The ‘Black Mirror’ episode ‘USS Callister’ is a journey of space and mind


(Black Mirror/ Facebook)

By John Buday, Collegian Correspondent
February 1, 2018

What does a person become when you give them the power to take out their frustrations by any means they wish, without consequence? Robert Daly answers that question in an emphatic fashion in a highly intriguing episode of “Black Mirror.”

As CTO of a hyper-realistic VR gaming company, Daly goes to work every day greeted with lukewarm reception from his peers. Save for Walton, the CEO of their company who gives him hell about not updating the software of the game by a set deadline, Daly’s other coworkers pay him little attention. For the first 10 minutes or so of the episode, it’s easy to feel sorry for the soft-spoken, seemingly timid guy.

However, this is by design, for beneath the scrutiny of his coworkers is a man who is anything but shy about inflicting punishment on those whom he feels have wronged him. Outside of the office, Daly transforms from a shy and awkward mortal into the unmerciful god of his own galactic playground, where virtual copies of his coworkers are forced to play along with his fantasies or else risk endless varieties of torture (including but not limited to: taking away your face, transforming you into a crustaceous spider monster and making you watch your son freeze to death in outer space).

It’s an evil fate, but also an absurd one. As the undisputed leader of the USS Callister, Daly leads his crew to roleplay with him in a Star Trek-inspired world straight out of his own childhood. They repeat through the same contrived, hokey adventures over and over again with the same end result: Captain Daly defeating the evil Valdack and standing tall as the heroic, fearless captain of his fleet.

Then, after victory, they celebrate his unquestionable genius with cheers and praises while he kisses each female member of the crew in turn. Daly’s level of commitment to that narrative supersedes the most contrived, cringe-worthy of nerd soap operas (not that you can’t enjoy those, but this one’s really bad). In that respect, it forms an additional psychological punishment for the rest of the crew when neither member is being outright singled out.

Who would have thought that the weird, socially awkward Robert Daly could have so such an appetite for human suffering? We know from his position in the company that he is an elite level programmer—as newcomer Nanette Cole describes it, his coding is, “sublime.”

However, no one but Daly himself knows of the dark secret he keeps in his computer (no one in the real world, at least), not even Walton, the most blatantly disrespectful of them all. It made for a compelling character turn despite being so early in the plot, though with a smaller window for character development to set up that turn. More important than that, it was executed in such a way that I did not see it coming, which got me onto another thread of thinking upon finishing the episode.

What if every person in the world had access to their own virtual reality server where they could punish their colleagues at will without fear of reprisal? More people, perhaps even our own friends and associates, would at least be prone to straying down Daly’s path towards villainy.

There’s no sure-fire way to read a person’s mind or intentions, Daly being the prime example since he went unsuspected of his dark and vengeful intentions. Those people would also have an easy justification for their actions: Those they hurt (virtual clones) aren’t technically real, so there’d be no harm done. It’s a scary premise to think about, but one that the “USS Callister” episode poses masterfully through the interactions between Daly and his crew/coworkers.

As a person who is still in the midst of getting into “Black Mirror,” I anticipate exploring more questions like these that stretch the imagination and make you reconsider ideas of morality, human behavior and so on. If you’re a newcomer to the “Black Mirror” series, I think this is a great episode to start with. Unlike other chronological series, you can watch episodes in any order since neither one connects to the other.

The series reminds me in various ways of “The Twilight Zone,” where nothing is as it seems. As with that series, “Black Mirror” blurs the lines between the known and unknown, creating a gray area where even basic fundamentals are questionable. “USS Callister” represents these trends, which hopefully will continue as an integral part of the series’ appeal.

John Buday can be reached at

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