Netflix’s “Black Mirror” may be the sci-fi show that everyone’s talking about. But the first episode of Season 4, released last weekend, looks like a relic from a sci-fi TV show that everyone’s forgotten about.
The opening of the episode, called “USS Callister," resembles a cheesy, 1960s ripoff of "Star Trek" called "Space Fleet," featuring a heroic Captain Daly (Jesse Plemons) leading his adoring crew on interplanetary adventures. The parody of old “Trek” episodes is spot-on, from the crude spaceship models to the hammy acting. Plemons does a pretty good Shatner impression.
But there’s something a little weird about this spaceship. Why are the crew so adoring of their captain, to the point of fawning over him like little kids? And why do all the mini-skirted female crew members line up to make out with the captain?
It turns out what we’re actually seeing is a virtual reality simulation created by Daly, who in real life is the nerdy CTO of the company that makes the VR game. In the office, Daly is ignored and belittled by his co-workers. At home, he plugs into the VR game, based on his favorite old TV show, where each of his co-workers has a digital counterpart, giving him the adoration he never gets in real life.
At first, it seems like a weird but ultimately harmless sort of wish fulfillment for the socially awkward Daly. But then writer and series creator Charlie Brooker throws in a nasty twist that makes the goings-on on the USS Callister much more unsettling. "USS Callister" reminded me of that old "Twilight Zone" episode, "It's a Good Life," where a bratty kid with psychic powers terrorizes a small town.
“Black Mirror” is an anthology show that delves into human beings’ relationship with technology, making us question whether the latest tech really makes our lives easier, or easier for the technology to control us. Among this season’s six new episodes, “USS Callister” is a standout that layers horror and comedy, creating a situation that’s hilarious and chilling.
Daly embodies the dark side of nerd culture, his toxic mix of insecurity and entitlement turning into a self-righteous anger familiar to anyone who has been on Twitter lately. “Callister” is also that rare “Black Mirror” episode with an unambiguously happy ending, as a new “crew member” (Cristin Milioti of “Fargo”) rebels against the tyrannical, sexist captain. It’s a #MeToo moment in outer space.
It’s that power struggle that gives “Callister” momentum, avoiding the pitfall that some other “Black Mirror” episodes suffer. Brooker occasionally comes up with a great premise for an episode, and then falters when turning that idea into drama.
That’s true, unfortunately, of another episode, “Arkangel.” Rosemarie DeWitt plays a nervous single mother who agrees to have her young daughter implanted with a strange device that tracks her movements and monitors her vital signs. Even more, the mother can see and hear whatever her daughter is doing, and “block” any images she finds unsuitable.
It’s a great idea, playing on the dangers of helicopter parenting and the folly of trying to “childproof” the world. Unfortunately, Brooker can’t quite figure out what to do with it. The daughter grows into a teenager, and the technology ends up sabotaging the parent-child relationship. But the episode never makes the parent-child relationship believable, and “Arkangel” starts to feel like the strangest ABC after-school special ever.
Also on streaming: On Friday, Netflix premieres the new documentary series “Rotten.” A kindred spirit to books like “Fast Food Nation,” it digs into the waste and corruption inside the global food industry, and how our eating habits may contribute to the problem.