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Black Mirror’s ‘USS Callister’ filters toxic fandom through Star Trek

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Everyone suffers when people learn the wrong lessons from pop culture

Jonathan Prime/Netflix

“What is Space Fleet? ... It’s a belief system, founded on the very best of human nature. It is a goal for us to strive towards for the betterment of the universe, for the betterment of life itself. And you … are fucking that up!”

So thunders “Captain” Robert Daly to his captive audience, composed of real people trapped in a Star Trek-like virtual reality sim of his design, all based on his favorite sci-fi show, Space Fleet. They are perfect digital duplicates of Daly’s boss and coworkers at his gaming studio, recreated in-game with DNA Daly harvested from their real-world rubbish. They’re also fully conscious of everything that’s happening to them in this fantasy universe. Daly is the “asshole god” of this virtual world, and his word is law.

This episode, surely one of Black Mirror’s best, is a towering allegory about how fandom becomes a nightmare when used to express abusive entitlement.

Daly’s sentient clones have to live in a world that mirrors an idealistic TV show that’s under the control of a man who learned none of its lessons while copying all of its trappings. He’s an omnipotent, Kirk-style captain, who can leave his pawns permanently suffocating in-game if they refuse to join his self-aggrandizing roleplay.

Nanette Cole, a real-world coder and the episode’s protagonist, wants to escape from the nightmare. The story is told from her perspective, and the rest of the “crew” explains the situation as they welcome her to this hell. I saw many reflections of my own experience through the eyes of this character, being a female nerd and fan in a community that turns the colors of my joy into tormenting dreams.

“USS Callister” does something remarkable by following Cole instead of Daly. It could have credibly dwelled in what is worst about our fandoms, but instead, the episode ends on a redemptive note worthy of Star Trek itself.

From Hero to Villain

The episode’s love for Star Trek infuses even the cinematography. Despite exploring the dark depths of nerd entitlement, it does so with a love for the source material while furthering its message. Daly on the bridge is shot with a dark, almost purplish tint, not dissimilar to how scenes with Romulans in the ’60s were filmed.

That’s the first hint of what emerges as a core theme of the episode: When you become a toxic fan, you become the villain of your favorite shows, games or comics, instead of the hero. The climax hammers this home, as Daly chases his escaping crew in a shuttle craft. He cackles maniacally, while making grandiose threats about inflicting “Biblical” punishment on them for trying to flee. He’s every inch a mustache-twirling Space Fleet supervillain, not the Captain he admired in his youth.

As Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich observed:

Every dictator turns their regime into a kind of psychopathic cinematic universe...and it just so happens that [Daly]’s religion is Space Fleet. He adhered to the letter of law and betrays everything about its spirit.

Daly memorized the lines of Space Fleet’s Picard-esque speeches about justice and the “betterment of life itself,” but never absorbed their meaning, seeing them only as a way to exert power over someone else. That, indeed, is what too many fandoms turn their most devoted adherents into: chapter-and-verse preachers caught in the throes of a fundamentalist mania as they purge and punish those around them who won’t conform.

It’s up to Cole to mastermind an escape from all of this, bravely leading the other clones in a revolt against Daly. Against all odds, she prevails, and it’s revealed that she embodies the best of Kirk … or Janeway. I was actively cheering her on by the end, in spite of all the ruthless and necessary deconstruction of my beloved sci-fi series. I felt nothing less than the pure joy of everything Star Trek is supposed to mean. Virtue, wit, and courage saved the day.

Like the best of Trek, “USS Callister” reminded us that sometimes evil men wear the good guy’s uniform -- and that there is always hope in spite of that.

Darker Hues, Day Upon Day

Cole was painfully easy for me to relate to, for so often I’ve been at the wrong end of a fellow nerd’s entitled rage. So often I’ve seen beloved fantasy worlds turned into nightmares because entitled fans needed to claim it for themselves, often betraying the spirit of the original work in the process.

I could sit there at my computer watching abuse hurled at me. All my geeky memorabilia scattered around my desk now seemed a mockery: tokens of a world I’d never belong to, of a world that hated me. As I got older, those same people ridiculing me became worse. They were doxxers, swatters and harassers, committed to purging games, comics and all fandom of evil “SJWs” or anything that threatened to feminize their world. Possession was nine-tenths of their law.

These people changed my life and the lives of my friends and colleagues. Some of them were driven from their homes, others libeled and hounded in right-wing media to near suicide; others still (like me) were forced on medication to control the terror. My address found its way online.

Nanette Cole in “USS Callister.”
Jonathan Prime/Netflix

I saw whole workplaces — video game studios or gaming news outlets — get doxed. Some colleagues told me tearfully about talks they had to have with their children about what to do if their family home got swatted. And now, this past week, we learn that a dispute between gamers culminated in a swatting that led where it was always going to lead: death.

Black Mirror’s Robert Daly can seem exaggerated. But he’s not wide of the mark. He wants to hurt real people using fictional worlds. He’s like one of the people who say “kill yourself” to a person in tears like it was nothing. The stalkers. The people who dox and swat. They cloak themselves in the power of fantasy to lend grandeur and meaning to the pettiest of battles: that of their ego against those who slight it.

In a game, nothing seems real, and there are no lasting consequences; there’s always that reset button. And abusive fans desperately want to believe that applies everywhere, so that their bottomless entitlement won’t actually do anything for which they’d be responsible.

Our fictional worlds can be beautiful and inspiring, but they can easily become terrifying if we’re not careful, if we allow ourselves to be driven by base prejudices and rage. Toxic fans want to satiate their growing appetites for power fantasy; they want other people online to dance to their tune and bow to them, like NPCs. To the abuser, there’s no fun in hurting NPCs of course, but turning a human into an NPC is what real power feels like: domination.

There’s no fun in it unless your victim knows they’re being violated. “USS Callister” illustrates this perfectly — Daly thrives on his subjects’ subordination precisely because they were human enough to rebel. This was the challenge in a game he couldn’t lose otherwise. It’s much the same with real toxic fans, who thrive on hurting others, using their favorite nerdy fiction to fend off newcomers and finding satisfaction in the fleeting power it gives them.

Daly rationalized his abuse as humane, because the digital clones weren’t “real.” They weren’t his “actual” colleagues, who continued their lives oblivious to his twisted game. But for Daly to get his satisfaction, there had to be a human-like realism to the crew’s suffering and subjugation. Daly’s tortures are just like online abuse: They’re real enough for the victims to suffer in measurable ways, while also being virtual enough for the abuser to claim that they’re not actually doing anything wrong.

Fans like these threaten to ruin the magic of these universes for the rest of us, corrupting and making a mockery of the very thing they claim to be defending. You can see this in the Star Wars fan who spews racism that would make Palpatine proud; the Trek fan who refuses to understand the meaning of IDIC; the Doctor Who fan who is cruel and cowardly toward those who are different.

They still see themselves as the hero, even as they become the monsters these stories warn against.

A Girl in her Box, off to see the universe

The beauty of “USS Callister” is that it shows us who is the real villain. It’s neither the media nor nor fandom, per se, but the fan who perverts these stories into a weapon.

A review from Trek Movie misses that point entirely, retreating into wounded entitlement that Daly might find familiar. The writer accuses the episode of “cartoonish nerd-bashing” and says it’s “very unfair to paint [gamers] with the brush that’s used here.”

The review builds to a fatuous crescendo by calling the episode “a misandrous attack on male science-fiction fans,” forgetting that several of Daly’s victims were men. They all worked at a gaming studio. They were all into sci-fi; the ending can be read as the lot of them becoming gamers who explore a vast MMO. That the reviewer only sees Daly as the exemplar of nerdiness, of gaming, is precisely the problem.

Treating any criticism of toxic culture as a personal attack perpetuates our current troubles. Black Mirror’s deconstruction of fandom is not a call to obliterate it, especially in light of the episode’s optimistic ending, but — if you’ll let me mix my sci-fi metaphors here — an invitation to take our first step into a larger world.

The betrayal of what is best about sci-fi, comics or gaming doesn’t come from calling out fans’ horrifying behavior, but in believing that it all belongs to you and you alone. This isn’t a tendency limited to straight men, either; diverse fandoms of shows like Steven Universe have had their own toxicity problems. In every case, something beautiful that should unite us in wonder is turned into a weapon.

Suddenly, someone in a yellow-starred, red t-shirt is an abuser, rather than a paragon of hope. All horror works on that premise: taking the familiar and making it monstrous.

But we can all be so much more. “USS Callister” ends with the liberated digital clones leaping into a vast universe waiting to be explored, something they can do because they regained their humanity and freedom. It’s much like how I feel when the universe of fandom stretches before me, or on the rare days where I can just have fun on the internet. It’s how I feel listening to the clarion horns of The Next Generation’s theme; anything is possible. What Star Trek always gave me was faith in the best qualities of humanity, and that even at our very worst, we could overcome those depths to climb back up toward the stars.

That right to “see what’s out there” belongs to us all. And that is worth fighting for, not the essentialism of fandom that reduces itself to gatekeeping a puzzlebox with only one right answer.

To quote another nerdy spacefarer, “You don’t need to own the universe, just see it.”