Black Mirror, season 4, USS Callister, review: a sharp, topical attack on an entire genre of male-driven narrative

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Warning: this review contains spoilers

Black Mirror can at times feel like a game of spot-the-reference. For a show about the future, this modern Twilight Zone always has one eye on its pop culture past. Last year, its writer Charlie Brooker even produced a (somewhat self-indulgent) alphabetical list of the show’s 105 main influences.

USS Callister is no exception, though it doesn’t so much allude to its source as gleefully clobber you over the head with it: Star Trek. Specifically the Star Trek of cheap quarry sets, questionable sexual politics and William Shatner’s toupee.

It suffers from the fact that so many others have boldly gone here before – most notably the nigh-unimprovable 1999 film Galaxy Quest. None the less, USS Callister’s opening sequence, bursting with colour and the low-quality fuzz of a sixties TV broadcast, is guaranteed to raise a nostalgic smile.

That smile disappears when we learn what is actually happening. Software designer Robert Daly (a deliciously oily Jesse Plemons) is enacting his TV-inspired fantasies in an immersive Virtual Reality game peopled with “digital clones” of his colleagues, whom he can toy with and torture without consequence.

The horror comes from the fact that these clones (a strong ensemble cast, including Chewing Gum star Michaela Coel) are self-aware. They know they can never escape the computer programme, and are doomed to spend eternity appeasing their “a–hole god”.