“Every moment is a test”: Through the Looking Glass (DS9) vs. The Wolf Inside (DSC)

*This post contains major spoilers for episodes 1 through 11 of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, as well as spoilers for the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes “Crossover” and “Through the Looking Glass”. 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Through the Looking Glass” (season 3, episode 19)

Written by Ira Steven Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe; directed by Winrich Kolbe; first aired in 1995

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Commander Sisko is abducted by Chief O’Brien – or should I say, by Smiley – who beams him off the station and into the Mirror Universe, where Sisko’s own Mirror counterpart has been killed by the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance. If he wants to return to his own universe, Prime Sisko will have to play along with Smiley’s plan to save the Terran rebellion … a plan that involves impersonating Mirror Sisko and convincing a Terran scientist – the Mirror version of Sisko’s late wife, Jennifer – to defect from the Alliance and join the rebels. The plan doesn’t necessarily involve Sisko punching out Mirror Bashir, sleeping with both Mirror Dax and Intendant Kira, and wielding two phaser pistols at once … but he does all that stuff anyway, because hey, it’s a Mirror Universe episode, so why not, apparently.

VS.

Star Trek: Discovery – “The Wolf Inside” (season 1, episode 11)

Written by Lisa Randolph; directed by T.J. Scott; first aired in 2018

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Still stranded in the Mirror Universe, Michael Burnham finds herself reluctantly adjusting to life as captain of the ISS Shenzhou. Presiding over torture and executions, and being waited on by enslaved Kelpiens, is taking its toll on her psyche, but at least she has Ash Tyler to act as her “tether”. That tether starts to fray, though, when an encounter with the Klingon leader of the alien rebels – the Mirror Universe version of Voq, Son of None – causes Tyler to finally remember that he is Voq, surgically and psychically altered to not just appear human, but become human, at least partially. His Tyler side begs for Burnham’s help, but his Voq side eventually wins out, and tries to kill her. And as if that isn’t traumatizing enough, Burnham has yet another encounter with the dark side of a loved one, when the rebels – whom she’d hoped to help – are mass-murdered by the Terran Emperor herself: the Mirror counterpart to Burnham’s late mentor, Philippa Georgiou.

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When the Mirror Universe first appeared on the original Star Trek, it was a bit of fun, for sure – a chance for some of the series’ regular actors to essentially play different characters, and for us to see a side to these characters which, by the very nature of Star Trek as a show, we could never see in a normal episode. But there’s also an earnestness to that: “Mirror, Mirror” is, pretty explicitly, a reminder that the more-or-less utopian future we’re used to on Star Trek isn’t just a fantasy, but a hopeful wish for a future where our better impulses win out over the worse ones. The cartoonishness of the Mirror Universe, in “Mirror, Mirror”, is simply an inversion of Trek’s normal exaggerated idealism. When Deep Space Nine first visited the Mirror Universe, decades later in real time and roughly a century later in-universe, “Crossover” retained a little of that cartoonish quality: Intendant Kira’s Caligula routine, for instance, or the over-the-top practical effects when Overseer Odo literally explodes. But for the most part – and maybe unsurprisingly, for DS9 – “Crossover” takes a darker approach to the Mirror Universe. Yes, it partakes in one of those great, guilty pleasures of alternate-reality episodes by killing off a few main characters, but – exploding goo effects aside – it treats those deaths fairly seriously, giving them weight and consequences. And while there’s perhaps less hope to be found than in “Mirror, Mirror”, “Crossover” still carries some of that original earnestness, on display most prominently in “Smiley” O’Brien’s impassioned line, “There’s got to be something better than this.”

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But when DS9 returned to the Mirror Universe, “Through the Looking Glass” established a new template for dealing with the Mirror Universe, one that would be mostly followed throughout the rest of the MU’s appearances in DS9 and Enterprise, until Discovery would finally change things up – and, in some, ways, revisit the original Star Trek’s approach to the MU – only this year, in 2018. Where Discovery would eventually revive the cautionary aspect of Mirror Universe stories, and would use that cautionary tale as a lens through which to view and question its Prime Universe, “Through the Looking Glass” drops most of that poignant thematic baggage in favor of swashbuckling fun. Like most of DS9’s later MU episodes, and Enterprise’s “In a Mirror, Darkly,” Parts 1 and 2, “Looking Glass” focuses almost exclusively on the Mirror Universe as a Bizarro-world sandbox in which to play with alternate versions of familiar characters. Enterprise, at least, confines its exploration of the Mirror Universe to a painstakingly-detailed glimpse into an earlier version of the same Terran Empire we saw in “Mirror, Mirror”. But with the Terran Empire disbanded by DS9’s time, “Through the Looking Glass” all but abandons that original, central conceit of the Mirror Universe – a dark, opposite, cautionary reflection of our utopian future – and instead treats it as a more generic alternate universe, populated with versions of familiar characters that can be different in whatever way the writers think will be interesting, or surprising, or just fun.

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This difference is immediately apparent in the way “Through the Looking Glass” makes use of a wider pool of Mirror characters than “Crossover” did. “Crossover” was sparing with its Mirror characters: we saw no Mirror Bashir or Mirror Dax, and no Mirror versions of supporting characters except Garak. “Through the Looking Glass”, on the other hand, is so excited to show off its Mirror characters that it can’t even contain itself to one series, with the conspicuously random inclusion of Voyager’s Tuvok as one of the rebels, alongside Mirror Bashir, Mirror Dax, and Mirror Rom (though, to be fair, this episode first aired in the same year that Voyager debuted, and so there might well have been behind-the-scenes pressure for DS9 to cross-promote its new sister show). As with most aspects of this episode, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Mirror Tuvok is pretty superfluous to the story; Mirror Bashir is superfluous and annoying; and Mirror Dax is superfluous and problematic (which we’ll return to below). But on the other hand, this episode does make use of the potential of alternate realities in a way we don’t see so often, probably due to real-world scheduling and contract reasons: it brings back a dead character as her alternate-reality self. This is something DS9 will do again in later Mirror Universe episodes; it’s something The Next Generation did very effectively with Tasha Yar in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, the closest that series got to a Mirror Universe episode of its own; and it’s something Discovery will go on to do with a few characters, as we’ve already discussed in regard to “Despite Yourself”, and as we’ll discuss further looking at “The Wolf Inside” and the episodes that follow it. The implications of reviving a dead character this way – but not quite reviving them, or reviving not quite them – are obvious and fascinating for any character, and all the more so for Jennifer Sisko, whose death was one of the inciting incidents for all of DS9.

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The implications are obvious and fascinating, yes … but nothing particularly fascinating is done with that potential here. DS9’s next Mirror episode, “Shattered Mirror”, will make better use of Mirror Jennifer, but “Through the Looking Glass” doesn’t seem at all willing or able to deal with the implications it raises by including her. Again, what we see here is “Looking Glass” prioritizing swashbuckling adventure over just about everything else: where both “Mirror, Mirror” and “Crossover” allowed their Prime characters some time to simply experience the Mirror Universe and all its troubling implications, “Looking Glass” is a plot-driven adventure story that simply needs to keep moving, with no real time for deep exploration of character or theme. A poignant, interesting, challenging story could be told about Sisko meeting someone who both is, and isn’t, his late wife, but “Looking Glass” isn’t that story. It’s a James Bond-style fantasy of Sisko going undercover, and getting into gunfights, and punching alternate versions of some people he knows, and sleeping with alternate versions of other people he knows, all with no consequences when he returns to his own universe.

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A story which was really willing to deal with the implications of Sisko meeting Mirror Jennifer wouldn’t, for instance, make a point of having him sleep with the Mirror versions of both Dax and Kira before coming face-to-face with Mirror Jennifer; there’s an element of fanboy wish-fulfillment there that completely undercuts the emotional stakes of his sort-of-reunion with Jennifer. His implied sex with Intendant Kira is one thing, as he likely had no choice (though this episode in no way deals with any emotional toll to that exploitation, something “Crossover” did subtly but, I think, quite well, with Mirror Sisko). But having Sisko sleep with Mirror Dax is a distractingly bad choice. At worst, it raises questions of consent, given that Sisko is quite literally not the man Mirror Dax thinks he is. But even setting that aside as an unfortunate example of 90s television’s generally poor handling of consent, I simply do not believe for one second that Sisko would so cavalierly sleep with any version of Dax, that he wouldn’t find some other way of preserving his cover – not after DS9 has spent so much screen time repeatedly reminding us of the deep, longstanding, unique friendship Dax and Sisko share. Again, it feels more like fanboy wish-fulfillment than an honest treatment of these characters, and it fits into a troubling pattern of Trek seeming to take steps backwards, in DS9, Voyager, and especially Enterprise, in its treatment of some of its women characters.

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As with my previous post on “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part 1”, I worry that what I’ve written above about “Through the Looking Glass” makes it sound like I hated the episode. I didn’t, in either case – they’re both fun episodes, for the most part. The thing is, there’s only so much that can be said about an episode being fun; Sisko firing two phaser pistols at once is awesome, yes, but not particularly interesting. When an episode’s biggest ambition is to be fun, its flaws kind of become, by default, the most critically interesting things about it. And this is, for better and for worse, the approach Trek mostly took to its Mirror Universe episodes from “Through the Looking Glass” onward, until Discovery would eventually take the central question from “Mirror, Mirror” – what if the future of humanity was defined by the worst we’re capable of, rather than the best – and apply it not just to humanity in the abstract, but to the Prime Universe Federation, and the crew of the Prime Universe Discovery. Can they continue to live by a philosophy based on humanity’s best impulses, even as they find themselves in circumstances – war with the Klingons, being stranded in the Mirror Universe – that encourage their worst impulses?

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Burnham’s narration at the beginning of “The Wolf Inside” hangs a lantern on this thematic question:

“It’s been two days, but they’re already inside my head. Every moment is a test. Can you bury your heart? Can you hide your decency? Can you continue to pretend to be one of them? Even as, little by little, it kills the person you really are?”

She’s reflecting, here, on the effect her time undercover aboard the ISS Shenzhou may be having on her, in a way that we never see Sisko reflect on his own attempts to blend in with the 24th-century Terran rebels. Where Avery Brooks plays undercover Sisko as all bravado and showmanship in “Through the Looking Glass”, Sonequa Martin-Green’s performance throughout “The Wolf Inside” subtly communicates the effort her deception takes, and the toll it’s taking on her. But Burnham is also giving voice, in that early narration, to one of the central tensions of Discovery’s entire first season: the tension between preserving Starfleet lives and preserving Starfleet ideals.  This tension began with Burnham’s choice to recommend firing first against the Klingons, in violation of Starfleet policy, in “The Vulcan Hello”, but it has only increased as she’s served under Captain Lorca, who has been pretty open, since his first appearance in “Context is for Kings”, about his belief that, as he says in this episode, “sometimes the end justifies terrible means.” Burnham begins the episode by asking, essentially, how long she can go on believing – or even just pretending – that her noble ends justify “terrible means”, before it “kills” the part of her that ever cared about those noble ends in the first place.

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And this fear is realized, in a way, at the very end of the episode, when Burnham comes face-to-face with the Terran Empire’s “savage” Emperor, who has just annihilated an entire planet, killing the Mirror version of Burnham’s father, Sarek, and who knows how many other alien rebels. The reveal of Mirror Georgiou as the Terran Emperor probably wasn’t particularly surprising to close viewers, but it didn’t need to surprise us to be effective. It only needed to surprise (and hurt) Burnham, and Martin-Green’s performance communicates that perfectly. Plot twists, on their own, are fine, but fleeting; they’re fun in the moment, but they only really matter – and most viewers will only remember them fondly – if they have an impact on the characters. I can only be surprised once, at best, but even on repeated viewings, I can feel Burnham’s pain in that moment, as she learns that even Philippa Georgiou – her mentor and shining example of the best of humankind – can be turned “savage” under the right, or wrong, circumstances. In an episode where Burnham has already had someone she deeply trusted turn against her – or rather, turn out to have always been against her – confronting the personal nightmare which is Emperor Georgiou clearly affects her in ways that I wish Sisko was affected by meeting Mirror Jennifer in “Through the Looking Glass”.

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The questions “The Wolf Inside” asks, about how our circumstances and surroundings affect our identity, and how – or if – we can remain ourselves when the world (or universe) is pushing us to be something else, are especially interesting when applied to Ash Tyler. His identity as a surgically-altered Voq is another “twist” that most of the Internet saw coming; and again, the fact that we saw the twist coming (or, to put it a different way, the fact that the twist was deliberately foreshadowed) doesn’t diminish its emotional impact, thanks in large part to excellent performances by both Sonequa Martin-Green and Shazad Latif. ‘Internal battles’, especially those of the literal, sci-fi variety, are the sort of scenes that can be brilliantly written and still turn out downright embarrassing when performed by the wrong actor (not even a bad actor, necessarily, just the wrong actor for that kind of scene). But Latif gets his transitions, from Tyler to Voq to Tyler again, just right, impressively changing his voice, posture, and mannerisms in a way that could easily have been too much, but ends up, I think, just right. His performance of the Voq persona finally taking over from the Tyler persona (for now, at least), as he tries to kill Burnham, is devastating, no matter how long I’d known Voq was in there.

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But it’s not just the impressive performances that make this turn for Tyler so effective. As upsetting as it is to see him turn on Burnham, and leave her in the Mirror Universe without her “tether”, there’s also some hope in the fact that he represents, at least to some extent, the opposite, or the inverse, of Emperor Georgiou. His Voq persona is brought to the surface by his encounter with Mirror Voq, but not just because the sight of a fully Klingon Voq jogs his memory. No, it’s the fact that Mirror Voq speaks to Burnham in English, not Klingon (something even I, as a viewer, found a little jarring from Voq); it’s the fact that Mirror Voq is working together with non-Klingons, with Vulcans, and Tellarites, and “filthy Andorians”. This example of a Klingon cooperating with other species – an example Burnham wanted to see for herself, and understand, in hopes of recreating it in the Prime Universe – is what makes Voq so angry that he emerges from under the Tyler persona. He is angry (and probably scared) by the knowledge that Mirror Voq, and the Klingons in general, have been so changed by their circumstances in the Mirror Universe … and by the possibility that he, as Tyler, might embrace Federation philosophy instead of carrying out his mission for the Klingon Empire. And while it looks, by the end of “The Wolf Inside”, as if the Voq persona has won out and defeated that possibility, there is still hope … thanks to the fact that both Burnham and Acting Captain Saru follow that same Federation philosophy by keeping Tyler alive, rather than leaving him to die in space, as the Terrans would do.

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Next time, we’ll continue our stay in the Mirror Universe – and our time with both Mirror Jennifer Sisko and Mirror Philippa Georgiou – when we look at DS9’s “Shattered Mirror” and Discovery’s “Vaulting Ambition”!

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