#SGWatch4U: Black Mirror’s return forgoes its usual dark arc for a fantastically constructed homage that will please sci-fi geeks

#SGWatch4U is our weekly screen review column where we tackle anything from film to TV/Netflix.

It seems the legacy of Star Trek is iconic enough to live on into the far future. Black Mirror’s long awaited Season 4 dropped on Netflix Dec 29, and kicked off with a thoughtful tribute to the 1960s space opera.

USS Callister, the title of the season’s first episode, boasts enough easter eggs and professional parody to have it ranked with the likes of 1999’s Galaxy Quest; the only downside was that it perhaps sought to please sci-fi fans more than it did the anthology series’ dedicated following.

Named after the spacecraft on which the story’s action centers, the episode plunges straight into a grittily filmed adventure that looks like it was processed through a Gudak film camera app. A classic Captain Kirk type (Jesse Plemmons) comandeers the ship, and with his merry crew defeat their archenemy. There’s the melodramatic one-liners, space warlord talk, and even the cursory alien character; a cliched round of victory kisses for the captain tops off the four-minute scene. It’s pastiche of the highest degree, but best of all, it sets the tone for the fact that literally anything can happen next.

Surprise surprise, then, when the scene cuts to mundane real life—where “Captain Daly” is awkward recluse Robert Daly, who also happens to be head nerd programmer at a massive gaming company. He may be the brains behind the company’s best-selling simulation game Infinity, but Daly goes through life disrespected by his colleagues and his co-founder. Well all that pent-up hatred has to go somewhere—so into his own private version of Infinity it goes.

And that’s where the opening scene comes into play. For every person who’s wronged him in the office, Daly digitally clones them into his game as part of his crew. And because he designed the code for the game, he controls every little aspect, and can torment them as he pleases. The first shoe drops when it’s revealed that the digital copies are actually sentient beings, able to think and feel indepedently from their real selves. Suddenly the cheesy lines and submissive secondary characters become a lot more sinister—the crew aren’t just cheeky tributes to the Star Trek formula; they’ve been forced to become caricatures of science fiction to literally play along with Daly.

The premise is fantastic—and subtle. On the surface, sci-fi fans are able to enjoy the many visual references to the genre; and in doing so USS Callister is able to harness these very references to surface critiques of our society, a la classic Black Mirror. Daly’s personal fantasy is so painfully accurate of sci-fi tropes that when placed in a “real world” setting, it highlights issues like overt sexism, bullying and racism. It seems a bit of a letdown, then, that the episode never fully explores these, and instead chooses to make perfecting the homage its focus.

At 1 hr 16 min, USS Callister measures up to some of Black Mirror’s beefiest episodes, which usually promise slick, well thought-out twists—like the multi-level reveals in White Christmas, or the stomach-drop conclusion to Hated in the Nation, perfectly timed after 86 min of steadily paced action. The series’ return after a year-long wait, unfortunately, doesn’t deliver on that same promise of unnerving, moralistic impact fans have come to know it so well for.

From the beginning, Black Mirror has set itself apart by not giving people what they want; it deconstructs the classic conflict-resolution narrative in favor of something far less palatable. Life is unfair, and Black Mirror is here to remind you of it. Ironically, by bending to the “happy ending” arc this time round, the show disappoints. The villains get their comeuppance and the good guys escape scotch-free—and we’re left feeling like we didn’t get what we came for. At moments the show touches briefly on morality and artificial intelligence (do we sympthaize with mistreated-but-evil Daly, or the digital clones who don’t even exist in real life?), but these give way to action plots and strategic comedy (actor Jimmie Simpson shines for his comedic timing). Even Season 3’s San Junipero, widely regarded as a standout episode for its happy ending, leaves on an ominous takeaway note about death, free will and cloud storage; USS Callister’s moral of the story reads more as a weak warning against interacting with nerds.

Regardless, the episode deserves a standing ovation for its cinematic production alone, and the detail with which it pays respect to ‘60s sci-fi greats. Perhaps the producers were too busy refining their ideal homage that they lost the essence of the series along the way; or perhaps they wanted something a little more festive and mainstream for the holiday release date (co-writer Charlie Brooker himself called it “the most mainstream” episode of the series). It’s a great piece of work; just not a great Black Mirror episode.

In true Black Mirror consumption fashion, we gave ourselves the head space and downtime to watch just one episode at a time. The twist here was that USS Callister didn’t need it.