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Monday, January 25, 2021

Gaming’s a Bitch, and Then You Die

by Pete Wood

I’m going against the grain here, but I hate the Black Mirror episode, U.S.S. Callister. Fans love it. IMDB gives it an 8.3 out of 10, the same rating as Citizen Kane. The television industry loved it. It snagged four Emmy awards in 2018 from seven nominations. It won for best television movie, as well as writing, editing, and sound editing, losing out for music composition, best actor in a limited series and cinematography.

So, what’s my beef?

Hey, you kids, get off of my lawn! Yeah, that’s right. I’m a curmudgeon.

Make no mistake, I love Black Mirror. I’ve seen most of the episodes. And, unlike other current anthology shows it hits the mark most of the time. Don’t even get me started on the overly long and persistently dull Tales from the Loop whose characters all seem to be sedated. Or Electric Dreams, a Philip Dick anthology show that bizarrely feels the need to rewrite the source material. Then there’s Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone which stretches out twenty-five-minute episodes to an hour, is consistently downbeat and has plots that are just silly. Rod Serling was all about wonder and great characters. Peele, unlike his movies, focuses on the absurd. Like a child becoming President with no change in our current laws. Uh huh.

Anyhow, back to Black Mirror. It’s a visually stunning series with provocative premises and very good acting. I can easily rattle off ten episodes I love. My top five in order are White Christmas,San Junipero, Be Right Back, Fifteen Million Merits, and Bandersnatch. Phew! That was tough.

Black Mirror is the brainchild of Charles Brooker, who has written all of the episodes. I can’t argue with his writing chops. Sometimes, though, he beats a dead horse. I get it. Technology can be bad and make us less human. Those in power can and will abuse technology. But that doesn’t mean the world is necessarily going to hell in a handbasket.

Brooker sometimes lets the human will prevail over technology.San Junipero is positively sunny. The downtrodden schmuck in Fifteen Million Merits beats the system. Then there are episodes like Black Museum and the Waldo Moment where good people are punished, because Brooker has to drive home his point with a sledgehammer and have his damned unhappy ending.

Don’t get me wrong. Unhappy endings have their place. A tacked on happy ending would have ruined White Christmas or Be Right Back .

Anyhow, U.S.S. Callister. First of all, it’s a great spoof and homage to Star Trek. Robert Daly (the excellent Jesse Piemons ofBreaking Bad, Game Night and the not to be missed I’m Thinking of Ending Things) makes a grand entrance on the bridge of the U.S.S. Callister, a not-so-subtle nod to Captain Kirk and the Enterprise. He gets his ship out of a tight jam and his crew cheers. Then it’s back to the real world. Turns out Daly is a sad sack game programmer who gets no respect at the company he founded. Employees joke about him behind his back and the company’s co-founder walks all over him.

Daly gets back at his asshole co-workers in the virtual world where their genetic clones man his ship, courtesy of DNA material he’s collected from discarded coffee cups and the like. Daly is not nice to the crew. He’s a tyrant and is not above punishing the crew in cruel and creative ways, thanks to his Godlike powers as the game designer.

Daly is a complex character. Victim and dictator. I did find myself rooting for him in the real world and wanted him to assert himself.

I’m not going to rehash the entire episode. I’ll just say it ends with the virtual crew rebelling and escaping into another universe in the gaming world that Daly can’t access. Good for them.

Then Daly gets trapped in the game universe in an empty black void where it’s suggested he can’t escape. Presumedly he will die of starvation in the real world since he apparently has no friends who might check up on him. Say what?

So, the co-workers win in the real world and the virtual world? I cry foul.

I found it completely implausible a game designer would have such a design flaw in one of his games that a player could get trapped and die. But I digress.

What bothered me most of all is Brooker had to have his unhappy ending. Again.

If you want to see how to spoof and honor Star Trek, check out the Orville or Galaxy Quest. Both have plenty of drama too and no idiot plot.

Brooker starts out with a great premise and a light comic tone he abandons in favor of an unnecessary dark twist. I especially liked the way the characters interacted in a nonchalant way—good guys and bad guys—when Daly left the game. Just another day at the office for them. It reminded me of that old Warner Brothers cartoon where the sheep dog and the wolf clock into work every morning.

U.S.S. Callister could have been damned near perfect. Why couldn’t Daly have learned something from his virtual crew rebelling? Instead of punishing him in the real world—where he is not the bad guy—why not have him assert himself at work, as his crew asserted themselves, and stop being a doormat? He could have even asked out that coworker he spent the episode pining over.

Yeah, I know. He’s an evil dude in the virtual world, but he gets his comeuppance there. Does he really need to lose twice?

Yes, Brooker, I understand technology is very very bad, but it has its good aspects too. Instead of using gaming to run away from problems, maybe Daly can use gaming to solve his problems.

Look, y’all, U.S.S. Callister is 95% of a great episode, but the ending ruined it for me. It deservedly won three out of four Emmy Awards and probably should have snagged that acting award too.

But Brooker did not nail the landing. 

 



Peter Wood
is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

1 comment:

paul celmer said...

Great review! Good job of putting this black mirror episode in context. I have to admit after watching the first episode, I just stopped. Your review gives me a framework to try it again. I agree unhappy endings merely for the sake of being literary often make no sense. And I am now motivated to compare to twilight zone!