Just before starting tonight’s article I decided to do a spread sheet on the various Trope Shark topics I’ve done since starting the series and realized just how little attention I give this series. Even given the time off for surgeries in 2016 and 2021 I’ve done thirteen installments of this series (twelve official and one I’m including though not officially marked because it’s a trope I might not discuss otherwise) since 2014. I’m kind of surprised.
As for this trope I probably don’t have to tell you where it’s from. The name literally comes from the episode of Star Trek it first appeared in. I don’t know if that’s the first appearance of the trope but it inspired the name. Other science fiction (and to a lesser extent fantasy) stories have given it their own name, but we all call it the mirror universe anyway. And no, you don’t always need to have someone in a goatee. Sometimes it’s an eyepatch. Actually the only time you see an evil mirror counterpart in a goatee it’s referencing Spock having one more than actually being a story choice but it doesn’t usually affect the story unless you get ridiculous…like putting everyone in a goatee, even the dog. So what makes a good mirror universe tale?
On the off-chance you’ve never heard of it, the episode “Mirror Mirror” sees Kirk, McCoy, Uhura, and Scotty attempting to beam to the ship with a serious storm on the planet, leading to them being switched with their counterparts in an alternate universe where the Federation has been replaced by the Terran Empire, a more fascist version of the group they know. While they try to hide who they really are they have to find a way to return while in their universe Spock is trying to return their evil counterparts back. It’s a fun story and one that Trek has re-visited multiple times in comics, novels, and episodes starting with Deep Space Nine and also appearing in Enterprise and Discovery. You know Lower Decks is going to mess with that eventually.
The basic concept of a mirror universe versus alternate universe is that it’s not a complete reversal, not a universe where the Nazis win or Abraham Lincoln managed to survive being attacked at the theater. As the name says, a good mirror universe is a reflection of the reality we know. Characters are still in a similar position to where they are in the main universe, but aren’t necessarily the polar opposite of each other, like the Superman foe Bizarro. In many ways the mirror counterparts have the same nature but went down a darker path, as did the world around them. It’s not necessarily the evil universe though it can be. It’s not a total inversion of character but possibly morals and minor personality traits. For example Chekov wants to move ahead but in the mirror universe everyone move up in rank when the guy above kicks the bucket, and if you the one who tossed the bucket at him you get a bonus. That’s not how the regular Chekov would operate but he does want to make something of himself in Starfleet and does see Russia as the greatest nation on Earth.
For another example the Transformers Collectors Club comics introduced the “shattered glass” universe, also named for the story it came from. However, this was originally a parody story in which dumb Grimlock is a wise scholar, Hot Rod ends up with the comedic stereotype goatee shape in his face design, and the Autobots oppress the poor Decepticons. Challenge Of The GoBots did something similar with good Guardians (not sure how that works) and the Renegades now being a rebel faction instead of conquerors. Even Superfriends had a story where some of the heroes ended up in their evil universe, where their counterparts are the “Super Enemies”. That’s not the same as the Justice Lords universe of the DCAU or the “antimatter” universe/Earth-3 of the Crime Syndicate. In the case of the Lords it’s just the Justice League pushed too far and become the fascist rulers of Earth after snapping while the Crime Syndicate are simply villains with the same powers as the Justice League. The guy who is going by Power Ring depends on who the Green Lantern is in the JLA that Tuesday–Hal, Kyle, or John. These are inverted universes but they still play to the idea of the mirror universe as opposed to an alternate timeline, like the Justice Lords or the upteen evil Superman worlds we’ve seen.
An Elseworlds or What If (if you’re Marvel) story is “what would happen if X instead of Y”. A mirror universe is a reflection, the same events and people but in a world with different rules. The Federation exists after all the planetary wars are over and everyone lives in relative peace. The Terran Empire exists after all the planetary wars are over but seek galactic conquest rather than peaceful coexistence. Of course events happened to lead down that path but this isn’t Sliders or What If, it’s just the same people affected by a different world as a whole. They may not necessarily be evil. Captain Sisko wasn’t evil, he was part of a rebel movement to oppose the Klingon/Cardassian alliance that overthrew the Terran Empire (if I’m remembering the DS9 versions correctly) and absorbed Bajor. Kira is not the stoic former rebel with a drive towards her duty to the planet and her commitments to the station, she’s a narcissist who revels in her power and sleeps with anyone with a pulse. She even tried hitting on her regular universe counterpart, the ultimate form of narcissism if you ask me, but I’m not a psycho-anything.
The problem is so many of these mirror universes, not necessarily the examples I’ve listed here, are inspired if not outright parodies of the Star Trek mirror universe concept, like the goatee on Spock being some universal sign of “evil universe”. I’m not sure I’d call the Super Enemies universe or even Shattered Glass mirror universes so much as opposite versions, a “negative universe” if you will. It doesn’t really reflect the main universe. It’s more like “what if our heroes were evil”? Darkwing Duck had Darkwing going to the “Negaverse”, a negative universe where his enemies were actually nice and Gosalyn was less a tomboy and more a Shirley Temple character. So maybe at some point it stops being a mirror universe and becomes a negative universe instead, where everything is backward rather than a reflection of the world we know.
Of course this is not the same as traveling to another world via mirror like Alice in Through The Looking Glass or the mirror Kamen Riders of Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight. (I’m not far enough into Ryuki to know if those Riders have counterparts in the reflected world.) That’s just using the mirror as a portal to somewhere else, though in the Kamen Rider examples we do see signs and stuff flipped like in a mirror.
Maybe I’m being a big more strict on what I define a “mirror” versus a negative universe. In a mirror things are flipped but it’s still a resemblance of the world we see. A negative universe is where all the villains are good and all the heroes are evil. What it should be is a chance to explore the main universe, not just trying to replace or reboot a reality, like any other good multiverse story. Do you think I’m overthinking this? Perhaps, but the mirror and negative universes are still fun to see. Just don’t try to emulate Star Trek. They have their own reflected universe. Let your universe have its own mirror.