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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Through the Looking Glass (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

It’s very tempting to write off the problems with the mirror universe episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as diminishing returns – the idea that repeated exposure to what was once novel robs that item of its novelty. It is possible to become immune to the charms of camp, dulled to absurd space opera, and just worn out by watching the cast play “space pirates meet Star Wars.”

However, this does a bit of a disservice to the mirror universe as a concept. As iconic as it has become, Mirror, Mirror worked very well as a piece of introspection for the original Star Trek. Crossover stands out as one of the strongest episodes in the first two years of Deep Space Nine, because it manages to capture the thoughtful-yet-campy self-criticism of Mirror, Mirror.

Let's face it, after what O'Brien's been through, nobody would be surprised if he snapped...

Let’s face it, after what O’Brien’s been through, nobody would be surprised if he snapped…

In contrast, Through the Looking Glass marks the point at which the mirror universe really ceases to be a clever concept, and becomes something that is simply kept around because it’s old and because the production team like the idea of playing “roguish rebels and evil empires” in a way that’s impossible in the mainstream Star Trek universe.

While the episode does have an interesting central premise and is nowhere near as weak as some of the mirror universe episodes ahead, Through the Looking Glass is the moment where the mirror universe seems to get away from Deep Space Nine.

They really nailed Rom to the wall...

They really nailed Rom to the wall…

The mirror universe has always been more than a little ridiculous. After all, there’s a reason that a goatee has become televisual shorthand for “evil twin or counterpart”, with even Defiant playing the trope straight. Coupled with the sort of weird dominance/submission campy slave subtext of the mirror universe, it’s easy to see how the mirror universe could become a joke. At the same time, as Josh Marsfelder argues in Vaka Rangi, the episode Mirror, Mirror was not especially one-dimensional or shallow:

The first thing that begs addressing is the Mirror Universe itself. From what I can gather, this episode is one of the earliest appearances of the idea of a “mirror” or “parallel” universe in mainstream pop fiction. While not the absolute first (at the very least Star Trek beat itself to its own punch with The Alternative Factor last year, but nobody except me likes to talk about The Alternative Factor) it’s arguably the most famous though, as the style of alternate reality Star Trek works with here becomes the model for an incalculable number of homages, parodies and imitators. However, what these followers (including, irritatingly, more than a few future Star Trek works to return to the Mirror Universe) crucially seem to miss about Mirror, Mirror is that the reality it postulates is manifestly *not* meant to be simply the one where everyone is bearded and evil. The Terran Empire is not the Evil!Federation, its instead very clearly meant to be a version of the Federation that’s largely the same as our own, except for the fact certain motifs and excesses have been been built on to alarming and dangerous degrees.

Those “more than a few future Star Trek works to return to the Mirror Universe” would seem to begin with Through the Looking Glass, which is really the first episode set in the mirror universe that could be accurately referred to as a “romp.” That tone would remain with the mirror universe throughout Deep Space Nine. Interestingly, Star Trek: Enterprise would manage to do a much better job of playing with this campy idea of the mirror universe with the two-parter In a Mirror, Darkly. If you’re going to do camp absurdity, you may as well commit to it.

They call him "the two disrupter kid"...

They call him “the two disrupter kid”…

In contrast, the mirror universe was reintroduced in Crossover as a surprisingly thoughtful piece of work. It was essentially a criticism of Kirk’s “tear down society and warp away” approach to the problem of the week, by offering a world devastated by his interference. It was campy and heightened and absurd, but it also had substance. Returns to the mirror universe lacked that sense of substance, as even Robert Hewitt Wolfe seems to admit:

The return to the Mirror Universe came about as an idea tossed out at a story meeting among the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine writing staff, writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe reveals. “I remember discussing the idea of what would have happened after Kirk set Spock up to take down the Empire (in the original series story “Mirror, Mirror”).  Big, nasty empires are usually big and nasty for a reason, or they create a lot of enemies and then they justify themselves continuing to be big and nasty because they have so many enemies. The idea that you could just magically stop an empire from being nasty and then nothing bad would happen was a little naïve. That was one of the themes of Deep Space Nine: you can’t just fly to a planet and give everybody a speech, then fly away and expect it all to be okay. If there was a naïvete about the original series, and sometimes TNG, that was it. One of the things that DS9 was really committed to was showing consequences. You can’t just decide that you’re going to change the government of some place and then everything will be wonderful. We wanted to show that was true even in the Mirror Universe…

“But also it was just a fun excuse to go to a really different place and show our actors being different people,” he concedes.

It’s telling that it took Wolfe a paragraph to delve into the reasoning and motivation behind Crossover, yet only a single line to account for the appeal of the following four mirror universe episodes. With Through the Looking Glass, the mirror universe becomes an exotic location – the perfect setting for the show to take a vacation, allowing actors to play outside their established roles and for writers to write without being anchored to consistency and continuity. It’s something novel and exciting to the writers, different from the other twenty-five weeks of the year.

Picture this...

Picture this…

Even within the mirror universe, continuity is flexible. Here, we see Klingon and Cardassian ships decloaking; the final mirror universe episode, The Emperor’s New Cloak, is built around the idea that the Klingons and Cardassians don’t have a cloaking device. In Crossover, it was made clear that mirror!Kira was sexually attracted to herself – the ultimate expression of narcissism; here, we are lead to believe that mirror!Kira is just a depraved bisexual.

As of Through the Looking Glass, the mirror universe is treated by the writers as a place where “fun things happen”, with “fun things” being firefights, fisticuffs, and sex. In other words, it’s a very juvenile idea of “fun”, with the mirror universe seeming like a cross between Star Trek and Star Wars as imagined by a twelve-year-old heterosexual boy. It tries to channel the sort of pulpy two-fisted hetero-normative adventures that defined the original Star Trek, but with little of the same self-awareness and without the wit of the classic show.

Bashing Bashir...

Bashing Bashir…

Indeed, the decision to keep the mirror universe around on Deep Space Nine seems like an attempt to fetishise the original Star Trek. Deep Space Nine was the series most firmly and directly connected to the classic Star Trek show, with an abiding sense that the writers adored the classic show, and tried their best to connect to it. As Robert Hewitt Wolfe remarked when challenged about Deep Space Nine‘s affection for its parent:

I doubt very much that any other Star Trek writing staff had as much affection for the original series as we did. We LIKED Kang, Kor and Koloth. That’s why we brought them back and gave them one last ride. We LOVED the Gorn, that’s why we said Kasidy’s brother lived on the planet where Arena took place. I dare say we followed up more plotlines from the original series than anyone else (Mirror Universe, tribbles, Eugenics War, birth of the Federation, pirates of Orion, Fizzbin). If we’d been allowed to, I guarantee we’d’ve put an Andorian on the show so fast your head would’ve spun. (Speaking of which, the ONLY thing I know for a fact that Berman dislikes about the original series – Andorians. He hates the antenae.)

I mean, think of what you’re saying. Ron Moore “driven by an obsessive desire to deface” the original series. Have you been sniffing glue? Rene Echevarria, ditto? When he was in high school the man owned his own TOS uniform. Hans Beimler was raised on TOS (in Spanish, the way God intended it to be heard). Frankly, since I’d only seen ever episode five or six times growing up, I sometimes felt TOS deficient.

While most of these touches were nice and led to gems like Blood Oath or Trials and Tribble-ations, there’s a sense that Deep Space Nine was occasionally blinded by its affection for the classic show. Turning the mirror universe from a one-shot piece of wry self-criticism into a recurring piece of nostalgia demonstrates that the Deep Space Nine writers were occasionally blinded by their affection for the franchise’s history. (Enterprise almost had the same problem in its final season, but the fact that season is so different from what came before lends it a sense of novelty.)

The real Crossover...

The real Crossover…

So the mirror universe episodes are meant to be “fun”, in the same way that the Ferengi episodes are meant to be “fun.” Unfortunately, “fun” is a very subjective concept, and so a great deal of that gets lost in translation. Most obviously, there’s the fact that the mirror universe feels like a very juvenile and immature version of “fun”, trading in machismo and action movie clichés. As some the humour in the Ferengi episodes can feel tone deaf – more like sexism than a mockery of sexism – some of the implications of the mirror universe episodes are decidedly uncomfortable.

It is very clear that Through a Mirror Darkly is designed to evoke classic pulpy adventures. It’s an old-school space romance, full of danger and adventure and romance and scale. Rebels fighting for their freedom! Evil oppressors! Betrayal! Violence! Doppelgangers! This is the sort of stuff that feels designed to evoke a particular type of pulp storytelling – the kind typified by Edgar Rice Burroughs or Star Wars.

No smiles from Smiley...

No smiles from Smiley…

This certainly isn’t a bad thing. After all, the mirror universe is a concept that doesn’t hold up to too much scrutiny. After all, despite the fact that the entire history of the universe has been irreparably altered, it seems like everybody’s mother met everybody’s father at approximately the right time. There’s a point where the very existence of these characters is ridiculous, something to which later mirror universe episodes repeatedly draw attention.

We get a live action version of a holographic character in The Emperor’s New Cloak, and the show even draws attention to how weird all this is by not having a mirror!Jake in Shattered Mirror. There’s a sense that Behr and Wolfe both understand how ridiculous the concept is, and that returning to the well will only further undermine an already tenuous suspension of disbelief. Here, it seems weird that the station’s self-destruct code is the same across different universes. As such, it seems the only response is to just buy into the absurdity wholesale.

The Sisko is also of the mirror universe...

The Sisko is also of the mirror universe…

The episode revels in pulpy tropes, packed full of space opera archetypes. mirror!Sisko is very much a space pirate who has found a cause, a buccaneer who used to collect “tribute” for the evil empire but who was inspired to heroism by those around him. mirror!Jennifer is practically a princess in need of rescue, worlds apart. “She came from one of the few privileged Terran families, people who cooperated with the Alliance,” mirror!O’Brien explains. “The captain he fought his way up from the mines.”

It’s surprising that Sisko doesn’t get a big musical number about “different worlds.” Avery Brooks certainly has the talent to carry off a big show-stopping musical number – as Badda-Bing Badda-Bang demonstrates. Instead, we get Sisko running around dual-weilding Klingon disruptors, in what might be the most painful example of “Star Trek desperately trying to appear cool and bad-ass” this side of Enterprise. There’s a really awkward sense that the audience are meant to treat this as impressive and hip.

A sophomoric Trill...

A sophomoric Trill…

This is all just wish-fulfillment, but it’s a very stereotypically masculine sense of wish fulfillment – the kind of thing that an adolescent might find effective. Guns! Ships! Action! Violence! This desire to impress leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, because it seems to be reflected in how Through the Looking Glass and the subsequent mirror universe episodes treat their female characters.

It is worth pausing to note that – as a general rule – Deep Space Nine generally did quite well by its female leads. Kira is the best developed female lead in the franchise; the Daxes aren’t too far behind. Kai Winn is wonderful; even Lwaxanna Troi is softened slightly. And, outside of the mirror universe, Deep Space Nine generally had an enlightened attitude to same-sex relationships, featuring the franchise’s first same-sex kiss and touching very lightly on the idea in a number of different ways, even if it never quite made the leap to embracing same-sex couples.

"Don't let the fact that I'm a woman in authority fool you, I am perfectly willing to let an enemy combatant wander around the station and spread sedition because he's good in the sack..."

“Don’t let the fact that I’m a woman in authority fool you, I am perfectly willing to let an enemy combatant wander around the station and spread sedition because he’s good in the sack…”

None of this excuses the mirror universe episodes, where the show’s characters are treated as sexual objects. All female characters seem to be bi-sexual at the very least, while male homosexuality is the subject of a single derogatory innuendo in Shattered Mirror. Hot women stroke and grope and kiss each other, while still remaining available fetish objects for the men around them. This isn’t homosexuality, this is a heterosexual male fantasy – beautiful women making out!

Given how terrified Star Trek was about portraying same-sex relationships on prime time television in the nineties, this portrayal feels a little cynical and crass. It also seems to misread mirror!Kira’s fascination with our Kira from Crossovermirror!Kira wasn’t sexually attracted to her doppelganger because Kira was a beautiful woman. mirror!Kira just really wanted to sleep with herself. While it’s undoubtedly deviant and kinky (and the kind of cheek you can only get away with on a show like Star Trek) to equate that with bisexuality misses the point.

The fact that mirror!Bashir doesn't seem to be all there is either awkward writing or great foreshadowing!

The fact that mirror!Bashir doesn’t seem to be all there is either awkward writing or great foreshadowing!

Even Nana Visitor noted the shift in the character’s portrayal in The Deep Space Nine Companion:

“I never intended for the Intendant to be bisexual. I think that was an assumption that everyone, including the writers, made after the character fell for Kira in Through the Looking Glass. But that had been total narcissism on her part. It had nothing to do with sexuality. I never liked that people took her for bisexual because she’s an evil character. There are so few gay characters on TV, and we really don’t need an evil one.”

Visitor seems to confuse Through the Looking Glass with Crossover, but her point remains valid.

Sadly, they cut the Intendent and Garak's manic laugh from the random executions scene...

Sadly, they cut the Intendent and Garak’s evil laugh from the random executions scene…

There’s also the somewhat uncomfortable male wish-fulfillment fantasies of Sisko’s trip through to the mirror universe. Sisko finds himself role-playing as mirror!Sisko, and so gets caught up in all sorts of high-stakes adventures. He engages in fire-fights, punches Bashir, almost blows up the station. However, he also sleeps with both mirror!Dax and mirror!Kira. This is one of those awkward “science-fiction sexual dilemmas” that is unlikely to ever be applicable to any real-world scenario, but the way it objectifies Dax and Kira is unsettling.

Both mirror!Dax and mirror!Kira believe that they are sleeping with mirror!Sisko. Sisko sleeping with the two under those circumstances arguably qualifies as rape by deception – as if a stranger had crept into their rooms at night with the lights off and claimed to be their lover. (Which, unfortunately, is something that does happen.) There’s also the awkward fact that Sisko has now slept with doppelgängers of two officers under his command, and one of his best friends. That can’t help but feel like a violation.

We'll, if Sisko has to be a deity, he may as we'll be a memetic sex god...

We’ll, if Sisko has to be a deity, he may as we’ll be a memetic sex god…

And yet it’s treated like a joke. In Fascination, Dax’s advances made Sisko distinctly uncomfortable. This was his old friend, and she wasn’t making an informed decision. Sisko even prevented an over-eager (and creepy) Bashir from taking advantage of Kira at the climax of this episode. Here, Sisko seems to shrug his shoulders. “We have a lot of planning to do,” Sisko warns Dax when she begins making out with him. “It can wait,” Dax offers. That’s all it takes to convince Sisko. “I suppose it can at that.”

And Through the Looking Glass is weirdly fixated on the idea that Sisko – in any universe – is some sort of sex god. Apparently he could scratch the Intendent’s itch, if you catch the episode’s drift – with the script insinuating that mirror!Kira is just cranky because she hasn’t got any of that prime Sisko lovin’ in quite some time. “If you don’t mind my saying, I have noticed a certain amount of ill-humour on your part lately,” mirror!Garak offers. “As I recall, it began about the time you learned of Captain Sisko’s death.”

"Why did you keep calling me 'old man'? That was kinkier than usual."

“Why did you keep calling me ‘old man’? That was kinkier than usual.”

And so the episode veers into the sexist “psycho bi-sexual woman just needs to get laid in order to calm down” cliché that makes the portrayal of mirror!Kira even more offensive. Indeed, Sisko is so good in bed that mirror!Kira isn’t smart enough to kill him on sight or keep him under proper lock-and-key. Really, Sisko is apparently so good in bed that villains can’t even think straight around his raw sexual charisma.

The argument that Sisko “had” to sleep with characters to protect his cover doesn’t hold water. After all, the writers get to dictate the story and set the tone. Sisko isn’t portrayed as the least bit unsettled by all of this, instead treating it as something of an opportunity. It’s not too hard to imagine Sisko and Bashir trading creepy high-fives when he beams back to Deep Space Nine. It’s also very hard to imagine the script for Through the Looking Glass daring to suggest that mirror!Bashir and mirror!Sisko might have been lovers, let alone treating that idea with the same flippancy.

All Smileys and sunshine...

All Smileys and sunshine…

All this is particularly striking because it’s completely inessential. There’s really no reason for the women in the episode to be portrayed in this manner. After all, Through the Looking Glass actually has a pretty strong story hook. Sisko beams over to an alternate universe (a campy space pirate universe!) and discovers that his deceased wife is still alive. Sisko finally has a chance to reunite with his dead wife, after so many years alone. What made Jennifer the woman Sisko loved? Does mirror!Jennifer share these qualities? Is this an opportunity for atonement or closure?

That’s a solid premise, and it’s perhaps the strongest premise of any of the mirror episodes following Crossover – only Resurrection comes close. After all, Jennifer’s death has haunted Sisko. In Emissary, it was revealed as the source of all his anger and pain. Although the episode saw Sisko trying to let go, it’s still something that informs the character – his close relationship with Jake a constant reminder of how Jennifer is missing. Even Sisko’s first romantic plot, the forgettable Second Sight, was haunted by Jennifer, set on the anniversary of her death.

Sadly, the Imperial March is never looped over any of these scenes...

Sadly, the Imperial March is never looped over any of these scenes…

And, in the grand arc of the third season, you can see how Through the Looking Glass makes sense. The next two episodes to air are a two-parter focusing on the Dominion. Through the Looking Glass actually went into production in the middle of that two-parter. As such, the next solo story produced after Through the Looking Glass was the wonderful Explorers. Not only is Explorers a story about Benjamin and Jake Sisko, it also sees Jake trying to set his father up on a date; a date with Kassidy Yates.

As such, Through the Looking Glass feels like it should represent closure. Sisko is about to meet another woman, and to truly continue living his life – accepting that Jennifer will always be his love, but that she is no longer his wife. This is an opportunity for Sisko to have one last heart-to-heart with a version of the woman that he loves. More than that, it’s a chance to make up for his perceived inadequacy at Wolf 359; this time he can save Jennifer. This time, he can move on.

If Patrick Stewart gets Captain's Holiday and Starship Mine...

If Patrick Stewart gets Captain’s Holiday and Starship Mine…

In theory, it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come close to working in practice. The decision to turn Through the Looking Glass into “the episode where Sisko has slightly-rapey sex with doubles of two women under his command” undercuts any potential emotion depth. Through the Looking Glass seems so ridiculous satisfied with the idea that Sisko is having sex that meeting his dead wife feels like an after-thought.

It doesn’t help that Felicia M. Bell is just as weak an actress as she was in Emissary. However, in Emissary, the character was confined to a handful of scenes. Here, she is among the most important guest stars. She simply cannot carry the weight that the script puts on her. Unfortunately, the script also feels rather disinterested in the reunion. Benjamin and Jennifer do get a scene together, but there’s never any real substance to their discussion. It’s all about the importance of fighting tyranny, which is great – but you’d imagine Ben would have more to say.

Hands across the universes...

Hands across the universes…

It’s also quite nice that “Smiley” is apparently a fundamentally decent person no matter the universe. There’s something quite reassuring in the notion that O’Brien is a pillar of stability across the multiverse, a character on whom the audience can count. “He seems like a good man,” Jennifer reflects. Even Sisko, the man kidnapped by Smiley and place in mortal peril, has to concede, “He does at that.”

Still, acknowledgements of the universe nature of O’Brien’s O’Brien-ness aside (and I do love how Sisko assumes that O’Brien is on vacation because he’s out of uniform), Through the Looking Glass feels like a misstep. It’s an episode that doesn’t seem to have been fully thought through, the product of a disappointingly adolescent mindset. It’s an episode that not only undermines a lot of what made Mirror, Mirror and Crossover so good, but also what makes Deep Space Nine so enjoyable.

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

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2 Responses

  1. This Mirror episode keeps up the arc of Bashir being punched, even if it is an alternate version. Although Basic Instinct was a massive hit, it drew criticism from the gay community for having Catherine Tramell as a bisexual serial killer, even though the film treats the whole mystery as something ambiguous. Avery Brooks approved of bedding Kira and Dax in this episode, because sex was something Sisko hadn’t done since the show began. Wouldn’t the Mirror Chakotay or B’Elanna have been a better choice than Tuvok to make a guest spot? They were rebels in the primary universe. Or was that to show how topsy-turvy this universe is?

    • Yep, I’d read that about Avery Brooks liking it. What is it about actors liking it when their characters get laid? (Stewart was also a fan of the concept, as I recall.) Talk about living vicariously!

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