In 1973, writer Paula Smith published a short story titled “A Trekkie’s Tale” in the second issue of her Star Trek magazine Menagerie. Smith intended it as a semi-affectionate satire of fan fiction, writing from the perspective of a teenage girl named Mary Sue, who transparently positions herself as the hero of her own story. Declaring herself “the youngest lieutenant in the fleet,” the girl wins the respect and affections of Kirk and Spock with her effortless mastery of strategizing and combat, despite a lack of experience. In the decades since, the name Mary Sue has become a shorthand for any implausibly perfect character introduced as an obvious surrogate for the author. It’s generally the hallmark of amateurish, un-self-aware writing, but Black Mirror, true to form, sees malevolence in everything.
At the core of the Mary Sue concept lies a sort of fictive fascism, the imposition of one’s will to such an absolute degree that it shapes the fabric of reality and colors the characters placed inside it. In Mary Sue stores, the entire universe exists to flatter a single childlike mentality; previously established characters break from usual patterns of behavior to praise the protagonist for her — or more frequently, his — skills, charm, and good looks. For a bored teen, this kind of thing is harmless and all in good fun, though it might seed bad habits that take some novelists years to overcome. (Some never do.) There’s no danger in the solipsism of fan fiction, where it’s just you and the page. If such a situation were to be rendered in real life, however, where everyone bending to the whim of a Mary Sue could actually feel their free will taking leave of them, it would be a special hell.
“USS Callister,” the clear standout from the new batch of Black Mirror episodes, drops the act after roughly five minutes. You don’t have to be a particularly discerning viewer to sense something’s not right with the vintage-styled opening sequence, shot in a soft focus and narrowed aspect ratio to mimic the feel of old-school Star Trek episodes. The valiant captain portrayed by Jesse Plemons with a velvety baritone and whipped-cream slick of hair is too perfect; he wraps up a galaxy-threatening situation with a wave of the hand, and meets with overplayed adulation from his grateful crew. By the time everyone starts celebrating his victory with an impromptu rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and each of his female compatriots rewards him with a chaste close-mouthed kiss, something has to be up.
All the same, that revelatory cut into reality lands with a smack. The captain is actually Robert Daley, a paunchy survivor of male-pattern baldness who speaks in an ineffectual mumble. He’s the roundly disrespected CTO at a virtual-reality start-up, the Wozniak to an a-hole Jobs played by Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson. The receptionist barely acknowledges him, the intern ribs him about his gut, and the office jock (Billy Magnussen, who really should have been in this more, but at 70-plus minutes, the episode doesn’t need to be longer) busts his chops while chatting up his crush. When the cute new hire Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) tiptoes into Robert’s office to gush about his virtuosic coding prowess and all he can muster up is a stammer of thanks, we feel for the guy.
At this early juncture, the VR role-play Robert sets up for himself appears deeply pathetic. Only in digital dreams can he be the best version of himself, someone capable and well-liked. He’s cast everyone in his life as an inverse of themselves: Simpson’s braggart CEO becomes a simpering underling, the ladies can’t resist him, and Magnussen’s gym rat provides the model for the muscular villain. This insular fantasy casts the nerd in a pitiable light, a social outcast reduced to making his action figures say they’ll be his friends. But much in the same way that recent years have seen the nerd community eagerly assume the role of the bully after being bullied themselves, so too does Robert Daley prove to be more sadist than sad sack.
The other people aboard the virtual USS Callister don’t vanish when Robert isn’t there. They’re real, insofar as the capacity for abstract thought makes a person real. Robert’s experimental off-the-grid gaming sim uses actual DNA to synthesize its characters, more like clones trapped in a digitized prison than collections of ones and zeroes. It’s because they’ve got that pesky Cartesian selfhood that their angry god Robert must force them to enact his playtime scenarios through blood-curdling torture ranging from protracted suffocation to emotional excruciation. Step out of line and face his wrath, in shades of The Twilight Zone classic “It’s a Good Life”.
One might wonder why, if Robert can wipe someone’s face off or transmogrify them into an insectoid mutant at will, he doesn’t just use that omnipotence to make them all actually like the game. But this only seems like a hole in the story until we come to realize that forced consent is very much the point. Though there’s a romantic dimension to the Callister simulation, Robert never rapes the female voyagers; in a moment both hilarious and profoundly disturbing, Simpson reveals that they all have Barbie-doll-esque blank surfaces where their genitals should be. Still, the psychological foundation that has manifested in rape culture — the entitlement, the skewed dynamic of power, the erotics of unwillingness — is all right there.
The most compelling question posed by “USS Callister” concerns the debts that creators owe to their creations. It’s easy to see Robert’s deranged VR realm as an allegory for the complete dominion an author holds over their characters, both in fiction of the fan and professional varieties. In either case, a sense of responsibility for the lives hanging in the balance is essential for good storytelling. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been feeling more and more certain that the most important quality a writer can have is empathy. This thought recurs to me at unpredictable, occasionally weird times: Moonlight, Lady Bird, the bit during Jurassic World where the Shamu dinosaur eats the babysitter for no good reason. Allowing tertiary characters interiority, considering how the protagonist’s decisions affect them, and treating them with dignity lays a strong foundation on which a recognizably realistic personality can be built. Roberts simply wants everyone on his ship to be an extension of himself that he can use and then keep in stasis when he has other things to do.
“USS Callister” cements its status as one of the very best Black Mirror episodes when this crafty commentary improves upon the very sort of art it criticizes. The back half of the story pivots into its own sort of Trek-esque adventure when the characters trapped inside the simulation mount a last-ditch effort to save themselves. While the Cole in the outside world is only semi-aware of what’s happening, the in-game Cole steps up to engineer their escape and see it through. She makes for a nonchalant sort of hero, more interested in getting everyone the hell out than her own gallantry. (Milioti gives a perfect deadpan for the final line of “Let’s, uh, fuck off somewhere.”) Though she’s shown to be resourceful, clever, and brave, Cole’s basic regard for the welfare of others prevents her from turning into the same Mary Sue that Robert eagerly fashions himself as.
The intention to work out impulses buried in the psyche has led to great and hideous art alike, everything from Martin Scorsese’s lunge at salvation in Raging Bull to Louis C.K.’s stomach-churning confessional I Love You, Daddy. Robert illustrates the worst-case scenario, embodying the narcissistic, arrogant id that undergirds the thousands of masturbatory (some literally so) abominations cluttering fan-fiction.net. His Callister simulation isn’t intended as therapeutic, but quite the opposite, a form of enabling for his mental arrested development. In there, he’s holding all the cards, able to rewrite the rules of irrational emotion into a format he can understand from years of watching Space Fleet. It’s a horror story to everyone involved except him, and to us, a demonstrative lesson: Have compassion, even for figments of your imagination. Everyone’s living their own lives, so write accordingly.