A Dismal Reflection: Apocalyptic Alternate Realities
When it comes to TV, things are always at risk of getting stale; if a series has a twenty episode season, for example, then a savvy viewer might realize that the lead actor’s character won’t die in episode 10. Characters rarely die at all, in fact, and permanent injuries mean permanent makeup (just ask Coulson how long he went one-handed). Even sets are rarely destroyed, since so much money goes into building them; with so little seemingly at stake (usually), it can be easy for the audience to stop seeing the enemies as threatening. How can you show the danger posed by our enemies without upsetting the status quo? Enter sci-fi’s favorite trick, the parallel universe/alternate timeline, where events and circumstances differ from the primary setting of the show in specific ways. By using these familiar-yet-strange settings, the writers can explore facets of the characters and the world in which they live that would usually be unavailable: how they might react to the destruction of their home, or the death of a critical character. Better still, since this alternate world is only around for an episode or two, massive changes to the status quo can be made, giving the writers a chance to explore apocalyptic themes that are usually out of reach.
What? No, it’s an utter coincidence I’m writing about apocalypses the same week as the election…
You can’t talk about apocalyptic alternate worlds without mentioning the Star Trek TOS episode, “Mirror, Mirror.” Captain Kirk, Uhura, Scotty, and Doctor McCoy are sent into what would come to be known as the Mirror Universe by a transporter accident. The peaceful and benevolent Federation has been replaced by the brutal and dystopian Terran Empire. The humans of this universe are selfish and manipulative; numerous assassination attempts are made on our crew during their brief visit. We see the Mirror counterparts of the other characters, who are shockingly antithetical to their ordinary personalities: mild-mannered Sulu is a cutthroat security chief who personally attacks Kirk, and Chekov’s youthful enthusiasm turns vicious and power hungry. Only Spock remains relatively unchanged, though even he is far more willing to do harm. The paranoid atmosphere of backstabbing and power worship that the Terran Empire cultivated turned even the most upstanding people into monsters, by our standards. A culture of fear pervades every aspect of life: superior officers must be ready to fend off mutiny at any moment, while lower-ranked soldiers can be tortured on a whim. Both groups are threatened with the possibility of constant surveillance, as spies and listening devices exist everywhere in an Orwellian fashion. The Terran Empire is the repressive and dictatorial future that people have feared for centuries – the worst aspects of humanity made manifest, such that nothing is left of the good. The original Mirror Universe is pure ’60’s, representing the fear and paranoia left over from the Red Scare and the constant threat of cold war annihilation.
But that wasn’t all for the Mirror Universe; the history of the Terran Empire was explored in Enterprise‘s “In a Mirror, Darkly.” Set over 100 years earlier, we’re shown that this culture of fear has existed for centuries, and likely always has; Phlox, comparing the history of the Prime and Mirror Earths, notes that minor cultural differences seem to go back millennia. But the Mirror Universe wasn’t dredged up just for fun throwbacks; instead, Enterprise recasts the Mirror Universe at this earlier time through the lens of post-9/11 fears of terrorism. During this period, the Empire is being menaced by terrorist attacks from rebelling slaves – slaves that include Federation members and allies, like Vulcans. The Empire deals with rebels and sleeper agents through creative new forms of torture, devised by applying the doctor’s medical knowledge in unethical ways. The torture method used on the alien Tholian is basically a direct metaphor for waterboarding, in that they deprive the subject of something needed for survival in order to get information. Characters wield their sexuality as a weapon, upping the ante on the prior story by establishing a world where even love and sex do not come without fear. Unlike “Mirror, Mirror”, where the alternate versions of the main characters survived the episode, many of the alternate characters die this time – Captain Archer, Phlox, T’Pol, Reed, and even the alternates of recurring characters like Admiral Forrest and Soval are killed, leaving only three named characters alive before the episode ends. The world is left in the hands of tyranny for over a century more, and it leaves viewers with an even more crushingly bleak view of the Empire’s outlook.
There are dozens of other Trek examples: “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and its look at just how much the Federation benefits from peace with the Klingons; Voyager‘s “Year of Hell” and its message of flying in the face of a higher power (in a non-religious sense). Deep Space 9 looked at the Mirror Universe as well, but tried its own hand at the modern apocalyptic with its episode “Past Tense,” showing the US circa 2024 constructing elaborate slum districts. But we can look wider–while Doctor Who is about a character who lives his life on the precipice, the show doesn’t really dwell on the consequences of failure until the episode “Turn Left.” In a horrible world without the Doctor around to stop further calamities, numerous other sacrifices are needed–first losing Sarah Jane and Martha at the hospital from “Smith and Jones”; the crashing space Titanic destroys London, with no one aboard capable of stopping it, followed by the Adipose from “Partners in Crime” killing millions; Jack Harkness’s Torchwood crew is wiped out stopping the Sontarans, while Jack himself is abducted for endless torture; and finally, a plan to destroy the universe begins to move ahead, as the stars disappear one at a time. That’s naturally pretty bleak for our heroes, but it gets even worse as the UK government, in its desperation, becomes a totalitarian state, running “labor camps” for refugees (ominously accompanied by the Cyberman motif) and forcibly relocating its citizens. While the particulars of this story are more shaped by in-universe events, the threat of democracy caving in the face of constant attacks from enemies is a very real and modern fear. Rather, the point of the episode is to show the value in what the Doctor does, giving an audience that was becoming jaded with the Doctor’s victories a reminder of what his enemies are capable of. The threats continue to mount, from the destruction of a single building, to a city, to the world, until finally the universe itself is at stake. And to the Doctor, stopping every one of them is important.
We could also look to Stargate SG-1: in “The Road Not Taken,” Samantha Carter is transported to another universe where the Stargate program was revealed to the public after Earth was invaded three years prior–an invasion that our SG-1 had managed to avert. While things seem to be going reasonably well at first, especially compared to other alternate universes (like “There But For the Grace of God” and “2010”), Carter soon discovers things had taken a turn for the worse in the wake of the invasion. While being paraded around after saving them, she sees protests against President Landry, revealing that he invoked martial law and suspended the electoral process. Earth has become an Orwellian dystopia, where any criticism of the powers that be is punished harshly; the Earth has cut ties with its offworld allies and most of the main characters are suffering after refusing to go along with Landry. Again, it’s that very modern fear of sacrificing our every freedom in the vain struggle for safety, but this episode turns it on its head–the real threat isn’t the invasion, but a threat from within. By using a character we know like Landry as the bad guy, it makes the point clear: this is a trap that even good people can fall into, and constant vigilance against tyranny, even well-intentioned, is the only defense.
These apocalyptic alternate worlds all have something in common. They run on fear, rather than freedom. They’re founded in the appeal of safety, even when that safety comes at a high cost (and ultimately, that protective government is at least as dangerous as the original threat). And most importantly, they’re all lacking the positive influence of our heroes. Without their moral strength, their willingness to sacrifice, their ability to stand up to what they know is wrong, evil has been allowed to run wild.
All I can say is: there’s no better time to emulate our heroes. Be like Spock. Be like the Doctor. Be like Sam Carter. Don’t go along with the mundane evils that others do; stand up, speak out. So much of our sci-fi is grounded in that humanist appeal, that certainty that everyone, no matter their gender, orientation, race, or religion, is a valuable person whose life is important. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and don’t stay quiet when others try to put someone down.