Warning: this review contains spoilers
Black Mirror can at times feel like a game of spot-the-reference. For a show about the future, this modern Twilight Zone always has one eye on its pop culture past. Last year, its writer Charlie Brooker even produced a (somewhat self-indulgent) alphabetical list of the show’s 105 main influences.
USS Callister is no exception, though it doesn’t so much allude to its source as gleefully clobber you over the head with it: Star Trek. Specifically the Star Trek of cheap quarry sets, questionable sexual politics and William Shatner’s toupee.
It suffers from the fact that so many others have boldly gone here before – most notably the nigh-unimprovable 1999 film Galaxy Quest. None the less, USS Callister’s opening sequence, bursting with colour and the low-quality fuzz of a sixties TV broadcast, is guaranteed to raise a nostalgic smile.
That smile disappears when we learn what is actually happening. Software designer Robert Daly (a deliciously oily Jesse Plemons) is enacting his TV-inspired fantasies in an immersive Virtual Reality game peopled with “digital clones” of his colleagues, whom he can toy with and torture without consequence.
The horror comes from the fact that these clones (a strong ensemble cast, including Chewing Gum star Michaela Coel) are self-aware. They know they can never escape the computer programme, and are doomed to spend eternity appeasing their “a--hole god”.
That may sound grim, but the tone throughout is perkier than we’ve come to expect from Black Mirror. Fans who found last year’s San Junipero too optimistic may have similar gripes here, but it will be a treat for anyone who felt there was something a little smug and self-indulgent about Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s Star Trek homage The Orville (which MacFarlane wrote and produced, casting himself as its hero).
On the surface, USS Callister seems like one of this year’s shallower episodes – Brooker has called it his attempt to write a “fun summer blockbuster” – but it raises some prescient, topical points about how men in power abuse their positions of authority.
Plemons’s character isn’t just a send-up of certain kind of intolerant fanboy, or a symbol of how we enact our darker impulses online (that old Black Mirror chestnut), but a sharp attack on an entire genre of male-driven narrative.
Black Mirror: every episode ranked and rated
When Daly first meets his new coworker Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), it feels like the start of a story we’ve been fed in too many films and TV shows: a socially awkward man runs into an attractive younger woman, who turns out to be the only person who really appreciates his hidden genius. She falls for him, and the "nice guy" accepts her as his prize. When Daly’s decidedly un-nice nature is revealed, we are led to ask why we felt like siding with him in the first place. It’s not just Daly who’s creating an sexist fantasy: half of Hollywood is.
The script was co-written by Brooker and William Bridges long before the Weinstein scandal broke, though as the #metoo campaign grows, it couldn’t feel more timely. Cole’s victory over her creepy boss in the high-fiving finale might not feel very Black Mirror, but it’s the kind of story it would be good to hear more often.