Episode 1: USS Callister

Black Mirror likes the theme of virtual reality, and sometimes leans on it too heavily to avoid suspending the viewer’s disbelief more than necessary. In spite of that, each episode does something different with virtual reality, often addressing very different issues. USS Callister differs in that this is a world where one of the participating characters is in control. In other VR/AR episodes characters either just live in the world (San Junipero) or are controlled by in (Playtest, Men Against Fire, Hang the DJ). Robert has created his own sandbox universe that he controls. This alone could potentially be enough to create an episode around, but the real crux is Robert’s DNA-digitization technology, which enables Robert’s fantasy to actually have an impact—or not, this is left up to the interpretation of the viewer. This ambiguity is central to the Black of this episode.

The Black of this episode is what we would do in a world we control, and if those actions are excusable if the victims are not real people. The avatars on the USS Callister are ambiguously sentient. On one hand, they have real memories, emotions, and are self-aware. On the other hand, they are clones of people that exist in the real world, and may not be considered a separate entity—they may merely be a simulation of that person. Robert’s actions in the real world would certainly be reproached, but if this is his way of “letting off steam”, or is “cathartic”, then some may excuse it, no matter how real his victims seem. USS Callister strains the logic that what Robert is doing is justifiable by specifically having Robert’s desire for his universe be that it is wholesome. He offsets the atrocities he commits, in his own mind, by playing them out against the backdrop of a sanitary world.

Robert’s relationship with the world of USS Callister is deeper than just being a backdrop for his revenge. It is a world that he appears to truly love, to borrow some cliques: the good old days, a better time, or a simpler time. This may have been a time when the values on TV aligned with a Puritan world view, but it was also a time when people (men) like Robert were clearly in charge, able do whatever they wanted. Robert’s crew contains representatives from several groups who have been marginalized; women, people of colour, immigrants. This isn’t a fantasy world for him, plus a revenge playground, it’s just a fantasy world. The term used for bringing these people into the game is called assimilation, “the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation, or the state of being so adapted” (dictionary.com). Robert wants his crew to become a part of his world, not to be their own individuals and enjoy the world he has created. Instead, Robert wants his crew to reject their unique identities and become part of the world he has created.

What is Robert’s crew to do? They can’t die—as Robert says, “You won’t die you know. No one dies in here unless I want them to.” What are the marginalized to do when they are still useful to those that have power over them? Their only choice is to fight back. They actually do this in a fairly commendable way since they can’t actually hurt Robert, although they would probably not take this approach by choice. And since trapping Robert in his own mind seems fairly unintentional, I would consider the plan non-violent. Ultimately it’s up to the viewer whether Robert’s fate is deserved. The crew doesn’t seem to care, after they are liberated they don’t give Robert a second thought. Was he beyond saving, or was this a compartmentalized indulgence that didn’t reflect his overall character. With the number of men being currently being discovered to have their own compartmentalized indulgences, you only have to look around to see what many peoples’ judgement would be.

It’s worth considering whether the DNA-digitization technology could actually be beneficial. Similar to the use cases in San Junipero and Black Museum, this technology seems most useful for terminally ill people, or life-prolongment in general. However, the digital version of yourself can probably never leave the game, so the uses are somewhat limited. There may be something to this technology in terms of simulation, what better way of running a simulation than to actually have a person do those things. But I’ll talk more about that topic in a later post.

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