A science fiction show that explores the tangled relationship between humanity and technology, it features a unique episode format in which each episode stands alone story-wise. Though there are references to other episodes scattered throughout, for now the show’s creators claim that each episode is a contained story. An episode that has received a lot of attention in the latest season is the first titled USS Callister. Longer than the typical episode, it starts off with a curious scene.
The set is quite clearly a callback to the cult show Star Trek and the main male character’s speech pattern is eerily similar to William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. But without spoiling too much, we learn that Robert Daly is the epitome of the nerdy social outcast. We begin the episode through his perspective and the audience is led to sympathize with him because how could we not? He has difficulty talking to people, he isn’t given enough respect by people despite his obvious intelligence, and he is ostracized because of his obsession with Space Fleet, that world’s version of Star Trek. But then once the audience has reached a state of comfort with the world, the episode then twists the narrative and reverses the bullied nerd trope. Instead of the nerd eventually beating the bully and “getting the girl”, the episode peels back the disenfranchised nerdy nice guy trope to reveal Robert’s horrific entitlement and sadistic qualities.
A good guy. Maybe
The episode systematically deconstructs the entitled Nice Guy, he who wears the label of “nice” with a perverted sense of pride. He who thinks he’s being nice to women by performing basic human decency and expects her to like him back in return. That guy who always complains about the “bad boys” and jerks who get dates with the girls they’re interested in. We all know that guy, if we don’t then we’ve heard of him. There’s something about the patriarchy that plants a sense of entitlement towards women in sexists that completely defies logic. Why should anyone reciprocate your romantic feelings just because you showed them human decency? Man or woman, no one should be expected to like you just because you like men. But where it gets even more problematic is when men or those in positions of power abuse their privilege to feed their ego and sense of entitlement. In the episode, Robert clones his coworkers and his “love interest” and places them in a simulation where they are to play out his fantasies of acting on his twisted desire for revenge on those he perceives as having wronged him. The perspective then shifts from Robert to the clone he made of Nanette, his love interest, whose DNA he secretly stole. While it could be argued that in that universe they aren’t really clones but bits of code that replicate the human, it can’t be argued that they exhibited sentience and feelings as well. Therefore, Robert took out his frustrations on people who never even realized he was angry at them. He felt justified in his horrible treatment of them because of their treatment towards him, but we don’t really know what they did because the story started from his perspective. And he has proven himself unreliable with his “niceness”.
The sinister sincerity
The whole “Nice Guy Syndrome” at some point makes us re-evaluate the quality and the sincerity of the relationships we have. But first, we have to know if the guy actually has the nice guy syndrome. Note that a nice guy is different from a Nice Guy. According to psychologists, there are several ways to determine if the self-proclaimed Nice Guy, isn’t nice at all. He usually touts his own kindness or assumes a position wherein he compares himself to the jerk and places himself as obviously the better choice for women who “know better”. There is animosity between Robert and his associate James; James being the more outgoing and charming than the reclusive Robert and as a result is someone that others gravitate to despite being originally presented to us as a “jerk”. He puts down other men and doesn’t respect others’ autonomy and consent such as when Robert steals his coworkers DNA to play out his sick fantasies.
It’s interesting how the episode ties together both the Nice Guy Syndrome and Nerd Boy culture. The Nice Guy lashes out because of his feelings of inadequacy, while the Nerd Boy fantasizes about a manic pixie dream girl that feeds his feelings of disenfranchisement because of perceived disgust at his interests. Both are rooted in a toxic patriarchal society that encourages those in power to think that they have the leeway treat those less powerful than them however they want. These tropes are the result of a culture that doesn’t prioritize consent and certainly doesn’t see women or those who are “less powerful” as equals.
This episode received a lot of critical acclaim because of its nuanced commentary on these tropes and how progressive its message is. USS Callister is a flight in the right direction of more open discussions about sexism and feminism. Like Captain Nanette we will one day be free from the grasps of the patriarchy.