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Star Trek: Alternate Realities

(US DVD: 16 Sep 2008)

One of the obvious pleasures of futuristic science fiction is the invitation to dream and imagine alongside the authors. What kind of society or societies will humanity create? What choices and events might lead us to fashion such worlds? Can I live in this future or would I prefer not to?


At its core, Star Trek offers an optimistic view of the human species: different races, ethnicities, and genders working together in harmony; humans working alongside those from other planets; science and technology deployed to eliminate material want; human society dedicated to the exploration of the self and the universe. It’s a charming, sort of 19th century naïve Marxist or anarchist view of the future.


Perhaps in recognition of the inherent limits to such an outlook, or maybe just in acknowledgment that speculation lies at the heart of what makes Star Trek appealing, the franchise’s creators and producers have always chosen to experiment with detours for their characters, transposing them, and sometimes the universe, into radically different circumstances from what they, and the audience, know. The Alternate Realities Collective compiles a selection of these episodes from the franchise’s five series.


The episodes are grouped into four categories: “Mirror Universe”, which includes six installments taken from The Original Series (TOS), Deep Space Nine (DS9), and Enterprise, all springing from TOS’ “Mirror, Mirror”; “Parallel Dimensions”, the smallest selection at two episodes, one from TOS and one fromThe Next Generation (TNG); “Twisted Realities”, which collects four episodes from TOS, TNG, and Voyager; and “Alternate Lives”, the largest category at eight episodes, including at least one from each of the post-TOS shows.


As exemplified by “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “The Inner Light”, both from TNG and both included in “Alternate Lives”, the very best of these selections are character-driven, with a focus on exploring how series regulars would act and react if either they lived different lives, and were, therefore, essentially different people, or the circumstances of the universe shifted while they remained unchanged (sometimes, as in “The Inner Light”, both of these alternatives are posited).


“Yesterday’s Enterprise” is “high Trek” at its best, posing big questions, and addressing matters related to canon, but doing so in ways that are grounded in hard, concrete choices that characters have to make. Here the tough choices are made by Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and another Enterprise Captain, Rachel Garrett (Tricia O’Neil).


The set up here is simple and classic science fiction: a rift opens in space-time, allowing the Enterprise-C, commanded by Garrett, to enter the reality of Picard’s Enterprise-D, thereby changing the historical trajectory for the contemporary ship and its crew. Specifically, the older Enterprise has exited its own space-time in a crucial moment for Federation-Klingon relations, one where Garrett and her crew demonstrate valor and sacrifice on behalf of a Klingon outpost under attack by Romulans.


Responding to alarms raised by Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), Picard entertains the idea that the Enterprise-C needs to be sent back to “its” timeline in the hopes that completing its fight alongside the Klingons will avert a protracted war between that species’ Empire and the Federation.


Little time is spent on the physics behind this scenario, with a preference given to debate over the implications of different choices. Most tellingly, Picard ultimately favors sending the Enterprise-C back through the spatio-temporal rift in no small measure because the war is not going well for the Federation. He also sends Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) with the older ship because Guinan insists that in the reality where the older ship completed its fight, she dies a meaningless death (see “Skin of Evil” from TNG, season one). Yar decides that this is a chance to change her story.


There is little pretense in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” that any of the decisions regarding how to resolve the sudden appearance of the Enterprise-C, or how to regard Guinan’s insistence on the wrongness of things, are easy. Nor are they reduced to their scientific or technological dimensions. These questions are ultimately, and somewhat radically, regarded as one of consequences. On the one hand, the chosen course of action works to restore normality to Trek as we know it,  with only Guinan, initially at least, any the wiser. However, the decision to send Tasha Yar into the relative past ends up having unintended consequences that are revealed later in TNG, starting with season four’s “The Mind’s Eye”.


Whereas “Yesterday’s Enterprise” invokes the fate of species and governments, as well as those of individuals, “The Inner Light” is a more intimate character study.


After the Enterprise encounters an alien probe, Picard is “transported” to a planet where he learns to live the life of an adult male of another, albeit very human-like, species. The episode spends most of its time with the Enterprise captain as he adjusts to his new identity, though without ever losing his memory of being Picard. At the conclusion, the probe is revealed to have been a device through which the residents of the alien planet, Kataan, hoped to have their existence preserved through an encounter with someone who could carry their culture into the future and share it with others long after their planet was destroyed by a supernova.


This is a remarkably affecting episode, and one that places the idea of alternate realities in highly personal terms, not to mention highlighting the value of having an actual Shakespearean actor in the lead role (just watch TOS’ “Turnabout Intruder” in the “Twisted Realities” section for comparison and you’ll see what I mean).


If “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “The Inner Light” show the best of what this collection has to offer, then Voyager‘s “Course: Oblivion”, also from “Alternate Lives”, is an example of the worst.


As the episode begins, Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) are being wed, and life seems fine, until the traditional wedding rice is shown falling through the floor and the lower decks of Voyager begin to go all wonky. Not long after, B’Elanna falls sick and dies. Eventually, Chakotay (Robert Beltran) and Tuvok (Tim Russ) figure out that Voyager and its crew are not actually Voyager and its crew at all, but copies made from a “bio-mimetic” substance, the “silver blood” from season four’s “Demon”. They reason that the crew and the ship are starting to suffer from inhospitable environmental conditions in space. They need to return home, or reach some other “Class Y” planet where they might be able to halt their disintegration.


Once it is revealed that the ship and crew are copies, the personal stakes in the outcome of the episode are severely diminished. The audience is left to identify not with the characters they know, but with some idea or after-image of those characters. That leaves the big questions about what it means to be human (or maybe what it means to be sentient in a more general sense; it isn’t clear). Judging from the decisions made by duplicate Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), the answer to such questions appears to be, “It means to irrationally commit to a single purpose regardless of evidence suggesting that this is stupid”. As the title of the episode indicates, the duplicate Voyager and its crew dissipate, but not before almost making contact with the “real” ship and its people.


“Course: Oblivion” ends with original Janeway making a note of the other ship’s apparent but mysterious destruction and ordering her Voyager to continue on course. This moment is seemingly meant to be weighted with some kind of poignancy, but falters on the utter pointlessness of the preceding forty-four or so minutes, a pointlessness compounded by an over-reliance on eye rolling faux science and technobabble about Class Y “demon planets” and bio-mimetic fluids for the premise. The elegance, emotional impact, and profundity to be found in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “The Inner Light” are absent here.


The remaining episodes in “Alternate Realities” fall somewhere between the highs of these examples from TNG and the lows in the offering from Voyager. Of those other selections, the ones collected into the “Mirror Universe” category are likely to be of the widest interest to fans. This is the only set-within-the-set based on a common point of reference, the aforementioned “Mirror, Mirror”, an episode made famous by Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) line, “It was far easier for you as civilized men to behave like barbarians than it was for them as barbarians to behave like civilized men”.


The set up for this category is that there is a matching, but turned around, alternate reality to “ours”. Hence, “mirror universe”. In that reality, as suggested by Spock, the Enterprise, instead of belonging to a civilized Federation, is part of a barbarous Empire. By way of a transporter incident, James Kirk (William Shatner), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Scotty (James Doohan), and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), switch places with their mirror universe doppelgangers. They must negotiate their way amongst the barbarians while looking for a way to return to “their” universe, and do likewise for their opposites, who, being uncivilized, are immediately apprehended and locked up when they appear on the “wrong” Enterprise.


The idea of a mirror-image is more difficult to sustain than it might seem at first. After all, what does it mean for someone to be themselves, but also not themselves? In truth, the conceit is inconsistently carried out even in “Mirror, Mirror”. For example, while the Federation is now an evil Empire, the “Halkans”, from whom both Enterprises are tasked to secure dilithium crystals, the fictional element needed for warp drive, are committed pacifists in both realities. Similarly, Spock remains largely the same, the crucial difference being not his own character, but the social rules of the universe in which he applies his oft-cited logic.


The mirror universe idea next appears in DS9, and it is in this series that this particular alternate reality is developed the furthest. Indeed, the episodes included in the collection, “Crossover”, “Through the Looking Glass”, and “Shattered Mirror”, represent only a partial run of relevant offerings.


DS9, already more gray than TOS or TNG when it comes to the Federation, sets aside the opposite number notion inherent in the original concept, and instead presents alternate versions of familiar characters, but not ones that necessarily complete some binary idea of who they are. Enabling this more open-ended way of presenting the mirror universe is the incorporation of the scenario implied in the original episode, which is that the Empire eventually fades away following its transformation by a peace-seeking Spock. Much like individual characters, then, the mirror universe is not so much a turned around reflection, but simply a different reality.


Ultimately, the idea of multiple “mirror” universes is more consistent with the implications of other episodes in the “Alternate Realities Collective” than is the dualistic premise of “Mirror, Mirror” (in addition to “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, key references from the set include: TOS’ “The Alternative Factor”, TNG’s “Parallels”, and Voyager‘s “Timeless”). It is also more in line with the post-Cold War context of the later series. Indeed, in that vein, it’s difficult not to notice how often the included episodes from TOS are based on binary oppositions between realities and forms of character.


The two part “In a Mirror Darkly” from Enterprise starts with a fun idea, treat the mirror universe as the universe of the show, complete with alternate opening credits, but falls short of that initial promise. Most problematically, the episodes seem to have been conceived and written with little regard to what they might imply for “Mirror, Mirror” or DS9. One can, of course, wish away questions about timelines by arguing for the obvious multiplicity of realities in the Trek storyworld, but that’s a weak reason for ignoring glaring dilemmas regarding continuity, especially when there’s little to be done about such matters.


The extras in the “Alternate Realities Collective” include short features for each category of episodes, and a few, seemingly random, commentary tracks. In all, only five of the set’s 20 offerings have commentaries, all from behind the camera contributors.


As alluded to above, this collection is hardly complete in its documentation of alternate realities in Star Trek. Fans of the various series will likely have their own picks for important exclusions. For myself, I had hoped to find TNG’s “Clues” from season four and “Cause and Effect” from season five (the latter can be found in the “Time Travel Fan Collective”, but so is “Yesterday’s Enterprise”). While these cross-series DVD sets are no doubt largely directed at the established fan base, the better episodes included in the “Alternate Realities Collective” rely on widely circulated tropes of speculative science fiction, making them accessible to non-fans, and representing the franchise well.

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Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


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