Star Trek: Discovery’s done a pretty masterful job updating Star Trek for the modern television audience. The storytelling’s been evolved from an idealized allegory to one that’s more grounded and morally complex, all the while still maintaining the series’ optimistic soul. They’ve achieved a particular success in their sojourn to the Mirror Universe, giving one of Trek’s oldest tropes new life and frightening relevance 50 years after its initial inception.
Everyone’s favorite alternate reality has always been a deliciously fun vaycay from the (occasionally) priggish Starfleet of the Prime Universe. It’s the closest the franchise has ever gotten to a soap opera — an entire universe of evil twins in skimpy uniforms alternatively sleeping with and/or killing each other. It’s a dystopic vision of the future, but a risible one that when juxtaposed with Roddenberry’s original vision, winds up reinforcing the plausibility of it. That said, there was no way we were going to see that same brand of camp on Star Trek: Discovery. Instead, we got a Mirror version of the Mirror Universe — a Federation dystopia that finally takes itself seriously enough to become truly unsettling.
Gone are the midriff-bearing costumes, gone (so far) is the concept of the Captain’s Woman and while “Despite Yourself” certainly had its levity (#LongLiveCaptainKilly), the moments that really resonated were those that highlighted the internal struggle of the Discovery crew as they immersed themselves into their Terran identities. We all laughed at Tilly’s agitation as she prepared to impersonate her bloodthirsty counterpart, but it’s not just stage fright she’s feeling. She’s honestly disturbed at the thought that any version of her had the capacity to become so brutal. When Burnham meets Captain Connor, any relief she might feel that he’s alive in at least one universe is negated by his drastic personality shift. And any pleasure she might take in surviving his assassination attempt is wiped out as she’s faced with the reality that she’s now killed him twice.
Finally, the episode closes on Captain Lorca writhing in extreme pain in one of the Mirror Universe’s famed agonizer booths. TOS and Enterprise featured these devices, but never as viscerally as they do here. It’s almost impossible not to be shaken by the reality of Lorca’s situation. In Enterprise’s two-part Mirror Universe special, “In A Mirror Darkly,” Dr. Flox explains that normal torture is only effective for a certain amount of time before the brain becomes desensitized to pain. The agonizer booth overcomes that limitation by shifting stimulation from one nerve cluster to another, so the subject can remain in a state of intense anguish indefinitely. Lingering on Lorca’s maddened screams before cutting to credits sends a pointed message: paying a visit to the most perverted version of your race wouldn’t be interesting, it would be agony.
Discovery’s conscious choice to depart from the sense of fun that usually permeates Mirror Universe episodes isn’t just stylistically consistent, it’s socially necessary. In our country’s current climate, the “What if Hitler won?” premise isn’t as much of a joke as it used to be. Many Americans are staring their own Mirror Universe in the face as Neo-Nazis march proudly in the streets and our President openly provokes other countries by flouting our superiority.
Star Trek’s always maintained a sense of social relevance, and “Despite Yourself” continued that tradition. The Discovery crew will directly confront the darkness in human nature we’d all like to forget is there, and they aren’t going to come back unscathed. Burnham and Co. might as well be a bunch of social justice warriors crashing Alt-Right block party. To paraphrase another iconic franchise that had feelings about Nazis: they’re pilgrims in an unholy land — just like us.
Written by Sean Cochran
Directed by Jonathan Frakes