When “Black Mirror” creator Charlie Brooker dreamed up Season Four opener “USS Callister,” he wasn’t planning to go rogue. It was the second season for Netflix, which unexpectedly outbid Channel 4 for Season Three. They scooped up rights for $40 million, and promptly upped the episode order from mini-seasons of three to the usual dozen. Brooker didn’t blink at the challenge. He describes himself as a workaholic who is “used to constantly doing things,” he said. “I’ve got that freelance mentality that if you’re not working, you might as well be dead. I have no sense of my own existence or reality if I’m not working.”
The London-based executive producer writes and supervises the edit on most episodes, usually in a state of panic, while executive producer Annabel Jones steers production. While working with the editors on the previous episode, he’s prepping the next shoot, dreaming up more episodes to come, and floating in and out of the set. Each “Black Mirror” episode is bespoke, with its own story, director (from Jodie Foster to Joe Wright), creative team, and actors (from Daniel Kaluuya to Bryce Dallas Howard). Interiors have been shot at London’s Twickenham Studios, with exteriors ranging from South Africa (“Nosedive”) to the Canary Islands (“USS Callister”).
“Black Mirror” episodes often start as “comic observations on a topic,” said Brooker. “‘Black Mirror’ obviously is a rip-roaring fun ride, so often the ideas spring from a conversation with Annabel Jones, my co-showrunner. It will spin off from a bizarre ‘what-if?’ scenario.”
At 76 minutes, the sci-fi space epic “USS Callister” is longer and more expensive than any other in “Black Mirror” Season Four. (The longest ever, “Hated in the Nation,” Season 3 Episode 6, is 89 minutes long.) It was long enough to collect eight Emmy nominations, five more than last year’s three (two wins for “San Junipero”), including Outstanding Television Movie (“USS Callister”), Best Actor (Jesse Plemons), and Best Writing for William Bridges and executive producer Charlie Brooker.
“We were sitting on the set of ‘Playtest’ in Season 3,” said Brooker, “which had a lot of special effects. ‘Can we set an episode set in space obsessed with idea of doing a story of a tyrant in the VR realm?’ I was thinking of games like ‘No Man’s Sky,’ a game with a procedurally generated infinite universe. It starts out with a parody. I love the idea of the audience sitting down to watch the next season of ‘Black Mirror’: ‘What the hell is this? What are they doing?’ We have our cake and it eat it. We play out the tropes throughout the episode.”
Brooker was inspired by the famous William Shatner episode of “The Twilight Zone,” “Nightmare at 2000 Feet” as well as “It’s a Good Life,” about a young boy with incredible powers who terrifies everyone everyone around him. Another inspiration was the Viz Comics character Playtime Fontayne, a grownup bank manager who plays banal playground games.
The cast and crew felt like they were shooting a movie, and Brooker and Jones were eager to deliver on the scale of a sci-fi epic — but in five weeks. “Taking on a space opera was quite daunting,” said Jones at a Netflix FYSEE event. “We said, ‘If we’re going to do this, it has to feel epic visually, look beautiful.'”
Directed by “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” director Toby Haynes, “USS Callister” demanded skilled actors to deliver multiple layers of narrative, as audiences adapt to a constantly shifting reality as the story unfolds. When Plemons (Emmy nominee for “Fargo”) first read the part of the hapless Robert Daly, a software developer bullied by his cofounder (“Westworld” star Jimmi Simpson) and adopts the alternative persona of a powerful spaceship captain in his own sophisticated VR game, he was confused.
“It seemed this was going to be some sort of knockoff of ‘Star Trek,'” he told me. “Then I put it down, watched the whole first season, got to the second scene, and everything immediately made sense: I really wanted to play this part. I was getting to play around with this idea of a real person and their fantasy shadow self. It’s in everyone, it just happens to be that this guy has some very dark secrets. Such vanity and arrogance! It was a lot of fun to get to bounce back and forth.”
As far as Brooker is concerned, screenwriting books are to be read and forgotten. “I’m rubbish remembering the rules,” he said. “It felt logical to me how the story played out, the switching protagonists flowed logically. We set up the guy as the tyrant in this virtual world, creating a person who is a new alpha male, with his female subservient his biggest threat. The setup flowed logically once we were in space; it had to culminate in a big spectacle and chase. I was fascinated by the notion of ultimate power. It’s fairly easy to think of the terrible things someone could do in that realm.”
At first, “we see Daly meek and humiliated, inferior to his peers, so we sympathize with him,” said Jones. “We follow his journey gradually so we begin to see him exploited in this world he’s created. Slowly the protagonist becomes Nanette as we follow her journey and see her become the captain he should be.”
Plemons enjoyed finding his macho swagger as Captain Daly. “Growing up in Texas, that way you carry yourself is something I felt like I understood,” he said. “I hadn’t really had a chance to play with it too much before.”
“Jesse channeled just the right level of Shatner and got it spot on,” said Brooker. “He’s magnetically watchable. You are always wondering what’s going on. I’ve seen him do really likable and really fucking evil. This part required that. It’s an odd story. You see him and think he’s going to be a hero to start with, then the hero shows up on page 15.”
That’s Nanette (Cristin Milioti), a young recruit at the software firm who starts off admiring Daly but winds up subjected to his tyranny on his virtual spaceship. Nanette ends up taking over the bridge, something women rarely get to do. “It’s an endlessly mineable situation that anyone can relate to, the struggle when someone takes your autonomy and agency and genitals away,” said Milioti. “I wanted to be the captain. You do not get to do that as a woman. It was incredible and I’ve dreamed about that as much as any little boy has. It was a fucking pleasure.”
For Plemons, the opening spaceship fantasy scene was the most fun: “We shot it on the first day with the entire cast. I realized early on that a good day of work for the fantasy space fleet side just meant having as much fun as possible with it. We almost reverted back to make-believe when you are a kid.”