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The Mirror Universe is one of the more memorable concepts of the Star Trek franchise. It gave audiences “evil” versions of their favorite characters. While specific details might not be remembered as well to the public at large (or even Star Trek fans), the image of Spock with the goatee is firmly established in pop-culture as the go-to image of an evil counterpart with several homages and parodies done in a variety of other shows and movies such as Futurama and Stargate SG-1.
But what made the “Mirror” episodes so popular? If you look at the original (and only) entry from the original series, the story is nothing remarkable. Kirk and company swap places with their evil counterparts from a parallel world and have very little time to find a way back before being discovered. Kirk then lectures Mirror Spock about how they are wrong. It is very straight forward, but it left a lasting impression. Why?
It probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was so different from most of the other Star Trek episodes of that time. By the time “Mirror, Mirror” aired, Star Trek had a type of formula to itself. Not so much in the storytelling, but there was a general feeling on how characters would act and how a situation would resolve itself. Going into another world, the writers and actors could disregard all of that and go crazy. Mutanty and death are commonplace and accepted. Sulu is, basically, a screwed pirate lusting after Uhura. Starfleet is an invading force willing to destroy a planet when it doesn’t get what it wants. It is the complete opposite of what one would expect. Plus, the actors are clearly having a lot of fun playing around with these alternate versions of their characters. That is really the selling point of all of this.
“Mirror, Mirror” was enduring. The original series never revisited it either. In that way, it made the concept unique and fondly remembered.
Surprisingly, The Next Generation never ventured into the Mirror Universe. I guess it isn’t surprising as it was reported that the writers of TNG were actively avoiding things from the original series to carve out their own identity. There is a novel, Dark Mirror, where Picard and crew encounter their Mirror counterparts, but that had no bearing on the show.
The Mirror Universe came back in a big way on Deep Space Nine. With the exception of the first and fifth season, the Mirror Universe made an appearance every year. And, like the Borg on Voyager, DS9 somewhat ruined what made the Mirror Universe special. It started out okay with the episode “Crossover”, where Kira and Bashir find out what happened after Kirk returned, but the longer the story went on, the less plausible it all became. It seemed like the writers were trying a bit too hard to give reasons on why the DS9 crew kept running amuck of the Mirror Universe. By final DS9 Mirror entry, “The Emperor’s New Cloak”, it just seemed to become a parody of itself.
DS9 also introduced an idea that all the female Mirror characters were either lesbians or bisexual. Having homosexual characters is fine, but the execution of it felt half-hearted and thrown in there for a light laugh at best (or to titillate the audience at worst). It was just all around awkward. Then again, it was the ‘90s, and while the desire for movies and TV shows to introduce gay characters was strong, writers really didn’t do too good of a job of it.
Voyager didn’t do a Mirror episode. This likely had to do with how DS9 directed the story making a mirror Voyager episode impossible. However, the show did do an episode where we saw “evil” versions of the crew in “Living Witness”, and it was a lot of fun. Kate Mulgrew, in particular, is having the time of her life playing a complete 180 version of Janeway.
With DS9 running the Mirror Universe into the ground, I was surprised to hear that Enterprise was going to dive into it. I suppose it made sense. With that show being a prequel, you can style it like the classic “Mirror, Mirror”. I was even more surprised that the show stretched it into a two-parter. I’m not sure “In a Mirror, Darkly” needed to be two parts, especially so close to the end of the series (it seemed like such a detour), but they did cover a lot of ground and appealed to the inner fanboy. Beyond the general Mirror Universe fun, the episodes featured the Tholians, Gorn, and the aesthetics of the original series (through costume and set designs). Unfortunately, the episode ended on a slight cliff-hanger which will never be resolved. Personally, I am okay with that as I would hate for the novelty of the Mirror Universe be diluted again.
At the end of the day, what I take away from the Mirror Universe episodes is that they are fun, but only in small doses. Leaving the audience wanting more (as Voyager, and to an extent, the original series did) is the best way to go. The original episode is still a classic within the Star Trek canon. The others are not as much given that nearly all of them play off the nostalgia of “Mirror, Mirror”.
Whatever your opinion is of the Mirror Universe, one thing is for certain: goatee Spock is the best Spock that can be.