Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Star Trek Week: "Mirror, Mirror'

Stardate: Unknown

On a mission to negotiate with the Halkans for purchase of their abundant Dilithium crystals, Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Mr. Scott (James Doohan) and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) beam up from the planet’s surface during a powerful ion storm.

Because of that interference, the transporter malfunctions and landing party is sent to an alternate -- or parallel -- universe. 

There, the Enterprise is a ship in a vicious Terran Empire, and all the crew wear knives, and devices called “agonizers.” The officers move up in rank by means of assassination, and control ruthless bodyguards.  

Worse, Kirk’s mission in this parallel reality is to destroy the Halkan race for resisting the Empire’s demand for their Dilithium crystals.  

Kirk plays for time, while Scotty works to modify the transporter to send the stranded crew members back to their own universe.

While Uhura contends with an aggressive Commander Sulu (George Takei), the ship’s security chief who runs the vessel like the Nazi Gestapo, Kirk must fend off his first officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who has been ordered to kill him if he fails his mission. He must also block an assassination attempt by Mr. Chekov (Walter Koenig), and “bluff” his way through a relationship with the “Captain’s Woman,” the clever Marlena Moreau (Barbara Luna).

Meanwhile, on the Prime Enterprise, the mirror versions of Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura are apprehended by Spock before they can make mischief.

Back in the mirror universe, Kirk and the others race the clock to get home to their dimension, and the captain attempts to convince Spock to mount an insurrection against the evil empire.

“Mirror, Mirror” is yet another absolute classic Star Trek episode, and one that has earned a long-lasting spot in the pop culture firmament.  

It’s really amazing to think just how many episodes of the original series I could write that sentence about, but it happens to be true in this case.  

The last episode in the second season that fits the bill of "all-time classic" is “Amok Time,” the season opener.  But think about this: that means that twice in four weeks, essentially, Star Trek delivered amazing narratives that not only endured fifty years, but become touchstones for a generation.

These are iconic episodes.

Here, of course, a visual touch is the one most widely remembered in TV history. 

In the “mirror” universe, Spock wears a beard, and that visualization became a kind of trope for parallel universes, repeated on South Park (1997 - ), and Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999) to name but two productions. 

Evil twins with beards (or rather, goatees), have also appeared in series such as Knight Rider.

The idea of a parallel “evil” universe has also recurred in  Star Trek on Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999) in episodes such as “Crossover,” “Through the Looking Glass,” “Shattered Mirror,” “Resurrection” and “The Emperor’s New Cloak.”  The most memorable episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (2001 – 2005) is the two-parter set in the Mirror Universe, “In a Mirror, Darkly.”

In terms of exhilarating action, “Mirror, Mirror” is absolutely second to none, with the battle in sick-bay between Spock and the landing party proving a dramatic high point, and everything leading up to a nail-biting ticking-clock conclusion as the crew races to return home.  

Fifty years later, the last fifteen minutes of this episode -- with the crew struggling to get home, and McCoy spending precious minutes to save the Mirror Spock’s life -- prove almost unbearably suspenseful, despite the fact that we know it is all going to turn out okay.

It works that way because the episode's success depends on emotional investment, and constructs that investment brilliantly.  

Basically, this episode is all about the concept of nature vs. nurture.  If we are all raised in a totalitarian dictatorship, would we be the same people we are today?  

Would I be an insurrectionist blogger living on the lam, posting anti-Empire screeds? Or would I be minister of propaganda in the Empire?  

More to the point: would I be the same person?  Would I be “me?” Or would my environment change me so much that I would be unrecognizable to myself of the Prime Universe? 

Here, all the Enterprise crew-members are twisted reflections of themselves, with Sulu proving the most terrifying for his apparent sadism and ambition. Chekov isn’t far behind him, though.  But still, Sulu takes the cake, and "Mirror, Mirror" offers my favorite George Takei performance in the entire series. 

But intriguingly -- through direct interaction with Prime Kirk -- at least two characters in the Mirror Universe demonstrate that the parallel reality isn’t, well, an exact opposite.  

Spock maintains his characteristic integrity, most notably. 

He continues to be a man who is loyal, trustworthy, curious and intellectual. He serves an evil organization, and yet is still a being of two worlds (as he is in the Prime Universe). Spock is part of the Empire, bound to its regulations, and yet apart from the Empire in his loyalty to Captain Kirk, and his logical thought patterns.

Secondly, a person who has never known love at all -- Lt. Moreau -- proves that she is responsive to positive emotions, and can embody all the “positive” traits we would hope of a friend and ally.  She becomes an supporter of sorts, and rescues the landing party with the Tantalus Field. 

True, she wants to escape with them to the Prime Universe, but still, she reveals the kernel, at least of integrity.  Like Spock, one senses that she is growing, evolving into someone "better," someone we would recognize in our own universe.

"Mirror, Mirror" also offers a series high-point for Nichelle Nichols' Uhura.  Though it is unfortunate that the character must again endure a "Captain...I'm...frightened" moment, Uhura nonetheless proves her worth in this episode.  She wrestles a phaser away from Marlena Moreau, and distracts Sulu -- dangerously so -- on the bridge, at a critical junction.  "Mirror, Mirror" reveals why Uhura is such a valuable team player.   And my God, she is also one of the most beautiful women ever to appear on American television.

McCoy, meanwhile, reveals his core, essential humanity again. Here, he risks everything to save his friend, Spock.  Even with the ticking-clock, and Sulu's gestapo everywhere, McCoy pauses to save Spock's life.  What a testament to his friendship for the green-blooded Vulcan.

In philosophy, there is a theory of knowing God called the “Via Negativa.” Basically, it means that you cannot define God by what God is; only by what God is not.  God is not hate. God is not mortal, and so forth.   

In a similar way, one might argue we cannot really know the Enterprise characters well until we see what they are not, and that’s the insight that “Mirror, Mirror” provides.

Captain Kirk is not the clawing, opportunistic creature of ambition that his Mirror counterpart so clearly is.  He aspires to be captain of the Enterprise, and a great captain.  He does not aspire to rule the universe.

Sulu is not the power-hungry conniver and plotter of the Mirror Universe. McCoy is not a vicious sadist, and on and on it goes.  

We come to a better understanding of who these beloved characters really are, then, by studying in this episode, what they aren’t.  And by seeing these protagonists in a cruel, duplicate universe, we also see how they don't fit there.  We see their virtues all the more clearly.

Another compelling aspect of the episode involves the Halkans. 

They are the same in both universes (much like Spock), thus showcasing that the mirror universe is not a perfect reflection, or opposite, only a universe wherein Earth took a terrible turn in pre-Trek history, becoming a totalitarian, conquering force.  

Quite simply, the people of Earth in this reality were...weak. They were infinitely weaker, in fact, than the Halkans are.  The Halkans live by their words and would “die as a race” rather than give up their profound philosophy of pacificism.  Apparently Earthers were not so resolute and gave up their freedom for conquest and power.  This plays, indeed, as a warning, about carrying ideology on your tongue, but not following through with meaningful action. Kirk's final speech to Spock is meant to spur him to that meaningful action, and bring about regime change.

Finally, I must note that I admire so much the ingenuity of this episode’s production design. The physical alterations to the Enterprise -- including Kirk’s throne-like command chair and the logo of the Empire (Earth, with a dagger going through it…) -- are simple, but effective. And other modifications, such as personal agonizer devices, an Agony Booth, and sentry-like bodyguards (even Vulcan ones!) add profoundly to the idea of a world that has gone terrifyingly awry.

“Mirror, Mirror” moves with pace, purpose, humor and fiendish ingenuity, and may just be one of the three or four best episodes of Star Trek

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