In brief: A garish and goofy comic book, but plenty of fun to get the job done, and with a great last act.
Last week's abysmal "Bound" was a silly hour with a lame plot that treated women like objects. The episode had its (delusional) defenders, who labeled it a "guilty pleasure." The error in that description was the use of the word "pleasure" in connection with a show that was such a colossal bore and a general insult to the intellect.
Now here comes "In a Mirror, Darkly," which is also a silly hour that generally treats women like objects. The key difference, however, is that "Bound" was a relentless bore and "Mirror" is quite a bit of fun, with inventive plot details. The term "guilty pleasure" applies in this case. I can recommend "Mirror" on its chosen level of hyper-aggressive testosterone, hilarious teeth-gnashing, and across-the-board sociopathic behavior. This is, after all, the mirror universe. If you're looking for any depth in the slightest, you've come to the wrong show. But it should be noted that the whole point of the mirror universe is that it's an evil comic book where strange things happen. If you want an evil comic book, you've got an evil comic book.
The episode also features a clever opening teaser (first contact with the Vulcans is marked by Zefram Cochrane pulling out a shotgun and blowing the Vulcan ambassador away), an inspired alternate title sequence (showing the advancement of human technology as a purpose for escalating warfare), and a brilliant final act of pure Trekkian fun. These attributes alone would make the hour worthwhile even if everything in between was pointless (which, come to think of it, is a close call).
To call this episode over-the-top would be an understatement. This is a go-for-broke hour of lunatic madness. A lot of it is admittedly inane, but that's the point. The entire episode takes place in the mirror universe and involves exclusively the mirror characters, which is something of a departure from previous Trek mirror-universe episodes, in which characters crossed over from one universe to the other and found themselves out of their element. This prohibits the interaction of characters with their anti-universe and instead allows exclusive focus on the eeeeeeevil characters.
Everyone here is a scumbag, pretty much without exception. The Enterprise is commanded by Captain Forrest (Vaughn Armstrong gets to reprise a version of his character killed earlier this season). Archer is the first officer, who usually wears a frown so extreme that I was left wondering if Scott Bakula had strained all his facial muscles in the making of this episode. Phlox is a doctor of the most unscrupulous kind, who dreams up new ways to torture and kill. In one amusing scene, we see his sickbay of horrors, where as a hobby he dissects animals while their insides pulsate.
Reed is a MACO and a sadist who smiles a subtle but evil grin at the prospect of anything involving torture or something blowing up. He has invented a torture chamber ("the booth") that sends agonizing pain straight into the brain. When a ship attacks the Enterprise, Reed's happy about it because it means he gets to shoot back. Mayweather is also a MACO, and I guess it's fitting that his mirror character is as equally underused as his normal version. Trip is a bitter engineer whose exposure to radiation has left him disfigured. He still hits on T'Pol, even in this universe.
Sato is the captain's mistress (for whomever the captain happens to be at the moment), trading sex for career advancement, although it seems that "advancement" is simply the right to have the captain's ear. If there's one complaint I'd lodge, it's that she's not permitted any strength or power beyond the barter of her sexuality. At least Intendant Kira was in charge in the DS9 mirror-universe episodes, and had a ruthlessness that allowed her to compete with, and surpass, her rival males. Then again, trying to look for character "virtues" in a story that is by definition utterly without virtue is probably foolish; the males are all violent psychopaths, so it's not like we should be looking for redeeming qualities.
The only more or less "normal" person on the ship is T'Pol, who, as a Vulcan, does not seem to harbor the aggressive hostility that all the humans do. Like Spock in the original "Mirror, Mirror," she's governed by a more tempered disposition. After a power play that leaves a number of crewmen dead and Captain Forrest locked in the brig, T'Pol helps Forrest regain the upper hand. She does this not out of ambition for conquest, but out of a loyalty that seems logical.
The plot is a crackpot concoction involving Archer's plan to take the Enterprise deep into Tholian space, where his intelligence points to the location of a secret base that is holding a Starfleet vessel that has been lured from an alternate (i.e. our) universe. But not just from another universe, Archer reveals, but from a century in the future of that other universe, promising more advanced technology that could be used in the Terran Empire's plans for unlimited conquest.
In executing this plan, there is an endless series of manipulations, betrayals, power shifts, and scenes of people screaming in the torture chamber. As much time as the crew (and presumably all of humanity) spends at each other's throats, it's a wonder they've been so successful at conquering other societies. It seems to me that just fending off overthrows within the command structure would be a full-time job.
The tone of these scenes is all attitude and evil comic-book grins, often with enjoyably funny results. You certainly have to regard the actors with admiration here: It takes guts to willingly throw yourself head-on through scenes of such inherent goofiness, devouring the scenery as if your life depended on it. Considering the enormity of the ridiculousness, the performances are fearlessly energetic. Scott Bakula in particular seems to be in a nirvana of play-evil, snapping his neck around with every line of dialog. Actors often say that playing the villain is fun. Everyone must've had fun here, because everyone is the villain.
A few words on the women's Starfleet uniforms: namely, extremely stupid-looking. Robert Blackman, the costume designer, either dropped the ball or was under some sort of directive that required nearly 12 inches of midriff. On the sex appeal front, Hoshi's negligee is fine and good, but the Starfleet uniforms are a laughable embarrassment of the implausible. Come on, folks. There's acceptably over-the-top, and then there's blatant stupidity.
No matter, because all is forgiven by the last act, which is nothing short of brilliant. The Enterprise reaches the Tholian base and discovers a TOS-era Constellation-class starship, the USS Defiant. Viewers with encyclopedic instant-recall of classic Trek (or, in my case, easy access to my old reviews) will remember the Defiant as the ship from TOS's "The Tholian Web." When it vanished from the TOS universe, it apparently ended up here. Now mirror-Archer wants to beam aboard and steal it.
This leads to great sequence in which the Tholians discover the Enterprise and surround it with their energy web, and then start pummeling it with torpedoes. The crew evacuates in the escape pods while Forrest remains aboard to give them time to escape (although I wasn't quite sure what he was trying to do). The Enterprise explodes in a big fireball. Reed, watching from the Defiant, almost smiles, as if seeing explosions triggers an automatic response in his brain.
And, in what may be the coolest scene of the year, Archer's away team powers up the darkened bridge of the Defiant. I gotta tell you: When that bridge lit up and the TOS sound effects started chirping, I wanted to cheer. The feeling this evokes is exactly as if the cast of Enterprise had stepped through a time portal to emerge directly on the sets of the original series in 1966. It's a surreal and wonderfully pure fan moment, and I loved it. The production designers have perfectly recreated the bridge of what is ostensibly the Defiant, but in pure viewer terms is what we know is meant to be the original Enterprise. This is one of those imaginative moments where fictional universes spill into one another in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways, and generate a reality of their own.
If only this sort of imagination serviced a story that wasn't so fundamentally silly and full of characters whose attitudes run counter to this very notion of self-referential Trek imagination, we might've had something really special here. As it is, we have one very special moment within an hour of fairly amusing ones.
Next week: Will the mirror shine or shatter?