The Premise of USS Callister
USS Callister is the first episode of the fourth season of Black Mirror. Set around the 2030s or 2040s (deduced from technology shown), this episode features digitally uploaded coworkers being forced to play a Star Trek style game by Robert Daly, the CTO of game development firm, Infinity. The imprisoned digital clones come up with a clever plan to escape the simulation, leaving Daly trapped in his own game, with no way to call for help.
Simulated reality gaming
The concept of simulated reality is not new to Black Mirror, having featured in Season 3 episode ‘San Junipero‘ and later in Season 5 episode ‘Striking Vipers’. In fact, all of these episodes have the same tiny implant device to connect to the simulated reality (SimR) world. What simulated reality tries to achieve is full sensory input/output mimicry. In the context of USS Callister this means being in a world so immersive it’s very hard to distinguish from reality, save for set design, avatar customisation and the knowledge that it’s a game. Whilst in the game, the user cannot control their physical body and sensory information from the real world is practically null.
Is it possible?
As we said in our review of San Junipero, artificial sensory input is possible if you can pre-program the software to be formatted in a way that can be understood by the brain, through the central nervous system. The next step, to block out sensory input from the real world, is a bit harder to explain with a mere chip. Usually, there is interference when two sources are connected at the same time, like when you put your phone near a radio and you hear audio fuzz. USS Callister attempts to explain this process by having the users’ eyes gloss over, but unless they also have special eye, ear and other implants, this is somewhat unexplained.
The other way in which the episode explores SimR is the uploaded brains route. Each of the coworkers who did some minor thing to annoy Daly have their brains uploaded to his computer in a native and fully simulated environment. In this case, as they are already formatted bits of data, sensory input and cognitive output can far easier be translated to something they understand. Moreover, the issue of input from the real world disappears entirely. This makes gaming, and on a larger scale existence, far easier and far better as a digital being than as a biological human with a brain to machine interface overlay.
How USS Callister explains digital uploading
Here’s where I start to disagree with USS Callister. The episode makes a great effort to show that Daly, the owner of the modded game, takes the DNA from various items that people in the office had touched. He then takes these items home, puts them in some sort of scanning machine and then stores them in a fridge. Supposedly we are meant to believe that Daly’s machine can recreate a person’s entire cognition from the genetic information. What!? Now I’m pretty sure this was to ensure that as part of the rescue plan, the real-life version of the protagonist could have a physical object to take, but the explanation is absurd nonetheless. The idea that every memory, thought and feeling could alter the genetic material in every cell of the body instantly makes no sense, much like the ridiculous energy bikes from ‘Fifteen Million Merits’.
A more realistic way to upload your brain
There are, however, more sensible ways to have a brain upload, though they are a little harder to fit into the plot. Nobody knows exactly how real-life brain uploading will happen but it will necessitate at least some sort of scan. There is even canonical precedent for a brain scan instead of DNA as these methods were used in ‘The Entire History of You‘, ‘White Christmas‘, ‘San Junipero‘ and new episode ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too‘. After one upload had been made, you could then do many things with it, if you knew how. Copying would be the most straightforward and would be hard to be compromised by the common thief. You could also write code to make your victims more compliant, which might not be what the vengeful Daly wants but is possible all the same. As for the physical look of your victims, maybe DNA would be of some help, but a memory scan of the consciousnesses you just stole would be a better way to accurately approximate their physique. Aside from that, USS Callister is still a great episode with a unique premise so for that, it gets my strong recommendation.