Dark Mirror’s USS Callister: A Star Trek Story



Reasons why Dark Mirror’s ‘USS CALLISTER’ episode is truly a
Star Trek Story.

Having grown up on Star Trek and the Twilight
, I really enjoyed Black Mirror episode ‘USS
Callister.’ Being a philosopher, I rather enjoyed reading
various thought pieces on the work and decided to add my own
tribble to the heap. If you have not seen the episode, there
are obviously spoilers ahead.

Much like the brilliant Star Trek s lampoon Galaxy
‘USS Callister’ begins with what appears to be a
Trek clone overstuffed with overacting and delightful cheese.
Captain Daly, a Kirk-like figure, leads his diverse and adoring
crew in a battle against a Khan-like villain (complete with a
recreation of a scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of
). Under the slice of cheese is a true horror: The USS
Callister is within a virtual reality game controlled by Robert
Daly and the other “players” are self-aware digital clones of
his co-workers.

Daly has powers in the game comparable to Charlie X of
Star Trek (including the ability to transform a
victim’s face into a mask of unbroken flesh) and uses them to
control the controls, forcing them to play the game with him.
Since Daly’s coworkers treat him rather badly, it is initially
tempting to feel some sympathy for him, but it is revealed that
Daly cloned and spaced (putting out an airlock without a suit)
the son of his boss. Daly also transforms cloned female
co-workers into large alien bugs which horrifically retain
their intelligence.

Daly seals his own fate when he digitally clones his newest
co-worker, Nanette, and forces her to play the game. To make an
excellent story short, digital Nanette leads the crew in a
successful rebellion against Daly aided, unwittingly, by the
original Nanette.

Jenna Scherer, of Rolling Stone, makes
an excellent case that the episode is a criticism of the sort
of toxic fandom
that has spewed its hate at the fact that
the captain’s chair has been increasingly available to people
who are not straight, white males. I certainly agree that the
episode does just that. However, I also contend that it is a
Star Trek story, albeit crafted to avoid lawsuits from
the corporate masters of Star Trek. I think this might
be a point worth making since I see it as important to
distinguish the episode’s criticism of toxic fandom from what
seems to be a sincere commitment to the values of classic
Star Trek. Making this case requires considering what
it is to be a Star Trek story.

The easy and obvious (and legalistic) answer is that a Star
story is one that occurs within the Star Trek
universe as defined by the corporation that owns the property.
While legally sound, this is not satisfying from a
philosophical standpoint. Setting aside the legal concerns,
another easy way to define such a story is in terms of the
setting—that is, a story in the Star Trek universe is
thus a Star Trek story. That is also unsatisfying—merely having
the Federation, Klingons and such does not seem to suffice—for
there is more to a true Star Trek story than just the setting,
props and inhabitants. There is the intangible “feel” of a Star
Trek story as well as the values inherent to such a story.
Since an entire book could be written about this, I am forced
to stick with a few quick points that are especially relevant
to ‘USS Callister.’

One underlying theme of Star Trek is the dual nature
of humanity’s relation to technology. On the one hand, Star
is fundamentally optimistic about technology—warp
technology allows starships to explore the galaxy and advances
in technology have freed the Federation from economic
oppression. On the other hand, Star Trek also explores
the threat technology presents in terms of its potential for
abuse. The Borg are, of course, the paradigm example of the
dangerous side to technology. While ‘USS Callister’ might seem
to be entirely on the dark side of technology, the ending is
optimistic—the digital clones are fully people and, at the end,
set out to have their own life in the vast universe of the

Star Trek, especially the original series, also placed
an emphasis on rational problem solving and teamwork. The model
was, of course, a strong captain leading a competent crew of
decent people. While this is not unique to Star Trek,
this model was carefully followed by the episode: as in many
classic Star Trek episodes, crew members made
essential contributions to the success of the plan—and, of
course, the diversity of the crew is a key part of their

Most importantly, Star Trek also advanced a set of
moral principles, as exemplified by the rules and laws of the
Federation and Star Fleet. In the episode “Captain Daly” speaks
of the values of Space Fleet, but often uses them to justify
inflicting worse horrors. For example, after defeating a
co-worker he has cast as a villain, the “villain” begs Daly to
kill him and thus free him. Daly cites the Space Fleet rules
about not killing and instead has the “villain” locked in the
brig—thus extending his torture. While it is tempting to see
the episode as mocking the values of Star Trek by
having a Kirk-like figure mouthing them while grotesquely
violating their spirit, this is what contributes the most to
making it a Star Trek story. Daly is not Kirk exposed.
Daly is, rather, another example of a classic Star Trek villain
type: a Star Fleet captain gone bad. In ‘The
Omega Glory’
Captain Tracey, commander of the
Exeter, violates the Federation’s Prime Directive and
ends up committing mass murder and fighting Kirk in order to
secure what he hopes is the secret to immortality. While Daly
is obviously modeled on Kirk, he is most like Captain Tracey:
someone who has professed his love for his ideals, but who
abandons them for his own selfish desires when pushed into a
crisis. Daly thus shows the irony of the toxic fan—they are
acting in violation of the very principles they profess to

Digital Nanette and her fellows, in contrast, act in accord
with the classic values of Star Trek—they act with
courage and are willing to make great sacrifices for each
other. Appropriately enough, at the end of the episode Nanette
is the captain of the USS Callister—a position she has
earned. While Daly and the toxic fans might fancy themselves
captains, they are the villains. Which is, of course, also a
feature of classic Trek: the moral lesson.

Upon their escape from Daly’s private game, the crew’s uniforms
and the ship are upgraded to a modern style (like that of the
new Star Trek movies). While it might be tempting to
see this as a condemnation of classic Star Trek, it
can be a metaphor of how the moral goodness of classic
Trek is still relevant today, though it was clearly
best to leave behind the miniskirts. So, it is reasonable to
see ‘USS Callister’ as praising the good of Star Trek
while, at the same time, criticizing toxic fandom.


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Article Featured Image: Jesse Plemons,
right, in the “USS Callister” episode of ‘Black Mirror.’

Tags: fantasy,
mike labossiere, narratives, storytelling

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