In terms of imagery and obvious science fiction homage, the new Black Mirror episode “USS Callister” is easily the most evocative because of its clear Star Trek vibe. And yet, there’s perhaps an even more interesting ‘60s science fiction inspiration that isn’t Trek. Thematically and tonally, everything about “USS Callister” has more in common with one extremely famous sci-fi short story. And its author — coincidently or not — also wrote for the original Star Trek.
Spoilers for Black Mirror season 4, “USS Callister” ahead.
Once the actual premise of “USS Callister” is revealed, the concept seems to be a pastiche of Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” And that’s because the concept — people are tortured inside of a computer program and denied the ability to die — is strikingly similar in both narratives. Plus, there’s even one really big moment in “USS Callister” in which a character has their mouth taken away and is, in fact, unable to scream.
“USS Callister” isn’t really a script that loves Star Trek. If anything, the premise attacks not only the some of the sexism of the original series but also the fandom, too. Outside of being a meditation on the nature of true consciousness (is a digital clone of “you” actually alive?) the script also skewers how escapism in extremely popular fandoms actually has a dark side: fantasies can create pathological and psychotic behavior. Cleverly, “USS Callister,” initially invites the viewer to sympathize with its central character, Robert Daley (Jesse Plemons), an extremely successful coder who is underappreciated and abused in his professional life.
Though responsible for helping build a media empire, Daley is a shrinking introvert in his office, belittled by his business partner and non-geek, Walton (Jimmi Simpson.) In the evenings, Daley takes solace in his own immersive virtual reality version of “Space Fleet,” in which he is a courageous Captain surrounded by a loyal crew, all of whom happen to have counterparts in the real world. In the “Space Fleet” fantasy, Walton is subservient to Daley, not the other way around. At first, though it seems creepy, Daley’s fantasy life doesn’t seem sinister.
Until it gets sinister as fuck. Daley hasn’t just programmed the people in his simulation to do what he wants, these digital copies of Walton and his other co-workers are totally self-aware. Though they possess all the memories of the biological counterparts, these digital clones have no genitalia and cannot die. We learn all of this when Daley digitally clones a new girl in his office, Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) and she is integrated into his “Space Fleet” crew. When the digital clones don’t do what Daley wants, he tortures them. Sometimes, this means he removes their faces. Other times, he’ll transform the offending subject into a hideous monster while the others watch in terror.
Which is where the Ellison connection comes in. In “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” a malevolent A.I called the Allied Mastercomputer tortures five people in an endless variety of ways, each more gruesome than the last. One of the ways in which this torture manifests itself in the story is toward the end, when one of the main characters — after saving his companions — is transformed into a gelatinous mass incable of speech, and also incapable of death. “AM has altered me for his own peace of mind I suppose,” Ellison writes. “He doesn’t want me to run at full speed into a computer bank and smash my skull. Or hold my breath till I faint.” In “USS Callister,” the digital clones are desperate to die, and frequently talk about how they’ve tried to kill themselves, but can’t. Daley has programmed everything so they are forced to live.
In 1966, Ellison also wrote perhaps the most famous episode of the original Star Trek ever, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a script which, to this day, he still feels was compromised when filmed. Interestingly, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” was written around the same time, as it was originally published in IF: Worlds of Science Fiction in 1967. Ellison also wrote for one of the spiritual ancestors of Black Mirror, the original Outer Limits, in 1964 where one of his time-travel plots later — and controversially — inspired The Terminator.
All of this isn’t to say Black Mirror is rip-offing of Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” The evil mastermind in “USS Callister” is human, not a self-aware computer program running amok. The details of the plot are also completely different. And yet, it feels like this episode is tipping its hat to Ellison in more than one way. It sneakily updates his famous premise with contemporary sci-fi plot devices but also takes a jab or two at Star Trek and the culture around it. Over the years, Ellison has had a tempestuous relationship with his Trek fame, and once said that “everyone pissed in my script,” in reference to his feelings about the way in which Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, handled rewrites.
“USS Callister” isn’t necessarily the revenge of Harlan Ellison, but if you squint through the looking glass a certain way, you love the acerbic, razor-sharp science fiction prose of the ‘60s, and reread “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” after watching this episode, it certainly starts to feel that way.
Either way, “USS Callister,” is definitely not a Star Trek parody. It’s more like a stern warning for the show’s older fans to not take their enthusiasm too far.
Black Mirror Season 4 is streaming now on Netflix.