Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first and second seasons. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.
At the time, Crossover must have seemed like a very odd choice for a late-second-season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Of course, the mirror universe episodes would become a quasi-annual occurrence on the show, similar to the “O’Brien must suffer” adventures. However, in May 1994, it must have seemed like a really strange choice to do an entire episode as a sequel to a much-loved second-season installment of the original Star Trek.
Still, Crossover remains the strongest of Deep Space Nine‘s mirror universe episodes, most notably because it treats the rather absurd premise with a certain amount of weight and integrity, but also because it feels so delightfully weird.
It’s amazing how closely related Deep Space Nine is to the original Star Trek. The show never featured a guest appearance from any of the regulars on that show, but it still feels more firmly anchored in the adventures of James Tiberius Kirk than Star Trek: The Next Generation did. While The Next Generation would include a guest appearance from Scotty or Spock or Sarek, Deep Space Nine has been quite comfortable to wade into the geekier aspects of the show.
A few episodes earlier in the season, Blood Oath, for example, reunited the three most prominent Klingon guest stars from the original three-year run. The show’s general aesthetic harked back to the western atmosphere that defined the original Star Trek, with Michael Piller fond of describing the spin-off as “The Rifleman in space”, a riff on Gene Roddenberry’s famous description of the classic Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.”
And, to be fair, the mirror universe was hardly the most ridiculous plot point that could make a return. Mirror, Mirror is – quite rightly – one of the iconic episodes of the original Star Trek, to the point where giving a character a goatee is now television shorthand for “evil counterpart.” Although it had not been revisited on-screen prior to the broadcast of Crossover, it had become of fixture of the tie-in materials.
Mike W. Barr’s Mirror Universe Saga was published in 1984 is (rightly) regarded as one of the highlights of Star Trek comic book publishing. The Best of Trek published an entire timeline of the mirror universe in 1988. Diane Duane offered a Next Generation version of the mirror universe in Dark Mirror, released in hardcover only months before Crossover aired. So it isn’t as if Deep Space Nine is picking a relatively obscure concept to revive. It’s one of the stronger and more iconic ideas of the classic Star Trek television show.
So, on the surface, Crossover is really just a pulpy fun adventure where our heroes visit an alternate universe where everything they know is wrong. It’s an excuse for actors to have some fun with the roles they’ve spend the past year-and-a-bit establishing, and a chance to skew audience expectations a bit. It’s an invitation for Avery Brooks to go gloriously over the top, and for Nana Visitor to amp up the sex appeal. (Indeed, part of me suspects the genesis of Crossover was the charm of Dramatis Personae, which gave the actors similar free reign.)
And there is a delightfully surreal charm to all of this. Director David Livingston seems to spend half the episode shooting the mirror!characters from dutch angles, giving the impression of something familiar and yet a little “off.” The sets are dressed in a manner similar to Necessary Evil, but there’s something decidedly camp about the way that a spotlight seems to swoop down through ore processing, and the lights almost seem to strobe – like some creepy kinky nightclub, where the patron liberally administers pimp slaps.
This is, in short, a lot of fun. To be fair, I think Crossover works so well because it has a host of underlying ideas, but the camp theatricality overshadows the rest of the episode. It’s giddy awesome fun, but it’s giddy awesome fun layered over an engaging and intriguing story. However, that sense of fun becomes a problem when the show decides to begin an almost-annual pilgrimage to this alternate universe.
For all its overstated absurdity, Crossover is a pretty shrewd piece of television. The episodes building off Crossover never quite manage to capture that sense of canny intelligence, instead wallowing in the “hey! our cast are all large hams!” enthusiasm of it all. The subsequent mirror universe episodes often feel a little bit like watching a staff party, as actors and writers are given a temporary reprieve from the characters and grounding of the show to just play out some crazy adventures.
It’s no coincidence that the strongest post-Crossover mirror universe episode, Resurrection, is also the only installment in the saga that feels driven by character rather than a sense of “we’ve worked hard all year, let’s have some evil sexy fun!” Basically, it looks like the writers and producers looked at Crossover, identified the most obviously enjoyable part of the episode, and just ran with that. Which is understandable, because Crossover is very fun. However, it also sells the episode short.
Crossover is a very clever piece of Star Trek, arguably even shrewder for the decision to bury its commentary and criticism behind some outrageously overstated theatrics. Quite frankly, Crossover is a pretty damning criticism of the classic Star Trek television show, an exploration of how cultural norms have shifted since Kirk piloted the Enterprise out into the unknown to share his values with the wider universe.
It’s possible to argue that the original Star Trek had some imperialist undertones, perhaps betraying a fascination with empire in the popular consciousness of a nation that never really developed its own. In The Disjunctive Empire of International Relations, Leong Yew argues:
The misalignment of narratives in Star Trek, therefore, is to warn that textual connections are not so much with historical parallels as they are with the present mindsets, that specifically, Star Trek is an American cultural artefact that conveys a number of standpoints about imperialism. Imperialism with all is accompanying features of violence, colonisation, domination, and displacement is in today’s moral terms, considered an aberration of humanity. Yet, subtler but nonetheless rapacious actions of observation and the imparting of civilisation and modernity are held more positively. It is as if to say that retrospectively some aspects of imperialism were bad but others were good. Then there is also the persistence of nostalgia for or fantasy about establishing formal colonies and imperial travel that the US was, comparatively speaking, not a participant of. When reincorporated into the narratives of Star Trek, these contemporarised features of imperialism illustrate that far from making a departure from empire, the series was productive of it. Star Trek not only exemplified the ambivalence between the brute, physical violence associated with empire and the more ‘tolerable’ practices of imperial observation, but also in allowing for transformations to be made to ethical perspectives without giving up western fantasies of imperialism.
It’s an argument that is borne out by several of the “Kirk shows the natives how to live” episodes of the show, like The Return of the Archons or A Taste of Armageddon. (Errand of Mercy covers similar ground, but seems a lot more self-aware, almost criticising Kirk’s conduct.)
Even series writer David Gerrold has been quite candid about some of the shortcomings of Star Trek, especially when viewed through a post-colonial prism. In The World of Star Trek, he contends:
The mistake was that the Enterprise was a cosmic meddler. Her attitudes were those of twentieth century America – and so her mission was (seemingly) to spread truth justice and the American Way to the far corners of the universe. Star Trek missed the opportunity to question this attitude. While Kirk was occasionally in error, never was there a script in which the Enterprise’s mission or goals were questioned. Never did they run into a situation that might have been better off without their intervention.
To be fair to Gerrold, there were moments of criticism. Episodes like Errand of Mercy and A Private Little War were less than enthusiastic about Kirk’s meddling, even if the crew of the Enterprise was never really confronted with the consequences of a mistake.
In a way, Crossover serves as a belated criticism of those colonial undertones, revisiting a world where Kirk imposed his own values and then disappeared into history, leaving the population to pick up the pieces. The mirror universe setting is fun, because it allows the regular cast to have some fun, and because it’s already an iconic piece of Star Trek lore, but the show could just as easily had Kira and Bashir visit Beta III or the twin worlds of Eminiar VII and Vendikar. The implication is the same: James T. Kirk screwed up, and this is the result.
“It was quite a remarkable turnabout for his people,” mirror!Kira recalls of Kirk’s influence, recounting the history of this alternate world. Of course, she doesn’t fade to black with the crew congratulating themselves about how awesome they are. She fills in the gaps. “Unfortunately for them, when Spock had completed all these reforms, his empire was no longer in any position to defend itself against us.” The Klingons were never mentioned in Mirror, Mirror. They existed as an unknown quantity in this alternate universe. Kirk never considered the mid- to long-term consequences of converting a war-like empire to pacifism, never thinking beyond his own value system.
Writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe drew on world history in extrapolating this chain of events:
My analogy was to the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was as brutal and as nasty as it was because all around it, it had very aggressive barbarians that it was afraid of. The Chinese had the same thing, the Mongols were always there. So if you suddenly make the Romans nice guys, or the Chinese nice guys, well that’s great and everything, but then the Mongols come across and it’s all over. So that was kind of the idea, what was the mirror universe like a hundred years after Mirror, Mirror. Well, it might not be a very nice place.
It’s an absolutely beautiful twist on what had been a fairly optimistic ending to Mirror, Mirror.
Speaking of the Roman Empire, an obvious influence on the Terran Empire of the mirror universe, some historians would argue that the Empire was sustained by the willingness of its subjects to invest absolute and unquestioning power in the state, to the point where it was worshipped as a religion of itself:
The end result for the Romans was that they managed to create their own world and they called it the Roman Empire. And their world view became embodied in a pagan cult. This cult was nothing less than the patriotic worship of Rome itself. And throughout the Empire we find the expression Genius Populi Romani celebrated by all Romans. If anything sustained the Empire, it was the conception of the “Genius of the Roman People.” The Romans were taught to believe that the destiny of Rome was the destiny of the world and this became embodied in a civil religion which embraced the genius of the Roman people. This civil religion was a secular, pagan religion, in which all men devoted their energies toward public service to state. It was their duty to serve the state. It was virtuous. These duties consisted of service and responsibility because only through responsible service would one come to know virtue.
Eroding the worship of the state weakened the Empire, and made it more susceptible to collapse.
While his conclusions have drawn a great deal of criticism and debate, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remains one of the most influential studies ever written about the collapse of the Roman state. As Louis Crompton argues in Homosexuality and Civilisation, it’s possible to connect the rise of Christian humanism with the collapse of the Empire:
Rome’s decay has been ascribed to many causes: military, political, economic, epidemiological, demographic, or ecological. The most famous analysis, in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, made Christianity a major cause of the catastrophe. Gibbon thought that its Christian rules alienated Rome’s sizable pagan minority (who saw their sacrifices forbidden and temples destroyed) and that Christian otherworldliness turned men from their social and military duties.
The conventional narrative suggests that these humanist philosophies and ideals were so incompatible with the realities of Roman life that the state could not sustain itself, eroding the power of the Empire and leaving it ripe for conquest by powers lurking just outside. (It is worth noting that the argument is not universally accepted.)
The parallel grows even stronger when you consider that there’s quite a great deal of “bringing Christianity to the Romans” subtext in the second season episodes of the original Star Trek airing around Mirror Mirror. In Bread and Circuses, the usually atheist starship crew welcomes the arrival of monotheism on a world where the Roman Empire never fell. In Who Mourns for Adonais?, Kirk seems to have no patience for real honest-to-goodness Greek deities. (“Mankind has no need for gods. We find the one quite adequate.”)
Crossover dares to suggest that perhaps it isn’t as simple as introducing virtues and heroic ideals to another civilisation and hoping for the best. In essence, Crossover is Deep Space Nine‘s “Prime Directive” episode, an exploration of what happens when characters meddle with forces they don’t understand, even for the greater good. It’s just a wonderful irony that Bashir and Kira find themselves dealing with consequences of Kirk’s actions, leaving a world so scarred that it’s taken active steps to prevent anything like this from happening again.
In fact, mirror!Kira reveals that the mirror universe has its own twisted reflection of the Prime Directive, and has learnt to be wary of strange arrivals from other worlds. “After the first crossover, we were afraid that others might come to interfere in our affairs,” she explains. “It was decided then that if it ever happened again, we would promptly dispose of anyone who appeared from your side.” While the Alliance seems barbaric and cruel, that policy actually makes a reasonable amount of sense.
(I also like the fact that our version of Kira has absolutely no idea who James Tiberius Kirk is. It’s nice to get the sense that the universe could be so big that she’s never heard of the guy. After all, Kirk may have saved Earth quite a few times, but he never did anything from Bajor. Kira’s ignorance of a cultural icon is a nice reminder of just how relative all this is. Kirk was a heroic champion of human ideals. To Kira, he’s just another alien.)
What’s interesting is that Crossover presents a decidedly fractured version of an alternate universe. The reflection is no longer one-for-one. The mirror!characters in Mirror, Mirror could be accurately summed up by adding “… but eeeevil!” after their names, but that doesn’t quite work here. In The Doppelganger Motif in Science Fiction Film, Dennis Kogel and Iris Schafer suggest this hints at a more complex perspective on alternative universes:
While Star Trek takes a still very regressive stance towards the existence of multiple independent selves in the sixties, its view on the universe has become much more complex when it revisits the mirror universe in the Deep Space Nine episode Crossover. The universe is still a dystopia – the human totalitarian regime has been replaced by an alien one in which the humans are now enslaved – but Star Trek now very darkly reflects on its on converting message voiced through Kirk in Mirror, Mirror by making it the cause of the current distress. Due to Spock’s attempts to reform the Empire according to Kirk’s vision, the empire was overthrown and enslaved by alien races who now rule in an equally cruel way. The characters in the mirror universe are no longer simply dark copies of those from the Star Trek universe, but constitute personalities in their own right who are not simply dismissed as inferior or unfavorable by the crewmen passing over the threshold. The mirror selves’ divergences are attributed to their different environments and experiences and stress the importance of nurture for the character development and present identity as something fluid and changeable. As their attributes are not seen as universally good or bad (despite the conflict between Major Kira and her doppelgänger, Kira finds character traits in her double she admires) and they inhabit a space separate from the Starfleet crewmen, they become equal and dynamic counterparts to the characters from the Star Trek universe and in many instances complete rather than threaten their identity by showing them what they could have been.
Rather than being a direct like-for-like swap, Crossover invests a bit more effort in developing its characters, suggesting that our heroes are the product of their environment.
In Mirror, Mirror, the emphasis was on the lack of goodness in the mirror!characters. mirror!Kirk is an animal who is instantly figured out in the primary universe. mirror!Spock just needs more data so he can correctly figure out the difference between right and wrong. In Crossover, there’s a more ambiguous suggestion. It’s not that the characters are lacking in information or logic – indeed, the entire premise of the episode is that maybe Kirk’s arguments were illogical here.
Instead, these are characters shaped by their environment and circumstances. “Maybe it’s a fairy tale he made up,” mirror!O’Brien admits, “but it made me start thinking how each of us might have turned out if history had been just a little different.” In a way, that’s very fitting with the general philosophy of Deep Space Nine, exploring the relationship between characters and events – suggesting that sometimes institutions might fail, but people are people the whole universe over. Rather tellingly, O’Brien – the show’s most “every man” character – is the multi-universal constant. He’s always a put-upon engineer who will do the right thing.
That also says quite a lot about Deep Space Nine. In Mirror, Mirror, Spock was the universal constant. The episode implied that if you gave Spock the right arguments he would always reach the same conclusion, regardless of circumstance. Spock was the most evolved and most alien of the crew on the original Star Trek. In contrast, Miles Edward O’Brien is the most human cast member of Deep Space Nine. In a way, it’s the same idea we see recurring through the “O’Brien must suffer” episodes – O’Brien’s basic decency (and humanity) endures.
The mirror counterparts here are quite interesting, before the follow-up episodes reduced them all to two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. mirror!Kira is obviously the focus of the episode, and she becomes the centre upon which Deep Space Nine‘s mirror universe pivots. There’s a reason for that, of course. Nana Visitor is – as ever – very good. mirror!Kira just oozes raw sexuality, in her skin tight cat suit. Of course, the cat suit isn’t really any tighter or more revealing than the one Visitor wears every week. She just carries herself differently, creating an entirely different character.
mirror!Kira seems like a figure from the regular Kira’s nightmares. Kira has been fond of arguing for Bajoran influence and authority, trying to secure her small planet a place on the galactic stage and to secure the best possible deal for Bajor. mirror!Kira has secured that best possible deal. “We have become quite an influential power within the Alliance,” she boasts, giving us a version of Kira who isn’t just a collaborator but a leader of this hostile military force.
Interestingly, the “Alliance” seems to be a partnership of equals between the Cardassians and the Klingons. The Klingons move freely and hold important posts on the Cardassian station. If anything, the most senior Cardassian is a subordinate of the local prefect. In short, the “Alliance” seems like a genuinely multicultural organisation, complete with composite logo. In a way, it’s more like the Federation than the Terran Empire was. Make of that what you will.
We also get glimpses at various other characters. mirror!Odo is finally indulging the fascism that has been hinted at over the past two seasons, complete with pimp slaps and sarcastic humour. This version of the character appears to value order above the concept of justice, and he’s implicitly corrupt. Although Kira professes a fondness for him, he seems to be part of Garak’s conspiracy. “It’s a shame this is going to be your last night on the job,” he teases Bashir.
mirror!Odo is the kind of Odo we might have seen if he had never been allowed to grow into his own person. mirror!Kira expresses a fondness for the Changeling, but she describes him more as a rare collectable than anything approaching a friend or colleague. “He was the only one of his kind, the man you killed,” she admonishes Bashir. “Do you realise that?” Kira seems like she’s about to ramble on about how difficult he was to find, but she settles for informing Bashir of his operational efficiency. He wasn’t really a person, just a cog in the machine.
mirror!Quark is more overtly decent – perhaps he isn’t so much the direct opposite of our version of Quark as an alternative. Like our version of Quark, he’s a pretty terrible business man. Like our version of Quark, he’ll probably eventually do the right thing. Of course, this version of Quark is more overtly heroic. When Kira asks for his assistance, he only asks for “the ability to send others across” in return, implying his intent to open an underground rail road. It’s much more committed that our Quark’s decision to sell food to Bajoran slaves (mentioned in Profit and Loss), but he seems genuinely decent. This isn’t so much an opposite as another facet.
mirror!Sisko is particularly interesting – what with being the show’s lead character and all that. We discover in Through the Looking Glass that this version of Sisko was married, but never had a child. His marriage didn’t end with the death of his wife, but in simple divorce. This is a version of Sisko who never found the place where he belonged, who never found a way to channel his restlessness and frustration into something constructive. It’s a reminder of how – despite the tragedy of stories like The Maquis – Bajor has been good for Benjamin Sisko.
Although we don’t meet a mirror version of Bashir, Crossover is also a pretty solid episode for the good doctor. The Wire might be the best showcase for Bashir so far – providing a context where the character’s earnestness and enthusiasm seems heart-warming rather than irritating. Crossover isn’t nearly as effective, but it does make an argument that Bashir’s character is actually evolving. Just at a rather sluggish pace.
Most of Crossover is spent watching Bashir suffer, probably as penance for his jerkish behaviour in the runabout at the start of the hour. After all, the last time Kira and Bashir were in a runabout together, we got The Passenger, so at least Bashir’s annoying behaviour is consistent. A lot of this feels somewhat familiar, a side of Bashir we haven’t really seen since Armageddon Game – the over-earnest and slightly-desperate young man trying to earn the respect of his peers.
He’s overly personal and candid and awkward. “This is nice,” he tells Kira. “I’m glad we’re finally doing this.” When he admits that he’s glad they are “finally putting past conflicts behind [them]”, Kira mutters, “Making way for brand new ones.” And yet, despite all this, there’s a slight sense that Bashir really isn’t that bad a guy. He’s annoying, but well-intentioned. And he’s making an effort. When he asks to pick music for the journey, Kira complains that she only knows Bajoran music. He makes his choice, prompting Kira’s incredulous response. He knows Bajoran classical composers.
“I’ve made it a point to listen to Bajoran music ever since I arrived,” Bashir explains. It’s a nice character beat, easing Bashir away from the Federation boyscout who first arrived on Bajor to live out his fantasy of performing “frontier medicine.” Bashir doesn’t just treat the Bajorans as “natives”, but appears to be making some genuine effort to engage with and understand their culture. Of course, he’s still a bit of a jerk about it. “Tor strikes me as the best of the lot, really. Slightly derivative of the Boldaric masters of the last century but pleasantly diverting.”
Indeed, the climax of Crossover really pushes Bashir away from the order-following idealist we’ve come to know and respect. Bashir gets to act as a rebel leader, organising a slave revolt and killing mirror!Odo. When he recruits mirror!O’Brien to the cause, mirror!O’Brien wants to know is Bashir could take him back to the regular universe. “Starfleet would probably have a big problem with that,” Bashir notes, probably flashing back to that time in Battle Lines when he lectured Sisko about the Prime Directive. But he makes his decision, “To hell with them. Let’s go.”
It’s not the most fluid or logical character development. While Bashir has been broadening his horizons by hanging out with Garak and watching life on the station, it seems strange that he’s suddenly so rebellious. It’s a major and necessary part of Bashir’s evolution as a character, but it feels like Crossover brushes over that little arc. Given everything else that’s going on, it’s understandable. And given that The Wire is really the only time we’ve seen an episode use Bashir as a major player particularly well, I can understand Crossover‘s desire to push him to the background.
Crossover is a rather wonderful little episode, and a reminder of just how far Deep Space Nine has come in this recent run of episodes. The tail end of the second season is really a phenomenal stretch of television, the most consistently impressive the show has been to date. The fact that the series can offer something as odd as Crossover without missing a step is a pretty ringing endorsement of how rapidly the show has evolved.
- The Homecoming
- The Circle
- The Siege
- Invasive Procedures
- Supplemental: The Never-Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack
- Rules of Acquisition
- Necessary Evil
- Supplemental: Terok Nor #0
- Second Sight
- The Alternate
- Armageddon Game
- Playing God
- Profit and Loss
- Blood Oath
- The Maquis, Part I
- The Maquis, Part II
- Supplemental: The Maquis – Soldier of Peace
- The Wire
- Supplemental: A Stitch in Time by Andrew J. Robinson
- The Collaborator
- The Jem’Hadar
Filed under: Deep Space Nine | Tagged: Bajoran, Bashir, crossover, deep space nine, gene roddenberry, Julian Bashir, Kira, Michael Piller, Nana Visitor, Star Trek Original Series, star trek: the next generation, Star Trek:Deep Space Nine, StarTrek |