We come to my absolute favorite episode of classic Star Trek. Kirk is on a planet negotiating with the Halkans for access to dilithium crystals. They won’t give them to Kirk but, like any gentle people, they point out that Kirk could take them by force. Kirk, ever the spokesman for humanity, says that it’s not the way the federation works, possibly hoping to impress them. With that, he, Scotty, Uhura, and McCoy beam back to the Enterprise but an ion storm (damned treacherous things) deposits them on an alternate Enterprise where piracy is the name of the game. They’ve entered the Mirror universe… and their counterparts on back on our Enterprise.
To quote McCoy, “good god, man!” This is a damned good episode. Uhura looks sexy as hell, and boy howdy was she toned. Sulu has a lot more personality as a scarred pirate than he does most of the time. Scotty gets to call the Captain “Jim!” when he’s worried about him. And Spock with a goatee… sharp, my friend! Very sharp! There are some little touches too. For instance, did anyone else notice that Kirk’s chair has a higher back on the Mirror Enterprise? I guess that’s to prevent anyone stabbing him in the neck. And their salute is very Roman; unsurprising in a society run the way the Empire operates. (In fact, it is learned that Kirk got to his position by assassinating Captain Pike! Bet Pike didn’t have a high back on his chair!)
As readers of the blog know, I do question a lot of things when watching my shows. I mean, I know it’s fiction but I like having some sense of reality to the stories. I’m not making myself clear. Let me explain. McCoy is a doctor (and gets another chance to remind us: “I’m a doctor, not an engineer!”) but when he sees Jim bleeding, our medic from the future, wipes the blood from Jim’s lip with a “what’s this?” Kirk says “it’s called blood.” First, I’d expect McCoy to have identified it far faster and second, in the future, is blood safer to touch than it is now? No blood-borne pathogens? Or are people just more resistant? And I also am not convinced that hitting a Vulcan in the head with a skull could kill him, but it speaks volumes of our good doctor that he stays behind to save the Mirror Spock. So even in this strange land, we get a deeper understanding of the crew we are coming to love so much.
But there are other things that I question when watching this series. So let’s have some fun with science. First, Kirk and company figure out what’s going on through speculation so they ask the computer. “Hey Alexa, is it possible to open a portal between this world and another so that during transporting we could end up on the other ship and our counterparts end up on ours…” Now, I tried this on my Alexa and got nowhere. Kirk, on the other hand, gets an entire lecture on how it could be done. (There’ve been a lot of patches to Alexa by then, I’m guessing!) The obvious question is: how would the computer know? I’ll give you a clue: this is where the later series, Enterprise, comes in. The original Enterprise actually encountered the mirror universe years before Kirk and in the end, the files on the mirror universe get classified. So, could the computer have had records of those events? The surprising answer is: yes. This is a rare instance where “retconning” an idea actually works well for the show. But there’s another way this episode works quite well: last season’s The Alternative Factor introduced Lazarus. Was he at war with his mirror universe counterpart? A fascinating thought, especially from a show that rarely did “continuity”. Lastly, the Tantalus field; an awesome weapon that Mirror Kirk obviously let Marlena in on. It can use the technology from The Village to spy on anyone in the ship (yes, that was a Prisoner reference). Then it can wipe out the person being observed. What I want to know is: how does it know who to focus on? Telepathy? Marlena turns it on and it automatically tracks the person she wants to kill! Skill, I tell you! Skill…
Now, I put on my social lens to examine this episode. Yes, Uhrua looked great, as did Marlena. But for a show that was often way ahead of others with the way they depicted the future, it wasn’t always flattering. Yes, we’re in an alternate world with people carry agonizers around to electrocute one another and nurses bet on “the tolerance of an injured man”, but Marlena comments that she’ll be the captain’s woman if she has to “go through every officer in the fleet”. (Spock, does this have to do with biology again?) To be clear, she’s willing to sleep her way up the ranks. Do we let that go because it was a woman from a much darker universe??
The one thing that isn’t “darker” is Spock. Spock is brilliant in both universes; a man of integrity. There are some amazing moments of dialogue with him. Whether discussing the illogic of waste or the dangers of opposing one another, Spock and Kirk have a powerful chemistry.
Kirk: “You would find me a formidable enemy.”
Spock: “I am aware of that, Captain. I trust that you are aware of the reverse.”
But the final dialogue to this day gives me chills of joy and excitement and I am so proud of this show because lines like this are just absent in our television landscape today.
Spock: “One man cannot summon the future.”
Kirk: “But one man can change the present. Be the Captain of this Enterprise, Mr. Spock. Find a logical reason for sparing the Halkans and make it stick. … In every revolution, there’s one man with a vision.”
Spock: “Captain Kirk, I shall consider it!”
Kirk is actually telling Spock to kill his Mirror self to create a better universe. Spock is logical enough that he might just pull that off.
Trek doesn’t always get it right. The very premise of this episode is based on two versions of the Enterprise being in the same place doing much the same things as one another which doesn’t really make much sense (especially if we consider the ending). But even with that, this episode is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Even the music helps drive that point home. I feel a sense of triumph every time I watch this episode. I just wish Uhura’s and Marlena’s uniforms became standard issue. I can’t think of much else that would have improved this episode. ML
The view from across the pond:
When Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura were caught in a transporter accident, my first thought was “that became a Trek cliché quickly”, but then Spock appeared sporting a magnificent goatee and a smile stretched across my face. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the mirror universe.
As a back-to-front Trek viewer, who grew up watching TNG, DS9 and Voyager, my experience of the mirror universe comes from those magnificent DS9 episodes, so I was very excited to see where it all began. Firstly, the idea of being trapped in a hostile universe by a random accident that might not be reversible is very scary, and the world they find themselves in is just about as nasty as it could get. It’s clearly written as a sort of Nazi Germany in space, to the extent that there are even Nazi salutes, and the ISS Enterprise is on a mission of subjugation and destruction. Crewmembers who fail in their duties are subjected to painful punishments.
The one thing that didn’t really work for me was the way crewmembers gain promotion by killing off their senior officers. It added an extra level of danger to the proceedings, but it is hard to understand how any organisation could function like that and still be successful. Ruthlessness will only get you so far, and people who are constantly looking over their shoulder are unlikely to achieve much. I don’t believe this broken society would ever have reached the stars before it self-destructed and surely every starship would descend into chaos in no time, with people in charge because they are successful at murder rather than possessing the qualities they need to do their jobs well.
The other problem was Spock, who logically shouldn’t be here at all. Humans developing along such different lines is one thing, but a Vulcan still deciding to be part of this crew despite its obvious failings was hard to believe. I can’t imagine how these people still ended up in the same place, at the same time, working within exactly the same chain of command. What little we see of Mirror Kirk makes it clear that he’s little better than a wild animal, and yet Mirror Spock works for him and seems to respect him enough to avoid killing him at all costs.
So it doesn’t pay to think too hard about all this, and instead just enjoy the actors clearly having the time of their lives. George Takei and Walter Koenig both did menacing incredibly well, and Leonard Nimoy managed to deftly hit upon a version of his character that was still recognisably Spock, but with an air of danger. Nichelle Nichols had a better slice of the action than usual, and did a great job of showing how Uhura was initially terrified by the prospect of walking onto the bridge, but rose to the challenge anyway, and was more than equal to Sulu’s creepy advances in the end. As for McCoy, he continues to be the most useless doctor I’ve ever seen in sci-fi:
“It’s called blood.”
It makes sense that a man who diagnoses death with a glance on a weekly basis would need that pointed out to him, and later he asks for five minutes to save Spock, only to fix him in seconds with a simple jab of something.
Too much of the episode was wasted on Kirk bluffing his way through his relationship with Marlena, which was mildly entertaining but dragged on for far too long. Mirror Kirk ruling through stolen alien tech was a clever idea, with the awesome ability to zap anyone out of existence, but introducing something as powerful as that often causes problems for a writer. Here, Marlena helpfully zaps Kirk’s attackers, with the exception of Sulu, who is bizarrely left to attack Kirk again while Marlena closes off the wall panel and walks away.
Spock operating the transporter controls was a development I saw a mile off, but I liked how his motivation was simply to get his own captain back. He remained true to his logical principles. A lesser writer would have gone for a change of heart for Spock instead. But we were left with the possibility that Spock could be the “one man with a vision” who changes the way the mirror universe works.
After three tedious episodes this was a breath of fresh air, and despite a few issues I think it’s a strong contender for the best Trek episode so far. I can’t wait for our next trip to the mirror universe. Please tell me they did another one of these… RP