How ‘Black Mirror’ Nails The Problem With Toxic Fandoms

'USS Callister' is a perfect antidote to toxic fan culture.

There’s a moment early on in ‘USS Callister’, the first episode of Black Mirror’s latest season, that serves as a perfect microcosm for the broader point the episode is trying to make about fandom and pop culture. Nannette Cole (Cristin Milioti), a recently hired coder at a tech firm, looks upon Chief Technology Officer Robert Daly’s (Jesse Plemons) collection of Space Fleet memorabilia with wide-eyed awe. She’s enamoured by the artefacts of the Star Trek-esque world, but then she dares questions something.

“Mini-skirted damsels. A little cold for that in space,” she says, referring to the outfits worn by the women characters.

“That is just what a Bargradian sand warrior would say,” Daly responds. Plemons’ delivery is dry, awkward, and sprinkled with a touch of vitriol. It’s the type of minor gatekeeping anyone who’s brushed up against nerd culture has seen before, and the kind that many women, people of colour, and queer people who engage in these fantasy worlds are all too familiar with. You can like our toys, but if you dare critique them, you’re on your own.

‘USS Callister’ is filled with moments like this. It’s partially due to these moments the episode has been elevated beyond Black Mirror and, like ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘San Junipero’ before it, become a talking point on its own.

Black Mirror, the sci-fi anthology series whose fourth season was released over the new year’s break on Netflix, has always dealt with the negatives of society’s interactions with technology, with varying levels of success. But Black Mirror’s strength is arguably when — rather than just directly criticising technology — it uses technology a conduit to explore the complexities of the human condition: ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘San Junipero’ dealt with the nature of public opinion and same sex relationships, respectively. ‘USS Callister’, the fourth season’s premiere episode, delves deep into another complex world that has unfortunately gained notoriety in recent times: fandom.

When Good Nerds Go Bad

At first, you’re tempted to feel pity, even sympathy, for Plemons’ Robert Daly. He is regularly disrespected at his workplace, a videogame start-up called Infinity, by everyone from CEO Walton (excellently portrayed as a mish-mash of tech-bro stereotypes by Jimmi Simpson) to the receptionist. The only place where he is respected is in the USS Callister, a homemade Infinity mod based on Space Fleet’s ship, itself a homage to Star Trek. But instead of a cast and crew of 1960s actors, the ship is populated with digital avatars of his fellow employees, with Daly as the captain.

As the story’s focus shifts from Daly to Milioti’s Cole, you discover that the USS Callister’s population of Infinity staffers is far more sinister than it appears. Daly uses unique DNA mapping software to clone his colleagues into his modded game. Each one is placed in after a microaggression sets Daly off — a comment behind the back here, a failed project there. It all adds up to a life sentence in his fantasy world. And after Cole admits that she doesn’t like Daly “that way”, she soon finds herself as a “mini-skirted damsel” in Daly’s fan-fiction.

Cole soon learns that despite being based on a series focused on the betterment of the galaxy, Daly is instead focused on the polar opposite: blind obedience, forced compliance, and the elevation of himself as the hero at all costs. If his fellow employees don’t obey, he inflicts grotesque torture methods on them: endless suffocation, transformation into insect creatures, and a lifetime spent watching your loved ones die. They’re also trapped in the game between plays, like a darker version of Toy Story, left to do nothing but get endlessly drunk and self-harm (Daly codes each clone without sexual organs, so they can’t even have sex to alleviate the boredom).

It takes Cole, with that same sense of wide-eyed optimism that embodied her first glimpses at Space Fleet in Daly’s office, to organise a successful escape for the trapped crew.

It’s very over-the-top, as to be expected from Black Mirror. But when placed in pulpy science-fiction, a setting that already deals in the fantastical on the regular, it cleverly fits. It also helps illustrate the major theme of the episode – how fandom often abandons the lessons of the worlds it appreciates.

Fan Culture Deserves To Be Critiqued

In terms of nerd culture, 2017 was not a year of positives. It started with one of the most famous videogame YouTubers being accused of anti-Semitism and didn’t improve from there. Every negative review of a new superhero film was greeted with vitriolic, even violent accusations by fans. The director of the latest Star Wars was sent death threats for “ruining the franchise”. A former Google employee made international news for chucking a temper tantrum over diversity quotas. Riots started over a limited-edition sauce that was featured on Rick and Morty. These kinds of episodes aren’t totally new, but the difference is a lot of it has come into the mainstream in the last twelve months.

Black Mirror creator and co-writer of USS Callister, Charlie Brooker, is no stranger to this realm of nerd culture. He began his career as a videogame journalist in the 90s, and many of his projects, from his annual Wipe series to Black Mirror itself, have cultivated the type of fanbase that fits, even partially, within the descriptors of “toxic fandom”.

USS Callister can be seen, then, as a direct rebuke towards the these fans’ actions. Daly’s world may be fictional, and his clones merely ones and zeroes. But the pain inflicted for Daly’s gain is made explicit and real through deft direction and writing, an analogue for the real-world pain many fans inflict in the name of defending what they love. And in the episode’s finale, a cunning homage to the types of guns-blazing third acts that defines Star Trek, Plemons delivers a soliloquy on his entitlement to Space Fleet’s world that’s better suited to notable Trek villains like Khan or the Borg than the hero he hypocritically perceives himself to be.

Some critics, including those at The Guardian and Den of Geek, have criticised USS Callister for its depictions of fandom, saying it falls into tired stereotypes of fan culture, especially in regards to Star Trek’s renowned ‘Trekkies’. While there’s a case to be made about the damage the basement-dwelling neckbeard stereotype has done, I don’t see that here. Instead, as Katherine Cross skilfully highlights over at Polygon, USS Callister exists as a broader critique of entitlement within all of nerd culture, divorced from any particular IP. The USS Callister could have easily been replaced with the pixelated world of Azeroth from World of Warcraft, the Avengers tower, the Council of Elrond in Rivendell, or any other famed nerd fantasy world. In fact, part of the message of USS Callister is that tying our entire personalities to the pop culture we love may not be as healthy as it appears.

It’s important then that USS Callister sets up Cole as the hero. She’s the one that, through empathy, respect and understanding, saves the crew, leaving the fictional Daly floating in space (and the real-world Daly mindlessly stuck in his game forever). She not only embodies the lessons that pop culture can imbue on the audience, but how it can only become stronger when we allow it to progress with wider culture. She is truly a New Hope, and in a world like ours, it’s a message that’s sorely needed.

Black Mirror is streaming now on Netflix. 

Albert Santos is a Sydney writer. You can find them on Twitter here.