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Star Trek: "The Changeling" / "Mirror, Mirror"

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It's been a weird week. One of those "if necessity led to invention, I would've mothered myself up a time machine" weeks. Six different books to read, TV shows up the wazoo (which makes them very difficult to review, by the way), and a nasty toothache that, one dentist appointment and negative 186 bucks later, I now know is caused by a rotted out wisdom tooth. So I've got that to look forward to. But hey life of crime, can't complain. As much as it may sound like I'm bitching, I'm more trying to justify the fact that I still haven't seen the new Star Trek movie. In fact, there's a good chance I won't see it till Sunday. If then!

I'm a little blue, no question. I guess I'll just have to settle for this week's classic Trek double injection, "The Changeling" and "Mirror, Mirror." No flashy new effects, lens flares, or over-priced popcorn for this nerd. Just good old fashioned plywood sets and melodrama, and, okay, a bit of camp. As consolation prizes go, I could do a good deal worse; plus, the tooth doesn't hurt so bad, and it's gonna be the weekend soon. Let's do this thing.

In a weird way, it is kind of relevant to cover "Changeling" now, because the premise—a space probe merges with another probe, gets incredible powers, and starts a'killing—actually served as inspiration for the first Trek movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Further Adventures of Kirk, Spock, and That Guy You've Never Met Before Who's Someday Gonna Be On Seventh Heaven. But while the movie used the idea to treat audiences to some vaguely 2001-ish setpieces and an ending that managed to disturb in just the same amounts as it inspired, the original episode had more modest intentions, even if it didn't reduce its scope.

The Enterprise is investigating a distress call sent out from the Malurian system. It's a group of populated planets, including a human science outpost, but a sensor sweep of the area indicates exactly zero life readings—that's 4 billion Malurians vanished without a trace. (Surely it can't be that easy to scan an entire system for evidence of life? Neither Spock nor Kirk seem at all doubtful of the readings, beyond a basic incredulity at their implications; I can't imagine how one would even go about designed a scanning system that could read a whole planet from orbit, let alone half a dozen of them.) Before anyone can wrap their minds around the situation, the Enterprise is attacked by a series of energy bolts equivalent to 90 photon torpedoes. The shields hold up initially, but it's a good thing when Spock manages to find the only object left in the area capable of firing the bolts—an object about one meter in length, and 500 kilograms in weight (how do you weigh something in a vacuum?). They make contact, interpret it's complex, binary based response, and Kirk gives the standard, "We mean you no harm, I'm Captain James T. Kirk, please don't kill us" speech. After some more negotiations, the energy attack ceases, and the object, whatever it is, invites itself inside.

Everyone on the bridge had assumed the object was some kind of space-craft; which seems logical, given that's the sort of thing one would expect to encounter in space. But what they beam aboard is something else; a space probe that looks a bit like the Tin Man minus arms and legs. The probe floats slowly through the air, talks in a monotone, and asks a lot of questions. It calls itself Nomad, and it has a mission: to scan for biological infestations, and destroy all which are imperfect. Judging by the recently exterminated Malurians, Nomad is very dedicated to the cause.

"Changeling" is spent largely on Kirk and Spock trying to figure out what the hell Nomad really is, and then underestimating it so it can kill a few red shirts and float along its merry way. The name is familiar to them, as it's the same name as a space probe sent out from Earth in the 2000's. (The movie version uses a real life Voyager spacecraft, which is cooler.) Thing is, that Nomad was reported destroyed by a meteor; and besides, it's only purpose was to catalog life. Nothing about destroying it. Eventually, after Spock mind melds with the machine (this is the first time the mind meld seemed on the silly side, and a little too easy, story-wise), they realize that what they've got is the original Nomad, combined with a probe from another galaxy, with enough power to make it dangerous to anything it deems unworthy of existence.

That's just about anything. The first time Kirk and Spock leave Nomad on its own (there's a guy in the room, but while he doesn't get killed, he doesn't do a lot of good), the machine hears Uhura singing over the communicator and finds its way up to the bridge to figure out what the sound is. Uhura, understandably startled by the thing's questions, isn't able to provide a satisfactory response, so Nomad reads her mind—wiping it clean in the process. When Scotty tries to intervene, Nomad kills him.

Now that's a surprise. The Uhura mind-wipe and Scotty's murder are the sort of things you expect to happen to guest stars, not the regular cast. Of course, it all gets worked out; Nomad has decided that Kirk is its creator, and realizing that Kirk isn't too happy about Scotty being dead, offers to "fix" him. A few minutes of study on biology, and it does just that—it's a remarkable display of power that, like basically everything else Nomad does, goes nowhere. "Changeling"'s biggest flaw is that it inflates the numbers: Nomad isn't just exterminating life, it's already killed 4 billion life forms. And not only can it kill, it can also resurrect (although I'm betting the Malurians are gone for good). And not only can it streamline the ship's engines, it can shoot them to warp speeds (all the way up to 10!) that even Scotty considers "impossible."

Making Nomad powerful makes sense—the more of a threat it is, the more interested we are in finding out where it came from, and how Kirk and the others are going to deal with it. But raise the numbers too high, and they become meaningless. I keep going back to 4 billion; that's an entire race, wiped out, and once past the opening scene, nobody seems to give a damn. Hell, we even get a new danger, that Nomad is planning on going to Earth, as though the fact that it had already killed hundreds of millions and more was irrelevant when compared to the possibility that humans could die. Maybe Malurians liked to eat children, I dunno. Maybe everyone's glad they're dead.

As for Uhura… It's great to see Nichelle Nichols getting more to do, but the whole subplot of McCoy and Nurse Chapel having to re-educate her from square one is goofy. It only takes them two weeks (if that) to get the job done, which makes you wonder why anybody bothers with public schooling anymore; if someone with no knowledge can go from zero to the bridge in that short a time, does that mean that in the future, high school takes about a day? Uhura apparently remembers her Swahilli just fine, for some reason—either Chapel taught it to her first, or she just retained it, and either way, it makes you wonder if she has any personality left. Unsurprisingly, the whole re-education process is never mentioned again, and Uhura is exactly the same next week as she's been all the other weeks.

"Changeling" is fun, but with Uhura's brain-wipe and the general laziness in regards to Nomad's powers, it's not as good as it might have been. Thankfully, the resolution works well. It's been copied so often that it's probably familiar even if you've never seen it before. After ill-advisedly confessing that he's imperfect (Spock reaction shot!) Kirk forces Nomad to realize that it, too, is imperfect (it mistook "Kirk" for "Roykirk," the real creator), and as such, must be exterminated. Nomad freaks out, Spock and security get it into the transporter room, and beam it out into space right before it explodes. Problem solved. Of course, there's still time for the button scene, so Spock can express regret that a genocidal, insane robot had to be destroyed. Y'know, normally I'm on his side, but this time, he's on his own.

The logic argument Kirk uses on Nomad has been parodied more than a few times, but it's nothing compared to (akward segue in 3…2…) "Mirror, Mirror," the first parallel dimension episode in the history of Trek, and the first time anyone thought to share the valuable information that facial hair = evil. (I had a goattee for a year in college. Let's just say, there's a certain sub-basement in the East dorm that nobody goes to anymore. Mostly 'cause I peed in the corners. A lot.) It's hard to judge exactly how influential the episode is; the idea,  presuming opposite versions of iconic characters to contrast them against the originals and give the actors a chance to go batshit, seems almost inevitable, like a sitcom where a pregnant woman gives birth in some place that isn't a hospital, or a doctor show where somehow dresses like a clown. It's too perfect not to have happened eventually.

Inevitable or not, "Mirror, Mirror" was one of the first (was there an earlier version of the idea? anybody?), and even forty years later, it's still a blast. Kirk, McCoy, Uhura, and Scotty are finishing a meeting planetside with the Halkan Council, a pacifist group that refuses to let Starfleet mine their lithium crystals for fear of what would be done with all that power. (The Halkan's are supposed to be peaceful, noble beings, but they come across as willfully naive idiots here; object to Starfleet's mining for environmental or specific political reasons, but to say "Don't do that because you may someday be bad!" is overlooking the fact that Starfleet's had crystals for quite some time already.) An ion storm hits the Enterprise just as Kirk and the others try and beam home, and they get diverted along the way, coming into focus in a transporter room that's different from their own in a number of subtle ways. For one, there's a symbol on the doors that's an Earth with a sword stuck through it. And everybody's got new, freakier uniforms. Uhura's sort of wearing a bikini.

Also—Spock has a goattee.

Ooooo. Chills, right?

Everything's changed—sort of—because we're now on the I.S.S. Enterprise, a ship where discipline is extreme and the only real method of advancement is through assassinating your superior officer. Plus, everybody's got that fascist-like salute down pat, and you know that can't be good. Chekov's a back-stabbing sociopath, Sulu's the head of Security and a probable rapist, and Spock? Weeeelll, he's basically still Spock. Only now he's lacking that slight tinge of warmth that makes him so charming in the "real" world."

It's impressive (and a little unnerving) how quickly Kirk manages to adjust to the current circumstances. He inadvertently orders a photon bombardment on the still reluctant Halkans (I guess when you only have the one character trait, you don't get to reverse it in Evil Land), and manages to not immediately expose himself when he finds out what's happening. That's not to say he doesn't find another way to help the morons on the planet below; one of the more unusual aspects of "Mirror," at least to modern eyes, is how the heroes don't ever question their instincts, even when they're in a universe where those instincts would be considered perverse. So Kirk and everybody dedicate themselves to getting back home and keeping the Halkans alive. Doesn't matter that these aren't their Halkans, doesn't matter that the main governing body demands these Halkans get toasted. A life is a life, and by golly, it isn't getting dead on Kirk's watch.

"Mirror" doesn't waste a lot of time on figuring things out; with a little (very little) help from the computer, Kirk deduces they were thrown off course by the ion storm, and that their evil counterparts are back on the "real" Enterprise. (We get one great scene with our Spock dealing with a confused, outraged evil Kirk. The bad guys were caught immediately; as Spock points out later, it's easier for a civilized man to pretend he's a barbarian than for a barbarian to figure out which is the salad fork.) The computer comes up with a plan that let everyone get back to where they belong, which leaves each of our heroes with a mission: Uhura's got to go back to the bridge and distract Sulu, whose already made his intentions her way more than clear; McCoy and Scotty have to go to engineering and set up the computer's plans; and Kirk's got to stay alive long enough to make sure all of this goes down.

There's a lot of cleverness in this episode, from the uniform designs ("Make the women's outfits sluttier!") to the various modes of punishment—personnel carry "agonizers," which hurt like hell when turned on, and there's also the agony booth, which presumably hurts like a really painful hell, one of those crazy Chinese ones involving papercuts and rotting wisdom teeth. (Sorry. Bitter.) The politics are also well done; in a few scenes, we realize that loyalty counts for nothing and everybody's always looking for a weak spot (when Kirk stalls on attacking, Chekov immediately takes it as a signal to move in for the kill). Maybe in this universe, the Halkans refusal to cooperate isn't so foolish after all.

About the only person who isn't operating under the pressure of their worst instincts is Spock, and here's another thing to like about "Mirror": it turns out that in a evil universe, Spock has lost none of his intelligence. He's not actively gunning for Kirk, because he doesn't want to be made captain. He's fine as the Science Officer, and has no interest in dodging assassination attempts. Evil Spock is the only person on the I.S.S. that figures out what's going on—well, him and Marlena. And it's not like Spock got to kiss Kirk before he made up his mind.

Marlena is the only major character in this episode who doesn't truly have a "real world" analog. Sure, the goody nice version shows up at the end (you can tell she's nice because she's got her hair towered up), but the first we see of her is in the "evil" universe, although "evil" doesn't really apply here. She's just a "captain's woman," as she calls it, using sex to protect herself and gain favor when regular old talent and smarts don't seem to do the trick. It's not a bad character, and you feel a bit sad for her when Kirk won't take her along on their return trip; but since that would probably mean yanking the other Marlena from her home, it's not really an option.

With all the metaphysical craziness that's going on, it's easy to forgot what's probably the episode's loopiest creation: the Tantalus Field. Marlena shows it to our Kirk—it's a small screen that lets him observe anyone, apparently anywhere, and kill them with the touch of a button. How it works, who the hell knows. Evil Kirk stole it from an alien inventor, and he used it to rise to power. But things are probably going to be difficult for him when he arrives home at the end of the episode. Good Kirk, showing the same commitment to purpose he's shown every other time he's stumbled across a society he doesn't like, urges the Evil Spock to take action against the illogic of Starfleet and the evil Empire; and to show him he has the power to fight and win, Kirk tells Spock about the Tantalus Field. (Kind of makes you wonder what's going to happen to Marlena afterwards. Two people with a secret can be a dangerous thing.)

By the end, everyone is back where they should be; the computer's projections worked, Kirk convinces Spock to let them go home, and, presumably, the Evil Kirk is getting a righteous helping of just desserts. We even have a final scene where Spock gets the last laugh."Mirror" is a great example of an episode whose strengths make it easy to look past the occasionally static blocking and plot holes. (It may not be a plot hole, but I'm always confused by the fact that Kirk and the others beam into the other universe wearing their alternatives' clothes. Is this some sort of Quantum Leap thing?) It's hugely influential, thrilling, and, sure, a little silly. I wouldn't want it any other way.

"The Changeling": B+
"Mirror, Mirror": A

Stray Observations:

  • It's ridiculously inappropriate in context with the rest of the episode, but Kirk's "My son, the doctor," gag at the end of "Changeling" is quite funny.
  • In a nod to continuity, it's revealed that the evil Kirk killed Captain Christopher Pike in order to take control of the Enterprise.
  • Apparently, in Evil Land, Vulcans are nasty revengers.
  • Next week, we take a bite of "The Apple," and try and outwit "The Doomsday Machine."