Thursday, August 15, 2013

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”: Mirror, Mirror

"Remind me to re-evaluate my 'Casual Friday' policy."
Absolutely brilliant, this one is.

Once again, Star Trek takes a hard swerve from one of its worst episodes ever to one of its best. “Mirror, Mirror” is just about flawless: I always knew it was good, but it's actually better than I remember, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Between this and “The Apple” we have, and I'm not exaggerating, two polar opposite philosophical viewpoints being expressed. Probably nowhere else have I seen a television show put stories 180 degrees away from each other one after another. “Mirror, Mirror” honestly does not feel like it's part of the same show as “The Apple”, it's that far removed from it. The most minor of nitpicks hold it back from absolute perfection, although I will confess I'm saying this in part so I don't have to totally reconceptualize the post I have lined up for the episode I want to call the second season's high water mark. Either way though, “Mirror, Mirror” is the bold and clear statement we've been waiting for all year, and it not only just about singlehandedly saves Star Trek from the scrap heap, it finally gives it the moral, ethical and political backbone that will make the franchise a legend.

The first thing that begs addressing is the Mirror Universe itself. From what I can gather, this episode is one of the earliest appearances of the idea of a “mirror” or “parallel” universe in mainstream pop fiction. While not the absolute first (at the very least Star Trek beat itself to its own punch with “The Alternative Factor” last year, but nobody except me likes to talk about “The Alternative Factor”) it's arguably the most famous though, as the style of alternate reality Star Trek works with here becomes the model for an incalculable number of homages, parodies and imitators. However, what these followers (including, irritatingly, more than a few future Star Trek works to return to the Mirror Universe) crucially seem to miss about “Mirror, Mirror” is that the reality it postulates is manifestly *not* meant to be simply the one where everyone is bearded and evil. The Terran Empire is not the Evil!Federation, its instead very clearly meant to be a version of the Federation that's largely the same as our own, except for the fact certain motifs and excesses have been been built on to alarming and dangerous degrees.

This is stressed and reiterated numerous times throughout the episode: Upon arriving on the ISS Enterprise for the first time, Kirk and McCoy observe that everything is largely where it should be, and Scotty says the ship is on a technical level identical to their own, and even the star groups are in their correct respective locations. But the real evidence comes from the characters themselves: While Chekov's and Sulu's counterparts are psychotically twisted and demented (with both Walter Koenig and George Takei very clearly relishing the opportunity to play against type-This is in many ways an actor showcase episode for them) the Mirror Spock, as well as the Mirror counterparts of the away team and (it's implied) our version of Marlena Moreau, are obviously meant to be comparable.

This is the clearest with Leonard Nimoy, who, in a truly delightful acting turn, plays the Mirror Spock just as logical, loyal and principled as his double in the regular universe. The only things that really separate the two Spocks are their circumstances and the way in which they apply their logic and loyalty: Mirror Spock is very much what would happen if Spock lived as part of a ruthless empire, but he's still Spock, and this is what ultimately saves the displaced landing party in the climax. Nimoy's performance is so grand it's rightly become the model for all of the best portrayals of Mirror Star Trek characters since, with both Nana Visitor and Terry Farrell, er, mirroring Nimoy in the way they conceive of Intendant Kira Nerys and Captain Jadzia Dax, respectively, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Mirror Universe stories.

What this means is that “Mirror, Mirror” is in truth possibly the most brazenly and straightforwardly anti-imperialist and self-critical Star Trek ever got. This is not an action-packed romp where Our Heroes face off against their Evil Twins from the Other Side, it's a cautionary introspective piece that takes a hard look at what the Federation really is, what it truly stands for and what might happen if it remains unchecked. In this regard, “Mirror, Mirror” is the complete inverse of both “Space Seed” and “The Enemy Within”: It's drawing a very clear path to where the Federation will end up, and it wants us to be very uncomfortable because of this. The key signposts are the Halkans, who are incredibly sceptical of the Federation's motives. In the teaser they express concern that their strict adherence to a policy of total pacifism prevents them from signing mining rights with the Federation, and flatly state this is unlikely to change. Crucially, they're the one thing most obviously unchanged in the Mirror Universe, and they make an argument to the crew of the ISS Enterprise that's about 99% identical, down to their observation the ship has the capability to sterilize their planet and they would be unable to stop it. The only difference between the two universes in this regard is that in the Mirror Universe, the crew pushes the button (or at least has standing orders to) and in ours they don't. Also, I'm not sure whether or not this was an intentional callback, but Mirror Marlena referring to Kirk (or, rather, who she thinks is Mirror Kirk) as “Caesar” is a powerful statement. That's the subtle, lurking horror here: That the Federation could become the Terran Empire at the drop of a hat.

Part and parcel of this holding up of a mirror to Star Trek's ethics is, laudably, a very clear, decisive and scathing reaction against the show's ugly misogynistic tendencies. Mirror Sulu is shown to be (and Mirror Kirk is implied to be) a callous, dominating, abusive male supremacist, and a vital moment in the episode that does much to remind us why our version of these characters are heroes, is Kirk going out of his way to show he respects Mirror Marlena and reminding her she has agency and personhood and that she can achieve anything she wants to in life. It's telling one of Mirror Kirk's signatures is his ability to take whatever he wants by any means he sees fit, and this is revealed during the same scene where Kirk and Mirror Marlena start to fall in love because they respect and admire each other (indeed I remember finding this scene so effective that of all the dalliances Kirk had throughout the Original Series, his relationship with Marlena Moreau was the one I really hoped and wished had stuck). Words cannot describe how refreshing and necessary this scene is, especially after the sexist disaster much of this season has been. Uhura too is in rare form, being treated as a crucial member of the landing party whose special expertise is needed to help return them home, as well as holding her own in a few fight scenes and, memorably, using Mirror Sulu's blind lust and rape culture against him to give Scotty and McCoy the time they need to rig up the energy transfer without him noticing.

If that wasn't clear enough, there's the moment just after the confrontation in sickbay that really drives home the difference between the Mirror Universe and ours: Mirror Spock's coercive Mind Meld with McCoy to extract information. Given the reading we've been building of the Mind Meld's symbolism, what this act is meant to represent should be rather obvious. Unlike what we got a few weeks ago, however, this time the camera holds the shot with Mirror Spock and McCoy centred in the frame throughout the duration, making us focus on the act itself and what it is, instead of leeringly drooling over the perpetrator's dominance and the victim's pain and horror. Although an argument could be raised it remains sexist to portray male-on-male rape matter-of-factually while gawking over male-on-female rape, I think the more helpful way to read this is that it makes clear to straight male audiences how horrifying rape really is. In removing the patriarchally sexualized aspect by making both parties male, not to mention the shock of having the perpetrator be a version of a character we like and admire (who, given the other themes “Mirror, Mirror” works with, is disturbingly not too far removed from our Spock), it reminds us institutionalized rape is very much something that can exist within the structure of the Federation, and drives home the heinous power structures and violations of trust inherent in rape culture for people who probably wouldn't have gotten it otherwise. An alchemical aftershock of “Who Mourns for Adonias?” then, where that episode's casual and glib approach to rape becomes the false enlightenment the Federation would attain by following its darker predilections.

This all comes to a head in the denouement, where Kirk risks missing the window to return to his universe so he can implore Mirror Spock to become a force for change in the Mirror Universe. This is itself a reflection of Bones similarly racing against the clock to keep Mirror Spock alive in sickbay, which helps convince Mirror Marlena to assist the landing party in their escape. This scene just crackles with energy, with Kirk's and Mirror Spock's philosophical debate about change and revolution set against the backdrop of another nail-biting thriller-style countdown. What's the most remarkable about this though is that both Kirk and Mirror Spock are correct: Kirk in the sense that, idealistically and conceptually, revolution can begin with one visionary person with a desire to change the present, and Mirror Spock with the rebuttal that it is impossible for that same person to singlehandedly change the future and that revolutionaries need allies, support, power and voice to truly make a difference. With this, “Mirror, Mirror” addresses both horns of the anarchist dilemma: The idea “the political is personal” and that individual expression is enough to inspire change contrasted with the concept that material social progress more often than not needs to come about through communal action. What “Mirror, Mirror” is declaring then is that these are not actually mutually contradictory notions, and both are necessary to bring about real action. Furthermore, this one scene is a veritable quote generator, throwing out at least four of the best lines in the whole Original Series:

"You're a man of integrity in both universes, Mister Spock."

"I submit to you that your Empire is illogical because it cannot endure. I submit that you are illogical to be a willing part of it."

"One man cannot summon the future." "But one man can change the present."

"In every revolution, there's one man with a vision."

This is also the moment that finally turns the tables on Gene Roddenberry's Two-Fisted Morality approach to Star Trek and takes it as far as it can possibly go: Kirk shows up to deliver a the Federation. On top of this, he doesn't beam down from On High and tell people what to think and how to behave, he tries to incite a revolution by acting in accordance with his beliefs and talking to people in hopes they'll take action not for him or because he knows better, but because they're people and have a right to their own agency. This not only blows “The Apple” out of the water, it's better than “The Return of the Archons” too, because “Mirror, Mirror” doesn't deal with abstract conceptualizations of authority of bureaucracy, but rather focuses quite clearly on how imperialism and dehumanizing systems and power structures actually manifest, albeit exaggerated to an appropriately unsettling degree.

“Mirror, Mirror”, much like the rest of season two's highlights so far, changes the game for Star Trek at a fundamental level. However, much like Kirk's attempt to incite an uprising in the Mirror Universe, it ultimately only lays the groundwork, and, just as the fate of the Terran Empire and Mirror Spock remains uncertain, the series still has to prove it's capable of continuing on this path. For one thing the ending of the episode is a bit of a cop-out: Not the technobabble way of crossing the gulf between universes (that's suitably and appropriately papered over because it really isn't important to, well, much of anything, really), but the final scene on our Enterprise where Kirk, Spock and McCoy throw speciesist slurs at each other. It's irritatingly glib and not at all necessary and jars noticeably with the rest of the episode. While it is nice to see Spock get in some jabs of his own instead of just stoically taking the abuse (I suppose if we have to have vaguely racist banter, it's slightly better that victims strike back with loaded language of their own), what he actually comes up with trends dangerously close to nihilism: He mentions it was refreshing to witness the behaviour of the Mirror counterparts of Kirk, McCoy, Uhura and Scotty because they were purely and honestly human. If the point of “Mirror, Mirror” is a call to arms against institutionalized oppression and a paean to human dignity, this is a particularly effective way to scuttle your message, especially coming from Spock.

But the big question left at the end of “Mirror, Mirror” is whether or not the lessons of the Mirror Universe will stick. We can blast off with our Enterprise on our way to our next adventure comforted by the thought we're not like those scary bad Mirror Universe people, but there's still the lingering concern our universe could very easily go down that same path. Can Kirk and the Enterprise continue to be the change the want to see, and that they need to be, in this universe as well? This, at least for now, remains to be seen.


  1. Excellent points all around. I note that the trope showed up before this in comics, with Justice League of America's Earth-3 appearing in 1964. (Of course, that just makes me want to do a similar blog project with that title. Must resist...)

    1. You make a good point that Star Trek didn't have precedence for this in sci-fi generally. But Mirror Mirror probably made the most culturally visible and influential version of the evil parallel universe trope.

      And we know it because of the extremely visible way Star Trek is given a salute in every one of these stories using the same trope: the evil goatee.

      Or at least some other form of facial modification of a key character. Doctor Who did it with the Brigadier's eyepatch in Inferno. South Park did it with the kind Cartman's goatee. What other examples are there that I'm not thinking of right now?

    2. Oh, yeah - this is the most culturally relevant version. Evil double = goatee has become a standard trope, even though Mirror Spock isn't actually evil. I note that Mystery Science Theater 3000 went all-out in its version, using goatees, eyepatches, and spangly gold vests with no shirt underneath.

  2. In Jerome Bixby’s original story outline, McCoy had the beard-- not Spock. Kirk beams into the parallel universe alone, finding the other Federation was not evil but less advanced technologically, and the other dimension affects him with fainting spells. The alternate Enterprise crew helps him to defeat the Tharn (not Halkan) empire. Also Kirk was married, to the equivalent of Nurse Chapel (from The Star Trek Compendium).

    1. I must say I prefer the version that made it to air.

    2. One other point, fwiw…Bixby’s first story outline had Kirk introducing phaser technology to the parallel Federation, so they could conquer the Tharn. The aired version is almost the opposite, with Kirk urging ‘mirror’ Spock to make his Federation refrain from war, in the transporter scene that “crackles with energy” as you say.

    3. That would have made an absolutely terrible episode. Kirk goes to a parallel universe and enlightens them by teaching them better ways to kill things. That's an insult to everything progressive that Star Trek fandom came to see in the show, a betrayal of the values Star Trek eventually grew into.

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