In defense of USS Callister

Black Mirror’s episodes, with the exception of Metalhead I guess, are centered around exploring the human nature in light of such or such technological change. It’s sci-fi at its finest, and is usually very insightful, and extremely well thought of and documented.

And yet, USS Callister surprises us this season with utter bullshit about transferring consciousness through DNA sample or wanky hollywood-esque nonsensical overly dramatic rescue plans.

actually me during the episode

It’s pretty simple to figure out what happened: the writing staff had a funny idea and they rolled with it. But I’m here to argue that there is something we can salvage from that train-wreck, and it’s about our relationship to media.

The whole of the episode is centered around Daly, a disturbed man who takes out his frustrations in a VR game. The drama part is because the NPCs of the game are conscious people and he tyrannizes them into submission when they break the suspension of disbelief of the game (which is ironically enough what all the inconsistencies do about the episode).

The real point, which the episode misses by a landslide, is “what happens when our playthings are conscious?”. Let’s shelves all the DNA bullshit and people replication here for a second. IA is getting more and more complex, NPCs in games are getting more and more rich, and we still have no idea where the line to consciousness is.

Serial Experiments Lain wallpaper

The show surely wanted drama. Nobody would have batted an eye if some dumb kid kept butchering zombies or nazis in their favorite call of or battlefield or whatever. This is even echoed in the episode by the cute ending encounter with Gamer691 which appears trivial in comparison. Yet there comes a point in sophistication when these NPC toys become at least quasi-conscious. Then what happens? Can we still continue using them for their original purpose? When we create a sentient race, can we keep using them and killing them ?

This theme is also present and also missed by a landslide in the great “Hang the DJ” episode where thousands of conscious beings are genocided for the purpose of a dating app simulation without anyone in the public even batting an eye.

So what about the point of USS Callister? Daly is a monster because he did not treat the NPCs in the game as sentient beings. He seems to (reluctantly) acknowledge their agency, but represses tyrannically anything that gets in the way of his entertainment. The tragedy of this episode is that sentient beings are treated as playthings.

Well there’s a metapoint to be made, whether it was willed or not by the showrunners, in the fact that the public of the episodes mostly missed the point in the same way. The episode had to go through great length to build empathy with the NPCs of the game, sacrificing good sense to make them “clones” of approved existing humans, because who even bats an eye when a FPS NPC dies? How long before countless sentient NPCs are butchered without a thought by players all over the world?

Black Mirror has always been a cruel and bleak portrayal of the most gruesome parts of human society. Think of “White Bear” or “The Waldo Moment”. USS Callister has some of this in a somewhat brilliant meta-consideration.

The whole thing is about Daly indulging himself in brainless media consumption to fill his most animal instincts. He never seems to ponder the implications of his actions. But that’s literally what everyone is doing by enjoying this episode. Fuck reflection, hello catharsis, pandering and self-validation, and too fucking bad if a few sentient characters end up suffering for our pleasure. Daly is not “entitled straight white men”, he’s the whole entitled brainless mass that happily goes to see the latest blockbuster crap without questioning anything in the process. Sure, there is not literally any sentient NPC involved in the making of a show you watch (yet ^^), but choosing to indulge basest instincts over reflection through entertainment media is exactly what Daly does in the show.

In this optics, it works really well that this episode is as incoherent and spectacular (in the etymological “for show” sense) as your average blockbuster. It’s no coincidence that the episode centers around one of the biggest media franchises of this century (which obviously brings to mind Star Wars and Disney) and portrays a parody of AAA movies. By the showrunner’s own admission, “‘USS Callister’ is the most mainstream story [that Black Mirror has ever done.] It’s got some of the beats of a summer blockbuster… ” He even goes so far as to reference explicitely AAA productions in this interview, saying that “[The characters are] in what we call ‘JJ Land’ at the end. They go through the wormhole and end up in JJ Abrams lens-flare land.”

USS Callister shows us what happens when an individual uses entertainment to indulge brainlessly in their animalistic tendencies instead of thinking and trying to better themselves. And based on people’s relationship to mass-media these days, and to this episode in particular, it’s a frighteningly high number of us.


EDIT (June 2018): This article was originally a dare of one of my friends to find anything interesting to say about this shitshow of an episode, but Charlie Brooker recently compared this episode to players torturing their sims, to which the press got vehemently outraged because “everybody tortures their sims”, which obviously is exactly the point. So maybe this essay isn’t such a joke after all…

3 responses to “In defense of USS Callister”

  1. “USS Callister shows us what happens when an individual uses entertainment to indulge brainlessly in their animalistic tendencies instead of thinking and trying to better themselves. And based on people’s relationship to mass-media these days, and to this episode in particular, it’s a frighteningly high number of us.”

    I’m not fully on board with this notion. Thinking is hard. Thinking is *work*. Moral thinking isn’t any different. Having to weigh consequences of your actions and taking morally impacting decisions is not easy, and is not for free, and like all work, it needs a corresponding amount of rest for us to recover our energies. Fiction is where we do that. Comedy especially, since it has existed, has relied on suspension and subversion of common morality exactly for this sake – because it’s liberating and relaxing to occasionally let our minds live in a “fuck all consequences” world where you DON’T have to deal with all the shit that comes from doing bad stuff, up to and including feeling guilt.

    Of course I would not want to oppress fully sentient AI NPCs, and there’s an interesting point there, in that a lot of people seem to assume that any intelligence in-silico would be *inherently* less entitled to rights than us, as if it’s being made of carbon, and not being intelligent, that makes us worthy (what a difference a single row in the periodic table can make!). But having dumb NPCs to kill in videogames has nothing immoral about it, and there’s no reason why, even if we *were* able to create sentient AI ones, we shouldn’t just keep making dumb ones on purpose to slaughter. USS Callister certainly shows someone widely underestimating the moral impact of their actions, as well as unleashing their frustration on people they have power over (the very definition of mobbing and bullying, here to the N-th power), but I don’t think it should be treated as a lesson about media, because frankly, if all media required us to think and better ourselves, all the time, we would simply go crazy.

    1. Hi! Thanks for reading and replying! You make a lot of good points, and I don’t disagree with you. I’m not saying we should never brainlessly indulge in entertainment, I’m just begging for caution and measure around it as it is a slippery slope.
      I don’t think anyone really meant for that kind of subtext to be read in the episode tbh, but I found this point of view noteworthy and original enough to warrant being said. Also someone dared me to find a way to make this episode interesting ^^’

  2. […] I wrote in my article about USS Callister, I wonder if we’re on a dangerous slippery slope of pandering brainless entertainment, and […]

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