Sunday, May 8, 2016

“Looking-Glass House”: Crossover

This does, on the surface of things, seem to be an example of the show's worst impulses gone unchecked. Following “Blood Oath”, it now seems Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has no qualms about straight-up doing sequels to Original Series stories. As beloved and as iconic to not just Star Trek nerddom, but pop culture in general, as “Mirror, Mirror” may be, there's simply no avoiding the smack of fanwank that surrounds a brief like this. Especially in a month where Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is most assuredly staring down its own mortality in an climate of fanboys that is growing increasingly hostile to it.

The counterpoint is, of course, that “Crossover” gets away with it because it's quite simply a tour de force.

One of my absolute favourite episodes of the series, I've loved “Crossover” forever, and I love it even more now. In hindsight, from the vantage point upon which I now sit, it does feel a bit like it's ushering in a block of stories that is ultimately the last brilliant flash of genius before the final end, though at the time I obviously would not have picked up on that. This was also one of the first episodes I rewatched later in my life during my second wave of Star Trek fandom, and even before the DVDs came out. I remember being at my great-grandmother's house flipping through the channels for something to watch and coming across a rerun of “Crossover” on whatever local affiliate station she had. So I can attest to the fact that as late as 2002 proper Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was still being shown in syndication. I remember finding it weird, because I'd sort of mentally filed away *that* kind of Star Trek as Not Really Being A Thing Anymore, consigned to the dustbins of history where polite and fashionable people didn't like to talk about it. As I was neither of those things I still did, but I had a deserved reputation for being uncomfortably eccentric at the time, so that proves nothing.

I'll get the base criticism of “Crossover” out of the way at the start, because as much as I like it I'll freely admit there were some attitudes that went into it that were perhaps less than desirable and are worth mentioning upfront. There is the potentially fanwanky nature of the brief. I personally happen to think “Crossover” is rather good at explaining the Mirror Universe situation for people who weren't approaching Deep Space Nine from the position of being lifelong Star Trek nerds who grew up on the Original Series (that is, normal people) particularly well through the choice of characters to send over: Major Kira, who obviously wouldn't know much about Starfleet history, and Doctor Bashir, who excitedly tells us how much he does and leaps at the opportunity to share his knowledge of it. So the exposition and backstory flows very well as a result of this (yet another thing this series will never get the credit for it deserves) and manages to tell a fascinating story about a Mirror Universe and all the implications that go along with it without assuming that we're all going to immediately get the fannish reference. This is no doubt due to the fact the two main writers on this script were Michael Piller and Peter Allan Fields.

(By the way an aside, I love Julian and Nerys in this story. I love the opening bit where he openly and cheerfully tries to make friends with her and ask her out at the same time without missing a beat. It's a great example of what I think is so delightful about Doctor Bashir: He's the absolute picture of an overeager and overzealous young man who remains fundamentally rather lonely and insecure that I would imagine a lot of young men could probably relate to. But because of the show's utopianism he never quite descends to the level of being stalkerish so his energy comes across as charming and likable instead of creepy. When Nerys tells him to back off, he does. It also very much helps that the way Doctor Bashir treats Major Kira is exactly the same way he treats Dax, Melora Pazlar, Commander Sisko, Chief O'Brien and Garak, which is particularly wonderful to think about coming immediately after “The Wire”. Leave it to Julian to singlehandedly tear down Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's reputation for oppressive heteronormativity. He wants to be friends with everybody.)

But the fanwank issue isn't the biggest potential problem with “Crossover”. That's the pitch itself: Ira Steven Behr suggested that a sequel to “Mirror, Mirror” posit that Mirror Spock's change of heart actually “screwed up” the Mirror Universe. For those who don't remember or didn't see that episode, that change of heart involved rejecting the brutality of the Terran Empire in order to form a resistance movement built around peace and equality, which is especially nasty in the wake of “The Maquis”. But it's Robert Hewitt Wolfe (who didn't write this episode but, like in “Blood Oath” advised and offered suggestions) who lays it out in the most questionable terms. As he puts it in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion:
“Empires aren't usually brutal unless there's a reason. There are usually external or internal pressures that cause them to be that way. So I just thought that if the parallel Earth (we saw in Kirk's time) was that brutal, there had to be a reason. And the reason was that the barbarians (the Klingons and the Cardassians) were at the gate.”
Wolfe elaborated further in the bonus features for the Season 2 DVD Box Set:
“My analogy was to the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was as brutal and as nasty as it was because all around it, it had very aggressive barbarians that it was afraid of. The Chinese had the same thing, the Mongols were always there. So if you suddenly make the Romans nice guys, or the Chinese nice guys, well that's great and everything, but then the Mongols come across and it's all over. So that was kind of the idea, what was the mirror universe like a hundred years after. Well, it might not be a very nice place.”
I shouldn't have to explain to my readership why everything Wolfe says here is wrong, but everything Wolfe says here is wrong. The very definition of “Empire” is that which expands the boundaries of its sphere of political influence by conquering and forcibly absorbing territory and people, coercing them to live under their authority whether they want to or not, usually with the treat of swift and frightful discipline if they don't comply. It is in point of fact impossible for empires to be anything but brutal, and the idea that we need strong, centralized authority (let alone empire) to be obeyed unquestionably so it can protect us from The Other outside our social boundaries is nothing short of terrifying.

But this is actually all OK because, thankfully for us, “Crossover” miraculously manages to not actually adhere itself to the reading Wolfe outlines for it. In practice, it can be read as a perfect follow-up and expansion to the themes in “Mirror, Mirror” that also manages to stand on its own and never once falling into grimdark realpolitiking bullshit. The key to redemption lies in remembering what we decided the Mirror Universe is actually about: It's not a place where everything is “opposite”, that is, where Good Guys are Bad Guys and Bad Guys are Good Guys: That's an overly crass and simplistic reading that I feel misses a lot of the nuance of the concept. Instead, it's a universe where subtle, yet critical, aspects of history happened differently, which means different facets of the setting and of character's personalities than the norm become emphasized. The major conceit of “Mirror, Mirror” was that the Terran Empire and the Federation are actually not all that different at all-Note how Kirk's crew is dealing with the same colonial diplomacy problem in both universes, the only difference is how in one universe he decides to nuke the natives (or has standing orders to) and in the other he doesn't. The episode was meant to be a cautionary tale about how we're not as apolitical, removed and above things as we like to think we are.

And that's exactly what “Crossover” is about too. This time, it's the humans who are the oppressed and the Bajorans who are imperial powers, which are sides of themselves these groups haven't had to seriously examine before. In the Federation humans are arguably the most dominant political power in the galaxy, and it can be a helpful reminder to them not to be judgmental about the tactics of certain resistance groups because, if things were a little different, they would want to fight for their freedom too. Likewise, the vile speciesist bigotry of the Bajorans and their imperial overseers can very easily be seen as what would happen if their insularity and latent xenophobia were allowed to go unchecked and given a galactic platform to broadcast from.

Even the Klingons and the Cardassians are an example of this mirroring, and are furthermore a great example of how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine puts a utopian spin on these concepts: In our universe, these two powers are on the brink of declaring a catastrophic war with each other that would destabilize the entire quadrant by dragging everyone else into their fight through alliances World War I-style, too stubborn and prideful to admit to each other how similar they actually are. In another reality perhaps they could be friends, and indeed, in at least one other universe they are. It's a very, very Star Trek notion, that two people are more similar than they know and that enemies can become friends, albeit appropriately warped and distorted through the lens of a cracked and darkened mirror.

This is likewise true for all the characters we meet on Mirror DS9: Smiley O'Brien is a cog in a machine who wants to keep to himself and do his job, more out of fear than of dedication. Garak is an opportunist constantly conspiring to seize power, though apparently his part was actually originally written for Michael Dorn's Worf, which would have been an even better fit. Benjamin Sisko is a directionless, emotionless hedonist who's given up hope things could change, which is just how we might imagine our Ben might have turned out if he never found purpose and meaning in his life. There's also Quark, a tragically kindhearted bartender who took pity on the Terran slaves at the cost of his own life. Well, we always knew that, in spite of everything, Quark was one of the good guys. And Odo as a fascist thug who strives for order, obedience and efficiency above all else and who takes sadistic glee in torturing slaves? Well, of course. And the last of his kind to boot.

(Speaking of, the direction, cinematography and effects in this episode are absolutely killer: That hellish scene where Mirror Odo keeps watch over the slaves as the ore processing plan burns around him still sends chills up my spine, as does René Auberjonois' performance.)

The only thing I can express disappointment about is that we never got to meet Mirror Jadzia Dax, because Terry Farrel would have gone crazy with a part like that.

Nowhere is this conveyed better than in the person of Intendant Kira Nerys. Possibly the most criticized aspect of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's take on the Mirror Universe, I think she's by far the most successful and overwhelmingly so. The argument that gets levelled here is that Intendant Kira is an example of the “Depraved Bisexual” stereotype, where a person (and it's usually a woman) is shown to have bisexual or lesbian tendencies as code for her being evil or untrustworthy. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is unfortunately not immune to this (“Dramatis Personae”, anyone?) I don't think that's what's going on here at all. Actually, I think that reading is pretty conclusively unsustainable on both counts, because in “Crossover” Intendant Kira is not shown to be evil (at least not deliberately), nor is she shown to be bisexual. She's actually shown to be just flighty and capricious, and above all else vain: More of an opportunist than even Garak, she'll side with whoever gives her perks and a steady position, and quite explicitly has no real love for the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance. But most importantly, the only person she's ever actually depicted as being in love with is Major Kira-That is, herself.

Nana Visitor explains the situation very well and very clearly whenever she's interviewed about it. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, she says she conceived of Intendant Kira by taking our Kira and “messing with her ego a bit...Messing with a few key elements in her life that would have changed its direction. She's a spoiled brat with an ego gone awry”. On the Season 1 DVD Box Set, she elabourates further:
“She [Intendant Kira] was interesting because she was Kira, she's got all you know, it's all the same, everything is exactly the same, except in this other world, her ego is twisted one way, whereas Kira's is twisted another. So where Kira thinks of others, and finds a justification for her life in doing things for other people, the Intendant's justification for life is in doing things for herself. She is completely the most self involved, self centered person, she's like a child in that sense, which makes her funny, but in her childish way, she cares so little for other people that she thinks nothing of disposing of them, using them, it doesn't matter, which makes her very scary.”
This, according to Visitor, is what explains the sexual tension between her and Major Kira. She's not bisexual, she's egosexual:
“I never intended for the intendant to be bisexual. I think that was an assumption that everyone, including the writers, made after the character fell for Kira in [sic. “Crossover”]. But that had been total narcissism on her part. It had nothing to do with sexuality. I never liked that people took her for bisexual because she's an evil character. There are so few gay characters on TV, and we really don't need an evil one.”
And yet Intendant Kira absolutely walks with a sexual swagger and confidence about her, even if she perhaps isn't consciously aware that's what she's doing. As Robert Blackman points out when describing her allegedly provocative outfit
“If you were to put the two uniforms together, you'd say, 'Well it's kind of a shiny gray version of the rust.' It's not that I've exposed more of her body - it's exposed pretty much the same way it always is. What's the difference? She's the difference. It's how Nana wears it. It's what she does. She walks like a provocative woman, with her legs crossing in front. She uses her hips, and a whole other kind of body English than she normally uses.”
What Nana Visitor has done here is the exact same thing Leonard Nimoy gets praised to the heavens for doing in the original “Mirror, Mirror”. More than anything or anyone else here, she innately understands and captures the essence of what this story and this narrative device are supposed to be about, and that's saying something given how bloody good everything else about “Crossover” is. Above all else, Intendant Kira is spellbinding, mesmerizing and unforgettable. Furthermore, pairing her with our Major is every bit as showy and impressive a performance as anything Brent Spiner does. This is Nana Visitor's best acting showcase since “Duet”. She deserves a standing ovation from each and every one of you.

There's a beautifully loaded line delivered from Kira to Kira that sticks with me, and it's only grown more haunting as the years have gone by:
“My side once changed the course of your history. Well, maybe your side can change mine.”
And I love how the titular crossover happens as a result of the wormhole, a fact that later writers have retconned as the Prophets actively intervening to get the two universes to meet so that they might learn from each other. Part of the story of Star Trek: The Next Generation is that certain roles have been reversed, both for good and for ill. And now it seems the same is true for the Mirror Universe. Smiley said our Chief O'Brien got the better end of the deal this time. And really, what better time and place to explore that? This story isn't popular with fans for no reason, and it's because there's a real fire, energy and intensity to the universe of this episode. That's not to say there isn't in ours, but it isn't always tapped with the intensity and enthusiasm as it needs to be. Perhaps we have forgotten our radical roots, and perhaps that's something future generations will hold against us someday.


  1. Wonderful piece.

    I think--as Nana Visitor alludes to--a lot of the complaint about Intendant Kira's portrayal has to do with later episodes, where like everything else about the Mirror Universe she decays into a cartoon caricature of herself, and part of that is becoming a pretty straightforward instance of the "depraved bisexual" cliche.

    I do love that Miles O'Brien is the unchangeable point across universes. STO plays with this in a (sadly, now deleted) episode in which we learn that "Smiley" named his ship the Molly.

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