“It is easier for the civilised man to play the barbarian than vice versa.”
Star Trek has often been a hit-or-miss show for me. Some episodes had great ideas, some were corny and often puerile. But one of the most interesting shows was Mirror, Mirror, when Captain Kirk and three of his crew were tossed into an alternate universe where the Federation had been replaced by an Empire (and Spock had a goatee). Sadly, Captain Picard’s crew never visited the original alternate universe and when Deep Space Nine came around, the evil counterpart to the Federation had been destroyed. Tedious and boring, said I.
Dark Mirror is one of the few STING novels I have bothered to reread; it is also one of the best. While on very deep space patrol, the USS Enterprise is kidnapped into an alternate universe as the final step before the Empire jumps across the universal barriers and invades the Federation. The crew of the Enterprise find themselves unable, at first, to understand what is going on, until they discover that they have been covertly boarded by a counterpart from the ISS Enterprise. They have to board the Imperial Starship to learn how to build their own ‘inversion device’ that will allow them to return home, all the while avoiding the evil machinations of Mirror Troi.
The Next Generation was known for its rather...pollyanish view of the universe, where Captain Picard can give a speech and convince old hatreds to magically fade away into the ether. Where Dark Mirror shines is in its portrayal of an alternate crew, one that rose to high-ranking positions in an empire of stunning brutality and ruthlessness. Mirror Riker is a backstabbing cunning loon looking out for his chance to off his Captain and take command of the Enterprise for himself. Mirror Troi is a mind-raping security officer who prowls through unwary thoughts for any hint of betrayal (makes you wonder how the people she talked to in OTL felt about the empathy.) Mirror Worf, his homeworld crushed beneath the Empire’s boot, is a broken shadow of the honourable warrior we know. Mirror Beverly Crusher is Mirror Picard’s ‘Captain’s Woman.’
Sometimes, this can be quite striking. Captain Picard and Mirror Picard seem to be opposite personalities, but there are moments when it is clear that they are the same person. They share an abiding love for the Enterprise that overpowers all other loves, as Mirror Beverly points out to Captain Picard (while convinced that he is her Captain.) Mirror Picard is also responsible, it seems, for murdering Beverly’s husband to get his hands on her, and her son. (Who seems to want to kill him.) Other characters are more pronounced inversions; Barclay, a semi-coherent engineering officer in Captain Picard’s crew, is the head of Mirror Picard’s security detail.
Service to the Empire is no bed of roses. Senior officers know that they could be assassinated at any moment, or replaced by security for no reason. Junior officers and crewmen are at the mercy of their superiors. All of them carry agonise devices for immediate punishment if they screw up, longer punishments involve sessions in the Agony Booth. It is not a safe place to live or work.
Dark Mirror also takes a look at the history of the Mirror Universe, one that differs from the Deep Space Nine version and is considerably better. There, there was no Khan – and therefore no Eugenics Wars. Instead, there was a bitter Third World War which ended with the Empire determined never to run close to the brink of extinction again. The human race roared out into the galaxy, making common cause with the Vulcans (themselves different from their original universe versions) and exterminating or enslaving everyone else. Mirror Picard’s early career is a dark inversion of the first season of TNG, with mass slaughter and outright genocide instead of noble speeches and high ideals.
Captain Picard claims, towards the end of the book, that the Empire is simply expanding too far, too fast, and that it will eventually collapse like a house of cards. His counterpart seems aware of it too, hence the plan to invade the Federation and escape the coming chaos.
On the downside, there are odd moments in this book. The most jarring is Riker and Worf going to the holodeck to enjoy some opera in the midst of crisis. This isn't exactly badly written, with some amusing comments on the long-term effects of opera fighting in the Klingon Empire, but it is odd.
Overall, however, this is one of the best characters-meet-evil counterparts stories out there, something that rarely happens in TV. It is certainly a better version of the trope than the Deep Space Nine series and those written by Captain Kirk.