Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mirror, Mirror: How Star Trek Won the Cold War

by Jared B.

After Captain Kirk demonstrates Starfleet ethics by not taking needed dilithium crystals by force, a transporter malfunction leaves him and his away team (Uhura, McCoy, and Scotty) in an alternate reality. There, he discovers that this mirror universe reflects the imperialistic opposite of known Federation culture.

No longer is the Enterprise a ship of exploration and discovery. Instead, it is a warship, intent on plundering neighboring worlds, exploiting resources, and conquering the less advanced at gunpoint. No longer is the Federation a peaceful coalition of sovereign planets. Instead, Starfleet polices and expands the "Empire."

No prime directive hinders conquest in this mirror reality. Rather, the purpose of the Empire is domination.

In this militaristic future, the crew of the Enterprise has ceased to be a meritocracy of order, discipline, and self-sacrifice. Male officers advance in ranks by assassinating superior officers, while women climb the ranks through sex and subterfuge. Trust among crewmembers is nearly absent, while violence and death are everyday occurrences. Crewmen who make mistakes or fail to kill superior officers are subjected to "agony booths" and "agonizers." Additionally, with the aid of a secret device, the captain vaporizes his enemies from the comfort of his quarters.

This is not the Enterprise we know. But, what is it really? What were the writers trying to say?

In this author's opinion, the message of "Mirror, Mirror" is unambiguous: We see the Communist version of the Federation, meaning that this alternate reality matched American perceptions of the Red Menace in the late sixties.

It was totalitarian, imperialistic, and savage. The writers saw no contradiction in mixing Fascist salutes with "Eastern barbarism," exhibited in fighting, clothing, and hairstyles. Many Cold Warriors at the time grouped fascism and communism together as "totalitarian" evils, both arising from the same dangerous and violent types of ideology and authoritarianism. And, in "Mirror, Mirror" we see the everyday realities of that evil, with its corresponding bloodshed, political purges, inhumane torture techniques, and "survival of the fittest" environment.

Left unchecked, the Empire, similar to the Klingon sphere, would cover the universe in a blanket of oppression and slavery. Like its Stalinist version in the 20th century, it cares not for the sovereignty of satellite states and conquered territories. Unlike the United States of the 20th century and Kirk's familiar Federation of the 23rd century, this Red Menace disposes of notions about human rights and unalienable freedoms. The only rule is the rule of force and violence. Independent thought or self-determination are corrected with agonizers, knives, and phasers.

Everyone is a potential enemy of the state and traitor of the Motherland (or should we say Fatherland?).

Opposing this alternative reality is the United States, the universe that Kirk eventually returns to (after convincing mirror Spock to become a freedom fighter and revolutionary). There, Kirk regains his role as a benevolent guardian of the Third World, spreading freedom, democracy, and the rights of self-determination to less advanced peoples. There, he is no longer helpless against the evil empires of the galaxy bent on totalitarian expansion. He can defend the South Vietnamese in their "private little war." He can read the constitution, spreading the power of the West's "Omega Glory." He can destroy the oppressive super-computers that control peoples' minds.

The double-speak and propaganda of Landru, The Oracle, Stalin, and Hitler are no match for Kirk's message of freedom, hope, and liberty.

This is the relevance of "Mirror, Mirror," and it's a message that later Trek writers ignored. Understandably, the Cold War had passed, and the images so familiar to a 1960s audience no longer resonated with later viewers.

Yet, more than many other episodes, "Mirror, Mirror" was a product of its context, and it reflected a worldview shared by many Americans during the 1960s and beyond. It was a message of hope amidst red scares, the threat of nuclear war, and the dangers of isolationism. Undoubtedly, it voiced support for U.S. victory in the Cold War, just as other episodes voiced support for U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Today, we can criticize the contradictions of this message, and we can point to examples of U.S. foreign policy which differed from these propagandized goals. Yet, to do so misses the point of why Trek resonated with so many people. It projected a future when the United States stood victorious over the totalitarian empires of the past. Try as they did, these evil empires failed to extinguish our innate love of freedom, liberty, and individuality. No matter what tools they used at their disposal, from the gulags and gas chambers to the agonizer booths and reclamation chambers, we will never succumb to slavery and domination.

Instead, we will evolve.