[This article contains spoilers.]
Call it the revenge against Revenge of the Nerds. “USS Callister,” the darkly comic first (and best) episode of Black Mirror‘s fourth season (now streaming on Netflix) boldly goes where no sci-fi show has gone before. It functions as a Star Trek parody while doubling as a condemnation of an insidious breed of bad bro: the angry online fanboy.
The episode’s main character, Robert Daly, is a shitty man in sheep’s clothing. Played with Shatneresque panache by Jesse Plemons, Daly is the brilliant creator of a popular online video game who’s nearly invisible in the flesh-and-blood realm of everyday life. In the office he stammers his way through awkward social encounters with his condescending attention-whore business partner James Walton (Jimmi Simpson, emerging as this generation’s James Spader) and coworkers who roll their eyes and snicker behind his back—even the interns barely acknowledge his existence. Daly spends much of his workdays silently stewing in his office overstuffed with his collection of toys and memorabilia from Space Fleet—a 60’s-era Star Trek-like TV show that is the object of his obsession. Every night he retreats into his apartment alone and zaps his brain into a secret virtual-reality mod that allows him to role-play as Space Fleet‘s swashbuckling starship captain. His wannabe Captain Kirk is the opposite of his real-life persona—an assertive badass and a ladies’ man.
The opening sequences of the episode set up Daly as a tired screen trope: the underdog hero—the schlubby, sensitive nerd destined to be a wallflower until the climax. In a different show, Daly would’ve channelled his confident online self into the real world, given Walton his comeuppance, and scored Nanette (Cristin Milioti), an attractive new programmer he can’t work up the confidence to flirt with.
Yet in the hands of Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, Daly becomes a tyrant on par with Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump while behind the controls of his own video game. What initially seems like a harmless escape from daily drudgery turns disturbing when we discover that the characters who populate the high-tech simulation aren’t merely programmed to obey Daly’s every command and regale him with constant praise—they’re virtual slaves whom Daly has physically tortured, blackmailed, or transformed into hideous monsters and stuck on some lifeless alien planet as punishment for falling out of line. Worst of all, these shipmates are versions of his real-life colleagues; Daly covertly uploaded them to the simulation using their DNA, which he harvested from objects around the office. After his first brief encounter with Nanette, Daly swabs her lipstick-stained coffee cup and installs a digital duplicate of her in his private playground to make her serve as the ship’s new science officer. These carbon copies have somehow retained their memories of their former lives and still feel pain. Which means that when Daly uses his omniscient control device to remove virtual Nanette’s mouth for refusing to obey, the flesh-and-blood Nanette feels a choking sensation.
Daly manages to conceive of himself as the hero of his own story, the alpha male saving the day from vicious space aliens—even spouting noble-sounding speeches about moral codes and the “betterment of life itself.” It’s as if he’s parroting lines memorized over the course of his zealous fandom without having absorbed the lessons behind them. His narcissistic version of heroism is the same one perpetuated by video games and much of online culture—that winning is everything, you are the center of the universe, and everyone else is a bit player. In Daly’s Star Fleet simulation, Nanette is relegated to the role of strangely sexless sex doll in go-go boots (after she discovers that her genitals have been removed, Nanette angrily quips, “Stealing my pussy is a red fucking line!”). But the episode’s clever narrative sleight-of-hand eventually reveals that the dashing man in authority has been the sadistic villain the whole time while the resourceful Nanette clone overcomes her virtual #MeToo moment and becomes the true protagonist.
Accidental timing or not, Netflix dropped the new season of its dystopian sci-fi anthology just before New Year’s Day, bookending a calendar year in which the Weinstein scandal evolved into a full-blown culture-wide public reckoning for so-called “shitty men.” It’s hard not to see “USS Callister” as a subversive lesson in gender politics and a thinly veiled morality tale about the unexamined dangers of a certain breed of toxic introvert who spends too much time on the Internet, the kind portrayed in “Cat Person“—Kristen Roupenian’s short story that went viral after the New Yorker published it last month—which is about a chubby, geeky type who hides his misogyny behind aw-shucks awkwardness until the moment he feels rejected by a woman after a one-night stand. Other parallels can be found in the edgelords still fueling the backlash against The Last Jedi for its lack of proper reverence for the Star Wars canon, or the social media users who regularly whip up petty harassment campaigns that have a way of turning ugly. Just ask the family of the 28-year-old Kansas man shot by police recently due to a fraudulent 911 call resulting from an escalated feud between two Call of Duty players.
The Dalys of the world are childish men spoiled by a society that’s demanded little of them except to be good consumers. Untethered from the anchoring responsibilities and duties of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations—family, marriage, religion, military and civic duties—they refuse to leave the comforts of their pop-culture sandbox. It’s easy when that sandbox keeps expanding. Comic books, fantasy novels, sci-fi films, video games were almost exclusively the domain of nebbish adolescents in the days of Revenge of the Nerds a generation ago—but now they’ve become synonymous with adult culture at large.
And the messages of those entertainments tend to be extremely flattering to their consumers. You’re a bookish outcast with no social life? It’s OK! You’re actually extremely powerful and special. You’re going to be Luke Skywalker one day! Or Spider-Man! Or Harry Potter! You’ll triumph against the Arrogant Jerk and get the Hot Girl (Plemons himself made his name playing precisely that kind of nerd-Cinderella character as Landry in Friday Night Lights).
Ready Player One takes this geek sycophancy to an entirely new level. Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel—being adapted into a Steven Spielberg film due out later this year—is the antithesis of “USS Callister.” It treats insular pop-culture obsessives, the kind who live to attend Comic-Con, constantly quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and lock themselves in their rooms all day to play World of Warcraft as the platonic ideal of a contemporary man. When Ready Player One protagonist Wade warps into an elaborate virtual world, his intellectually empty but encyclopedic knowledge of nostalgic juvenilia isn’t just cool—it’s needed to save the day.
Every ruling class needs propaganda, and Ready Player One is agitprop for the geek gods that reign on the Internet. Black Mirror’s “USS Callister” meanwhile serves as a parable. Once you’re empowered to feel like a king, it warns, everyone else starts to look like a subject.