“Even the light is different…the cosmos has lost its brilliance. And everywhere I turn, there’s fear.”
Star Trek is, at its core, about identity: identity as a society, identity as a species, identity as an individual. And since 1967, the series has used the “mirror” universe to examine our identity as a moral creature by looking at it through the lens of our opposites.
Essentially, if the Star Trek “prime” universe represents humanity at our best and most hopeful, then the “mirror” universe represents us at our worst; what we most dread. Terrans are consumed by fear, hatred, anger, and evil. They destroy those not like them.
In short, the mirror universe is a universe that doesn’t value life.
The Quality of Alternate-Universe Life
“Can you bury your heart? Can you hide your decency? Can you continue to pretend to be one of them, even as little by little, it kills the person you really are? I’ve continued to study their ways, read all I can. It’s getting easier to pass, which is exactly what I feared the most.”
Burnham’s opening monologue is dripping with fear as she stares into the abyss of a universe that doesn’t assign worth and value to its citizens. But she’s not afraid of death; she’s afraid of diving too deeply into a universe of which Gene Roddenberry said, “life is valueless, full of fear and terror, and never exploits the full potential of most of the citizens.” She’s not afraid that they’ll kill her. She’s afraid that they’ll change her, and make her just as paranoid as the ghosts surrounding her that she thought she left behind.
In order to survive in the mirror universe, a Starfleet officer from the prime universe has to hide the very core of who they are: a person who values life. This challenge is first presented to Burnham by the Terran Emperor, who orders her to destroy a rebel camp from orbit; then it is presented to her by mirror-Saru, whose servitude to her aboard the ISS Shenzhou challenges her to recognize him as a person worthy of respect; and finally the challenge is presented to her by Voq, whose personality resurfaces within Tyler and threatens Burnham’s life.
It’s not easy, even in our world, to value life; though it is simple to say that we do. While wrath, enslavement, and betrayal rarely appear in such dramatic ways in our daily lives as they do to Burnham, the struggle to remember in a tangible way that those around us are valuable still pops up. It’s in how we decide whether to respect or objectify people around us; or how we’re kind or dismissive toward people we view as “less than” us; or how we listen to or rage at those who have wronged us.
Don’t worry, it’s not just you. It happens to everyone. Unfortunately, the more we bury our heart, the more we fail the challenge to respect others, the easier it gets to pass as someone who doesn’t value life. Sadly, we’re not just killing the person we really are: no, the person we were created to be is long since dead.
Fears of Humanity
“We’re all human here. We all start with the same drive, the same needs. Maybe none of us, no matter what world we’re from, really know what darkness is waiting inside.”
The person we were created to be wasn’t disrespectful, dishonoring, or dismissive. But that person died a long time ago. Instead, the empty darkness waiting inside us bubbles up fear to consume us, and to turn us into someone who embraces those fears and rejects the inherent value of others.
In the mirror universe, Burnham faces ghosts from her past life in literal flesh: the captain and mother figure that she betrayed is the Emperor in this universe, and she’ll have to betray her again. The Klingon who sought to continue T’Kuvma’s xenophobic crusade has been sharing her bed, and she’ll have to fight him again. Even mirror-Saru is in a position to haunt Burnham in this episode. She’s well within her rights to feel the deep, cavernous pit of fear.
Now, this might be the point where you glance at the site’s name and assume I’m about to tell you that “Jesus can fill up that place and end all our fear!” And, sure, He can. I believe that. But it doesn’t happen with everyone, at least not right away; instead, for a lot of people, fear grows.
And our fear provokes us to stop valuing others. “I’m afraid that if I lose this argument on Facebook, people will think I’m stupid,” so we become rude and disrespectful. “I’m afraid that my grievance of this problem won’t be correctly heard by God,” so we hold grudges and rage at others. “I’m afraid that I won’t get there in time,” so we cut someone off on the road. In the words of a green creature from the wrong Sci-Fi franchise, “fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate…leads to suffering.”
Fear is at the root of every sin. It causes us to devalue others. And like the crew of an off-course starship, it can seem like there’s no way out.
Finding Our Way Back
“We are stranded in a cruel anarchic world, but we are still Starfleet. We still live and die by Federation law.”—Saru
Burnham hasn’t escaped the fear by the end of the episode, but she has faced it three times and defeated it each time. While she isn’t yet in the light, she’s recognized and opposed the darkness of hopelessness in her heart.
But more than that, Burnham finds ways to subvert the mirror universe: in trying to save the rebels and learn the ability to lasting peace, in naming mirror-Saru to give him dignity and worth, and even snatching victory from defeat by using Tyler/Voq’s execution to send the Defiant information to the Discovery. Time and again, she finds a way to value life by repurposing death. Even amongst this horrible place and these horrible people, even as an exile from her own universe, Burnham’s core, guiding principles—her identity—will get her back. She learns to be in, but not of, this universe.
Your core identity can keep you going, too. You don’t need to be afraid, no matter what universe you’re in, because God has tethered you with the promises of the Gospel against the terrifying abyss; so revel in the safety and identity that the Gospel provides. It may not be easy, but there is a Power which can fuel us to subvert the evil around us, and use its darkness death against itself; to value others as ourselves.
• • •
Trektember is an annual series about Star Trek; this year, we’re examining the first seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville. For more information on this series, click here; or, to read every article from the beginning, click here!