Anyone who follows Star Trek even a little bit knows about the Mirror Universe. It’s an alternate reality where our heroes are villains. Famously, it has Spock with a beard. That alone has led to numerous parodies, always with the idea that the evil counterpart has a beard.
I know a different Star Trek series has a reputation involving a second officer growing a beard, but as always, the original series got there first.
The way I see it, most everyone on some level knows this episode’s basic plot. During a magnetic storm, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura accidentally end up in an alternate universe. They figure out something is up pretty fast. For one, Spock has a beard. For another, their uniforms have more sashes, bare midriffs for the ladies, and Kirk took a trip to the gun show. Sulu is head of security, and he has a really noticeable facial scar. Chekov, well, he tries to assassinate Kirk.
He fails, but he also gets a trip to the agony booth. Kirk, being Kirk, decides not to have Chekov killed. Actions like that sure are weird as far as the locals are concerned.
And unfortunately, such actions don’t go unnoticed. Showing mercy, or at least a little clemency, is generally against the orders of the Empire. This is a world where assassination is the standard way to get ahead in the ranks and corporal punishment is routine. But I have to admit I do like one or two of the more subtle touches in the Mirror Universe. The Enterprise computer, for example, now has a male voice. That seems like something that would fit in well with all the fascist salutes.
And as someone who finds old Star Trek‘s general gender politics something that hasn’t always aged well, the fact Mirror Kirk apparently has a “kept woman” in his quarters shows how much worse those gender politics could be. Yes, regular Kirk immediately opts to flirt with the same woman when he gets home, but at least she can turn him down there.
By the by, one of my favorite moments in an episode with a lot of great moments is the single scene where the audience checks in with Regular Spock. Any concerns that the Mirror Kirk and Company might cause trouble on that Enterprise are quickly set aside. Spock has already rounded the lot of them up and tossed them in the brig. I know I rail on Shatner a lot for his hammy acting, but I will say this for the man: his Mirror Kirk’s ham is very distinct from his regular Kirk ham. Plus, Spock is completely nonplussed by the whole thing. He knows who these people are. If anything, he finds the whole thing characteristically fascinating.
So, it’s probably no surprise by this point how much I love Spock as a character. Granted, he’s easily the best character on the show. Kirk is a standard hero. The other humans often fit standard good guy types. True, it is fun seeing Sulu sneer and Chekov plot unsuccessful murder attempts. Spock, however, remains Spock. Even with a beard, he is the very familiar character we’ve grown to know. That familiarity is the key to the episode.
While Spock may or may not be able to fix his universe, even with Kirk’s disintegrator monitor, it means McCoy won’t leave him to die after a fight. It means Kirk can exploit Spock’s logical core to try and make things better. And it means Spock will probably at least try. It’s that sameness to the character that allows Spock to act as a natural touchstone to the other characters. This Spock still fits into the dynamic he holds with Kirk and McCoy. Even though he is an enemy figure for most of the episode, he’s still reachable.
Which is why Kirk and McCoy’s ribbing of Spock at the end may be a little much. I’m largely fine with it, mostly because Spock pushes back better than he gets. But it is that basic Spock-ness that allows our heroes to maybe improve the lives of other people in other universes. There’s something to characters who somehow make the lives of others better by just being there. Spock, it seems, is such a person everywhere. Kirk and McCoy are too, at least in the regular universe. It’s what makes them ultimately heroic figures.
Now, I have a vague understanding that future series revisit the Mirror Universe and reveal Spock does successfully reform the Empire, only to make it easy prey for other alien races. But, for now, we have some hope that a universe using the old sci-fi tripe of the evil universe might actually improve. We can live in hope. It’s what comes naturally to the crew of the Enterprise anyway.