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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Dark Mirror by Diane Duane (Review)

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.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Dark Mirror was released a few mere months before Crossover was broadcast – one of those moments of pop culture synergy where it turns out that two different individuals can have the same idea, but with infinitely different nuance or emphasis. Indeed, the timing syncs up so well that Crossover actually aired between the hardcover and soft cover printings of Dark Mirror, suggesting that a return to the mirror universe was something of an inevitability for Star Trek, in one form or another.

Duane’s approach to the mirror universe is markedly different to that of writers Michael Piller and Peter Allan Fields, with both Dark Mirror and Crossover taking the ending of Mirror, Mirror and running with it in opposite directions. Piller and Fields used the aftermath of Kirk’s meddling as a means to explore the consequences of interference in a culture that Kirk didn’t quite understand – a mechanism to explore the way that the original Star Trek didn’t seem to grasp moral relativity, and to explore political complexities outside Kirk’s value system.

In contrast, Dark Mirror is a more philosophical meditation on the nature of good and evil, a more metaphysical exploration of a fictional world built around the concept of selfishness and strength, and how such a universe would have to work on different physical laws than that of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

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Dark Mirror is a superb read, one I was quite pleased to discover that Duane counts among her favourites of her own work. It plays into the same themes and ideas that Duane often returns to in her Star Trek work – those big philosophical questions that the shows handle so well. In this case, it’s an amble opportunity for Duane to play with the idea of narrative laws. After all, the very concept of an inherently “evil” alternate universe implies that “goodness” is some sort constant in the Star Trek universe, a physical property that defines the space inhabited by our regular characters, but something that varies across the multiverse.

Indeed, as a story set in the mirror universe, Dark Mirror actually spends relatively little time with the mirror universe counterparts of the Next Generation crew. Whereas Mirror, Mirror gets a lot of mileage out of “Spock with a goatee” and “psychopathic Sulu”, it seems like Dark Mirror is much more interested in how our characters react to these strange doppelgängers. To be fair, there are probably a multitude of reasons for this choice – the most obvious being that a lot of the fun of Mirror, Mirror was actually seeing the actors playing against type with details like body language and line-reading that would be difficult to render in text. (Consider Nana Visitor’s work in Crossover.)

It also means that the mirror universe becomes something a bit more interesting than the “place where crazy stuff happens” that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would eventually allow it to evolve into. Duane suggests that – beneath the cheesy camp sexiness of Mirror, Mirror – there’s actually something pretty horrific going on. In this respect, Dark Mirror hits on some of the stronger ideas of Crossover, ideas that got brushed aside a bit in later episodes. The focus isn’t on mirror!Picard, it’s on Picard coming to terms with the fact that there is some version of himself out there who could – in the right circumstances – become a monster.

There are hints of this in Kira’s reaction to the Intendant in Crossover, but it hasn’t ever really been explored on any of the live-action Star Trek shows. mirror!Archer’s psychological breakdown in Through a Mirror, Darkly, Part II comes close, but it’s played more for psychological suspense rather than outright horror. Duane imagines a mirror universe where our characters exist as more than hyper-sexualised ultra-violent scenery-chewing pantomime villains. Dark Mirror is about watching the cast of The Next Generation come to terms with the existence of a horror that is almost Lovecraftian – some dark impossible-to-parse universal truth lurking beneath something almost familiar.

In a way, this is Duane very cleverly playing to the biggest differences between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek was very much a pulpy science-fiction adventure show with some incredibly profound ideas. It explored the Vietnam War and the nature of existence, but it was also about Kirk wrestling with giant lizard men or seducing beautiful alien women or tearing his shirt strategically. In contrast, The Next Generation adopted a more intellectualised approach to these issues. Picard didn’t seem to make decisions without careful and rationalised discussions. Entire episodes were built around Picard debating alternatives before settling on a choice.

As such, Picard’s reaction to the mirror universe involves a lot less wrestling and love-making than Kirk’s brief intersection with this topsy-turvy world. Picard grapples with the implications of the existence of this world. Exploring the quarters belonging to mirror!Picard, our version muses:

How can that man —he was carefully avoiding using the word I, for that would be a fallacy, possibly a fatal one— how can that man do this and still be what he is? Or be what he is—and do this?

However, what’s really unnerving isn’t the difference between our version of Captain Picard and his alternate universe doppelganger. After all, it would be easier (albeit still quite difficult) to dismiss him as an entirely unique entity were they completely distinct beings who just happened to share the same face. Duane suggests that the similarities are the most disconcerting, as Picard finds a library of books that seem very familiar. It’s this revelation which affects Picard most profoundly:

He found that this shook him as badly as everything else, the whole barbaric world outside the doors of his quarters. Who am I here, he thought, that what I see here can so completely match what exists back on the—back home?

It’s not the “different” part of the “same but different” which is most disturbing. Horrors exist. They can be terrifying, but they remain external to us. Discovering that we are – or that we might be – the horror is something else entirely, a terror that is hard to quantify.

Duane’s approach to the mirror universe is quite different to that adopted by Fields and Piller – as evidenced by the different result of Kirk’s interference. To Fields and Piller, the mirror universe is an entirely different universe that just happens to look similar. In Crossover, mirror!Bashir and mirror!Dax were never on Terok Nor and mirror!Jake was never even born.

While Mirror, Mirror stressed the overlap between the two Enterprises, with both occupying the same space, Deep Space Nine and Terok Nor even occupy different parts of the Bajoran system. To Fields and Piller, it seems like Kirk miscalculated based on the similarities between his world and this mirror universe, and the mirror universe as seen in Deep Space Nine is less of a directly reflection and more of a dark alternate universe. (Despite the show’s adherence to the “mirror” naming convention.)

In contrast, Duane emphasises the mirror connection – pointing out that a mirror image is, by its nature, an inversion. When Picard wonders how the mirror!Enterprise could have known where to trap them, Data suggests that the alignment of the universes means that the two Enterprises will always be “in the same ‘sheaf,’” and their “movements can logically be expected to mirror each other’s much of the time.”

Which is, on a purely practical level, a brilliantly logical way of dealing with the logical problems created by the mirror universe. Questions like “how come everybody has a counterpart if their parents met at different times (or didn’t meet at all or never existed)?” or “how come everybody ends up in roughly the same position, despite different life paths?”

Duane’s solution to these problems winks at the nature of Star Trek as a fictional story. Indeed, her portrayal of the mirror universe as a direct moral inversion of the regular universe seems quite similar to the version of the Crime Syndicate of America that Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely would introduced in their Earth-2 graphic novel, presenting an alternate sueprhero world that worked on the opposite narrative laws.

This isn’t any alternative universe. It is something else altogether. In Dark Mirror, it’s revealed that Kirk failure to radically alter the structure of this universe wasn’t a result of his meddling a world radically different to his own. Instead, Duane suggests that there’s a “moral inversion” at play here, and the the defining feature of the mirror universe is that evil will always triumph over good.

Throughout Dark Mirror, Duane teases the point of divergence between the regular Star Trek universe and the mirror universe. At first, she hints that it might be down to the Eugenics Wars. As Picard browses the history of this other world, he observes:

And the rulers of that world looked out at space, considering that they had had a very close call. They looked into the darkness and saw, not a silent wonder to explore, but a replacement home, a way to make sure that they would never almost be wiped out again.

The Eugenics Wars would make a suitable starting point for a split, as they are the point at which our own history diverges from that of the Star Trek universe. They are the point at which Star Trek ceases to be an abstraction of our own history and becomes its own separative narrative entity. It’s where Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton give way to Colonel Green and Khan Noonien Singh. It’s the point at which the real world ends and the story begins, so it makes sense for the story to diverge at that point.

But that’s not entirely true, is it? Star Trek isn’t just a straight line from our present to an optimistic future. It’s an entire world view, a philosophy. Star Trek is built upon the idea that people are inherently selfless and decent and brilliant and incredible. In the real world, the really can be – but not as consistently and not as reliably. Duane hits on an interesting idea, teasing the audience with the fact that Star Trek isn’t a real universe that ever physically existed.

It’s a narrative universe – a story with its own rules and laws, as distinct from the laws of physics that govern our own world. One of those laws allows for the victory of good over evil, the triumph of right over wrong, the sense that – in the long term at least – the victory of the righteous is all but assured. Duane suggests that the mirror universe can’t be the result of a single point of divergence. Instead, it’s a fundamental inversion that extends as far back (and as far forwards) as possible.

It turns out that the differences are more than just circumstances or events changing the outlook of societies. It bleeds through into art and culture and myth and legend, an entire universe where selfishness and brutality are treated as constants:

After its time, though, something seemed to have started—a slow, relentless moral inversion. Kindness, compassion, charity, seemed to have been declared a waste of time; greed, violence, the survival of the fittest—in this case, the most ruthless—seemed to have been deemed more useful to a species “getting ahead in the world.” The perfect government, in Plato, was now one in which “fear is meted out to the populace in proper proportion by the wise ruler.” Civic virtue soon only mattered insofar as it served self-advancement. Acquisition, especially of power, but also of material goods and wealth—having, and keeping, at whatever expense to others—seemed to have become of paramount importance. It was a ruthless world, enthusiastically embodying the worst of many traits that humanity had been trying to shake for millennia. Some that had been shaken, in Picard’s own world, remained in full and evil flower here. In one spot and another, a little light of virtue, a kind deed or moment of pity, still shone through the prose. Shakespeare was not wholly lost; Kipling, idiosyncratic as always, was still himself; so was Aristotle. But the closer the books came to modern times, the more corrupt their philosophies seemed—and even the oldest ones betrayed him abruptly, for at the end of this universe’s Iliad, Achilles killed old King Priam while the pitiable old man was on his knees before him, begging in tears for the release of Hector’s body for the burial rites. The one time in the poem when that terrible man showed mercy, Picard thought, closing the Iliad and putting it down; that one moment of awful pain and humanity… But not here, it seems. Not here. There was no question, now, why the horrible events of this Earth’s twentieth and twenty-first centuries had produced the result they did. They were, perhaps, the final flowering of all this history: not a turning point, as he had thought, or a watershed, but rather the final roar of an avalanche that had started slowly, thousands of years before, in the slow settling of layer upon layer of coldheartedness and cruelty onto the high ground of the nature of Man.

This is pretty bleak stuff, and Duane manages to make the mirror universe more than just the camp setting for some out-of-character romp or even just a “there but for the grace of God…” cautionary tale. Instead, it becomes a perversion of the Star Trek ethos.

And yet, despite that, Dark Mirror remains a fundamentally optimistic work. After all, if the mirror universe is defined by the fact that greed will out, then the regular Star Trek universe must be a world where selflessness and hope will triumph. Despite the unsettling sense of “otherness” and a bump or two along the road (the capture of Geordi), it’s worth noting that our heroes triumph fairly handily in Dark Mirror.

The crew of the Enterprise are able to outwit and defeat their mirror!counterparts, despite being ambushed and attacked, and have practically masterminded their own escape before mirror!Picard or mirror!Troi have any idea what’s going on. Their greed and their lust and their arrogance makes them easy to predict and exploit.

mirror!Geordi is tricked by the promise of nookie; mirror!Troi is too busy scheming against mirror!Picard to realise he has been abducted and replaced. mirror!Barcley’s loyalty to his own advancement allows Picard to use him against the mirror!crew. There’s something very optimistic in all this, in the sense that Dark Mirror argues that the evil counterparts of our beloved characters lack the ability to function as a team.

Dark Mirror also plays into some of Duane’s favourite Star Trek themes, ideas the resonate across her work. There’s the notion that Starfleet and the Federation exist as a body solely devoted to exploration and the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake – that the Federation is constantly seeking new mysteries to probe, new worlds to explore. (This was, obviously, a large part of The Wounded Sky.)

Duane’s work tends to focus on the Federation as a body built around exploration and research, with her Star Trek novels even developing their own unique supporting cast, populated with genuinely diverse aliens that never could have been realised on sixties television. Dark Mirror contains a few of these wonderful Duane-esque touches, including a dolphin-like alien-researcher-of-the-week, and a subplot about string theory and the implications of string theory for our understanding of the universe.

It arguably also serves as a wry joke. With Worf’s fascination with human opera, Hwii’s ability to listen to the “sound” of the universe (being a space dolphin) and the suggestion of “vibrating” strings, Duane seems to be building a subtle musical metaphor. It feels wonderfully appropriate, as what is the mirror universe but… a “variation on a theme”? It’s not quite as strong a musical metaphor as The Music of the Spheres, but it’s definitely there in the background.

Even Hwii’s biology and the history of his people’s relationship with the Federation is defined in terms of exploration and navigation – around finding a way to explore more of the cosmos. He tells us, “Starfleet took us on as navigations-research specialists particularly because of our ability to know where we were without recourse to maps or charts. They thought that this would be a useful art to incorporate into a starship’s repertoire.” This is very in keeping with Duane’s vision of Starfleet, one extrapolated from the philosophy of inclusion that Roddenerry built into the franchise.

As such, the Terran Empire is defined as a marked contrast to the benign Federation – a structure rapidly expanding outside in search of conquest. It’s scientific advances mirror that of the Federation, only driven by an altogether different goal. The Empire is built on military expansion, relieving internal stress by extending further outwards. The difference, of course, is that the Federation’s expansion is sustainable; the Empire’s is not.

There will always be new worlds to be explored, new questions to answered, new challenges to be faced. However, there is a practical limit to imperial expansion, and Duane has the Empire face that in Dark Mirror, providing mirror!Picard with the same sort of existential crisis that often plagues his regular counterpart.

To quote the philosopher Hans Gruber, “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept; for there were no more worlds to conquer.” Duane stops just short of quoting it to the reader, but she alludes to it. “For these people, there are literally no more worlds to conquer,” Picard observes at one point. What happens to an expansionist power that has consumed everything? How do you satisfy a lust for expansion when there’s nowhere left to go?

It’s a clever hook, and Dark Mirror serves as a thoughtful vindication of the central philosophy of Star Trek. While he has hopes for mirror!Worf, Picard seems to accept that time is the real enemy of the Empire. Indeed, he suggests that Spock’s attempts at reform had only prolonged the Empire’s survival, giving it something to resist against. However, in the end, Duane suggests that the Empire can only survive as long as it can satiate itself on conflict.

And though one man, standing in the right place with a lever long enough, can move a planet, Spock’s lever was too short, the fulcrum was too close, or… Picard shook his head. Any one of a number of variables was out of joint. Whatever, he failed, managing only to push the inevitable collapse of the Empire further into its future. The Empire went on, not realizing what his own universe’s Kirk and that universe’s Spock had known or come to know: that an empire based only on conquest is, tactically if not ethically, top-heavy and will eventually collapse under its own weight.

There’s something rather optimistic in the idea that conflict is finite while knowledge is infinite. It suggests that the optimism of Roddenberry’s Star Trek will win out, even when confronted with its polar opposite. The Federation will never face the same crisis gripping the Empire, if only because there’s always more to see and wonder at.

That said, there is the occasional moment where it seems like Duane is having a bit of difficulty writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Duane has a long and distinguished history contributing to Star Trek, but she has always seemed most comfortable with the classic crew. Indeed, Picard’s “uncertainty is our business” is a very clear shout out to Kirk’s catchier “risk is our business.”

Some of her voices here feel a little “off” from time to time, most obviously her version of Picard. At one point, Picard uses the phrase “I don’t mind if the Enterprise jumps around like a flea on a hot griddle.” It’s a great turn of phrase, but one that feels rather strange coming from the rather refined Jean-Luc Picard. It would feel more at home from the mouth of McCoy or even Kirk. There are a few similar (and, it must be conceded small) moments where Picard’s language seems a little too colloquial.

Still, it’s worth conceding that Duane does do something a lot of Next Generation writers had trouble doing, and finds a use for Deanna Troi. Troi was one of The Next Generation‘s “problem” characters, and it seemed like the show often struggled with her. Duane makes mirror!Troi one of the most feared officers on the mirror!Enterprise, suggesting that Troi could be that powerful if she set her mind to it.

More than that, though, Duane also makes Troi a vital part of the mission. She uses Troi’s empathy to create a palpable sense of “otherness”, realising that Troi’s empathic abilities are a gimmick that work much better in prose than they do on-screen, where Troi is relegated to saying “I sense…” or “I feel…” before providing whatever exposition the writers tend to shoehorn in. Duane handles Troi well.

Dark Mirror is a phenomenal Star Trek novel, and a wonderful piece of science-fiction literature, with Duane using a familiar concept – indeed, a science-fiction trope popularised, if not invented – by Star Trek to explore the very foundations of the franchise. It’s thoughtful, insightful and well-written. It’s just a beautiful piece of work.

You might be interested in our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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2 Responses

  1. “The focus isn’t on mirror!Picard, it’s on Picard coming to terms with the fact that there is some version of himself out there who could – in the right circumstances – become a monster.”

    You mean like Shinzon?

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