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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Static Thoughts - In A Mirror Darkly

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It seems these days that alternate realities and parallel universes are everywhere.  That’s actually kind of to be expected as nerdy media becomes more and more of a dominant genre.  Back in the day geek material struggled for mainstream relevance unless it stripped out as many of its big ideas as possible but these days people are making movies and shows out of Ant-Man and Dr. Strange.  As such, digging into more complicated ideas like the Multiverse, pocket universes, or altered continuity are becoming more and more widespread. 

The Flash has really embraced this idea with the Multiverse and Flashpoint, Legends of Tomorrow had its own altered universe episode, Stranger Things was built on a dimensional foundation, and Agents of SHIELD has found serious success with an altered continuity story set in a world where the bad guys won called ‘Agents of Hydra.’  As I’m eager to capitalize on this trend I thought I’d look back at hands down my favorite altered reality story, coming to us from the most hated Star Trek series of them all Star Trek: Enterprise- this is ‘In A Mirror Darkly.’

A quick primer for those who don’t know- Star Trek: Enterprise was the last Star Trek series to air and was a prequel series, exploring the origins of the Federation and following the first ship named Enterprise.  ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ was part of the show’s fourth season and so is more of a prequel episode than usual, acting as a direct predecessor of an episode of the original Star Trek- ‘Mirror, Mirror.’  Released in 1967, ‘Mirror, Mirror’ is the best example of the parallel universe concept in popular fiction prior to the show Sliders.  

The episode involved a handful of Enterprise crewmen getting transported to a parallel universe of evil.  In this world, nicknamed the Mirror Universe, good has become evil, kindness is cruelty, and ingenuity has become barbarism.  It’s a universe controlled by the brutal Terran Empire, where rank is conferred by murder; also Spock has a beard in this world, so you know things are really different. 

The Mirror Universe episode was a major classic of the original series and eventually became a favorite reoccurring gimmick of the series Deep Space 9, though those episodes are so weak they’re widely considered not canon with the rest of the series.  All other Trek series elected to ignore the Mirror-verse, that is until the final season of Enterprise.  

By this point, the series had received a new show runner intent on getting Enterprise back to its original goal of being a prequel show, exploring the origins of the status quo of the original series.  Unfortunately, the show was canceled shortly after the fourth season had been written, but the developers elected to just produce the season as it was regardless, which is how we got ‘In A Mirror Darkly.’ 

‘In A Mirror Darkly’ is unique among the many Mirror Universe episodes as it’s the only one not to include characters from the primary Star Trek universe.  All other Mirror Universe episodes have been about heroes of the show being transported to the alternate dimension but in this case what they’ve done is something closer to Agents of Hydra. 

‘In A Mirror Darkly,’ is a two-part Enterprise episode set entirely in the mirror universe and imagined as a mirror universe version of Enterprise.  Even the main titles were rescored and re-edited to be more warlike and darker to match the vibe of a mirror universe show, with scenes of war and battle instead of exploration. 

Even though the episode is a precursor to ‘Mirror, Mirror’ it’s also jam packed with other references and ideas from the original series.  It’s actually framed as a direct sequel to the original series episode ‘The Tholian Web,’ which involved some cross-universe transit.  In ‘The Tholian Web,’ an insectoid race known as the Tholians ended up launching a Star Fleet ship through a dimensional weak spot. 

In the original episode we never found out where the ship landed, but ‘In a Mirror Darkly’ imagines the ship to have landed in the Mirror Universe.  The episode follows a darker version of Enterprise’s crew as they work to capture and salvage the advanced Star Fleet ship and quell a rebellion of alien races that are trying to resist the Terran Empire.  Also, the Gorn, of the ‘Arena’ fame, shows up at one point sporting a disappointing new CGI look. 

I’m going to say right up front, the amount of mileage you’re going to get out of ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ depends entirely on how much you’re willing to follow and engage with evil characters.  There’s no secret redeeming side to the Mirror-verse Enterprise crew, they’re all sadists, brutes, schemers, and quite often prejudice against aliens.  However, the episode really makes up for this by not exactly assuming you’re going to LIKE these characters, just that their situation and unique struggle is interesting. 

The main crux of the story is Scott Bakula’s Jonathan Archer, here a rising star in the Empire struggling to take command of his own ship.  His ambition is at the heart of the story, and the entire affair has very Macbeth or Breaking Bad tint to it.  Archer’s quest to become the equal of his father and attain a lasting legacy in the Empire haunts him and while he is trying to achieve amoral ends, seeing him grapple with his own doubts in the form of vivid hallucinations, is very compelling.  

This extends to a lot of the crew and their struggles.  For instance, the chief engineer and breakout character of Enterprise Trip Tucker is re-imagined here into a leering, irradiated fiend.  It’s a stark departure from both the established character, who was outgoing and earnest, and from the way, Enterprise told stories.  Because Enterprise wasn’t worried about coming back to the Mirror Verse next week, they were free to have permanent changes to these characters in the form of injury and even death. 

A lot of what makes this work is the unique balancing act of content and timing.  The two-episode length is a bit flabby and can strain your interest at times, but as I mentioned they really go all out filling this one with Star Trek arcana.  Aside from all the Mirror-verse prequel stuff we also get to see a version of the Tholian Web in 3D CGI, which is really impressive and became the standard in the Star Trek Online video game.  What’s more, even though the Gorn looks weak in its CGI form, the crew fighting it is a fun Alien type affair. 

The most interesting element of the episode, though, has to be Mirror-verse Hoshi Sato.  Hoshi, like most of the Enterprise crew, was always a weak link in the show crying out for greater development.  She was a fine crewman and the handful of episodes where she got an actual story arc I find she really shines, though it was uncomfortably obvious Hoshi was partly there for sex appeal given how often they had her lose her shirt. 

In this episode, that’s still a big part of her role only now it’s been flipped around.  Hoshi is framed as a sultry temptress who uses her weaponized sexuality as a means of advancement within the Empire.  Usually, this character will end up dead or be given a terrible turn, thus completely negating any argument that it’s meant to be empowering, but not here.  No, in this case, Hoshi’s sexually liberated schemes land her as the head of the god damn empire by the end of the story- with zero negative consequences. 

I’m not going to say that ‘In A Mirror Darkly’ is some kind of masterpiece but it’s definitely a fun episode and more than worth a watch.  Most Star Trek fans will try and tell you it’s one of the canon’s all time greats but that’s largely because it’s the only good Mirror-verse episode outside the original series.  Enterprise had actually planned to keep making Mirror-verse episode as a yearly tradition going into the fifth season, but unfortunately the show wasn’t able to redeem itself in the eyes of the network and so was canceled.  Still, if you’re looking to see how they did parallel Earth stories back in the day or just hoping to find a watchable episode of Star Trek: Enterprise you could do a lot worse- check it out. 

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