It's uncommon to find a vision of humanity's future that is as hopeful, optimistic and utopic as Star Trek amidst the countless dystopias in modern science fiction. In contemporary dystopias, often Earth is being ravaged in one way or another and we are left to struggle for survival in its decay, reaping what we inevitably sowed.
In the Star Trek universe, we overcame our barbarism and brutality. As Captain Jean-Luc Picard famously said, "People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We've eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We've grown out of our infancy." On the surface, this post-scarcity, capitalism-free world is one in which human beings are diplomats, peacekeepers, scientists and explorers who value diversity and intercultural exchange above all else. While this perfect socialist dream has its obvious shortcomings, it's precisely this utopic escapism that makes Trek so compelling.
Throughout each of the Trek series, the Federation defends itself against many violent, warmongering, imperialist and assimilationist foes including but not limited to the Borg, the Dominion, Khan, the Kazon and the Klingons. Star Trek: Discovery asks: What if we never grew out of our infancy? The Terran Dominion is a rare vision of humanity's bleak future in Star Trek, one that Michael Burnham describes as an "oppressive, racist, xenophobic culture that dominates all known space." In this mirror universe, Star Trek's central tenets are reversed. A glimpse of this human empire makes it easier to imagine the existence of a Vulcan-Klingon-Andoran resistance.
We've seen the mirror universe before in The Original Series, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. In The Original Series iconic "Mirror, Mirror" episode, Uhura, Kirk, Bones and Scotty find themselves in the mirror universe after a transporter malfunction. In order to survive, the four must masquerade as their brutal counterparts amongst the barbaric crew of the I.S.S Enterprise while simultaneously searching for a way home. Their presence and interactions with others, including the famous goateed alt-Spock, in the mirror universe, lead to major reforms in the Terran Empire.
In Deep Space Nine's crossover episode set 100 years later, the warp field in Dr. Bashir and Major Kira's runabout does not collapse properly as they enter the Bajoran wormhole, thus transporting them to mirror universe. Bashir and Kira witness the aftermath of their predecessor's accidental visit, that internal reforms signified weakness to the Terran Empire's enemies leading to their inevitable conquer and enslavement by an Alliance of different alien species. In several later episodes, Captain Benjamin Sisko aids the human rebellion against the Alliance.
In Enterprise, the two-part "In A Mirror, Darkly" episodes begin with an alternative Human-Vulcan first contact in which, rather than making peace as they did in the main universe, human beings murder the friendly aliens and seize their technology; that sets the stage for the establishment of the cruel, malignant Terran Empire. These two episodes feature the alt-crew of the I.S.S. Enterprise as they go on a secret mission into Tholian space to try and recover the U.S.S. Defiant, a more advanced ship transported into the past and brought to the mirror universe via a dimensional time rift.
Star Trek: Discovery's "Despite Yourself" alludes back to these episodes. After 133 micro-jumps followed by one incomplete regular jump on the spore drive, Discovery finds itself at its coordinates as planned. However, nothing is where it's supposed to be. Evidently, the mycelial network has brought Discovery to the mirror universe and into the middle of a fight between the Terran Dominion and its enemies.
Amidst the wreckage of a Klingon starship, Discovery finds a data core. The data core reveals crucial information about the Terran Empire: that an Alliance of alien species exists in open rebellion. Most importantly, they also learn that the U.S.S. Defiant came to the mirror universe and somehow managed to escape it. This leads to a plan of action in which the presumed-dead Captain Burnham will take back control of the I.S.S. Shenzhou after chasing rebel Lorca to the edge of the galaxy, bringing him aboard as captive and Ash as security. In pretending to be their alter-egos, the trio hopes to gain access to top secret data detailing how the Defiant made it home so they can follow in its footsteps.
Discovery puts on a Terran costume by changing U.S.S. to I.S.S. on its exterior and having Humans don elegant militaristic uniforms and learn the history of their characters. It's a thrill to watch the quirky, awkward Cadet Tilly come into her role as the savage, ruthless Captain "Killy," stumbling at first but later smoothly delivering the one-liner "If you greeted me like that, I'd cut out your tongue and use it lick my boot".
Captain Burnham beams aboard the I.S.S. Shenzhou to retake control and effectively demote alt-Danby Connor, a man who died right in front of her at the Battle of the Binary Stars. His alternate self is a much crueler man who became captain due to his bloodthirstiness and ability to betray others. In an attempt to elicit fear from his inferiors, Danby tries to murder Burnham as they share an elevator alone together. He fails and Burnham arrives on the bridge with his dead body only to be applauded by her crew.
While officers in United Starfleet are promoted by their superiors based on merit, those in Imperial Starfleet promote themselves through the murder and betrayal of their superiors. The United Federation of Planets is an interstellar federal republic that allows semi-autonomy through single planetary governments and one central government. By contrast, the Terran Empire is ruled by a human-only fascist government with a nameless, faceless emperor that together subjugate other species. As Burnham puts it, "The Terran culture appears to be predicated upon an unconditional hatred and rejection of anything and everything 'other.'"
In the second episode of Star Trek: Discovery exploring the mirror universe, we learn that the late Captain Phillipa Georgoiu is the terrifying, merciless emperor of the Terran Empire and Voq, the fanatical follower of T'Kuvma, is "The Firewolf," a freedom fighter and leader of the alien Alliance rebellion. As a nod to alt-Spock, we see a goateed Sarek known as "The Prophet" amongst the Alliance. In the mirror universe, not only are are human beings evil but Klingons are even collaborative and peacekeeping.
In the context of Star Trek, the mirror universe is a fascinating look at a possible cultural trajectory. In our infancy of space exploration, the decisions we make now may have significant implications on the future. How we as a planet approach first contact and perhaps, one day, relationships with other species could be determined early on. For those that love Star Trek, ideally we will be friendly and peaceful if and when we meet aliens. However, we may become the Terran Empire yet.