Sunday, December 31, 2017

Black Mirror (Season 4) ; U.S.S. Callister

The dystopian science fiction anthology series, Black Mirror, apparently a product of Netflix and the BBC, is notable for having reinventing, in our secular age, the idea of hell.  Several of the episodes posit that consciousness, no longer embodied, but injected into a computer system as a digital code, can be made infinite in its ability to enjoy pleasure (the heaven posited by the famous episode "San Junipero") --  and, conversely, digitized consciousness can be made to suffer infinite torment since anguish inflicted upon an disembodied mind doesn't offer the respite of physical death.  This latter concept is central to the very funny and disturbing episode "U.S.S. Callister". 

On its face, "U.S.S. Callister" is a clever and pitch-perfect (at first) pastiche of the old TV show Star Trek at its most primitive and threadbare.  Jesse Plemons (familiar to me from his great performance as the butcher in the second season of Fargo) plays the part of a man famous for his brilliant computer coding.  Plemons' character has invented a multi-player computer game named Star Fleet -- this is his, and the show's homage to the sixties TV show Star Trek.  The opening scene shows the star-deck of the star fleet cruiser U.S.S. Callister -- imperiously ordering people around Plemons' character plays the part of Captain Kirk; he affects perfect diction and the slightest British accent and, after successfully destroying his nemesis, he kisses each of the comely women in his six member crew on the lips.  This sequence is rendered with the utmost fidelity to the old TV show -- the set is identical and the acting is all uniformly bad with equally terrible special effects embedded in a plodding mise-en-scene.  After this sequence, we see the hero riding an elevator to his place of work -- a software firm in a skyscraper somewhere.  On the job, the hero is mercilessly badgered and abused by his CEO and partner.  When a young woman, who turns out to be the show's heroine, arrives for her first day at work, the attractive Black woman and the blonde receptionist tell her to keep her distance from the coding genius -- he's "creepy" they say.  At the outset, the show sets us up to sympathize with the poor computer-genius geek -- a sensitive soul who keeps in his office every past episode of Star Fleet and who everyone disrespects and mocks behind his back.  But the script's apparent display of empathy for the computer geek turns out to be a brilliant, and disconcerting indirection.  In fact, the computer geek is a monster, one of the most disturbing villains in recent TV and film history.  It turns out that he has seized the DNA from the people who tease or ignore or abuse him in the workplace.  Using these DNA samples, he encodes his co-workers into the video game, Star Fleet, and, then, as their commander (and also God of this realm) torments them mercilessly -- the fearful thing about this torture is that it is infinite; since the people he is tormenting feel themselves to be flesh and blood but, in fact, are merely streams of electronic data there is no end to the suffering that they can endure.  In the vicious games that he plays, accordingly, the computer geek exacts a horrific revenge on the people who have mistreated him in real life.  I'm not inclined to reveal much more about this 75 minute episode, which is intensely exciting, except to say that the new hire, a resourceful young programmer, finds herself trapped in the nightmare game and schemes to free herself -- she has to accomplish this by finding a way to communicate with her "real self", -- that is her embodied self who is working for the computer genius blithely unaware that he has seized her "data" and is torturing her savagely in the game that he plays at night.  (The show poses a fascinating philosophical question -- what if there was another me, exactly identical to the me that I define as myself?  what would I be willing to sacrifice to save this identical self from terrible torture if I didn't feel that torture myself?  This is the fundamental problem of compassion and empathy because, after all, to some extent other people are, indeed, very similar to us -- the program doesn't develop this theme enough to my taste, but the idea is implicit in the story.  As it turns out, the "me" that is trapped in the game has to literally blackmail the "other me", that is the real embodied "me", to get her take any meaningful action.) 

The show is both terrifying and funny.  The computer geek, of course, is probably celibate and he has resurrected his co-workers in the game as figures with Barbie genitalia -- that is, no genitals at all.  One of the characters says that it's awful "to not even be able to take a shit."  In the game, he torments his enemies by turning them into horrifying arachnid monsters or by, simply, removing their faces.  But when a pizza arrives, he has to pause the game -- then, his hapless characters sit around guzzling booze or chatting about their travails.  In the middle of a phaser battle with an bug-monster, a pizza is delivered to the villain in his apartment where he is playing the game and he puts the action on pause.  Everyone relaxes while he is gone.  Someone notes that the bug monster is really "Jenny, from the mail department -- he turned her into a bug forever because she wouldn't cooperate".  When this is said, Jenny as a bug nods her head in a friendly sort of way and wags one of her tentacle tails.  There's some defects in the show:  the ending is a bit unresolved and the heroine has to be blackmailed into helping to defeat the villain by a threat to disclose her private photos, some which she wishes she had deleted, to all her friends and family -- this kind of electronic blackmail is a staple of the series and has been featured on other episodes.  But the heroine, who is sexually aggressive, says surveying her de-sexed computer body, "He's gonna pay for taking away my pussy!", a noble enough sentiment but one that suggests that the blackmail threat would not be too effective on this specific character.  There are other flaws as well, but this is the sort of TV show that once seen can't be unseen -- it will want haunt you.

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