Warning Spoilers Ahead
Black Mirror is most chilling when it covers the implications of technologies that are right around the corner or worse right in our pockets and on our laptops. Shut up and Dance is terrifying because one could easily imagine it happening right now in this day and age. A social media system nearly identical to that of Nosedive was recently introduced in China. The social engineering behind The Waldo Moment pretty much played out during the 2016 election. It's for this reason that USS Callister fails to satisfy.
The story starts off well enough. We meet Robert Daly CTO of Callister Inc, who's leading the creation of a VR game called Infinity which we ultimately learn is a cross between Eve Online and No Man Sky. He's a brilliant software engineer but painfully socially awkward and lacking in confidence. At this point Daly seems worthy of pity and sympathy, perhaps someone to root for. His Space Fleet game at first appears to be harmless escapist fantasy. Things take a more sinister tone as he humiliates Lt Commander Walton, the first officer in his game. Then he takes a sample of DNA from a new employee's coffee cup and things go off the rails.
It would have been enough of a stretch if Daley used the DNA merely to reconstruct a likeness of Cole, but what actually happens is even dumber. The digital clone not only has Cole's physical appearance but also all her memories up to the day before the DNA was sampled. I hope the overwhelming majority of viewers know that using DNA to reconstruct not just a person's likeness but also their memories is completely scientifically impossible. It will never happen, therefore the idea can never disturb and frighten us in the same way as something that's already possible or at least readily conceivable. This sort of thing might be forgivable in a more pulpy and fun sci-fi romp but I expect more from Black Mirror.
This element alone completely took me out of the story. Everything else fell flat after that. The revelation that Daley uses his modded version of Infinity to enslave and torture people who displease him has no real impact. The fact that he considers Cole worthy of this fate because, even though she deeply respects him as a coder she's not attracted to him, is a strong criticism of increasingly toxic and misogynistic elements within geek/gamer culture, but that too lacks any real weight when the scenario is so absurd.
In addition to the shameless disregard for basic science other parts of the plot made no sense. Why did the main character's total control of that world seem to disappear when the protagonists were trying to make their escape? Why did the villain need to save DNA samples of his victims instead of just keeping digital copies on his system? Why was this computer genius too dumb to figure out that Cole's invitation to go swimming was just a ruse, especially considering he'd only recently caught her trying to hack the game? Why did the game even have real control panels capable of interacting with anything outside the game world? Finally the way Daly gets trapped in the game after his mods are deleted suggests a pretty glaring safety problem with the game they're developing. Gamer's use mods all the time, will every player who does so risk being turned into a vegetable when the game updates?
Even if they'd corrected these problems and for example simply had the digital versions of people created using a system similar to the "cookies" technology from White Christmas it still suffers because it's redundant to that very episode. The ethical concerns regarding the treatment of sentient AI constructs was beautifully illustrated in a mere 12 minutes. What more did USS Callister provide to this subject besides making the abuse a matter of sadism rather then sloth, adding some bits of social commentary and framing it in a rather shallow Star Trek parody? Finally as I'll discuss further in my review of Black Museum, this season of Black Mirror ends up repeating this concept to the point of beating a dead horse.
To the USS Callister's credit it was well acted, and well cast. Daly creating a construct of Walton's son in order to kill him before his father's eyes was a clever twist, though it doesn't overcome the redundancy of the over all concept. The commentary on abuses of power and the darker side of escapism and gammer culture is poignant albeit blunted by the over all absurdity of the concept. Finally I enjoyed Aaron Paul's voice cameo at the end.
Having thought it over I'd like to upgrade my initial assessment and give USS Callister a final rating of C-.