Parallel universes are a sci-fi mainstay, but ever since TOS, Star Trek has focused on one particular alternate reality – the so-called “mirror universe”. First seen in the original series episode Mirror, Mirror, the mirror universe later showed up in episodes of DS9, Enterprise and Discovery.
To give you an idea of how long some of these articles get queued up in my backlog, I have to admit that I’ve been meaning to write about the mirror universe since before the big reveal in Discovery season one. Yes, thanks to my Great Star Trek Rewatch, I was thinking about the mirror universe before it went mainstream.
The premise of the mirror universe is simple – all the same characters as the so-called prime universe in which most of Star Trek takes place, but essentially darker and more evil. Through the 22nd and 23rd century, humanity and its allies form the Terran Empire, a cruel dictatorship where subjugation and assassination are the order of the day. The ISS Enterprise, for example, is home to the cruel Captain Kirk, his sadistic and murderous chief of security Chekov, the lecherous Sulu, and the bearded Spock. The women’s uniforms leave their midriffs exposed, and everyone has a weapon to hand.
By the 24th century, the Terran Empire has fallen, and humans are slaves to the new power in the quadrant – the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance. Intendant Kira Nerys of Terok Nor is a voracious sexual predator, whilst Regent Worf is a violent sadist. It takes a visit from prime universe Bashir and Kira to spark a Terran rebellion that we periodically revisit throughout the remainder of DS9.
But what exactly is the mirror universe? It’s presumably meant to be a parallel reality that diverged from the prime universe at some point in the past. From the opening of In A Mirror, Darkly, in which first contact involves humanity shooting the first Vulcans that land on Earth, we know that the divergence must predate 2063. And yet, some 300 years later, the mirror universe and the prime universe still share common characters. Somehow, despite vastly different timelines and events in the two universe, the same people are meeting each other, getting together, and conceiving children at pretty much the same time. When you factor in the extremely high mortality rate in the mirror universe, this fact becomes even more extraordinary. From the DS9 episodes alone, for example, we know that mirror Jake Sisko, Molly and Kirayoshi O’Brien will never exist.
For that matter, among all possible parallel realities, why is the mirror universe so special? In the episode Parallels, for example, we see lots of different realities, and yet the mirror universe seems to be accorded special treatment. Surely it’s just one of many mirror universes.
After thinking about the general implausibility of the mirror universe for a while, I can only conclude one thing – it is created and maintained by the Q continuum. How else could it continue to have evil versions of prominent Star Trek characters for some 300 years? Mere coincidence simply can’t explain it. And what entertains a Q more than meddling with the lives of us lesser mortals?
Mirror Universe novels
Whilst on my mirror universe kick, I decided I needed more mirror universe based content than the TV series alone could provide. With that in mind, I selected a few tie-in novels to read, with mixed results.
Glass Empires is a selection of three novellas in one. Age of the Empress follows on from the events of Enterprise’s In a Mirror, Darkly, which concluded with Hoshi Sato seizing the throne of the Terran Empire. Now, armed with the prime universe Defiant, Empress Sato must hold onto power in the face of a betrayal by her Andorian consort, Shran.
Similarly, The Sorrows of Empire picks up where the original Mirror, Mirror left off, chronicling Spock’s rise to power and his reformation of the Terran Empire. His ultimate downfall at the hands of the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance is shown not to be a misstep, but part of a longer game which will ultimately lead to a stronger resurgence of the Federation races. Finally, The Worst of Both Worlds details the exploits of archaeologist and treasure hunter Luc Picard, who finds himself accompanying Dr Noonien Soong on a quest for the rumoured cybernetic life forms known as the Borg.
The first two novellas in this trilogy do a good job of picking up where their respective episodes left off, filling in some of the gaps between the events we see on screen. The Spock instalment is particularly strong in this regard, fleshing out the character of mirror Spock beyond just “prime universe Spock, but more bearded and evil”.
Given that these two stories are core to the mirror universe timeline, the inclusion of The Worst of Both Worlds feels like a bit of an anticlimax. Mirror Picard starts off as a cowardly collaborator who cares more about hunting down artefacts and relics than about the plight of his fellow humans. Nonetheless, he ends up having to rise to the occasion when the Borg are provoked into attacking the Alpha Quadrant. His companion on the quest, Mirror Soong, is a particularly annoying character, and the Borg deserve much better treatment than they get here. Personally, I would have preferred to just not have the Borg appear in the mirror universe at all.
Obsidian Alliances brings together another trio of mirror universe stories. The Mirror-Scaled Serpent focuses on the exploits of the mirror versions of the Voyager crew. Chakotay is captain of a ship of Terran rebels, with Harry Kim, Annika Hansen, Kate Janeway and Seska all serving on his crew. When the Caretaker brings Neelix and Kes to the Alpha Quadrant in order to save them from the Kazon, Kes’s telepathic powers see her end up in the custody of the sadistic Intendant B’Elanna Torres. Neelix convinces Chakotay that Kes must be retrieved, and a rescue mission is launched.
Cutting Ties details the origins of the mirror versions of Peter David’s New Frontier crew. M’k’n’zy of Calhoun is taken from his homeworld by the Romulans, but when he displeases the Praetor, he is sent to work in the Reman mines. Years later, he gets involved with half-Vulcan, half-Romulan Soleta, and they end up on a dangerous mission aboard the ship of the Thallonian Si Cwan.
Rounding out the trilogy is Saturn’s Children, which follows both the continuing efforts of the Terran Resistance under Miles “Smiley” O’Brien, and the fate of Intendant Kira Nerys. O’Brien is having difficulties asserting his authority in the face of the aggressive policies favoured by fellow leaders Bashir and Zek, whose arrogance might just endanger the entire Resistance.
After rather enjoying the Glass Empires collection, Obsidian Alliances felt like a real drop in quality. Setting stories in the mirror universe does allow Star Trek authors to step out of the wholesome and optimistic world of the prime universe, but the result is a downright uncomfortable and near incessant parade of gratuitous violence. B’Elanna is a sadist with a penchant for violating and maiming her human prisoners – particularly one Tom Paris. Harry Kim is a violent commando with near superhuman fighting prowess and an insatiable thirst for bloodshed. And when Saturn’s Children opened with Kira getting flung out of bed after being raped by Martok, I knew I wouldn’t be recommending this book to anyone. Even in the rare moments when the characters aren’t killing or violating each other, the writing is lazy and the characterisation shallow.
Shards and Shadows
Shards and Shadows is a collection of twelve short stories, a couple of which follow on from the events of the earlier novels. We check back in on the various characters from the different eras of Star Trek, from the exploits of Hoshi Sato to the continuing efforts of the 24th century Terrans to fight back against the Klingons and Cardassians. Again, the quality of storytelling isn’t amazing here. Highlights include the origin story for mirror Keiko, whilst a low point is learning exactly what an utter bastard mirror Riker is. Oh, and mirror Picard ends up at a secret brothel run by Lwaxana Troi. The mirror universe is an unsettling place indeed.