Sometimes a movie or show will hit hard with truths and give a concise picture of a reality you felt in the back of your mind but couldn’t quite place a finger on.
Season 4, Episode 1 of Black Mirror may be my all-time favorite episode of the show for this reason. It’s also one of the happier endings, which I enjoyed. (I do appreciate the non-happy endings as well. We see so many happy endings to the point of being completely ridiculous and nonsensical sometimes that it’s a good mental exercise to see something that’s not so happy, that speaks some of the truths of the world, depressing as they might be.)
We’re introduced to a fantasy world not unlike the vintage campiness of Star Trek – a fearless and beloved spaceship captain and his diverse and devoted crew, battling evil across the galaxy. Another day, another enemy vanquished.
They praise his wit and leadership, and the women all give him a celebratory kiss.
Then we’re dropped into the real world. Our fearless captain is the meek and downtrodden Robert Daly, the CTO of a tech and gaming company, who is disliked and mocked by everyone around him. All of his devoted crew members are now sneering officemates; the receptionist, game developers, his business partner. He’s quiet and too nice or too scared to stand up for himself. It’s a small weakness, his lack of self-esteem, and you want to root for him. But this is Black Mirror, and you are on edge about what might happen to him by the end of the episode.
Someone new takes a job at the office, an attractive young woman named Nanette who seeks out Daly because she’s fascinated with his work. She wants to get to know the man behind the brilliant coding. He’s quickly cockblocked by his business partner who swoops in and takes the new hire to show her the office and introduce her around.
Oh no, I think, is this a creepy Nice Guy™ story?
We watch as Daly’s hopes are crushed under the weight of society and his ill-fitting place in it. Will he break out of his shell? We are beginning to hope so.
The first sign that something is… off… is when Daly fishes an empty coffee cup out of the trash where Nanette had tossed it earlier. Oh no, I think, is this a creepy Nice Guy™ story? Does he have a shrine or something at home to all the pretty women in the office?
He goes home and takes a swab from the cup, uploading it to his computer, and we wake as Nanette. She is now a part of his game, a new crewmember of the starship. The rest of the crew explains the game to her as she grows more horrified that she must play along for there is no way to escape. They are simply computer code now and cannot die.
Then you realize THIS is his ultimate fantasy: everyone groveling at his feet and kissing the ground he walks on. Women throwing their bodies at him and men shrinking down in adulation. He’s the smartest, bravest, wisest, because everyone else makes themselves less so. Not relationships, but worship.
It’s a little extreme, but we all want to be loved, to be adored, to be the special one, right? Then he enters the game and we discover how far he is willing to go to achieve his perfect fantasy.
USS Callister is the story of a man’s revenge on the people who ‘wronged’ him.
This is not just a game of computer generated characters with no features aside from what’s assigned to them. These are perfect copies of actual humans, with the same thoughts, fears, feelings, pain, and personalities as their office counterparts.
Daly’s fantasy is not just to captain a computer-generated ship full of AI crew members. He wants total control of people who have a free will of their own. He wants the power to inflict pain and fear. He wants to be obeyed not because a computer dictates it, but because he has the power to force autonomous persons into it. He wants to make them choose to bend to his will.
USS Callister is the story of a man’s revenge on the people who ‘wronged’ him. The women who wouldn’t date or sleep with him. The workplace subordinates who didn’t respect him. The good-looking business partner with a personality built for making friends easily who seems to thwart him at every turn simply by virtue of being likable.
Daly is not the downtrodden hero – he’s the villain. It is not just a great example of cinematic storytelling, but is a peek into the very real dangers of treating this sort of man and his worldview as totally harmless. The sort of man who opines that nobody will love him, but makes no effort to make himself lovable, or even likable. Who believes he is owed affection by simple virtue of being alive, but also imagines he can never attain it for reasons entirely out of his control, so he has no responsibility to do anything differently.
They did not come into his acquaintance determined to hate him. He is disliked because he makes himself unlikable.
So engrossed is he in his fantasy world that he completely disregards a real opportunity with Nanette for friendship and maybe even more. It’s likely he’s ruined potential friendships with nearly everyone else in the office. They did not come into his acquaintance determined to hate him. He is disliked because he makes himself unlikable. He wants to be adored without doing anything worthy of adoration. He wants to be loved without loving in return.
This is a Nice Guy™ story after all.