Black Mirror took a journey to the final frontier with its season four episode “USS Callister,” a breakdown of fandom, entitlement, and totalitarianism that was also chock full of references to its inspiration, Star Trek. As the director has pointed out, many of them were purposeful, and one of them was actually a major hint.
At first glance, “USS Callister” was about a Space Fleet captain named Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) and his crew—but it was actually about a video game developer who’d created his own virtual world, using real people from his office as characters in the game. Not content to simply make fake versions of real people, Daly used a modified 3D printer to scan their DNA and put digital copies of them in the game—memories, personality, and all.
There are loads of overt and hidden references to Star Trek in this episode, from the way Daly dramatically kisses the women on the bridge, or the way he mentions the Space Fleet code, clearly a nod to Starfleet’s Prime Directive. But there were references that weren’t just casual nods, but actually took an effort to produce. For example, in order to sound like Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk, Plemons used a dialect coach to get William Shatner’s inflections just right, according to director Toby Haynes.
“Jesse [Plemons] would say, ‘You let me know if you want to turn the dial up on Shatner,’” Haynes said. “We did it one or two times where he went full Shatner, like when he says ‘fire’ in the opening. That’s straight out of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I love those movies. I’m quoting my heroes. So it comes from a place of love.”
Haynes told The Hollywood Reporter he also purposefully changed the directorial style depending on what “world” the characters were in. When Daly was in the real world, Haynes used a lot of handheld camera movements to make it feel more natural and chaotic, but when Daly visited Space Fleet he stuck to static camera shots, to show how Daly was trying to recreate the past. However, whenever Captain Daly wasn’t around, it’d go back to handheld to show the real chaos behind the glossy veneer. Haynes added that there were a few references to Star Wars as well, most notably Nanette Cole’s (Cristin Milioti) entrance into the digital world, which played off of that famous Rogue One trailer shot that never made it into the final movie.
But you’re probably wondering what plot point reference I was talking about...that has to do with the red shirts. As we (likely) all know, Star Trek’s red-shirted crewmates were famous for being the first ones to die, and that tradition was continued here. Haynes purposefully had two major characters wearing red, to signify their ultimate fates.
“I’m probably a bigger Star Trek fan than [showrunner Charlie Brooker] is... I was such a fan that I’m kind of reverential about it,” Haynes said. “I knew stuff that Charlie didn’t know, which is why we put Michaela Coel (Shania) in a red outfit. I remember when we were picking the colors of the outfits when we were on location in Lanzarote. Michaela had to be in a red outfit because she’s the first of the crew to get killed. On Star Trek, the guy in red always gets nailed.”
Guess who’s also wearing red?
Granted, Uhura wore red on the original series, but Kirk didn’t. This was clearly a hint that Daly would share the fate that had befallen all the crewmates he’d tortured all those years. But did he die? That’s the big question, as some figure he crashed when the update killed his private server. I lean toward no. My theory is that he was the lone survivor, stranded in an empty space forever. Especially given how Daly’s uniform is also a reference to later-series Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Picard, who temporarily became a Borg. Much like Picard, he’s now one with the data collective. Resistance is Futile.