*This post contains full spoilers for the episodes discussed, and full spoilers for the entire first season of Star Trek: Discovery.
Star Trek: Voyager – “Equinox” (season 5, episode 26 & season 6, episode 1)
Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky; story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky; directed by David Livingston; first aired in 1999
We open on the crew of a Federation starship stranded in the Delta Quadrant, as they chart a long, dangerous course home through hostile territory. No, it’s not Voyager – it’s the USS Equinox, a science vessel under the command of Captain Ransom (or Rudy, to his crew), whose desperate call for help is picked up by Voyager. Captain Janeway rushes to the rescue, and finds the Equinox under attack by mysterious aliens who materialize out of thin air. After temporarily stopping the alien attacks, Janeway meets Ransom and what’s left of his crew, including his first officer, Max Burke, a former boyfriend of Lt. Torres from their Starfleet Academy days. Janeway learns that they were pulled into the Delta Quadrant by a Caretaker alien, as Voyager was, but the years they’ve spent there have taken a harsher toll on their numbers, their morale, and, as it turns out, their morals. Janeway is horrified to discover that the aliens were simply defending themselves against the Equinox crew, who have been conducting fatal experiments on them in order to improve the Equinox’s warp engines, and she attempts to imprison them all. But Ransom and his crew escape and abduct Seven of Nine and the Doctor, leaving Voyager as a target for the angry aliens … and leaving Janeway obsessed with tracking Ransom down, even if she has to sacrifice her own morals in the process.
Star Trek: Discovery – “The War Without, The War Within” & “Will You Take My Hand?” (season 1, episodes 14 & 15)
Episode 14 written by Lisa Randolph; directed by David Solomon. Teleplay for episode 15 by Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts; story by Akiva Goldsman & Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts; directed by Akiva Goldsman. First aired in 2018.
The Discovery crew returns from the Mirror Universe, short one Captain Lorca but with an extra Emperor Georgiou. Nine months have passed in their universe, and without the tactical information Discovery was on its way to deliver when Lorca hijacked it, Starfleet has been losing its war against the Klingons, whose Great Houses are competing amongst each other to see who can do more damage to the Federation. Admiral Cornwell takes command of Discovery and orders it back to Starbase One, but the chilling sight of the Starbase devoid of human life signs and spray-painted with a Klingon House sigil motivates her to take an … unorthodox step. She puts Emperor Georgiou in charge, both of Discovery and of its mission to map the Klingon homeworld, Qo’noS, for military targets. Burnham, Tyler, and Tilly accompany Georgiou on her away mission to Qo’noS, where they realize that her real plan, in classic supervillain fashion, is to plant a bomb in a volcano, laying waste to the entire planet. Is it surprising that the Terran Emperor would commit genocide? No, which is why Starfleet Command put her in charge of the mission; so she could save the Federation by violating its most fundamental principles. And so it’s up to Burnham to preserve those principles, by leading yet another mutiny against yet another Philippa Georgiou.
As I’ve noted before, it’s striking how central the Mirror Universe is to Star Trek: Discovery’s first season, the first new season of Star Trek to air in over a decade. It’s not just that the season sets 4 of its 15 episodes in the Mirror Universe (which, incidentally, is only one episode less than Deep Space Nine devoted to the Mirror Universe across all seven seasons of that show). No, as we’ve learned by the season’s end, the Mirror Universe has actually been shaping this show since its third episode, when Michael Burnham’s new status quo as the season’s protagonist was built largely around Captain Lorca, who turns out to have been Mirror Lorca all along. While the first two episodes of Discovery teased a first season all about war with the Klingons, that war ended up being more a set of bookends, starting the season off with “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars”, sending it off for its mid-season hiatus with episode 9’s “Into the Forest I Go”, and finally ending the season with “The War Without, The War Within” and “Will You Take My Hand?” And even those last two episodes, which we’ll discuss here, are arguably more about the Mirror Universe than they are about the Federation-Klingon War. The Klingons aren’t really the point of this story; for all the fear they’ve struck in the hearts of Admiral Cornwell and the rest of Starfleet Command, they aren’t the real threat. Emperor Georgiou is the real threat – she, and the Mirror Universe “Terrans” she represents – because the first season of Discovery was never actually about Starfleet’s struggle to win a war. It was always about Starfleet’s struggle not to let that war turn it into something it’s not.
If it’s striking that Discovery makes the Mirror Universe the center of its first-season arc, it might be equally striking that Star Trek: Voyager never set so much as a single episode there. Neither did The Next Generation, of course, but that has always made sense to me: TNG’s take on the Star Trek universe is one in which Starfleet often seems to be everywhere, and to have near-limitless resources; its principles are essentially the status quo, and both the righteousness and the effectiveness of those principles are, largely, taken as given. Voyager, on the other hand, first aired after Deep Space Nine had already laid the groundwork for a version of Star Trek that looks outside of the Starfleet bubble, at some of the universe’s messier corners, where Federation ideals hold little sway. Voyager begins, as a series, by doubling down on the original Star Trek’s talk of a final frontier, putting Captain Janeway and her crew in a far-off corner of that universe where Starfleet has no presence, no resources, and where the Federation’s principles hold no sway whatsoever. The ultimate purpose of a Mirror Universe episode, at its best, is to ask how different our characters might be if they lived by radically different principles, or under radically different rules. This is a question that would seem to be baked right into the premise of Voyager, and given that the series repeatedly returns to the idea of doubles or alternate versions of its crew – in episodes like “Deadlock”, “Course: Oblivion”, and “Living Witness” – it’s quite surprising that there’s no Mirror Janeway, no Imperial Starship Voyager, among those alternates.
Given that conspicuous absence, I tend to think of “Equinox” as Voyager’s Mirror Universe episode. I know, I know … it’s not a Mirror Universe episode, in the most fundamental sense: the crew of the Equinox aren’t from another reality, and they’re original characters in their own right, not alternate versions of the Voyager crew. Well, let’s say they aren’t literally alternate versions of Voyager’s crew … because metaphorically, that’s exactly what they are. One of the easiest ways to criticize “Equinox” would be to point out the implausible coincidences on which so much of its plot hinges: another Federation starship just happens to get sucked into the Delta Quadrant by a Caretaker alien; that ship’s first officer just happens to know B’Elanna Torres personally; and Equinox just happens to end up in the same region of that vast and unpredictable Delta Quadrant, at the same time, as Voyager. But then, the Mirror Universe, too, is nothing if not implausible, because it’s not meant to be plausible. It’s meant to say something, directly, unsubtly, about the Star Trek universe we’re used to. And while the crew of the Equinox work quite well as original, Prime Universe characters in their own right – thanks in large part to the spot-on casting of Rick Worthy, Olivia Birkelund, Titus Welliver, and John Savage – they exist, in this story, to say something about the crew of Voyager. Much like Emperor Georgiou and her fellow Terrans in Discovery, the crew of the Equinox serve as a cautionary tale, a glimpse at what the crew of Voyager might have become if they’d left their Federation ideals in Federation space.
Another easy criticism, of Voyager as a series – a common, admittedly unoriginal criticism, one I’ve often voiced myself – is that the series is too reluctant to really capitalize on some of the most interesting elements of its premise. By stranding its Starfleet characters far from Federation influence, and by forcing them to work together with their rebel Maquis counterparts, Voyager seems, at first, to be deliberately setting the stage for its Starfleet officers to test the limits of Federation ideals to an extent we’d only seen previously on Deep Space Nine. Yes, Janeway insists from the very beginning that her crew will continue to live by the principles of the Federation and the protocols of Starfleet, no matter where they are – which is, after all, what keeps them from making it back to Federation space in the series’ very first episode – and don’t get me wrong, this is something I actually really like about Voyager when I rewatch it now. In a modern TV landscape populated by Walter Whites, Arya Starks, and Rick Grimes-es, there’s something weirdly radical about Janeway’s insistence that difficult circumstances will not change the way her crew does things. But where Voyager often stumbles, in this regard, is in its unwillingness to dole out many real, lasting consequences of Janeway’s refusal to compromise her ethics. Even in “The Cloud”, where Janeway’s decision to help an alien entity costs the crew precious energy stores which were already running low, we see the holodeck – which you’d think would use a lot of power, right? – introduced as a place for the crew to just hang out while off-duty, as if they were on the much more secure and well-supplied Enterprise D. The precious fuel and photon torpedoes lost in “The Cloud” would seem to have little effect on the day-to-day living conditions of the crew in subsequent episodes, as Voyager increasingly turned out to be The Next Generation, Just, Like, Really Far Away.
But individual episodes would sometimes take it upon themselves to explore a little of that largely ignored potential, and “Equinox”, like “Year of Hell”, does this quite cleverly. The fact that the Equinox itself is a science vessel, woefully ill-equipped for long-term deployment in hostile conditions, feels like a knowing wink to the audience, an admission that the starship Voyager has perhaps turned out to be too well-equipped for long-term deployment in hostile conditions. It was also a clever decision to make first officer Max Burke the most unrepentantly amoral member of the Equinox crew, given that, as Torres reveals, Burke was always prone to cutting corners, and likely would have left Starfleet, or washed out, if he hadn’t become stranded with his crewmates in the Delta Quadrant. This feels like a gesture toward the largely unrealized potential of Voyager’s ‘Starfleet-and-Maquis-working-together’ premise; after all, what would have happened to members of Voyager’s stranded, newly-combined crew if they simply could not, or would not, embrace the Starfleet way of life, as Janeway wanted them to? Would they, as Captain Ransom wonders in this episode, have ended up in the brig for decades, possibly for the rest of their lives? Or would they, like Burke, have found their way into positions of authority they weren’t fit for? After all, Janeway took a pretty big (if calculated) risk by putting not just one, but two members of the Maquis into key, high-level positions of authority, almost immediately after they were all stranded together in the Delta Quadrant. That risk paid off, of course, because the casting of the show required it to … but what if it hadn’t? What if Chakotay, as first officer, had threatened to lead a Maquis mutiny if Janeway made a command decision he disagreed with (as she does in this very episode)? What if Torres, as chief engineer, had turned out to be a corner-cutting, amoral pragmatist, like her old friend Burke? What would Janeway have done with them?
These are interesting questions, but rather than answering them, “Equinox” seems to be making the case that they can’t be answered by Voyager (which is true, in hindsight) and possibly not by the Star Trek franchise, period (which is debatable, especially for fans of Deep Space Nine). At no point does this 2-part episode suggest that the Equinox crew’s murder of innocent aliens might be, in any way, excusable, no matter how much we might sympathize with the hardships that led them to it. At no point are we invited to imagine that Star Trek: Equinox might be a show we would actually want to watch. Part 2 doubles down on this, turning the USS Equinox into a house of horrors where Voyager’s abducted Doctor, ethical subroutines deactivated, gleefully performs sadistic experiments on his fellow abductee, Seven of Nine. Again, this is implausible; I mean, what’s even the point of his ethical subroutines, if they can be deactivated so easily? But, again, plausibility isn’t the point; the idea that someone you trust could be turned into a callous sociopath simply by toggling a setting from ‘ethical’ to ‘unethical’ is deeply unsettling, plausible or not. Captain Ransom himself is clearly unsettled by the mad-scientist sadism of the reprogrammed Doctor, even as the Doctor follows orders Ransom gave … orders the Doctor refused to follow, until Ransom reprogrammed him. And Ransom is suddenly disgusted by Burke’s use of the euphemism “fuel” to describe the aliens he’s casually planning to kill … even though, again, it was Ransom who gave the order to kill them, and to use them as fuel. He’s finally realizing that ugly actions always produce ugly results, no matter the intentions behind them. Or, to put it another way, it’s almost as if, having met Janeway and the Voyager crew, Ransom now sees that he’s not the heroic lead of the show he’s on, but its villain of the week. He sees that you don’t get to survive at all costs and still be one of the good guys – not on a Star Trek show, anyway – because the good guys don’t survive at all costs. They don’t prioritize some lives over others. The good guys have limits; they’re defined by what they’re not willing to do, as much as – maybe more than – what they are willing to do (a message that’s weakened, unfortunately, by the fact that Janeway herself is initially willing to break her own moral code to get her revenge on Ransom, an out-of-character plot contrivance which serves mostly to pad out two episodes which probably could, and should, have been one episode). I’m sure there are probably some pretty cynical reasons, on the producers’ side of things, as to why Voyager never really pushed the boundaries of what its characters would be willing to do to survive. But here we have a better reason, if we want to give the show credit for it: Voyager simply can’t be a show about characters pushed beyond the limits of their ethics, because it interprets Star Trek as being inherently about characters with strong ethical boundaries. Maybe “Equinox” is arguing that, if someone actually made Star Trek: Equinox, the series, they’d have to take the words ‘Star Trek’ out of the title.
Which, of course, is exactly what some have said about Star Trek: Discovery – that it’s ‘not really Star Trek’. This gets said for a number of different reasons, most of which aren’t worth engaging with. But a few might be, and the complaint that Discovery goes too dark, that its Starfleet doesn’t behave like Starfleet, is at least worth discussing. I’d argue that this complaint loses quite a bit of its weight if you’ve watched all of Discovery’s first season, but I also understand that it might be the reason why some folks stopped watching partway through the season, and I can certainly respect that. For those of us who did watch all the way through, though, I think it becomes very clear, in the Mirror Universe arc and, finally, in “The War Without, The War Within” and “Will You Take My Hand?”, that this entire first season was very much about proving that Starfleet is the ethically upright institution it claims to be. Or that it can be, at least, if its officers hold it to that standard.
I understand, and sympathize with, the complaint that Starfleet Command embraces Terran-style tactics a little too easily (only to give up those tactics just as easily, when Burnham comes to them with an argument which, impassioned as it is, can’t possibly contain any points that wouldn’t have come up in the Admirals’ discussion amongst themselves before they decided to let Georgiou destroy the Klingon homeworld). I maintain that this is less a story or continuity issue than a pacing issue; the Klingon War storyline simply happens too fast, across too few episodes, to have the impact it could have. But the idea that Starfleet is ethically fallible isn’t at all a new idea; even before Deep Space Nine introduced Starfleet’s answer to the CIA, Section 31, we’d already seen plenty of high-ranking officials behaving badly, notably in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and in the excellent Next Generation episodes “The Drumhead” and “Ensign Ro”, to name just a few examples. The warning that progress must be defended, that it can be rolled back if we’re not vigilant, is, I’d argue, just as much a part of Trek as its utopian idealism. Like the Equinox crew on Voyager, Discovery’s Lorca, Emperor Georgiou, and the Terran Empire in general serve as the worst case scenario, the logical endpoint if Starfleet were to fully accept that survival is more important than principle. But Discovery gets to have its cake and eat it too, to some extent, because, unlike Voyager, it can use Starfleet Command as an example of how one starts down the road that leads to becoming the Equinox crew or the Terran Empire, while still allowing its core characters to draw an uncrossable ethical line.
And, pacing issues aside, Discovery has been setting up this dilemma from its very first episodes, even before the introduction of Lorca. Starfleet’s decision to put a genocidal fascist in charge of its most strategically important starship in “The War Without, The War Within” is implausible, sure, but like the starships Voyager and Equinox just happening to bump into each other in the Delta Quadrant, plausibility is beside the point here. “Will You Take My Hand?” makes deliberate references to Burnham’s attempted mutiny against Captain Georgiou at the start of the season, even before she finally mutinies against Emperor Georgiou, and the bookending of this episode with Burnham’s “fear” speech explicitly connects that first mutiny attempt to her observations, in previous episodes, that the Terran Empire is motivated – as she was in that first encounter with the Klingons – by fear.
The only way to defeat fear is to tell it, ‘No’. No, we will not take shortcuts on the path to righteousness. No, we will not break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts. No, we will not allow desperation to destroy moral authority. I am guilty of all these things. Some say that in life, there are no second chances. Experience tells me that this is true. But we can only look forward. We have to be torchbearers, casting the light so we may see our path to lasting peace. We will continue exploring, discovering new worlds, new civilizations. Yes, that is the United Federation of Planets. Yes, that is Starfleet. Yes, that is who we are, and who we will always be.
I’m still, as I’ve written before, ambivalent about whether Burnham was wrong to advise firing first against the Klingons in “The Vulcan Hello”, and personally, I don’t think that’s what she’s “guilty” of. Her real mistake was in rebelling against Captain Georgiou when that advice was rejected, because that first mutiny was Burnham giving in to fear, instead of respecting her captain’s interpretation of “the rules that protect us from our basest instincts.” Her second mutiny is righteous, then, because it enforces those rules, and protects Starfleet Command from their own “basest instincts”. Implausible or not, Emperor Georgiou kind of had to be put in command of Discovery, by this story’s internal logic, because she and Captain Georgiou each symbolize competing visions of what Starfleet could be: an organization led by its leaders’ fear and survival instincts, or one which, again, doesn’t survive at all costs, one which refuses to prioritize some lives over others.
And crucially, that distinction is shown to be not just about abstract principles; it’s about the way Starfleet’s actions, principled or not, affect people’s lives. Early in “Will You Take My Hand?” Emperor Georgiou scoffs at descriptions of Qo’noS as the Klingon “homeworld”, asserting that Klingons are “animals”, not people, and that they can’t truly be said to have a home. But later in the episode, in an Orion trading post on the surface of Qo’noS, Burnham is struck by the sight of the people around her just living their lives, lives which, unlike the Emperor, Burnham doesn’t think Starfleet has the right to end for the sake of its own survival. And to the episode’s credit, Burnham’s comments aren’t prompted by, say, watching innocent Klingon children playing together: this isn’t a ‘we’re really not so different’ moment. No, Burnham has these thoughts in a “wretched hive of scum and villainy”, to borrow a phrase from another franchise. These lives she’s concerned for, these lives she finds beautiful, are, largely, the lives of Orions, a species whose name has been pretty much synonymous with wretched scum and villainy since literally the first episode of Star Trek ever filmed. Because Burnham realizes that, however we might feel, we don’t get to decide which lives are more beautiful, more worthwhile, than others. Not without starting down a road that leads to the Mirror Universe, or to a seat on the USS Equinox.