Fleet scenes, the real world tech company scenes and finally, the Infinity scenes with their more modern space opera look. This is done really, really well, down to displaying the early parts of the episode in 4:3 aspect ratio. In many ways, the USS Callister with its afros, beehives, mid-riff baring, but navel hiding (navels were apparently so shocking in the 1960s that costumes such as Barbara Eden’s in I Dream of Jeannie were specifically designed to hide them and coincidentally, the original Star Trek was one of the first shows to show female navels on TV) mini-skirted uniforms and go-go boots looks even more 1960ish than the original Star Trek, which is quite a feat, considering how more 1960ish than the real 1960s Star Trek often looked. This became particularly apparent, when a German TV station reran original Star Trek episodes right after Mad Men, which was set in the very period the original Star Trek was made. And Star Trek‘s 1960s view of the 22nd century looked a lot more 1960ish than the 21st century painstaking recreation of the 1960s of Mad Men. While the colourful Space Fleet scenes evoke the peak 1960s looks of original Star Trek, the Infinity scenes at the end evoke the darker and more lensflare heavy look of contemporary science fiction from the new Battlestar Galactica via J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies to Star Trek Discovery.
Like all of Black Mirror (at least based on what I know of the series), the theme of “USS Callister” is technology and its consequences, usually negative. However, “USS Callister” has another theme and that is the toxic aspects of nerd and fan culture and the viciousness of nerd rage, a theme that is a lot more timely now thanky to Gamergate, the Sad and Rabid Puppies, the recent swatting death of an innocent man due to a quarrel in Call of Duty and other expressions of toxic fan culture than it would have been a few years ago. Daley’s social awkwardness paired with his creepy obsessiveness and seething rage, his Mary Sue fantasies, his insistence on his childhood dreamworld remaining intact and unchanged, his hostility to sexuality invading his fantasy world resonate, because we know this guy, because we’ve met him. Occasionally, we even have a little bit of Daley in ourselves. And coincidentally, talking about the hostility of certain SFF fans to sexuality, here is Black Mirror showrunner and writer Charlie Brooker in his TV critic days tearing into the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood because it contains more sex, swearing and violence than Brooker wanted to see in something derived from Doctor Who. We can easily imagine Robert Daley writing the same about a modern and grittier Space Fleet reboot. So yes, there is a little bit of Daley in many of us. “USS Callister” shows what happens when he is left to run unchecked.
But what I found particularly interesting about this episode is that after two failed mutinies in space with awful consequences for all involved in our two biggest science fiction franchises, we now have a successful mutiny in space (well, sort of) in a world modelled after one of the two big space opera franchises. And all within a few months of each other. It’s also interesting that “USS Callister” and its mutiny against toxic masculinity and nerd entitlement make the very point I suspect The Last Jedi wanted to make with Poe Dameron’s failed mutiny against Vice Admiral Holdo. Only that unlike The Last Jedi, “USS Callister” actually pulls it off. Nanette Cole also ends up where Michael Burnham should end up, after getting rid of a villainous captain (though Daley is much worse than Lorca, since Lorca at least has some redeeming features), namely in the captain’s chair.
We all know examples of very similar works coming out within weeks or months of each other, too close together for one to have influenced the other, due to some kind of zeitgeist serendipity. Whether it’s the original Star Trek and Raumpatrouille Orion coming out within two weeks of each other, the year of the two Robin Hood movies, the year of the two “asteroid hits Earth” movie or the year of the two volcano disaster movies. And in 2017, we had not just three very different takes on Star Trek coming out within a few months of each other, but we also had three stories of mutinies in space appearing within a few months of each other, two of which have a point to make about toxic masculinity. And all three show women in positions of command as well.
What, if anything, does this signify? I don’t know. But maybe, it’s time for me to reevaluate Charlie Brooker and his work, because the two Black Mirror episodes I’ve seen were both very good TV.