By: Taliyah Jarrett
Technology—the root of social unrest and turmoil in the dystopian television series, Black Mirror. This futuristic world brings fantasized technologies and real world concepts to life, but always with a twist. In the real world, for instance, software engineers are developing incredibly realistic virtual reality video games. Black Mirror translates this idea into an episode in which people could replicate themselves and place their clones in a virtual reality video game. Centering the plot around a socially awkward video game programmer creating a private video game server, the episode “USS Callister” questions the advancements of human and artificial intelligence. Would software clones care if they were being abused for another person’s entertainment? What happens if powerful technology ends up in the wrong hands? In “USS Callister,” Robert Daly creates his own isolated virtual utopia solely to torment his employees, but unknowingly creates a rebellion that destroys his perfect universe.
The episode starts with Robert Daly in his virtual world as a suave space captain on his ship, the USS Callister. He and his crew members successfully defeat Robert’s arch nemesis, Valdack. After the abundance of compliments regarding their victory, the episode cuts to Robert in the real world – miserable and ignored. Here, he is a Chief Technical Officer working for his shared video game company called, “USS Callister.” The company name was derived from Robert’s favorite TV show, Space Fleet. Later in the episode, we learn that Robert uses Space Fleet to re-modify the company-owned video game, Infinity, in order to create his own private server (“USS Callister”). Robert feels unappreciated in the real world, so he steals his employees’ DNA, creates virtual clones, and places them in his private version of Infinity. Robert is able to make his own perfect world, where his employees can never leave, and he has absolute authority. Robert is constantly ignored and undermined in the real world, especially by his staff. Despite being one of the managers at USS Callister, the employees treat the CEO, James Walton, as their only boss. This dynamic fuels Robert’s creation of an alternative world where he has complete control over his DNA replicated crew.
In Robert’s utopia, the crew members are his servants; they follow his orders and if they step out of line, there are massive consequences. This is seen when Nanette, the newest crew member, blatantly disregards Robert’s orders. With a snap of his fingers, Robert removes Nanette’s entire face, so she cannot see or breathe. He warns her that he could keep her like this—lying on the floor and gasping for air. “No one dies here unless I want them to,” he taunts (“USS Callister”). Then he arrogantly asks, “Do you submit?” Helpless and defeated, Nanette nods, agreeing that Robert will have complete rule over her (“USS Callister”). We later learn that an employee Robert stole DNA from was also in his secretly made version of Infinity and was so defiant towards Robert that he turned her into an Arachnajax. Arachnajaxes are giant monstrous creatures that Robert dumps on empty planets to suffer alone for eternity (“USS Callister”). Because of Robert’s immense amount of power and the crew members’ lack of independence, Robert’s God-complex satisfies his desire for revenge.
In many utopian literary works, accounts of repeated domineering and abuse lead the people of that society to revolt. In Robert’s utopia, Nanette and the others devise a successful plan to get themselves out of the virtual universe, where they are finally free of Robert’s wrath. The episode ends with the real Robert Daly’s mind stuck in the virtual reality of his broken utopia, the Space Fleet model malfunctioning, and the virtual Robert Daly trapped on his ship— alone and powerless.
Ironically, Robert is trapped in his virtual utopia for infinity. This was all because Robert did not feel appreciated in the workplace and passive-aggressively took his anger out on his staff members. Even though the real world was not his utopia, Robert attempts to create his perfect world in an idealistic setting – a place where he could be a dictator and torment the ones who wrong him. Nevertheless, his bitterness and personal grudges lead to his downfall. This is one of the reasons why utopias created by animosity and subjectivity tend to fail. Technology created by the dictator is usually faulty and the people of that utopia, arguably their dystopia, take advantage of these technological flaws.
This Black Mirror episode combines the use of software clones in virtual reality with malicious intent. “USS Callister” serves as a cautionary tale that reminds us of the consequences of extreme technological advancements. If a person makes digital clones, for instance, there is still a chance these clones could have the same emotional responses as the individual in the real world. Plus, there is a possibility that these DNA replicas could be under the command of another vengeful man like Robert Daly. For these reasons, it would be a utopia for the leader who creates the chaos and an existential burden for everyone living in it.
“USS Callister.” Black Mirror, Season 4, Episode 1, Netflix, 29 Dec. 2017.