2017 was a year that seemed to resemble a bleak fictional dystopia more with each passing month, whether it be the President’s increasingly unhinged Twitter feed, or ‘alternative facts’ going mainstream. As an appropriate send-off, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has returned with six new episodes exploring the tumultuous relationship between technology and humankind. The first of these, ‘USS Callister’, is a rip-roaring, big budget season opener, that stands out as from other episodes in the anthology series in just how downright fun it is.

Set in a world in which hyper-realistic VR gaming wired into the human mind is now the norm, we follow gaming technician Robert Daly. Daly is a downtrodden introvert; despite co-founding Callister Inc. and designing one of the biggest online games in the world, ‘Infinity’, he is mocked by his employees, bullied by his business partner and made to feel worthless. However, in his own personal modification of the game, he can live out his fantasies as Captain of a spaceship based around his favourite programme, ‘Space Fleet’, where his workmates are his loyal subordinates. Of course, this being a Black Mirror story, there is one significant complication – his copies of his workmates are living, sentient creatures, who think even when Robert goes offline. And Robert, inside the game, is a tyrannical God, meting out his repressed rage to his workmates.

“affectionate parodies of sci-fi tropes

Whilst there is the usual amount of emotional turmoil, death and darkness threaded through the episode, what differentiates it from others is the tone. There is a real lightness of touch, embodied in the affectionate parodies of sci-fi tropes from classic shows like Star Trek, that makes it just as much of a joy as it does a nightmare to watch. The literal unreality of the setting allows Brooker and co-writer William Bridges to really play with audience expectations, throwing in a gag about awkward sci-fi dialogue before we are placed in unbearable tension just minutes later. It’s wonderful to see the show really embracing its anthology format, and attempting new kinds of storytelling.

Also excelling in this episode are the cast, who seem to be having a ball. Jesse Plemons, known for his role as the chilling Todd in Breaking Bad, is a particular standout as Daly, beautifully toying with the idea of an audience identification figure gone horribly wrong. In the hands of a lesser actor it could have been a disastrously misjudged performance, having to strike a balance between the self-aware parody of the script and genuinely psychotic nature of his character, but Plemons manages to work that middle ground with skill.

“she becomes one of the closest things the show has ever had to a hero”

However, the real driving force of the episode is Cristin Milioti, who gives a charismatic, grounded performance as Nanette, Daly’s latest victim who organises a rebellion against his rule. Tonally pitch perfect, her performance gravitates between fear and the smart, sharp spark that the story requires. In fact, she becomes one of the closest things the show has ever had to a hero, without it at all feeling like it is a compromise.

Perhaps the other most striking thing is the sheer scale of the episode. This really is a far cry from the modestly budgeted Channel 4 show of six years ago, with elaborate effects sequences and a feature length running time of 76 minutes. With the show having broken out with Season 3’s Netflix release last year, it’s clear that a lot of money has been injected into the production. Not only does Black Mirror feel like a show about the future, but it now feels like the television of the future. Director Toby Haynes has shown just how far the boundaries between television and cinema are blurring visually, and how a single television episode can now essentially be a mini-movie.

Though it maybe lacks the punch of Black Mirror at its best, the focus on spectacle occasionally overwhelming the social commentary that made classics like ‘15 Million Merits’ and ‘White Bear’ so remarkable, ‘USS Callister’ is a worthy addition to the show’s canon. It takes a fascinating look at violence in video games in a way that does not preach or cast judgement, and simultaneously is a fantastic space adventure and an intimate character study. A confident, promising opener to Season 4.

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