How Star Trek's Mirror Universe Found New Life

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On October 6, 1967, Star Trek: The Original Series introduced its viewers to a whole new universe in the episode "Mirror, Mirror." The episode's premise is that a transporter malfunction causes Captain Kirk and his crewmates to swap places with their doppelgangers from a parallel timeline. In that universe, the United Federation of Planets does not exist. Instead, the Terran Empire reigns, and the crew of that empire's ISS Enterprise are as ruthless and ambitious as their counterparts on the USS Enterprise are curious and compassionate. As was typical of television of the era, the plot resolves itself by the episode's end, with each character returned to their original universe. Kirk even manages to convince the mirror universe's Spock, with his iconic goatee, to bring reform to the Terran Empire, moving it towards the principals of the Federation. "Mirror, Mirror" became one of Star Trek's best-known episodes. The idea of a parallel "dark" universe has since popped up elsewhere in popular culture and growing a goatee became playful shorthand for turning evil.

Decades after "Mirror, Mirror" debuted, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine returned to the Mirror Universe in several episodes, revealing that Spock's reforms led to the Terran Empire's fall and the rise of an equally cruel alliance of Klingons and Cardassians. The prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise also paid the Mirror Universe a visit in the two-part episode "In a Mirror, Darkly," the first episode set entirely in the Mirror Universe with no crossover from the show's main characters.

(Photo: Art created by J.K. Woodward for Star TreK: The Next Generation – Mirror Broken, IDW Publishing)

Star Trek: Discovery made the Mirror Universe relevant again by making it a focal point of its first season. However, arguably, the Mirror Universe has nowhere been more thoroughly explored than in Star Trek's recent tie-in media. The multiplayer video game Star Trek Online, developed by Cryptic Studios and published by Perfect World Entertainment, made the Mirror Universe the focus of several new episodic content additions. IDW Publishing has released a series of comics set primarily in that timeline, including one, Succession, that picked up where Discovery left off.

"I think it's been mostly pretty organic," Star Trek comics writer Scott Tipton tells during a group interview, speaking of the bounty of Mirror Universe content now available to Star Trek fans. "And not just us and not just Star Trek Online. Discovery has been dipping their toes in that water too. I think it's just this rich mine of material to play with these characters."

Scott and his brother David Tipton have worked together on many Star Trek comics since IDW took over the license in 2006. As he alludes to, something that makes the Mirror Universe appealing for tie-in media writers is that it remains relatively unexplored compared to Star Trek's prime timeline.

"Because there have been Star Trek comics for so many years, finding a new area that hasn't been explored can be tricky," Scott Tipton explains. "And this was a huge area that hadn't been touched on."

But, as Scott explains, there's also the appeal of being able to get away with certain things in the Mirror Universe that wouldn't fly in Star Trek's more idyllic prime timeline. "You know these characters so well, but I know for us, when we're writing Star Trek, normal Star Trek, you want to be true to [Star Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry's utopia," he explains. "It's the perfect world. You want to keep that. But doing that means there's some emotions and some motivations you can never explore. And in the Mirror Universe, you can. People can be bastards. People can be greedy. People can want things. And getting to take the characters that we know so well, but give them this new perspective based on that environment is just so much fun, I think, for the readers and for us to write."

But there's a trick to characterizing Mirror Universe characters. "They're not just simply evil," David Tipton explains. "They have a certain dark ambition to them, that I think gives a different turn to storytelling that I think people find interesting because it's not what they expect from Star Trek. It's in some ways the opposite. But it's not a black and white opposite, it's a matter of unbridled ambition, of what people can do when they push themselves and their own self-interest as far as they can. I think that's part of that interest in the Mirror Universe, it's a turning of what you expect from Star Trek."

That approach applies to how Star Trek Online treats the Mirror Universe. For example, the game's writers and designers needed to take a nuanced approach while introducing Marshall Janeway, the mirror universe version of Star Trek: Voyager's Capt. Kathryn Janeway (voiced by Voyager star Kate Mulgrew), to the game in its most recent update.

(Photo: Marshall Janeway in Star Trek Online)

"They're not heroes, they're not paragons of virtue, but they are also people that are living in a pretty hard place," Star Trek Online writer Paul Reed says. "But I think that we contrast the behavior of characters that aren't the main focus of the story and make them be the real villains, the real hardcore, bad people, and then showing how people that are in the main focal point of the story deal with them, keep them from stabbing them in the back, keep them from doing really horrible things.

"And also, the way we looked at Janeway is, yeah, she's ruthless and much more military than a Starfleet officer would be, but she's also not dumb. She's not just going to go around going, 'Okay, everybody have a duel every five seconds,' and, 'Let's just go commit genocide because we've because we can.' From a military strategist's point of view, that's not wise. And that was why we wanted to not make her a Republic serial movie villain. We wanted to make her have a little more depth and a little more savvy. For someone to live and survive that long and to get that far in the Terran Empire and not do it by being a vile backstabber, I think, was where we wanted to show Janeway there."

The recent boom in Mirror Universe stories began in 2017. That's the same year that Star Trek: Discovery premiered, bringing Star Trek back to television for the first time in more than a decade. But months before Discovery's first season debuted, IDW Publishing began serializing Star Trek: The Next Generation -- Mirror Broken, a comic book starring the Mirror Universe versions of The Next Generation's cast.

"That came directly from CBS," Scott Tipton says. "CBS worked with our frequent collaborator, J.K. Woodward, to create the Next Generation mirror characters because Next Gen was the only one that never got the mirror treatment. So CBS and J.K. came up with all these great designs visually, and then they came to us and said, 'Here they are. What's the story?' Fantastic for us. So then we could just look at what they come up with and then go from there."

That first series proved successful enough to spawn sequels. After Mirror Broken, the Tiptons worked with a group of artists on the follow-up series Through the Mirror, released in 2018, and pitted the original TNG crew against their Mirror Universe doppelgangers. The Tiptons wrote a third series, Terra Incognita, released in 2019 and saw one of the mirror universe characters, Reginald Barclay, remaining in the prime timeline and posing as his counterpart.

"Mirror Barclay was just a gift," David Tipton says. The prime timeline's Barclay was a recurring guest star on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a gifted but socially awkward engineer aboard the Enterprise-D played by Dwight Schultz. "We liked him so much and he was so much fun to write, that we made him a big part of the main series and forged this relationship between him and Data that became really a load bearing wall for the whole series."

(Photo: J.K. Woodward's Mirror Universe Next Generation Characters)

Star Trek Online dabbled in the Mirror Universe as far back as 2015 when they introduced the Mirror Universe version of Leeta, a recurring but relatively minor character working at the space station's bar in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Star Trek Online brought Leeta's original actress, Chase Masterson, to voice Mirror Leeta (and later, original Leeta) in the game, playing a version of the character much more accustomed to frontline combat as an officer of the Terran Empire.

With Discovery's foray into the Mirror Universe, new opportunities have arisen. Star Trek Online introduced the mirror version of fan-favorite character Sylvia Tilly, a.k.a. Captain "Killy," in the 2019 expansion Mirror of Discovery. She (voiced by Tilly's Discovery actress Mary Wiseman) and Leeta are central to the game's most recent seasonal story update, Shadow's Advance.

Recent updates allowed the developers at Cryptic Studios to take Star Trek Online's Mirror Universe experience up a notch in a way players didn't see coming. Previously, players had only met the mirror versions of NPCs, like Leeta, Killy, and Marshall Janeway. But the Reflections update ended with a shocking moment where players met the mirror version of their Star Trek Online captain -- the character they created, customized, and have been playing as in the game -- called the Inquisitor.

"We brought in the Mirror player at the end of the previous episode, in a cliffhanger cut-scene, where they just walk on the bridge and look evil," Reed says. "They don't even speak, they just walk on the bridge and look evil. And people lost their minds. They're like, 'Is that Mirror me? That's Mirror me. There's an evil me. Why don't I have a goatee? What's going on here?' So, we got some really good buzz on that. And originally, we were just like, 'Let's keep going with this.' So, we definitely added more lore to the Inquisitor and give people the opportunity to actually play the evil version of themselves."

"I think one of the fun things about Star Trek Online is we get to have it both ways," adds Star Trek Online associate art director Thomas Marrone, "where we have the player character, and then we spend a lot of time and technology getting to the point where we create a Mirror version of your character, which is really hard because everybody's character in Star Trek Online is customizable.So they have their own face and head and uniform and stuff, but we figured out a way to make a Mirror version of that."

(Photo: Perfect World Entertainment)

These are not the first instances of Star Trek's expanded media delving into the Mirror Universe. DC Comics published "The Mirror Universe Saga," set between the third and fourth Star Trek movies, in 1984 (IDW recently released a new collection of the fan-favorite storyline). Diane Duane first introduced a version of the Mirror Universe crew in the 1993 novel Dark Mirror. Pocket Books released a whole line of Mirror Universe fiction books, beginning with 2007's Glass Empires. Even William Shatner, who starred as Kirk in the original "Mirror, Mirror," wrote a trilogy of Mirror Universe-themed novels starring both Kirk and Picard, beginning with 1998's Spectre.

But there's something special about the current era of Star Trek tie-ins. Those earlier Mirror Universe stories each offered a version of that universe and its inhabitants that often conflicted with the others. Currently, there's much more focus and coordination between people working on the franchise. This previously manifested with the first crossover collaboration between Star Trek Online and IDW, bringing the comic book villain J'Ula into Star Trek Online with the Age of Discovery update. They're collaborating again on the Mirror Universe, with the game adding several starship designs first seen in IDW's Mirror Universe comic books, helping to create a definitive mirror universe aesthetic.

"When we launched our newest mirror story arc, we upgraded a lot of our mirror assets in the game to use the mirror logo that [the Tiptons and Woodward] came up with for the mirror TNG," says Marrone. "We put the Enterprise-D Galaxy-Dreadnought that's in the comics into the game. I modeled that and put that in the game, but it was very specifically the one from IDW that J.K. made for his comics. It's been cool to work from stuff that was really concepted in a very tight way and bring that together and say, 'No, this is what the mirror stuff looks like.' And I think that's what's exciting about working on a big universe like Star Trek is we can riff off what they're doing and tie it all together so that people if they play the game and see that Galaxy-Dreadnought, and they've also read the comic, that it's all tied in, or if they read the comic and they're like, 'Oh, that ship is cool. I wish I could play it in Star Trek Online,' well, now you can; just giving people different ways to experience all this stuff together in a shared universe."

What's next for the mirror universe? The Tiptons are in the middle of their biggest mirror universe story yet, The Mirror War, which sees the Mirror Universe's Captain Picard leading the ISS Enterprise crew of the 24th century on a dangerous quest to restore the Terran Empire to its former height.

"For as long as we've been writing the series, Picard has had this vision of building this armada to return the Terran Empire to glory," Scott Tipton teases. "And it's been a long fight. It's been four series now. And maybe now he's at the cusp of getting it. Now that he's got it, how is he going to handle it? Can he deal with it right? Can he get it off the ground? Is he so close to finally getting it and are there still mechanics in play that are going to stop him? That's where we're at right now, is he's so close."

For Star Trek Online, Shadow's Advance ended with another cliffhanger that's likely to have players sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the next update. [SPOILER WARNING for anyone who hasn't played Shadow's Advance yet.]

(Photo: Perfect World Entertainment)

"One of the things that we've been hinting at the end of each episode in our current mirror story is there's a big almost like the Marvel post-credits cliffhanger, where you get a little taste, a little seed of what's coming down the road," Reed says. "So previously we showed the mirror player, walking onto the bridge and everybody went, 'Ah, it's me. Bad me. Goatee me.'

"In this one, we find out that for whatever reason, the Terran Empire -- specifically, the Emperor -- wants to acquire someone from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is Ilia. And basically there is, 'Why does he want Ilia? How is Ilia here? Didn't Ilia go somewhere else at the end of the first movie?' So that's the big question that will be answered. So, stay tuned because there is definitely a mystery that we've been slowly unraveling with each episode."

It's a good time to enjoy the darker version of the Star Trek universe. From the sounds of it, there are still plenty more Mirror Universe stories to come.

Star Trek: The Next Generation -- Mirror Broken, Through the Mirror, and Terra Incognita are available digitally or collected into a single volume, Star Trek: The Next Generation: Mirror Universe Collection, from IDW Publishing. IDW is currently serializing the follow-up to those stories, Star Trek: The Mirror War, with the fifth issue of the eight-issue series arriving on April 6th.

Star Trek Online is available to download for free on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. In January, the game celebrated its 12th anniversary with the debut of its 25th season, Shadow's Advance.

Star Trek: Discovery's first season, which deals with the mirror universe, is streaming now on Paramount+. All classic Star Trek episodes, including "Mirror, Mirror," "In a Mirror, Darkly," and Deep Space Nine's Mirror Universe episodes, are also streaming on Paramount+.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.