“There’s got to be something better than this”: Mirror, Mirror (TOS) vs. Crossover (DS9)

Star Trek: The Original Series – “Mirror, Mirror” (season 2, episode 10)

Written by Jerome Bixby; directed by Marc Daniels; first aired in 1967

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Kirk, Uhura, Scotty, and McCoy visit a race called the Halkans, to negotiate trade for their dilithium. The Halkans, strict pacifists, would rather die than trade dilithium with anyone who might use it in combat, and the away team beams back up to the Enterprise … or an Enterprise, anyway. A transporter malfunction sends them to a parallel universe where Spock has a goatee … oh, and where the human race formed an Empire instead of a Federation, and where Starfleet is a predatory, fascistic organization that plans to eradicate the Halkans and take the dilithium they refuse to share. Kirk and the others try to blend in with their cut-throat crewmates while they work to stop the destruction of the Halkans, find a way home, and maybe convince this universe’s Spock to make some changes … if Kirk can last that long without being assassinated by his own crew.    

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Crossover” (season 2, episode 23)

Teleplay by Peter Allan Fields and Michael Piller; story by Peter Allan Fields; directed by David Livingston; first aired in 1994

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Major Kira and Doctor Bashir’s awkward trip through the wormhole is interrupted when their runabout malfunctions. They emerge from the wormhole to find a Deep Space Nine jointly controlled by the Klingons and the Cardassians, and under the administration of an Intendant Kira, whose appearance – if not her personality – is identical to the Major’s. The Intendant puts two and two together, and explains to the Major that this is the same Mirror Universe that Kirk and company visited, where Spock really did reform the Empire … resulting in the human race’s defeat and enslavement. Bashir is sent to work with the station’s other enslaved humans, where he meets this universe’s O’Brien and asks for his help; the Major is kept close by the Intendant for amusement’s sake, where she meets a kinder, gentler Quark, and a Sisko who commands his own ship … his own pirate ship.     

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Star Trek’s Mirror Universe is kind of an odd thing. Mirror Universe episodes are, by their nature, atypical episodes of Trek – episodes built around the chance to have familiar characters do unfamiliar things (up to and including dying). They’re probably not the sort of episodes you’d show to someone who was new to Trek, since their impact comes largely from subverting the viewer’s expectations of these characters. If the viewer doesn’t know the characters well enough to have expectations of them, then the episode would probably fall flat. And yet, the Mirror Universe is easily one of the most iconic and influential ideas Trek has contributed to pop culture, to the point that it really might be many people’s first exposure to Trek, whether they realize it at the time or not. You don’t need to have read Hamlet to know the line “To be or not to be”; you can have zero interest in superheroes and still know Batman’s origin story by heart; and you don’t need to have seen a single episode of Star Trek to know that when a normally clean-shaven character suddenly starts sporting a goatee, there’s a good chance they’ve been replaced by their evil double from a parallel universe (which is a bit ironic, given that the only character to wear a goatee in “Mirror, Mirror” is Spock, one of the least ‘evil’ members of the Mirror Enterprise’s crew).

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It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the whole concept of parallel universes, as they exist in pop culture today, can be traced back to “Mirror, Mirror”. I’m not saying this episode invented the concept, of course, but it certainly helped establish a template for it in mainstream culture: the parallel universe as a mostly identical, but somehow inverted, reflection of our own, which is – most importantly – worse than our own world, usually in an arbitrary or perverse way. As I mentioned when I wrote about “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “Year of Hell”, it has (sadly, ridiculously) become difficult to discuss the current political moment without invoking the idea of ‘the darkest timeline’, a concept we owe, at least partly, to the Mirror Universe (and to more recent works, like the meta-sitcom Community, which were clearly, unabashedly influenced by it). Again, there’s some irony here, since there are other works of science fiction – other episodes of Trek, even – which have crafted parallel universes that make more sense than the Mirror Universe (it seems pretty implausible, after all, that an organization as chaotic and cut-throat as Mirror Starfleet could actually build and maintain a fleet of technologically advanced starships). But outside of the geekiest corners of fandom, it isn’t plausible logistical details that audiences really respond to, but ideas, and clearly the idea of a dark parallel universe is one that resonates, for better or for worse.

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And it’s an idea that’s put to good use, I think, in “Mirror, Mirror”. Before I rewatched this episode, I mostly remembered it as a fun diversion without a lot, necessarily, to say. But I was wrong. On rewatching it, I was impressed to find that it not only has something to say, but is focused and deliberate in the way it says it. The episode opens by immediately, efficiently framing what Starfleet is in the ‘prime’ universe, from the perspective of the pacifist Halkans: while they don’t trust that Starfleet will never use their dilithium to harm others, they also point out, matter-of-factly, that Kirk could easily take their dilithium, instead of negotiating for it. As quick as this scene is, I find it refreshing that the episode doesn’t force the Federation or the Halkans to justify their respective philosophies; too many modern-day TV shows would feel it necessary to make the Halkans’ pacifism look foolish and unrealistic, or to have a member of the away team wonder aloud why they don’t just take the dilithium. But no, “Mirror, Mirror” is built solidly on the premise that the prime-universe Federation values peace above all, and respects the beliefs and rights of other cultures, and that this is, unambiguously, a good thing.

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After establishing its take on Starfleet – which, as I said, is both comforting and depressingly novel from a modern perspective – “Mirror, Mirror” immediately shows us its exact opposite. On board the Mirror Enterprise, Kirk and company find a crew which prepares to wipe out Halkan civilization without a moment’s hesitation; a crew that begins plotting to assassinate Kirk the instant he hesitates to commit that genocide; a crew that uses physical torture as a disciplinary measure; and a crew that bets on the pain tolerance of patients in sick bay. As mentioned above, Mirror Starfleet isn’t a very plausible alternative to the Starfleet we know, given that it’s hard to imagine a military organization lasting very long without at least, you know, frowning upon the murder of its commanding officers. But it is, again, refreshing to see the episode roundly reject the notion that the overtly fascist Mirror Starfleet could have any redeeming features. Where many modern ‘prestige’ dramas might be tempted to force some poor member of the away team into playing devil’s advocate for Mirror Starfleet, or to make a point of showing that ‘the trains run on time’ at least, “Mirror, Mirror” lets the Mirror Universe be just objectively terrible, and lets the away team be nothing but horrified by it.

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And what’s more, the episode argues that an organization like Mirror Starfleet can’t even keep the trains running on time, not in the long run at least. It’s interesting that this is the argument Prime Kirk makes to Mirror Spock, in an attempt to convince him to work for change in his universe. Kirk doesn’t argue against the immorality of the Empire, or its cruelty. Instead, he tailors his argument to Spock specifically, focusing on the illogical waste of continuing to prop up a system doomed to fail. Normally, I’m critical of the impulse to make utilitarian arguments against things that are clearly, unambiguously wrong, utility aside; there’d be something obscene about, say, arguing that murder is wrong because murdered people contribute less to the economy than living people do. But Kirk’s utilitarian argument works for me here, first because it simply assumes that the Empire will fall, eventually and inevitably  — in “approximately 240 years”, by Spock’s own estimation – and second, because I think we’re meant to take the moral argument against the Empire as being so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be stated (which, again, is a pleasant change of pace in a world where there are sub-reddits arguing that Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg was really just a misunderstood family man). Seeing that Mirror Spock doesn’t revel in cruelty the way most of his crewmates do, Kirk doesn’t waste his limited time on an unnecessary attempt to convince Spock that cruelty is bad; instead, he tries to convince Spock that logic dictates he must put a stop to that cruelty now.

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The fact that Kirk spends those last couple of minutes before transporting back to his own universe arguing with Spock at all is a big part of what makes this episode more than just a fun experiment for me. It’s tempting for writers, I think, to treat parallel universes as a sort of anything-goes narrative sandbox, where they can, oh I don’t know, maybe send Harry Kim hurtling into the cold dead void of space, because what happens in that universe stays in that universe. But in “Mirror, Mirror”, both the characters and the episode itself treat what happens in the Mirror Universe as if it matters. One of Kirk’s first actions upon arriving on the Mirror Enterprise is to belay Mirror Starfleet’s orders to eradicate the Mirror Halkans – something that instantly draws attention to himself, attention he should, in theory, be trying to avoid. Similarly, we later see McCoy risk his own escape from the Mirror Universe to treat an injured Mirror Spock (who, a short time earlier, had been throwing McCoy and the others around sick bay like rag dolls). These characters could treat the Mirror Universe – that terrible, topsy-turvy place – as a bad dream to be woken up from, but they don’t. They could prioritize their own escape over the well-being of its people, who after all, aren’t their people, from their universe – but they don’t. Kirk could, quite understandably, get out of Dodge while the getting is good, but instead he stays an extra couple minutes, pushing right to the limit of his window for escape, just so he can try to improve a universe he’s about to leave forever. They finally leave not knowing if Mirror Spock was persuaded or not – only that he “will consider it” – but, as with their other good deeds in the Mirror Universe, the point isn’t whether or not they succeeded, but that they tried; that they still did what was right, even in the wrong universe.

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In “Crossover”, we learn that Mirror Spock was persuaded, and that he later rose to the top of the Empire, preaching reform. We learn that he made exactly the sort of changes to the Empire that Kirk suggested. And we learn that these changes are what left humankind vulnerable to being conquered and enslaved by the Alliance of Klingons and Cardassians. It’s jarring, but it is, perhaps, what we should expect from Deep Space Nine’s take on the Mirror Universe. Where it’s natural for the Original Series to insist on the importance of holding to Federation values, even in a universe lacking those values, it’s just as natural for DS9 to remind us that those values, right as they may be, aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. The Federation can hold to its values because it has, over time, built itself up to be strong and prosperous, something the reformed Empire didn’t have the chance to do before its many enemies rose up against it. And even in the Prime Universe, DS9 is more willing than most of its fellow Trek series to question just how perfect the Federation’s balance of ethics and strength really is.

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For this reason, “Crossover” doesn’t start with as simple a juxtaposition as we get from “Mirror, Mirror”. The time we spend with Bashir and Kira before they, uh, cross over, clearly isn’t meant to paint a perfect picture of life in the Prime Universe. The choice of Bashir for our lone Federation officer aboard the runabout seems significant, in itself. Right from the opening of the series, Bashir’s combination of naïve optimism and condescending self-assurance has made him the ideal candidate for contrasting the Federation’s idealistic image of itself with the reality of its place in a complex, challenging universe. And here, his behavior is about as obnoxious, and as uncomfortable to watch, as it gets at any point in the series; his smiling insistence that Kira call him by his first name (“Go on, say it: Julian”) kind of made my skin crawl. I doubt it’s an accident that, where “Mirror, Mirror” begins by showing us the Federation’s most flattering side, “Crossover” starts off by showcasing Federation imperfection.

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Which isn’t to say that this episode is ambiguous about which universe is a dark reflection of which. The Mirror Universe is no less disturbing here than in “Mirror, Mirror”. But “Crossover” does use its space station setting to give us a wider slice of life on the dark side than we got from the Mirror Enterprise. We get a glimpse, through O’Brien and the other “Terrans”, of the kind of subjugation that was only hinted at in “Mirror, Mirror”; we see Sisko reluctantly drafted into working for the Alliance, and Quark actively working against it; and we get an interesting twist on the unabashed cruelty of the Mirror Enterprise’s crew in the form of Intendant Kira. Shortly after we first meet her, the Intendant makes a point of presenting herself as more merciful and reasonable than her second-in-command, Garak, accusing him of taking too much pleasure in “setting examples”, and explicitly forbidding him from killing a prisoner during his interrogation: “If he dies under your interrogation, I will make you my example”. She claims repeatedly, throughout the episode, that she only resorts to violence when it’s necessary, and that she doesn’t enjoy it. But whether she enjoys it or not, she’s certainly more comfortable with violence than she claims to be: in a chilling moment, literally seconds after sentencing Quark to die for helping enslaved Terrans escape, the Intendant turns to the Major with a chipper smile on her face, and cheerfully asks what they should wear to the upcoming party. And she’s more than willing to embrace sadistic violence when it suits her: as soon as Major Kira, Bashir, and Mirror O’Brien become an annoyance rather than an amusement, she threatens them with public torture and execution. Her tyranny, and that of the Alliance, is really no less brutal than that of the fallen Empire, but it’s all the more frightening for being less cartoonish, and more reflective of the way tyranny often works in real life. The Intendant has built a persona for herself, as a sort of high-society woman of the people, and part of that persona is the assurance that the terrible things she’s capable of will only happen to the trouble-makers, to the people who don’t appreciate how lucky they are to have her as their tyrant.

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Major Kira’s reaction to the Mirror Universe, as well, contrasts interestingly with that of Kirk and his away team. The fact that Bajor was, in this universe, liberated from human occupation by the Cardassians – and now enjoys a more comfortable standard of living than in the Prime Universe – puts the Major in a very different position than Kirk, who faced a mirror version of his own society which was worse in every way. When the Major tells the Intendant that she thinks the Prime Bajor could learn a thing or two from Mirror Bajor, it’s not entirely clear whether the Major really believes what she’s saying, or whether she is, as the Intendant later points out, manipulating her. But I tend to think there’s at least some truth to her claim that she envies Mirror Bajor’s position in the Alliance. When the Major asks Mirror Sisko for help, it’s interesting that she doesn’t make an intellectual argument, like Kirk makes to Mirror Spock. She makes a moral appeal instead, having noticed that, beneath the devil-may-care happy pirate persona he has crafted for himself, Sisko is clearly uneasy with the work he does for the Alliance (and with the sexual exploitation or abuse it’s implied that he suffers under the Intendant). When Sisko asks the Major, “What do you care about Terrans’ freedom,” her answer – “I care about freedom” – makes it clear that, unlike Kirk perhaps, the Major knows from personal experience that there’s no universe where freedom is the default, where it doesn’t have to be consistently fought for.

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The Major’s appeal gets Sisko thinking, I suspect, but it’s Mirror O’Brien’s speech, when he’s brought before the Intendant for punishment, that finally convinces Sisko to rebel. And O’Brien’s argument, like the Major’s, is not a logical argument, but an emotional one, an account of how it feels for him to know there’s another universe where his counterpart is Chief of Operations for the very station where Mirror O’Brien is enslaved:

“This man is a doctor where he comes from. And there’s an O’Brien there just like me, except he’s some kind of high-up Chief of Operations. They’re Terrans. Can you believe that? Maybe it’s a fairy tale he made up, but it made me start thinking how each of us might have turned out, if history had been just a little different. I wanted him to take me with him, because whatever it’s like where he’s from, it’s got to be better than this. There’s got to be something better than this.”

“Mirror, Mirror”, like the Original Series in general, assumes that the universe can be a stable, and fair, and comfortable place, and proposes both that the fall of the Empire is inevitable, and that it will lead to better things. “Crossover”, on the other hand – and again, like DS9 in general – assumes no such things. Bashir and the Major have no illusions of bringing about reform in the Alliance, even if Mirror Sisko and Mirror O’Brien – or “Smiley” – do perhaps give us some hope for rebellion, if not reform, at the end of the episode. What Major Kira means by “freedom”, I think – and what Sisko and Smiley come to believe in – is not an outcome, but a possibility; not a guarantee, but a chance of finding, as Smiley says, something better.


One thought on ““There’s got to be something better than this”: Mirror, Mirror (TOS) vs. Crossover (DS9)

  1. I’ve lost track of how often people have complained about Trump on Facebook and I commented “at least Spock will look good with a beard.” I think people get the joke about half the time, but my friends are self selected for liking SF.

    Liked by 1 person

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