Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Advent Of The Alternate Universe With Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror!"

The Good: Great concept, Wonderful acting, Mood, Effects/Costumes, Character work
The Bad: You know what? None!
The Basics: When four members of the Enterprise crew end up in a ruthless alternate reality, they struggle to return home before being killed in a perfect episode of Star Trek!

In the history of television, there are very few series' that have more than one perfect episode. Indeed, there are a plethora of television series' where the show never even comes close to a perfect piece. Star Trek hits perfection a few times, but not as many as I might have thought before I began honestly reviewing them. And for me, the effects are not a big deal, so it's not like I'm advocating the Remastered versions of the episodes. But sometimes when I sit down to write these reviews, I write the pros and the cons and I realize that I've stumbled upon something that is of such enduring greatness that there are no cons. In television episodes, that means a perfect episode to me. With Star Trek, one of the few episodes I would classify as "perfect" would have to be "Mirror, Mirror."

"Mirror, Mirror" is a strong science fiction episode that allows many of the characters to exist as part of a twisted character study to help viewers realize who our heroes truly are . . . and what they could be if history had been far more cruel!

When the U.S.S. Enterprise visits the Halkan homeworld to negotiate for much needed ore, they meet resistance from the Halkan Council. The Halkans are extreme pacifists and will not allow their planet to support war by proxy, such that they refuse to sell their ore to the Federation because StarFleet cannot guarantee that their ore would never be used to take even a single life. Frustrated at his failure to get the ore, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura beam up through an ion storm that has come between the Enterprise and the Halkan planet.

The four officers beam aboard the Enterprise, the I.S.S. Enterprise, a starship populated by vicious killers, conniving backstabbers and corrupt mercenaries. They encounter First Officer Spock, the ruthlessly efficient second in command, who prepares to execute the Imperial Standing Order whenever resistance is met; he prepares to bomb Halkan cities. Kirk stalls for time while he, Scotty, McCoy and Uhura try to figure out where they are, what has happened and how to get back home. They soon reason that they have passed over into an alternate universe, a universe where officers advance by killing their superior officers and Kirk finds that Chekov and Sulu are chomping at the bit for promotions! Kirk and his team work to survive long enough - with the aid of the Captain's Woman, Marlena - to figure out how to get home, a prospect that looks dimmer with each passing moment!

"Mirror, Mirror" truly does go where Star Trek had not yet gone before this. The idea of other universes had not so much been discussed even and the illustration of one with this episode is intense and dark. This is an episode that, despite being high science fiction, is riveting and dramatic. It has a science fiction concept, an action-adventure sense of pace and tone, and a classic dramatic character exploration. And writer Jerome Bixby and director Marc Daniels pull it off masterfully!

The reason this episode is so popular - other than the very cool image of Spock with a goatee and a methodical attitude best suited to delivering pain - is that it very clearly and effectively establishes a strong sense of setting and characters. The Mirror Universe (as it is known in the canon) is a distinct place where things are opposite of how they are in our universe. As a result, the peaceful Federation is an oppressive Empire. Instead of promotions based on merit, they come at the point of a gun and the tip of a knife. And instead of loyalty, it's very much every man for himself.

But Bixby makes the episode far more complicated than that and while non-Trek fans may appreciate the reversals and the sense of place, it is the true fans that will get the most out of "Mirror, Mirror." Bixby is attentive to character and the reversals played with in the episode work because not all of them are in-your-face overt. So, for example, through seeing the avaricious and dangerous Security Chief Sulu, we come to understand that the Sulu we know seems very content with his place as chief helmsman and is generally one of the most reliable and safest crewmembers aboard the Enterprise. Similarly, Uhura in our universe - outside singing in the mess hall - is virtually a model of chastity (outside "The Man Trap," where we see her ideal man). In the alternate universe, to blend in, she has to play the vixen. The character twists are intriguing and often compelling. But more often than not, they help to reveal more about our principle characters than they would seem to at first glance.

It is worth noting that the costumes in this episode are the major special effect. The alternate universe uniforms are sexier for the women (hard to believe given how little they wear on the Enterprise!) and tighter and more regal for the men. The weaponry the characters all carry in the alternate universe has a wicked look to it and outside the notion of how the crewmembers transported to the alternate universe, but their clothes remained in the home universe, this episode is a masterwork of attention to detail. And on a visceral level, it just looks cool!

It is the acting that sells "Mirror, Mirror" to its full potential and this might well be the best ensemble work Star Trek does in the television series. People often tend to forget that Star Trek only starred William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and in two of the three seasons DeForest Kelley. Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), George Takei (Sulu), James Doohan (Scotty) and Walter Koenig (Chekov) were recurring and were billed in the closing credits as "Also Starring!" But here, each of the seven performers gets their moment. Indeed, while DeForest Kelley is largely ignored until a pivotal scene near the end and James Doohan and Leonard Nimoy essentially play their same characters (honestly, outside the goatee, Mirror Universe Spock is virtually identical to our Spock!), the others truly shine.

The truly notable performances come from Nichelle Nichols and George Takei. In the Mirror Universe, Sulu has his eye on Uhura and is happy to be unprofessionally frisky with her while Kirk and Spock are away from the bridge. Nichelle Nichols does a masterful job of playing Uhura first scared and then in control of her fear as she has to confront Sulu. Nichols emotes with her eyes and the entirety of her body language to make both of the performances distinctive, yet within character. And Takei, Takei manages to twist his good-natured smile into the most horrid leering smirk one might imagine to characterize the alternate universe Sulu even better than the scar the make-up department puts along his face.

And William Shatner delivers as Captain Kirk, though for the majority of the episode he is playing Kirk as a fish-out-of-water character trying to adapt to the new setting. Shatner's most impressive moments come when he acts opposite Barbara Luna, whose outing in Star Trek as Marlena is one of the more risque characters Star Trek created. Shatner and Luna have wonderful on-screen chemistry and they play their scenes of seduction and anger on just the right side of melodrama to make their characters distinctive.

"Mirror, Mirror" may well be a strong science fiction piece and work within the conceits of science fiction, but it is accessible to anyone and unless someone is rabidly against anything remotely creative, there is something for any adult to enjoy in this episode! It truly is one of the best episodes Star Trek did and it deserves to be enjoyed by all audiences.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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