In the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister,” science-fiction and gaming fandoms belong to sadistic, white-guy nerds. The show is an indictment of toxic masculinity. But it’s also, helplessly, a validation of it. (This story contains spoilers for the episode.)
Captain Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) is an evil, sexist, racist megalomaniac. He’s also the person with the greatest knowledge of, and the greatest appreciation for, the Star Trek-like show Space Fleet. Black Mirror hates that Space Fleet fandom is for white men—but, nonetheless, it believes in the myth that fandoms, originally, were for white men.
The basic conceit of “USS Calister” is that brilliant tech coder Robert Daly has designed his own computer game based on the old Star Trek-like show, Space Fleet. In his real life, Daly is a bitter, quiet nerd who has been sidelined in his own company by his partner, Walton (Jimmi Simpson). He spends most of his days stewing in resentment and creepily staring at his female colleagues. In the evening, he enters his game world as Captain Daly, commanding a ship’s crew made up of sentient clones of his coworkers. Daly has godlike control over the Space Fleet world, and entertains himself by turning his crew into insect monsters, or erasing their faces when they refuse to suck up to him sufficiently.
Daly’s reign of retro-terror ends when he clones Nannette Cole (Cristin Milioti), a new tech engineer who figures out how to turn his program against him. She traps him in his own nightmare while allowing the crew to escape to a less totalitarian space game.
Daly is presented as being evil in part because he’s not manly enough.
“USS Callister” is brilliant at teasing out the sexist and racist assumptions of the original Star Trek series. Daly swaggers about the ship, giving his best William Shatner impersonation, while his crew, composed largely of people of color, praise his every trivial decision and half-assed stratagem. The women prance about in miniskirts and kiss him at the end of each episode, while First Officer Walton literally licks his boots. Daly is the conquering colonial white-man hero living out his empowerment fantasy in a universe literally made for him.
But while Star Trek had elements of white-male fantasy, it was also beloved from the very beginning by people who were not white men. The cast of the show included POC at a time when that was quite rare. Martin Luther King Jr. was famously a fan, and convinced Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) to stay on the show when she was considering leaving.
Star Trek fandom was also, and even somewhat notoriously, female-dominated. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) may have been the putative star of the franchise, but the repressed alien Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) became the show’s heartthrob sex symbol. The “USS Callister” fandom is supposed to be sexless; Daly is awkward and terrified of women in the real world, and onboard he actually designs his clone crew without genitals. But the real female-led fandom of Star Trek is anything but sexless. Kirk/Spock fan fiction invented the whole genre of slash, in which female fans script torrid same-sex romances between their favorite canonically heterosexual stars.
Star Trek fandom was so thoroughly associated with women, in fact, that it was often the target of misogynist bile. A 1973 short story, “A Trekkie’s Tale,” parodied female-oriented Trek fan fiction, in which a wonderful woman appears aboard the Enterprise, saves the world and dies beautifully. While the original story was arguably at least somewhat affectionate, it coined the term “Mary Sue,” which is often now used to sneer at female characters who are supposedly too good to be true. Star Trek fandom was colonized by women from the beginning—which is why Star Trek fandom, in particular, is often singled out for scorn.
This misogynist scorn arguably inflects the Black Mirror episode itself. Daly is presented as being evil in part because he’s not manly enough. He’s awkward with women, and his curdled sexual desire leads him to overcompensate with his Space Fleet fantasy. Walton, the CEO who flirts with women smoothly, ends up getting to be a hero, sacrificing himself in noble upright-male fashion. Daly is a bad guy in part because Space Fleet/Star Trek isn’t a pastime for a real man. “USS Callister” is supposed to repudiate misogyny, but it dislikes Daly partly because it has a misogynist distaste for the Star Trek fandom with which he is associated.
“USS Callister” means to strike a blow against misogynist fandoms. But by choosing Star Trek as its iconic evil fandom, it undermines itself. Daly is presented as the person who knows and loves the Space Fleet show. Nannette has barely heard of it, and is unfamiliar with its tropes. To overthrow it, she actually has to learn to behave, and become, a white guy like Daly. Part of her plot to overthrow him involves blackmailing herself in the real world by threatening to release her own nudes from her own phone. Defeating the white guy involves beating the white guy in his own universe at his own game.
But again, Star Trek was never a male fandom to begin with; it was always a woman’s world. “USS Callister” rewrites history—and in doing so, it inadvertently cosigns the toxic masculinity it wants to refute.
The master narrative of male fandoms is always, adamantly, that male fandoms existed first. White male science-fiction fans, and white male gamers, insist that their fandoms were originally theirs. Women and POC are interlopers like Nannette, infiltrating the bridge and turning the helm towards sentimentality or weak womanly yuckiness. Gamergate was fueled by gamer rage at women who dared to make or criticize games. Men accuse women who like comics or science fiction of being “fake geek girls” who can’t tell Earth 616 from Earth 2. Male fandoms came first; women come along later and ruin everything. That’s the story that male fans tell themselves; it’s also the plot of “USS Callister.”
The conclusion of the episode imagines a Space Fleet adventure without the white guy. Nanette and the crew comprised mostly of men and women of color find themselves in control of the spaceship, ready to set off on new adventures. Fandoms, the episode concludes, aren’t just for white guys anymore. But that “anymore” strikes a sour note. Star Trek was never for white guys in the first place. Black Mirror thinks it’s overthrowing Daly, but it gives him too much power.