Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mirror, Mirror

Mirror, Mirror, like The Alternative Factor, involves parallel universes. It would be a clever, if slightly smug, critical device to compare the two and demonstrate that one story is actually the mirror image of the other. But they are not, except that Mirror, Mirror is really good and The Alternative Factor is terrible (and in Mirror, Mirror Spock has a better and more convincing beard than The Alternative Factor's Lazarus). Mirror, Mirror isn't really about parallel universes anyway. The world of the Terran Empire is just a backdrop for Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura to have an adventure in which their friends and colleagues are the baddies. This is the source for those television programmes in which characters meet different versions of themselves. That's not to say Star Trek invented the idea of parallel universes, or dopplegangers, but when most series reference either idea it will be Mirror, Mirror the writer is thinking of rather than John Wyndham's 1961 short story Random Quest, or Philip K. Dick's 1962 The Man In The High Castle, or Superman's Bizarro.

There is one crucial difference between Mirror, Mirror and the television programmes which reference it; Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura never meet their other selves. With the exception of one short scene, we are left to infer what their mirror alternates are like from looking at the universe they live in and imagining how different their characters would have to be in order to survive. In the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode Dopplegangland the script gets a huge amount of mileage from Willow meeting her alternate world double. “I’m so evil and skanky, and I think I’m kind of gay.” Even in the early versions of Mirror, Mirror this was never a story about Kirk meeting a different version of himself, possibly because The Enemy Within was still fresh in everyone's minds. The story was always about Kirk in a different world (in Jerome Bixby's first storyline the transporter malfunction shunted Kirk into a universe where the Federation was losing a war because phasers hadn't been invented). In this respect its closest relative is the 1970 Doctor Who story Inferno in which the Doctor is bumped sideways into a fascist England, a world he never visited, and must deal with different versions of his friends.

When the transporter malfunctions (sweetly the magnetic storm which causes the problem is visualised on-screen with lightning and thunder suggesting either the production team misunderstood the nature of a magnetic storm or they didn't know how to sell the idea to the viewer) it's tempting to describe the universe the landing party arrive in as evil. It isn't. Well, not completely. Because of the title it's easy to assume this new universe is a mirror image of the Star Trek one. That what's good is bad, and vice versa; so while the Terran Empire is nasty, the Romulans and Klingons, who we never see, must be nice, and so on. That's clearly not the case. In both universes the Halkans, who live on a planet rich in dilithium crystals, are deeply committed pacifists. In a true mirror universe they would presumably have been war crazy hawks. And while the Terran Empire is obviously not nice, it's not completely evil either. At best it can be described as ruthlessly pragmatic. When Kirk arrives on the mirror-Enterprise his double is returning from the Halkan homeworld. Whether he was negotiating with the Halkans, or just threatening them, is not clear but he was talking to them. If the Terran Empire was completely evil they'd just roll up and take what they wanted. For mirror-Kirk to engage with the Halkans shows the Empire recognises the need for diplomacy, or at least recognises the need for the appearance of diplomacy. Likewise, despite what the presence of mirror-Sulu might suggest, the ISS Enterprise is not just a crew of sadists in space flying around being dastardly. Lieutenant Kyle is not evil, he's just doing his job to the best of his ability. Within the Empire the acceptance of promotion by assassination seems to have resulted in a crew where the most ruthless people end up on the bridge; resulting in a ship commanded by those best equipped to survive while killing their way to the top rather than those who are actively evil.

We don't get any hint of what the mirror versions of Uhura and Scotty must be like. Mirror-McCoy's personality is suggested by a single line from McCoy. “And my Sickbay is a chamber of horrors. My assistants were betting on the tolerance of an injured man. How long it would take him to pass out from the pain.” We do see mirror-Kirk and he comes across as a thug. He shouts, he bellows, he struggles futilely, and he makes threats he is in no position to carry out. He thinks he's being really clever in offering Spock credits, and power, but actually he's being obviously manipulative. Mirror-Kirk seems too stupid to have risen to the position of Captain, until we discover later about the Tantalus field in his cabin. Mirror-Chekov is out of his league. He's smart enough to have joined the bridge crew, and smart enough to pick a good time for an attempt on Kirk's life, but he's not smart enough to realise he's already been betrayed and that one of his guards is working for Kirk; mirror-Chekov's ultimate destination is the agony booth.

As in The Naked Time George Takei is given a visually memorable role; possibly the most memorable depending on how you think Spock looks with a beard. Here he plays mirror-Sulu in a way that brings to mind Major Toht, the sinister Gestapo Officer from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Sulu is a sadist who abuses his authority but he's also smart; smarter than Chekov. He guesses the nature of Spock's orders. He also works out a plan which will allow him to eliminate Spock and Kirk at the same time and nearly gets away with it. He's also surprisingly brave. When Lieutenant Marlena Moreau uses the Tantalus field to remove his party of security guards Sulu doesn't run even though the odds suddenly shift against him. Sulu still takes on Kirk, not that he puts up much of a fight.

The character we see most is mirror-Spock. In the teaser his different appearance is the main visual used to establish that something weird has happened to the landing party. Bruce Shoengarth, the film editor gives us two big close-ups of Spock with beard, and one tracking shot from Kirk's point of view showing Spock armed with a dagger and phaser. When Spock uses the agoniser on Lieutenant Kyle it establishes that not only does this Spock look different, but he acts differently as well. The difference extends beyond Spock simply being a Vulcan who has decided it is logical to match the humans' brutality. When Spock tells Kirk, “I have found you to be an excellent officer. Our missions together have been both successful and profitable,” it's more than just simple flattery. As he says, “I do not desire the captaincy. I much prefer my scientific duties. I am frankly content to be a lesser target.” It's tempting to wonder if Spock protected mirror-Kirk, foiling assassination attempts against his commander to avoid becoming Captain himself. Interestingly one of Spock's guards is a Vulcan, suggesting the entire race is less isolationist than they appear to be in the main Star Trek universe.

So, what's the history of the Terran Empire? It's more than just a simple inversion of the Federation. There are plenty of hints it might be that parallel history regular, a world where Rome never fell. We have the Roman-esque salute. The Terran Empire's logo, a Gladius like short sword impaling the Earth. Advancement by assassination. And, most obviously, Marlena Moreau's comment, “if I'm to be the woman of a Caesar.” Also, though probably coincidentally, the costume department have armed the bridge crew in the style of Roman soldiers with a primary weapon, the phaser, and a dagger (in a nice touch the phaser is worn on the left continuing the mirror image theme).

What really pleases about Mirror, Mirror is its subtlety. That might seem an odd word to use for an episode which features the leering scarred face of Mr Sulu, or William Shatner seizing the opportunity to go over the top as he's dragged down a corridor bellowing, “I order you, Let me go! Traitors! Spock, get these men off me!” but this is a story packed with small moments among the equally enjoyable over the top scenes. Look at the disdainful way mirror-Spock drops Mr. Kyle's agoniser after use, rather than handing it back. And how agonisers are for enlisted men only, not bridge officers. And, having said the Terran Empire is not pointlessly sadistic there is something aptly unpleasant in the way the crew have to wear their own agonisers. It's not sufficient for the Empire to punish failure with extreme pain, each man has to deal with the humiliation of carrying the source of their pain as personal equipment.

Look also at how the turncoat guard phasers Chekov's men while defending Kirk. Life is cheap on the ISS Enterprise, and their phasers don't stun; or if they do it's not the default setting. In the same scene Kirk has a terrific reproachful line to his guards when they appear after the fight is over.

CHEKOV'S GUARD: Easy, Farrell. I did your job. Ask the captain.
KIRK: Yes, he did your job.

“He did your job,” if that was the real mirror-Kirk Farrell would be on the way to the agony booth himself. All through the episode the actors are taking the time to think about how their characters would react to events, and director Marc Daniels is making time to film these reactions. As a result we have lovely background bits of business like Uhura approaching Scotty in the transporter room and making a confused gesture to her changed uniform, while at the same time Scotty silently signals, “not now,” to her. Or Kirk's reaction as he realises the standard procedure he has agreed to is a phaser barrage on Halkan cities. Or the two security guards on the bridge guarding the turbo elevator doors as Uhura distracts Sulu; in the absence of senior officers one of them lounges and leers like a dime store hood while the other checks out Uhura.

To be really picky there is one scripting oddity at the end of the episode when Kirk asks Spock, “how long before the Halkan prediction of galactic revolt is realised?” and Spock responds as if this is something the pair have discussed during the course of the episode. Presumably this line refers back to something removed at the scripting, or film editing stage, and it stands out precisely because this sort of error is very unusual. Apart from that line, this is a flawless episode and it's easy to see why 45 years later Mirror, Mirror remains a touchstone for television writers.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. Deaths on the ISS Enterprise don't count (although I'm sure their loved ones miss them very much).
Running total: 30

The similarities between the Doctor Who story Inferno and Mirror, Mirror are remarkable. It's easy to assume Inferno borrows the parallel universe concept from Mirror, Mirror as Star Trek becomes an obvious influence on Doctor Who as the series moves through the early 70s. Which makes it all the more odd that the dates don't quite match. Mirror, Mirror was first shown on BBC1 on 15th June 1970. That's the Monday before the last episode of the seven part Inferno was broadcast on Saturday 20th. The first storyline for Inferno, which included the parallel universe idea suggested by producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, was requested on 27th November 1969 (while BBC1 was still showing the first series of Star Trek). Obviously the BBC must have held a copy of Mirror, Mirror by November 1969 and it's not impossible Letts and Dicks watched it, but why would they do this? It would open them up to being accused of plagiarism. It's more likely Terrance Dicks and Jerome Bixby both read The Man In The High Castle, or that Dicks saw Out Of The Unknown's adaptation of Random Quest which was broadcast on 11th February 1969.

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