A few years back, sat on my couch playing Bioshock Infinite, I remember being struck by a very profound thought indeed. You see, I had stumbled upon a character, a young boy, who whilst holding a loaf of bread, just ran in circles, around and around. This was his existence, I remember thinking, imagine if he knew, could really comprehend the whole thing. Being destined to perform the same pre-determined and coded actions forever and eternity is surely one of the worst types of hell imaginable.
This is a main theme of Black Mirror Season 4’s premier and feature-length episode; what if video game characters, virtual versions of real people, were sentient. This is of course the show’s first and quite brilliant trick. Setting up the episode to be a Star Trek adventure, campy colourful costumes and all, before throwing a bucket of icy cold water over the viewer and dragging them into the familiar yet deeply unpleasant world of Black Mirror which has been holding us hostage since its inception. The episode does a fantastic job of playing with the audience’s expectations. In the opening minutes we are introduced to the under-appreciated but supposedly brilliant Robert Daly as he works to get the latest patch for his online Infinity experience up and running. There are great nods to the games industry here, what with the developer working late, coding away to develop his passion project which only others will get the praise for. His business partner, played by the fantastically slimy Jimmi Simpson, walks around the office as the “shiny face” of the company while Robert is seen as a creep and largely forgotten by his employees.
This would be enough to make anyone mad but Robert’s outlet is a particularly questionable one. A Star-Trek themed mod to his game in which he can log-in and be the hero, bossing around his partner and getting the girl(s) and the praise he deserves. It’s all a little creepy, sure, but no harm done right, after all it’s just a game right?
It is in the next few scenes that the show turns sinister and all the more compelling for it. It seems that the characters in Daly’s virtual world are fully sentient versions of his co-workers, grown from their DNA of course. From creep to full on psychopath then. We as viewers are introduced to all of this via Nanette Cole, a newbie who after having a “fan-girl” moment over Daly’s work, becomes a new pawn in his twisted little game.
What unfolds is a tense and genuinely nerve-wracking escape plan of sorts in which the crew of the USS Callister must reach out to the real world for help and release themselves from the malevolent overlord Daly and his infinite power. Those hoping for a Star Trek parody or homage are sure to be disappointed but the way that the episode uses the genre as template for its plot is an inspired choice. It’s clear that the writers are both mocking and paying tribute to the wacky 60’s sci-fi. Lines which point out how cold all of the women must be in their skimpy uniforms and one character’s sigh of “Push any button, they’re all the same” highlight this. But these jabs at the genre are done with a wink and a nod as by the end it is apparent how much the show-runners must love it really.
Once again, the main reason it all works so well is because of the eerie similarities the episode draws to real life. Star Trek: Bridge Crew is a real-life example of exactly this kind of thing, offering players the chance to live out their fantasies of commanding a Starfleet ship. And as games get more realistic and invite us into their meticulously crafted worlds with the aid of VR, the line between gaming and reality are becoming increasingly blurred.
Season 3 of the show gave us something that really opened it up in terms of narrative; a happy ending. Because of this, the outcome of the episode is really up in the air until the very end, throwing spanner after magna-spanner into the works with each sinister appearance of Robert Daly. Jesse Plemons is both terrifying and pathetic as Daly and every second he is on screen is a tense affair indeed. Jimmi Simpson is the stand-out role here however, flexing his comedic chops both in-game and out while also giving the story a tangible sadness and beating heart.
Black Mirror has already tackled Virtual Reality gaming before but not like this. While season 3’s episode was a comment on the dangers of linking the human mind to a world of endless possibility and horror, USS Callister puts the game’s assets and characters front and centre. It’s strange as it makes you route for what are essentially advanced Sims characters.
Season 4 of Black Mirror starts out on an incredible high point, offering a feature length adventure full of twists, turns and genuine horror. Welcome back Black Mirror, please be gentle.
Verdict- 9 Out of 10