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Star Trek: Mirror Universe – Shards & Shadows: The Greater Good by Margaret Wander Bonanno

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the movies with tie-ins around (and related to) the films. We’ll be doing one of these every week day. This is one such article.

If Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness proved one thing, it’s that it sucks to be Christopher Pike, in any universe. The first captain of the USS Enterprise not only had to wait until 1988 to see his pilot (The Cage) finally broadcast on television, he also got shuffled off-screen unceremoniously in the franchise’s first two-parter (The Menagerie) and was never really mentioned again. When JJ Abrams’ Star Trek introduced us to a rebooted Christopher Pike played wonderfully by Bruce Greenwood, he observed of George Kirk was captain of a starship for eight minutes. It seemed like Pike ended up in command of the Enterprise for only slightly longer than that.

It seems that even mirror!Pike can’t catch a break, as Margaret Wander Bonanno demonstrates in her short little glimpse into how exactly mirror!James Tiberius Kirk took control of the ISS Enterprise.

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Bonanno is the author of what is probably the definitive Christopher Pike novel. Burning Dreams offered a stream of consciousness exploration of Pike’s life and career, playing out the character’s life as a grand tragedy about a decent man who was never quite what he could have been. Much like the character came so close to anchoring one of the most impressive multimedia franchises on the planet, Bonanno suggests that so much of his life ended up as a near miss – living a life in that “good, but not good enough” range.

So Bonanno makes a logical choice co contribute this story to the Shards and Shadows anthology, a collection of short stories set in and around Star Trek‘s rather (in)famous mirror universe. As you might expect, given the presence of mirror!Pike, it’s a prequel to the classic Mirror, Mirror, explaining how the psychotic mirror!Kirk came to control the ISS Enterprise. Given what we see of career advancement in the mirror universe, it isn’t too hard to figure out – but the key to a story like this is in the telling.

I’ll admit that I am, broadly speaking, lukewarm on the whole “mirror universe” concept. I think Mirror, Mirror is a classic piece of television science-fiction, and I think that Crossover, Resurrection and even In a Mirror Darkly used the concept surprisingly well. At the same time, I don’t subscribe to the idea that the mirror universe is strong enough to sustain its own story arc. The almost-once-a-year visits to the mirror universe on Star Trek: Deep Space often felt too disconnected from the “real” universe, as if losing sight of the fact that a mirror needs to reflect something.

If you allow the mirror universe to tell its own distinct stories, then you lose sight of the original thrill of the concept – seeing familiar characters warped by unfamiliar circumstances. Is there any of the Indendent to be found in Major Kira? Could Kirk’s recklessness manifest itself in the violent psychopathy of his counterpart? What happens when Odo’s need for order is nurtured inside a fascist system? Is Spock’s basic decency a pan-dimensional constant?

The weaker of Deep Space Nine‘s mirror episodes (Through the Looking Glass, Shattered Mirror and The Emperor’s New Cloak) lost sight of this. That’s not to suggest that the mirror universe can’t be a place with its own fascinating stories and character arcs, but an acknowledgement that it is – by its nature – a “reflection” of our regular universe. It’s an interesting vehicle to ponder about what constants exist across universes, what details are flexible and sometimes even whether a given character can pull off a snazzy goatee.

So The Greater Good focuses on the mirror counterparts of two Enterprise captains. I’m quite fond of Bonanno’s interpretation of mirror!Kirk, if only because she has relatively little to go on. This evil doppelganger appeared in Mirror, Mirror, but only as a raving lunatic. Exposition from the episode revealed that this version of Kirk had risen through the ranks by killing his superior, suggesting a rather bloodthirsty attitude.

Bonanno’s mirror!Kirk is a lunatic, very easy to reconcile with the shouting and screaming maniac on the transporter pad of the Enterprise. He’s a bit more composed here, but only because he remains in control of the situation. Bonanno takes the attributes we associate with Kirk – the arrogant, the recklessness, the ambition – and twists them just a little bit. mirror!Kirk has those same attributes, but less control of himself and less moral restraints to burden his ascent.

(In a nice touch, I do like that even mirror!Kirk seems content to command a starship. He doesn’t want to be emperor or anything. This is, on one hand, a very logical way of dealing with the fact that there’s no reason for Kirk to simply remain captain of the ISS Enterprise while holding the Tantalas Field, unless he wants to. On the other hand, it’s also a nice way of suggesting that somethings about Jim Kirk remain constant – he doesn’t want anything more than command of his own ship and crew.)

Bonanno writes a convincing psychopath, one who seems to genuinely enjoy murder. A colleague can’t turn their back on mirror!Kirk without prompting the character to remark on how inviting a target they make. Old friends calling in favours only cause him to count down the minutes until they become expendable. While there is that same raw hatred and uncontrollable anger glimpsed in Mirror, Mirror, Bonanno does offer us a version of mirror!Kirk who makes a believable star ship commander.

Bonanno also rather smartly ties the story to the “proper” Star Trek history, reinforcing the idea that we are watching a mangled reflection of a story we know so well. The author puts her own twist on Obsession and Dagger of the Mind, rather smartly twisting those shows around and using the different events to help sketch a quick and efficient glimpse of mirror!Kirk as a character. Bonanno’s stream-of-consciousness style helps here, as the story shifts between varying perspectives in a way that allows her to cover a lot of ground very quickly. It’s occasionally disconcerting, but it does allow the author to give this relatively short story an impressive scale.

And then there’s mirror!Pike. Bonanno wasn’t the first writer to hit on Pike as an inherently tragic character. (The Menagerie, of course, gave us the defining image of Pike in a wheelchair unable to communicate beyond “one beep for yes and two beeps for no.”) However, she plays to that idea rather well. There’s a sense that Pike was the almost captain, the guy who almost became one of the most iconic characters in popular culture, but stumbled out of the gate.

Despite the fact that most of the mirror universe characters are pretty reprehensible reflections of idealised heroes, Pike remains a tragic figure even here. In Burning Dreams, Bonanno suggested that Pike was haunted by his experiences in The Cage, and that he never quite recovered. The Greater Good makes this somewhat more literal for mirror!Pike. Which fits this universe quite well, given that the mirror universe is hardly subtle.

“Where before Pike had been as ruthless as the next man, crushing his adversaries, stepping over his peers,” we’re told, “he had come back from Talos IV a changed man—hesitant, soft, indecisive, and a drunk.” In a rather cruel twist on a character-establishing scene from The Cage, Bonanno suggests that mirror!Boyce still serves as mirror!Pike’s bartender as much as his doctor – the irony being that mirror!Boyce doesn’t want mirror!Pike to share with him.

While Bonanno’s version of the mainstream Pike never really became all that he might otherwise have been, there’s something quite pathetic about the mirror version’s insecurity:

Without Boyce and his concoctions to kill the pain, he had been to the core of himself, a weak-willed pretty boy pushed to the front of his graduating class at the Academy ahead of far more capable men, not on the basis of achievement or guile or even family connections but because he was charming and he photographed well, and Starfleet needed a wholesome-looking poster boy to counter the stories of corruption at every level, officer assassinating officer, incompetence leading to ships lost with their entire crews.

It’s the same net effect – a man who never made the mark on history that he should have made – but the mirror universe version offers an especially cruel twist.

There’s a particularly cruel irony in mirror!Pike’s fate here, as it works beautifully as a metaphor for the character’s somewhat precarious situation – never quite having his own story or tale to tell. Here, mirror!Pike is denied a burial, and arguably even a death. Like his “real” counterpart, he just ceases to exist so that Kirk can be captain of the Enterprise. (The same fate awaits Number One.)

The Tantalus Field in Mirror, Mirror was an effective metaphor for the capacity of dictators to “disappear” those who might cause trouble. It is more than just murder and disposal, it’s a powerful ability to erase any trace of an individual. mirror!Kirk’s use of the Tantalus Field to silence any hint of dissent is a literal expression of the power so many madmen hold over their subjects, who can make adversaries simply fade into the night so that they might never be heard again.

Bonanno uses the Tantalus Field here as something a bit different. It isn’t a potent stand-in for dictatorial fiat, but  is instead a nullifier used to provide the most ignominious of ends. Rather tellingly, mirror!Kirk only uses the device as something of a last resort. He doesn’t use it to clear his way to mirror!Pike, for example. The weapon isn’t merely a tool to carve his way to the heart of the ship. It is a statement to be made about the victims – in this case mirror!Pike and mirror!Number One.

I like Bonanno’s characterisation of mirror!Spock here, even though he’s pushed very much to the periphery of the story. Bonanno uses the characters to make some telling observations about our own regular version of Spock. mirror!Kirk wonders if mirror!Spock might be using him to manoeuvre his way closer to the command chair, prompting Marlena to note, “I don’t think he wants that.” It is good to know that no version of Spock seems to long for command, a characterisation consistent with the regular version of the character.

The Greater Good is a lovely and atmospheric short story which provides a nice glimpse into the minds of mirror!Pike and mirror!Kirk. It’s about as substantial as a story of this length could be, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at two very dark reflections of two familiar characters.

Check out our reviews of JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek series:

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