From cell phones to space stations and more, science fiction has inspired innovation in the world around us. It can also offer perspective on the way people act and how they interact with each other.

The Mirror Crack’d

What if?

If a single question defines the science fiction genre, it is found within those two simple words. From the vision of Jules Verne to the imagination of Isaac Asimov, science fiction has always been an exploration of the infinite possibilities that surround us. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pursuit of alternate realities, where the question of “what if” often transcends the limits of human imagination. Stephen King launched Jake Epping into a desperate quest through time to thwart the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 11.22.63. In Outlander, Diana Gabaldon maroons World War II combat nurse Claire Randall in 18th-century Scotland. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is a children’s story with alternate reality implications that will frighten most adults. And, of course, there is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, in which the title character journeys into a bizarre fantasy world on the other end of a rabbit hole (hence, the euphemism, “don’t go down the rabbit hole”).

Our fascination with alternate realities has long provided a looking glass through which to explore and better understand ourselves, our world, and our very existence. We all laughed through the misadventures of Marty McFly and Emmett “Doc” Brown in the Back to the Future films, yet we saw through their eyes the meaning and value of family and friends. We watched in wonder as dinosaurs once again reigned supreme in Jurassic Park, but we were also reminded of the fragility of our own place on Earth. And The Man in the High Castle series offered a sobering, somewhat disturbing glimpse into how the effects of our decisions ripple across history, demonstrating how a single moment in time can drastically change our future.

The allure of such alternate realities made television programs like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek compelling for audiences. Each week, viewers could settle in for a through-provoking examination of “what if” that allowed the episodes to thrive for decades in syndication. What if your only passion in life was to read in solitude, but your glasses broke during a nuclear apocalypse? What if you were the only person who could see the gremlin tearing away at the engine cowling of your plane in the stormy darkness of a night flight? What if you were able to see what you would become if you succumbed to your baser instincts?

On October 6, 1967, Star Trek offered audiences that very thing: the episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” presented a brief, telling glance into the “mirror universe,” where the reflections returned showed humanity in a much different light. In that episode — based on writer Jerome Bixby’s 1954 short story, “One Way Street” — Captain James T. Kirk and several senior crew members were returning to the USS Enterprise from the planet Halka II when a transporter malfunction during an ion storm left them stranded in a parallel universe. In the alternate reality where they found themselves, the crew of the ISS Enterprise was far different than their counterparts aboard the Federation vessel of the same name. In the mirror universe, the Federation was the militant arm of the Terran Empire, a brutal regime set on conquering the known galaxy through whatever means necessary. Within the Empire, assassination was the principal means of advancement and violence in any form was the accepted — and expected — norm to quell resistance.

As Captain Kirk and his crew struggled to grasp the mirror universe’s harsh reality, they had to confront their base selves, what the Qur’an defines as “the self which always commands (or compels) to evil. The mirror universe reflects the dark side of human nature, where the hidden self is given free rein; inner demons are released, the beast within runs rampant. Unburdened of the constraints of morals and values, the Starfleet of the mirror universe wreaked havoc on the galaxy, unleashing violence, destruction, and chaos. The mirror universe is Kirk’s “what if.” What if this was where they would live out the remainder of their lives? How would they survive? Could they survive?

The mirror universe also serves as a powerful metaphor through which to examine how we lead. The late General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the international military coalition during the Persian Gulf War, aptly noted, “You learn far more from negative leadership than positive leadership. Because you learn how not to do it.” The alternate reality of “Mirror, Mirror” is a directed lens that allowed viewers to see themselves — and their perceptions of leadership — in a much different light, one that is far darker than that to which we are accustomed. And it is through this lens that we can see, understand, and learn about negative leadership.

When Kirk learns that his mirror counterpart — now aboard the USS Enterprise — gained his position by assassinating Captain Christopher Pike, the first commanding officer of the starship, it is a clear indication of the depths of the toxic leadership endemic to the Terran Empire. Successful leaders in the mirror universe are very effective at leveraging fear and violence to achieve results that are not constrained by the same morals and ethics that govern Federation efforts in Kirk’s universe. The James Kirk of the Terran Empire is everything the Federation’s James Kirk is not: narcissistic, unprincipled, and driven by an insatiable thirst for power and prestige. He is the very definition of a toxic leader.

The allure of toxic leaders has long been a topic of interest within Star Trek’s fictional universe, where such leaders and their cults of personality were the focus of several episodes. In the second season episode “Who Mourns for Adonis,” the angry and vindictive Greek god, Apollo, holds Kirk and crew captive, as Apollo yearns for followers who will worship him as humans once did. Later that season, in the episode “Patterns of Force,” Kirk investigates the disappearance of Starfleet cultural observer John Gill on the planet Ekos, where Gill has violated the Prime Directive and installed a Nazi-like regime. In “Space Seed,” the Enterprise’s crew contend with the late 20th-century dictator Khan Noonien Singh, who attempts to lead a coup aboard the vessel after being awakened from a cryogenic freeze. Although “Space Seed” spawned two later feature films and Khan remains the most storied of Star Trek villains, the “Mirror, Mirror” plot has been a mainstay of every subsequent Star Trek series as well as the novelizations of those series.

Since “Mirror, Mirror” first aired, the mirror universe has fascinated fans of the series unlike any other element of the fictional realm of Star Trek. The “what if” of a parallel universe — especially one in which raw evil reigns supreme — is irresistible. The cult of personality that surrounded and empowered the James Kirk of the Terran Empire satisfied a deep craving among fans that they did not realize existed. When storytellers portray leaders we view as paragons in a negative light, we are absolutely enthralled. Try as we might, we cannot turn away. In this sense, the attraction of the mirror universe is not exceedingly difficult to understand. It makes perfect sense as, for most of us, the toxic leadership we first saw in “Mirror, Mirror” strikes an all-too-familiar chord.

In the alternate reality, the allure of Kirk’s charisma among the crew of the ISS Enterprise was difficult to overlook. Like a cult leader, his followers craved his approval — they yearned for it. The addictive nature of charisma fuels a toxic leader. They feed off it like a parasitic creature. Once aboard the USS Enterprise, the mirror universe Kirk attempts to seduce Spock with his charm: “Whatever your game is, I’ll play it. You want credits, I’ll give them to you. You’ll be a rich man. A command of your own? I can swing that, too.” Spock, ever the rationalist — in either universe — responds as only he can: “Fascinating.” Toxic leaders use the addictive nature of charisma as a control mechanism to facilitate compliance among their followers, delivering — or withholding — it as necessary to regulate and control behavior.

Audiences love a good villain. Star Trek offered its fair share, and noteworthy ones such as Khan, the Gorn, Romulans, and Klingons provided fans with lasting memories that endure today in pop culture history. But the mirror universe suggested something truly remarkable: what if the show’s principal protagonist was also its antagonist? The result was a stroke of television genius, an unforgettable twist on the classic tale of villainy that proved to be one of the series’ most memorable and influential episodes. Devoted fans of the series remember the episode for its creative snippets of dialog (this is the first time Doctor McCoy uses the phrase, “I’m a doctor, not a …”), the personal “agonizer” used to punish crew members, and, of course, Spock’s beard.

But “Mirror, Mirror” also provided audiences with a glimpse into a particularly dark looking glass, a parallel universe that reflected humanity at its worst. Through that cracked and distorted mirror, viewers could explore themselves in ways that transcended the confines of the small screen. The “what if” of the mirror universe allowed them to see their favorite characters — and themselves — through the lens of toxic leadership. What if you were to strip away the veneer of morality that governs Starfleet operations under the United Federation of Planets? What remains? The higher good that exists in our protagonists’ hearts or the raw evil of the Terran Empire? Those questions have captivated fans of the series through numerous spin-offs, novels, and comics.

Once back in his own universe and seated in the command chair on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, Kirk asks the question on the mind of every viewer during the episode: “What I don’t understand is how were you able to identify our counterparts so quickly?” Spock replies, “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.” Then, for emphasis he adds, “May I point out that I had an opportunity to observe your counterparts here quite closely. They were brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous. In every way, splendid examples of homo sapiens, the very flower of humanity. I found them quite refreshing.”

Indeed. What if?

From “To Boldly Go: Leadership, Strategy, and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond,” edited by Jonathan Klug and Steven Leonard, published by Casemate Books.

Steven Leonard is an award-winning faculty member at the University of Kansas, where he chairs graduate programs in Organizational Leadership and Supply Chain Management. A former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!, he is a career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders. He is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author, co-author, or editor of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.

Editor’s note: This is a book excerpt and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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