“Their strength is painted rust”: In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 1 (ENT) vs. Despite Yourself (DSC)

*This post contains major spoilers up to and including episode 10 of Star Trek: Discovery, and mild spoilers for the rest of the 1st season.

Star Trek: Enterprise – “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 1” (season 4, episode 18)

Written by Mike Sussman; directed by James L. Conway; first aired in 2005

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

This episode opens with a familiar scene from Star Trek: First Contact, as a Vulcan lands his ship in mid-21st-century Montana and greets warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane with a Vulcan salute. But things take a dark turn when Cochrane answers the Vulcan salute not with a handshake, as in First Contact, but with a shotgun blast instead, allowing the gathered crowd of humans – or should I say Terrans – to storm and loot the murdered Vulcan’s ship. What follows is a very different set of opening credits: images of warfare and conquest set to sinister, militaristic music, priming us for an episode set entirely in the Mirror Universe, where a fascist, xenophobic Terran Empire fights alien rebels to maintain its hold on much of known space. On the ISS Enterprise, First Officer Archer plots to overthrow Captain Forrest and obtain a powerful weapon against the rebels: the USS Defiant, a Federation starship captured by the Tholians from the Prime Universe – and from a hundred years in the future. The story is To Be Continued as Archer and a contingent of his crew take control of the Defiant … only to watch as the ISS Enterprise is destroyed by the Tholians.

Star Trek: Discovery – “Despite Yourself” (season 1, episode 10)

Written by Sean Cochran; directed by Jonathan Frakes; first aired in 2018

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

After a spore drive jump gone wrong, the Discovery is stranded in the Mirror Universe. Lt. Stamets has been left delirious and unable to get the ship and crew back home, where the Federation badly needs the intelligence Discovery was bringing them to aid in the war effort against the Klingons. In the Mirror Universe, though, the Terran Empire doesn’t seem to be having much trouble in its own war against the Klingons and their rebel allies, and the crew uses files scavenged from the ruins of a rebel fleet to find out what sort of universe they’ve gotten themselves into … and to learn of the Defiant’s arrival in the Mirror Universe nearly a century earlier. In order to gain access to classified data on the Defiant which might help them get home, the crew disguises the USS Discovery as its Terran counterpart, the ISS Discovery, under the apparent command of Cadet Tilly, a.k.a. Captain Killy. They rendezvous with the ISS Shenzhou to turn in Captain Lorca as the fugitive traitor he apparently is in this universe, and Michael Burnham boards the Shenzhou in place of its own, missing Captain Burnham, with the increasingly unstable – and shockingly violent – Ash Tyler at her side.      

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When I wrote about the first two TV appearances of the Mirror Universe – its first and only appearance on the original Star Trek, and its first of many appearances on Deep Space NineI touched on the strange, paradoxical place the Mirror Universe occupies in Trek canon, serving as both a departure from typical Trek and the source of some of Trek’s most enduring and iconic imagery. The two most recent TV incarnations of Trek, Enterprise and Discovery, both seem to have deliberately leaned in to that paradox, and even doubled down on it (though each in very different ways). Enterprise would set two of its final five episodes entirely in the Mirror Universe, marking the first time that a story about the Mirror Universe included no characters whatsoever from the Prime Universe. This meant that one of the very last stories Enterprise ever told included none of its true main characters, and had no impact whatsoever on their lives … and yet, in some quarters, “In a Mirror, Darkly, Parts 1 & 2” are among the most fondly remembered episodes of that series. Discovery, meanwhile, had its own main characters spend four episodes in the Mirror Universe during its 15-episode first season. This was the first original season of Trek on TV in over a decade, and not only did it spend more than a quarter of its running time in the Mirror Universe, but it also made its main characters’ ties to that universe absolutely integral to the overarching plot of the entire season.

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It’s striking that both Enterprise and Discovery – the only two Trek TV series (so far) to premiere in the 21st century – treat the Mirror Universe so differently than their predecessors. As iconic as “Mirror, Mirror” has become, it’s really just one of many self-contained, metaphorical morality tales that make up the anthology-like Original Series. As I’ve noted before, that first appearance of the Mirror Universe pointedly doesn’t use the Terran Empire to ask any hard questions about the Federation, or to change how we see Starfleet going forward; the fact that the Federation is unambiguously better than the Empire is quite possibly the whole point of the episode, a cautionary example of what humanity might have become if it hadn’t become the shining example of progress we’re clearly meant to see in the Federation. The Next Generation, even more committed to its portrayal of a Utopian future than the Original Series, skipped over the Mirror Universe entirely, as did Voyager (though the latter, in particular, would find other ways to explore dark reflections of its crew, as in the fifth season’s closing cliff-hanger, “Equinox”). Deep Space Nine used the Mirror Universe as a regularly-recurring plot device throughout its run, but with the Terran Empire conquered and disbanded by DS9’s time, that central comparison between the Federation and its dark reflection was lost, in favour of increasingly wacky “What if?”-style departures from business as usual on the station.

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Only Enterprise treated the Mirror Universe as deserving an episode or two (complete with a unique theme song and opening credits!) devoted entirely to the MU on its own terms, not as a point of comparison with the Prime Universe. (Whether or not the show was right that the Mirror Universe could carry a whole storyline on its own is, of course, something we’ll touch on below.) And only Discovery built an ongoing storyline around the MU that not only had lasting ramifications for the show’s main characters, but played a crucial role in the arc of an entire season (and presumably the whole series going forward), both narratively and thematically. And because the Mirror Universe is such an important part of Discovery’s recently-finished first season, we’re going to spend the next few installments of Trek vs. Trek comparing each of its Mirror Universe episodes to one of the MU’s previous appearances in Trek, starting with Discovery’s “Despite Yourself” and Part 1 of Enterprise’s “In a Mirror, Darkly”.

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By far the most striking and significant part of “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 1” is its opening. The title sequence and theme song are a stroke of genius, on more than one level. Most obviously, they serve to immediately give the Mirror Universe more weight, more reality, than it ever had up to that point. Where TOS and DS9 tended to treat the Mirror Universe as more of a thought experiment than a place that actually existed parallel to Trek’s Prime Universe, Enterprise uses its reworked opening credits to immerse us in the MU by hinting at a long, full alternate history: of the Terran Empire, of the Enterprise’s crew, and even of the show Enterprise would have been if it had followed the ISS Enterprise from the start. On another level, I suspect that the title sequence and its sinister, dramatic music were at least partly intended to be a self-aware send-up of Enterprise’s usual opening sequence, with its desperately ‘inspirational’ imagery and its notoriously melodramatic theme song. Whether it was intentional or not, I find this self-satire deeply fun, and immensely satisfying, every time I watch it. But I wonder if there isn’t something more serious going on there, too. Watching those clips of phaser-fights and starship battles interspersed with stock militaristic imagery, I can’t help thinking that this might be the show Enterprise always actually wanted to be: the swashbuckling adventures of Jonathon Archer, square-jawed all-American in space, who’s too busy putting uppity aliens in their place to worry about silly things like cross-cultural understanding and peaceful coexistence.

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If you think I’m being too harsh, well, maybe I am; as I’ve admitted before, there are elements of Enterprise that I bounce off of, hard, and at least some of that can be put down to personal taste. But I do think my reading of the opening credits sequence is supported by the teaser that comes just before those credits. The episode’s re-telling of Zefram Cochrane’s fateful first contact with the Vulcans is, again, a stroke of genius. It contributes beautifully to the sense, further developed in the opening credits, that the Mirror Universe really is a universe, with its own history that mirrors, but diverges from, that of the Prime Universe. It also keeps this Bizarro episode firmly planted in the setting and themes of Enterprise, roughly a hundred years before “Mirror, Mirror”, by calling back to the single moment in Star Trek lore that most directly inspired Enterprise: the moment that a still flawed, but developing, humanity made contact with the Vulcans, which should have set them on the path to forming an enlightened, utopian Federation. Not only does this re-imagined first contact scene essentially show us how the Terran Empire came to be, but it also fits disturbingly well into the approach Enterprise has taken toward human-Vulcan relations all along.

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When I wrote about “Carbon Creek” – the story of a group of Vulcans who crash-land in 1950s America, making unofficial first contact with humans roughly a century before the official first contact – I noted that it could be read as Enterprise almost rewriting the narrative that the film First Contact had left it with. “Carbon Creek” was Enterprise’s chance to subtly replace the existing history of human-Vulcan relations with one it was more comfortable with: one in which it was always the Vulcans who had a lot to learn from humans, and not the other way around. The opening teaser of “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 1” is Enterprise doing the same thing again, but a lot less subtly; the expected harshness of the Mirror Universe allows Enterprise to really cut loose with its desire to see humans ‘win’ their first contact with the Vulcans, and teach them a much tougher lesson than those they learned from the good-hearted people of Carbon Creek, Pennsylvania. Right from the first episode of the series, Archer had been whining about the Vulcans’ reluctance to share all of their technological know-how with humanity … all of it, at once, just because humans really wanted it, as if that would be a reasonable thing to expect. Well, we don’t expect the Terrans of the Mirror Universe to be reasonable, not like those wimpy, do-gooder humans from Trek’s Prime Universe, and so Mirror Cochrane and his fellow Terrans get to act on Prime Archer’s worst impulses, and simply take all the technology they want from the Vulcans. Eventually, they even subjugate the entire Vulcan race for good measure, so Mirror Archer will never have to put up with any Vulcans telling him what to do, something Prime Archer might well envy.

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Again, I’m not claiming to be completely objective about Archer; of all those elements of Enterprise that I bounce off of, Archer himself might be the biggest. But I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that a significant problem with “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 1” is the fact that Mirror Archer isn’t different enough – or in interesting enough ways – from Prime Archer. In TOS’s “Mirror, Mirror”, it’s fun to watch Mirror Sulu and Mirror Chekhov as murderous sociopaths, because they’re such a departure from their Prime Universe counterparts; on the other hand, Mirror Spock, as well as Mirror Odo from DS9’s “Crossover”, are disturbing because we can almost see how certain traits in their Prime versions could, potentially, lead them to support an authoritarian regime (Spock’s sometimes-cold logic, Odo’s appreciation for strict law and order). But where Mirror Archer is arrogant and ambitious, with a simmering hatred of Vulcans, Prime Archer is … pretty much all of those things, too, just with a little more restraint. Not that having a character’s Mirror version be the same as their Prime version couldn’t be interesting, if the show wanted to deal with the ramifications of that … but, to be honest, I see very little evidence that “In a Mirror, Darkly” wants to deal with the ramifications of anything.

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The result is a story with no clear indications of how we’re supposed to feel about what’s happening – and, by extension, why we should care about any of it – beyond the obvious fun of fan service. Early on, when a Tellarite is being used as a guinea pig for the newly-perfected agony booth, Archer is the only one who asks what the Tellarite did to warrant his punishment; no one else present seems to care, or even know, and Scott Bakula appears to play Archer’s reaction to Reed’s answer – “Aren’t all Tellarites guilty of something?” – as if Archer might be sympathetic to the plight of aliens subjugated by the Empire. This is an interesting enough idea that I was disappointed when we learn, later on, that Mirror Archer hates Vulcans even more than Prime Archer did when the series first began (though without Prime Archer’s resentment of the Vulcans ‘holding his father back’ as motivation for that hatred). So, then, the episode must want us to root for T’Pol to rebel against the Empire, right? Well, sort of … but Archer is still portrayed most consistently as our point of view into this alternate universe, with his goals driving most of the story (and with most of T’Pol’s actions, in Part 1, driven by her loyalty to Captain Forrest). In the end, it all just feels like a bunch of random stuff that’s happening to people I mostly don’t like (which is okay) or care about (which is a problem). Don’t get me wrong, it’s an undeniably fun episode to watch … but it might have been a really good episode if as much attention had been paid to fleshing out story and character as was, obviously, paid to fan-pleasing production details, like T’Pol’s and Sato’s traditionally revealing Terran uniforms, or the lovingly recreated model of the Constitution-class starship, Defiant, an artifact of Kirk’s time (and a direct reference to the TOS episode, “The Tholian Web”).

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It’s this treatment of the Mirror Universe – obsessive attention to nostalgic detail, without much meaningful story behind it – that I was worried we might get when Discovery started dropping hints, both in-universe and in its real-world promotional material, that it would be heading to the Mirror Universe. And “Despite Yourself” does have its moments of fan service; the Constitution-class Defiant appears once again, for instance, this time on a computer display, giving some fans the connection to Trek canon (and the chance to show off their encyclopedic knowledge of that canon by pointing out that the ship’s nacelles are attached at the wrong angle, or something) that they seem to crave. But I was reassured that there was more than just fan service going on here, when the crew disguised themselves, and the Discovery, as belonging to the Terran Empire. Not only had the Terran uniforms been updated to look more militaristic, more imperial, and less like a product of 60s style and budget, but the women’s uniforms also turned out not to be gratuitously revealing (strange, how people who are “always looking for the next knife aimed at their back,” as Burnham says, might not want their midriff exposed). This, to my mind, is exactly what a prequel to the Original Series should be doing in 2018: translating the spirit of Trek from its 1960s roots to something that feels forward-looking today, instead of slavishly holding to every superficial detail rooted in sensibilities from half a century ago.

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Of course, there is still a great deal of fun to be had in “Despite Yourself” (aside from that one decidedly un-fun moment, which we’ll cover below), and much of that fun comes from Mary Wiseman’s brilliant performance, playing Cadet Tilly who is, in turn, playing “Captain Killy”, her Mirror Universe counterpart. Watching Tilly modulate her take on Captain Killy throughout the episode provides too many laugh-out-loud moments to list here (my personal favorite probably being her confident delivery, and immediate second-guessing, of the line, “Let’s not keep these assholes waiting” … although her threat to cut out Captain Connor’s tongue and lick her boots with it would come in as a close second). But that comic relief is rooted in something more serious, and Wiseman subtly works those serious undercurrents into her performance just as skillfully as she plays for big, obvious laughs. On one level, Captain Killy is Mirror Sulu or Mirror Chekhov, fascinating for how incongruous she is with the Cadet Tilly we’re used to (with the added comedy and drama of knowing that, in this case, that is Cadet Tilly under the over-the-top performance). But there’s a hint of Mirror Spock or Mirror Odo in her, as well. Her comment to Burnham that her mother would approve of Captain Killy’s hairdo is a call-back to several subtle references, throughout Discovery’s first season, to Tilly’s ambitions – “Here’s something not a lot of people know about me: I’m going to be a Captain someday,” as she said in her very first episode – being rooted in the expectations, and disapproval, of her mother. As much fun as she is to watch, Captain Killy is also a glimpse of where that ambition, rooted in unreasonable parental expectations, could have led Tilly, under different circumstances:

Burnham: You are a captain now.

Tilly: No, I’m not. She is. I’m nothing like her, Michael. She’s terrifying, she’s… she’s like a twisted version of everything I’ve ever aspired to be. I’m gonna have nightmares about myself now.

B: You don’t actually have to be her.

T: But how do I project that strength?

B: I’ve been trying to understand them better. And Terran strength is born out of pure necessity. Because they live in constant fear, always looking for the next knife aimed at their back. Their strength is painted rust. It’s a facade. But you have the strength of an entire crew that believes in you. Fortify yourself with our faith in you. That’s what a real captain does.

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This is what’s missing from “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 1”. In all its attention to the details of the Mirror Universe, Enterprise forgets – or never thinks to ask in the first place – why it’s interesting (and not just fun) to spend time with dark versions of familiar characters, especially in a franchise so steeped in optimism. “Mirror, Mirror”, for its part, does have an answer to that question, rooted in the context of the Original Series; it’s holding up a mirror, not to what humanity is in the 23rd century, but to what humanity could have ended up as by the 23rd century, had it taken a different path (and, in the process, is perhaps holding up a mirror to the worst aspects of humanity in the show’s present). “Despite Yourself” goes a step farther, and holds a mirror up to what the Federation actually is in the 23rd century. This episode starts to make explicit a theme that was, in retrospect, brewing throughout Discovery’s first season, and which will be stated outright by the season’s end: the fear that runs unchecked in the Terran Empire is (and always will be) present in the Federation as well, bubbling below the surface in times of peace, just waiting to be embraced, out of “ pure necessity”, in tougher times … like, say, during the Federation’s war with the Klingons. The appearance of Captain Connor in “Despite Yourself” – previously seen as an Ensign in Discovery’s first two episodes, uttering the words “We’re explorers, not soldiers,” before dying in a Klingon attack – is the sort of thing “In a Mirror, Darkly” would treat purely as an Easter egg. But Discovery makes Mirror Connor, of all people, captain of the ISS Shenzhou – and forces Burnham to kill him in the Mirror Universe as she feels she killed him (indirectly) in the Prime Universe – purposefully, to call back to his line of foreshadowing. Because Discovery will spend the rest of its time in the Mirror Universe, and the remaining episodes of its first season, establishing that strength rooted in ideals, like a passion for exploration (or, if you will, discovery), is a better thing to build on than strength rooted in fear and justified by necessity.

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Finally, as something of an aside, I can’t really avoid addressing the death of Dr. Culber in “Despite Yourself”. I’ve just finished praising the episode for the purpose and meaning behind most of its plot points, in contrast to what I saw as a lack of purpose and meaning in “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 1”. But the sudden killing of Culber is, for me, one major exception to that. It is purposeful, I suppose, in that it is clearly meant to shock the viewer; and it certainly succeeded on that point in my first viewing, causing me to literally swear out loud at my TV, which is the sort of reaction very, very few shows get out of me. But that shock, in itself, is of questionable value, especially given that the people involved in making the show felt the need to start soothing that shock immediately after the episode first aired with reassurances that we hadn’t seen the last of Culber (a statement which turned out to be techincally true, if a little misleading). If there’s any real meaning to his death, it’s lost on me; both the shocking reveal of the violence Tyler is capable of, and the (fairly limited) role Culber’s death plays in ongoing plot points in later episodes, could easily, I think, have been accomplished in other ways. Yes, I understand that Wilson Cruz, who played Culber excellently, was probably only ever contracted to be on the show for a limited run of episodes, and that there are always behind-the-scenes, business-y factors involved when TV characters are killed off. And I’m not going to go into the “bury your gays” trope here, as I think that’s been explained and explored in depth by any number of people with much, much more knowledge and perspective on the topic than I have. I’ll simply say that, while I wish we were at a place, culturally, where killing off a gay character of color was no different than killing off any other character, we simply are not at that place yet. Characters like Culber, and functional, loving, long-term gay relationships like the one he had with Stamets, are still rare enough on TV, still such fresh ground for writers to honestly explore, that killing him off was just about the least interesting thing that could have been done with him.

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Anyway, this has run a lot longer than I’d intended it to, and if, by some miracle, you’re still reading at this point, I hope you’ll join me next time, when we continue our time in the Mirror Universe by comparing the next episode of Discovery, “The Wolf Inside”, to Deep Space Nine’s second Mirror Universe episode, “Through the Looking Glass”.

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One thought on ““Their strength is painted rust”: In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 1 (ENT) vs. Despite Yourself (DSC)

  1. Star Trek has always been political. That’s the primary reason why I watch it. We should always be suspicious of those who attempt to motivate us with fear. We are all much better than that and can accomplish far more when inspired by trust and cooperation.

    Liked by 1 person

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