(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)
Original Air Date: October 6, 1967
Crew Death Count: 0 (but five henchmen are killed in the mirror universe)
Finally, we get to the episode that inspired the bellybutton count, and one that may accidentally reference more previous TOS episodes than any other. This week, the Enterprise has traveled to the Halkan system seeking a new dilithium source. The Halkans, dedicated pacifists, decline the request on the basis that, regardless of Starfleet’s current intentions, the crystals may be used toward violent ends in the future. (“The future is always in question.”) When the landing party – Kirk, McCoy, Scott, and Uhura – beams up during an ion storm, all four individuals are swapped with their counterparts in a sinister mirror universe, where an evil empire operates instead of the Federation. All four officers must avoid decimating the Halkans for their principled stand (standard practice in the Empire), deflect assassination attempts (a primary method of officer promotion), and conceal their identities until they can return to their own universe.
In real life, evidence of alternative realities may or may not exist. As one of the Tor TOS rewatchers pointed out, physicist Hugh Everett III proposed a many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics in 1957, in which alternative events may spin off into different universes than our own. Contemporary physicists debate the existence of parallel universes in terms far over my head, but the alternate universe in “Mirror, Mirror” is depicted convincingly, with subtle and obvious differences that lend credibility to the premise. The captain’s chair has a taller back, the Enterprise design is slightly different, and the Empire’s logo – a sword piercing the earth – is everywhere. Compared to the normal universe, where dereliction of duty is tolerated (remember Stiles in “Balance of Terror”?), in the mirror universe even relatively minor errors are penalized with an agonizer, a device that inflicts brutal pain on the recipient. (For crying out loud, don’t tell Jeff Bezos about this.) And while betrayal is another day at the office in the normal universe (remember McGivers in “Space Seed”?), gross insubordination in the MU results in a trip to the agony booth, a phone booth-sized compartment that’s true to its name; mirror-Chekov screams in, well, agony, when he’s sent there after a failed attempt on Kirk’s life.
The MU characters are also portrayed in a way that not only creates a believable alternate reality but also gives us more appreciation for their normal universe equivalents. Mirror-Sulu has a long scar on his face. Spock has a goatee. The men wear sashes on their uniforms and the women simply wear much less uniform. Mirror-Spock is still the science officer, and prefers scientific duties over life-and-death imperial politics, but also demonstrates a more active leadership role, similar to Riker’s status in TNG. He also has a Vulcan bodyguard, the first time we see another Vulcan serving on the Enterprise. Mirror-Spock still plays 3D chess, but mirror-Kirk has no books in his cabin, which may explain why he only thinks in terms of wealth and power when he tries to gain Spock’s confidence in the normal universe. Mirror-McCoy, apparently, is still an old country doctor pacifist, as mirror-Spock calls him “sentimental” and “soft.” (Mirror-Spock is not surprised when McCoy risks being trapped in the MU to save him.) Once they understand their situation, Kirk immediately puts his landing party to work as a team, something clearly foreign to the always-shifting alliances of the MU. It’s significant that the normal-universe characters master the MU fairly quickly, while their MU equivalents are just as quickly tossed in the brig, posing little threat to anyone.
As the most prominent MU character, mirror-Spock is even more coldly dedicated to duty than normal-Spock: while normal-Spock was quick to lobby for Mitchell’s death in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” mirror-Spock goes so far as to say, “Terror must be maintained or the Empire is doomed. It is the logic of history.” (This gives the mirror universe a very different history than ours, where terror-based regimes never endure in the long run.) Normal-Spock has been clear that he doesn’t always approve of humans, yet remains a loyal Starfleet officer; mirror-Spock seems equally committed to the Empire. Yet normal-Spock possesses considerable compassion, as we’ve seen in “The Devil in the Dark” and “The Menagerie,” and mirror-Spock ultimately demonstrates the same quality when he violates regulations to warn Kirk of a pending assassination, and when he helps the landing party return to their own universe.
In addition to these elements that lend continuity to the series, there are some fairly direct references to previous episodes. We learned about the existence of at least one parallel universe in “The Alternative Factor.” Transporter technology caused an “alternate-person” disaster in “The Enemy Within.” (Indeed, it was no doubt thanks to “The Enemy Within” that Spock immediately knows the mirror-landing party members are not ill but complete strangers to these parts: “The four of you will remain here in the brig and in custody until I discover how to return you to wherever it is you belong.”) Mirror-Sulu’s scar is consistent with the swordplay passion he demonstrated in “The Naked Time.” And while the Tantalus Field – the all-seeing death-machine that mirror-Kirk has used to achieve power – is credited to “some unknown alien scientist and a plundered laboratory,” we can’t help but think of the neural neutralizer on Tantalus V in “Dagger of the Mind.” The neural neutralizer erased the victim’s memories, whereas the Tantalus Field goes further and erases the entire person. Both promote forgetfulness as strategy.
Just as good and evil seem inverted in the MU, so the series’ conventional misogyny becomes unpredictable. When mirror-Kirk’s concubine Lt. Marlena Moreau (Barbara Luna) – at least, that’s how she sees herself – expresses doubt about her status in Kirk’s life, he (normal Kirk) asks, “How does Marlena want to fit in?” When Moreau thinks Kirk is abandoning her, she plans to seek out another captain to latch onto, as if trailing a male leader is the only option available to her. Kirk reassures her and urges her to seek her own path: “You could be anything you want to be.” Uhura is depicted as overly nervous and delicate early in the episode, but by the end she becomes first a temptress, distracting mirror-Sulu while Scott alters the transporter for return, then a warrior, wielding a knife and fending off mirror-Sulu’s advances. And while Kirk orders Uhura to create the distraction, the strategy against Sulu is entirely hers. She also doesn’t hesitate to join in the four-against-one combat with mirror-Spock when the landing party attempts their escape. Sadly, the episode’s final shot shows Kirk hitting on normal universe Moreau (“She just seems a nice, likeable girl.”), bringing the MU’s “women-as-prey” mentality into the normal world. It’s a dismal end to an otherwise thought-provoking episode.
The midriff-baring women’s uniforms are the most visible gender-specific aspect of the MU. The wardrobe seems tame by 21st century standards, but this was a fairly radical departure for 1960s American television. Historically, Western culture has had issues with navel display, particularly by women. (And the rest of the world? Midriff-baring attire has long been popular in India as a symbolic expression of birth and life, and a reference to the source of life in the navel of the Hindu god Vishnu. Furano City in Japan has been hosting an annual Belly Button Festival since 1969.) The Motion Picture Production Code, enforced in the U.S. from 1934 to 1968, prohibited display of female bellybuttons in theatrical releases. This led to a double-standard of costumes that showed off nearly every other part of the female anatomy but covered the navel. Joan Collins satisfied censors by wearing a ruby in her bellybutton in Land of the Pharaohs (1955); TOS used a similar trick in “Shore Leave.” Ursula Andress in Dr. No (1962) was one of the first women to show her navel in a major theatrical release, while Yvette Mimeux was the first on network television, in a 1964 episode of Dr. Kildare (1961-1966). There is some debate about how the scandalous outfits worn by Uhura and Moreau were sneaked past NBC’s Standards and Practices monitor: either a long lunch with the crew or on-set distraction by writer and Star Trek historian Bjo Trimble. Whether or not the provocative wardrobe of “Mirror, Mirror” indicates progress is a matter for debate, but I would argue choice is the deciding factor: are the women in the MU clothed by their men, as Moreau’s status implies, or is sexuality one of the tools available to manipulate their male counterparts, as indicated by Uhura’s strong role on the bridge?
Despite the many differences between normal and mirror realities, the Halkans remain oddly identical in both universes. It’s never clear why they are still pacifists in the mirror universe, but Moreau’s comments about Kirk offer a clue. Assuming him to be her own mirror-Kirk, she reacts with surprise to normal-Kirk’s gestures of affection and compassion, not because he seems like a different person, but because he seems more like the man mirror-Kirk used to be. Mirror-Kirk was once more like our Kirk. (“I remember when you used to talk that way,” Moreau says.) Is it possible the mirror universe is not so mirror after all, and one or more events triggered a turn to darkness? We know, from “The Enemy Within,” that Kirk has a truly horrible person inside him, implying the other characters have an equally sinister potential. Maybe the mirror-Halkans simply managed to avoid whatever corrupted the Federation/Empire? Either way, in the normal universe, the Halkans represent the polar opposite of the mirror universe, the positive alternative that can draw the Federation (and the rest of the galaxy) away from darkness. It’s no coincidence that the Halkans apply bindi to their foreheads, the ancient symbol of unity and wisdom.
It’s worrisome that Kirk gives mirror-Spock control of the Tantalus Field, essentially urging mirror-Spock to take control of the Enterprise by assassination. This could sustain the very repression Kirk seeks to end. On a more positive note, however, Kirk leaves the MU with a logical appeal to mirror-Spock: “The illogic of waste, Mr. Spock. The waste of lives, potential, resources, time.” Kirk reminds him that history is not accidental, but the collective outcome of individual choices. Even mirror-Spock agrees that the scheming and violence of the MU is wasteful and will ultimately cause it to collapse on itself, as all empires ultimately do. “I submit to you that your Empire is illogical because it cannot endure,” Kirk says. “I submit that you are illogical to be a part of it.” Kirk urges mirror-Spock to become an early adopter and get on the right side of history now. “If change is inevitable, predictable, beneficial, doesn’t logic demand that you be a part of it?”
As they say on Battlestar Galactica, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” By coincidence, I rewatched “Mirror, Mirror,” on January 20, 2021. The contrast between the relentless repression of the past four years and the hopeful, all-inclusive Biden/Harris inauguration was a reminder that, as preposterous as the mirror universe might seem, societies all too easily normalize cruelty that would have been unimaginable only a short time before. The truth is, our own mirror universe has been right in front of us all along, from slave auctions of the 1600s, to child factory labor of the 1800s, to contemporary murders of unarmed Black Americans by corrupt law enforcement, and the terrorist assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. We joke about the agonizer and the agony booth at our own peril: are they that different from whips, attack dogs, fire hoses, and tear gas? Unlike the mirror universe of Star Trek, our own reflected reality is not a separate universe, but the summation of all of us: every vote, every purchase, every raised fist, and every written word. It all happened before, and it is all still happening. Repression in all its forms exists because we allow it, and our only hope is to take to heart Kirk’s message at episode’s end: “What will it be? Past or future? Tyranny or freedom? It’s up to you.”
Next: The Apple