Tuesday, April 26, 2005

TrekCheck: Mirrors

After its last hiatus from broadcasting, and well after it's last day of shooting, and near the last days that visual effects and post-production staff would be putting the finishing touches on the final episodes, Star Trek: Enterprise returned with its final set of new stories.

While some viewers had recently been alerted to the show's demise and therefore its existence, those of us who had followed the corporate drama that climaxed in its cancellation, were preparing to savor these last hours. It was looking more and more that they would be the last hours of new Star Trek for quite awhile-variously estimated at 3, 5, 10, 20 years for a new TV series---and considering how some were talking, and the fact that the production staff was disbanding for the first time in 18 years, these could very well be the last new episodes of Star Trek As We Know It, ever.

There are four episodes left as I write this, and I hope to write about all six a group after I've had the chance to see them together on tape. But the experience of seeing the first two on their initial broadcast was jarring. "Bound" may have been Manny Coto's attempt to do a comedy episode; when I visited the Star Trek set last August, he mentioned that Enterprise hadn't done one yet and he seemed to want to try it. If this was that attempt, it wasn't funny. If it was not, it was worse.

Still, I was prepared to think of it as an aberration, another back-from-hiatus back luck failure, like "Daedalus", hopefully to be followed by a memorable success, like "Observer Effect." So again I had high hopes for "In A Mirror, Darkly, Part I." And personally, on first viewing, I found it an even greater and more depressing disappointment.

Rather than analyze it now, before the second part and before I've seen it again, I'll offer one comment on my first experience, and some thoughts about how Mirror Universe stories work.

The comment is that there was so much gratuitous violence, particularly torture, that I would recommend that children be kept away from this episode, and I personally was offended by it. My first impression of the episode was that it did not justify its excesses, not just in the violence on screen, but the violence it did to itself and to Star Trek.

The idea of a Mirror Universe (or MU in Internet shorthand) first appeared in the original series episode, "Mirror, Mirror." There were three episodes of DS9 that visited later versions of this universe. Apparently we are seeing earlier days of this universe. The basic difference is that the Federation of the Star Trek universe is the Empire in the MU; what was good is evil.

The difference between this story and all the other MU episodes is that we are entirely in the company of people who belong in the MU. That presents a difficulty that this Enterprise episode didn't transcend.

In the original series "Mirror, Mirror," the device that made it work dramatically, was the point of view. Kirk, McCoy, Uhura and Scotty found themselves in this MU, and they had to figure out how it worked. We saw what the mirror showed, through their eyes. We saw our Captain Kirk discover each element of this opposite place; we saw him learn its rules, and go along with them at times in order to survive, yet he risks bending or opposing them when he can.

But in the Enterprise MU we see only the characters that belong in that universe. We have no point of view to help us sort things out, and the script doesn't help much. At times, certain characters seem to feel trapped by circumstances. But others seem to revel in evil to a cartoonish degree.

If the intention was to create a nightmare world, it succeeded. But it also looked as if all the money for this episode was spent on the opening scene and opening credits, leaving the rest of the hour to a string of violent shipboard scenes. The initial effect on me was to produce disgust and impatience rather than horror. These characters aren't actually scary, as the cardboard evil characters of the original series episode still managed to be, because we have no "normal" characters to be scared for or to identify with.

I'm tempted to see this on an entirely different level. Back when he was a writer instead of a TV game show host and pitchman, Ben Stein hypothesized that at some level every Hollywood movie is about Hollywood. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but there seemed a lot of subtext on view in this episode. The hostilities expressed so fulsomely make more sense if you consider them expressions of a cast and writing staff that has been under the gun for at least a year, and is finding out that they've been cancelled. Short of being able to get a few UPN and Paramount executives into the agonizer, they have to make do by pretending to torture each other. Maybe the cries of pain are liberating for them, since it seemed one or another of them was emitting them for most of the hour.

Maybe it was therapy. Some of the actors appear to be relishing these reversals---there were a couple of times that I was sure several of the actors were on the verge of breaking up. And maybe this was Manny Coto's audition for "24."

As Star Trek, it was troubling. Although I thought "Mirror, Mirror" worked well, I'm not a fan of the Mirror Universe concept. Breaking us into all good and all evil works if you use the allegory for insight on our own universe, where we are both. But the temptations of the MU are often too strong: everybody gets to play against type, and it's easy to get carried away.

We'll see if it makes better sense in Part II, which is the episode many fans are waiting for, when the Enterprise crew is on the bridge of a Kirk era starship, wearing those Kirk era uniforms. In the first part, some fans apparently learned more about what the pre-Federation Trek universe would have been like had humans been ruled by fear and violence, as arguably we are now. Others are satisfied with action and seeing bits of Trek lore. While critical reaction to "Bound" was almost uniformly negative, the fan reaction to this episode on the Trek Today bbs was generally either an A or a D. Apart from an intriguing title sequence, on first viewing I felt the episode was implausible, incoherent, and laced with unjustified brutality. I hope that somehow Part II will change my conclusion, but I'm less enthusiastic about watching it than I was a week ago.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I liked Bound. Was it great? No. Was it entertaining? Yeah, actually it was. Not the best Trek and not top ten, but still I give Manny credit for making a fun, enjoyable hour.

As for the Mirror stuff, I couldn't disagree more. I found part one intriuging, refreshing and entertaining. I loved this tying up bits of contunity from TOS. Was it too violent? Compared to some of the stuff we see on TV, not so much. Compared to Trek--maybe. But I loved the chance to watch the cast crew scenery. Billingsley as the evil Phlox was a revelation. And seeing a Tholian...that set my fan boy heart a twitter.