“The Fragility of Our Benign Authentic Self” by Janet Lau


Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers. If you have not yet watched the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister”  (or the entire show), please go watch it already.

‘William couldn’t find you, Dolores. But out there, among the dead, he found something else: himself.’
─ Man in Black, Westworld

The crew on USS Callister faces a non-Federation vessel which has appeared antagonistically, led by the villain Valdack. Thanks to the pluck of the valiant, resolute and merciful Captain Robert Daly, Valdack’s evil plan with the plasmorthian crystal is soon thwarted, and the wicked Valdack is sent packing.

This is a part of the storyline of Space Fleet, a virtual universe in the online gaming world Infinity programmed by the real Robert Daly, who, in the real world, is Chief Technical Officer of Callister Inc. Dominated by his boss James Walton and kept brutally at arm’s length by his colleagues, the unfairly despised Robert, in his free time, engages in his private game universe Space Fleet, in which he is the god-like Captain Robert Daly, abusing and tormenting the identical digital versions of his colleagues. Playing either the crew members of his vessel, the USS Callister, or the villains, the digital clones are imprisoned in the virtual world infinitely, repeating the heroic story about Captain Robert Daly over and over again.


Timid and meek in the real world, sadistic and domineering in his virtual realm, Robert’s profound contrast of character showcases the magnitude of his rage when rid of confinements. Savouring his absolute power and the deference of his crew in Space Fleet, Robert is like a visitor enamoured with the theme park in the American thriller TV Series Westworld.

In Westworld, there is a futuristic park which is a simulated version of the Wild West, visitors to which are allowed, or even encouraged, to liberate their fantasies and desires with the human-looking android “hosts”. William, unlike his friend Logan, who has already visited the park several times and has started to become insolent towards the hosts, is mild-mannered and willing to help hosts who are in trouble, particularly Dolores, whom he later falls in love with. As the story develops, William loses track of Dolores after a serious dispute with Logan, who is infuriated about William’s succumbing to Westworld. William, in search of Dolores, hunts down and kills everyone who has hurt her, realising his liberated predilection for savageness and, finally putting a black hat upon his head, becoming the notorious Man-in-Black.


While Westworld depicts the demonization of William in the park, USS Callister is a portrayal of Robert’s indulgence in evil in his Westworld-esque Space Fleet kingdom. What Robert enjoys primarily in Space Fleet is not his plotted heroism but his ability to contemplate various means to abuse the virtual versions of his colleagues. Before creating Space Fleet, Robert probably had never imagined acting on such vile impulses as throwing James’ son into the space as a means to break James’ spirit, or turning Gillian from the marketing department into a hideous creature modelled on a figure on his desk as a punishment for her uncooperativeness, or suffocating Nannette so as to force her to submit. The repressed wrathful self of Robert is unveiled in this universe, turning him into a stone-hearted Man-in-Black-like black hat.


Evidently inspired by Star Trek, USS Callister is, like Space Fleet, a knock-off of a classic. The deliberately conspicuous similarities between USS Callister and Star Trek immerse viewers in a familiar fictional world, inflicting the feeling of déjà vu on us, giving us a glimpse of our latent brutality through Robert’s. If one had a chance to stop over in a Game-of-Thrones-themed digital universe, one might as a matter of fact become more diabolic than Joffery Baratheon or Ramsay Bolton. USS Callister is a story that illustrates the discovery of one’s true self through the liberation of villainous rage. It foregrounds the existence of a dormant fiend inside each of us, which, if unleashed virtually, would lay bare the fragility of our benign authentic self.

‘What is Space Fleet? I’ll tell you what it is. It is a belief system…founded on the very best of human nature.’


JanetJanet Lau is a graduate of the Department of English and Department of Education (Class of 2016). She is currently a Research Assistant working at the Department of English. [Click here to read all entries by Janet.]


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