Monday, November 19, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Antimatter

One concept that has obsessed the writers of cult-tv television the decades involves a tricky substance (or anti-substance?) known as anti-matter.

Here's a short, simple (and hopefully accurate...) definition of anti-matter: it's a substance that, when combined with an equal amount of matter, converts all substance to energy. 
Also, every particle of matter has a corresponding anti-particle of anti-matter.

Anti-matter actually exists in our galaxy, but is relatively rare. For instance, NASA has reported the existence of an anti-matter cloud 10,000 lights across -- one generating the energy equivalent of 10,000 suns -- near galactic center. (If it hasn't been named, may I humbly suggest: "The Great Barrier...?")

Encoded in this definition and concept of anti-matter is the tantalizing seed of dramatic invention: If every particle of matter boasts an opposite anti-particle of anti-matter, then we all possess anti-matter duplicates, right?

And if we possess anti-matter duplicates, that must mean that there is an anti-matter universe where all our anti-matter counterparts dwell, no? See? The possibilities in storytelling are endless. Consider, would an anti-matter duplicate of yourself have your personality, or the antithesis -- the negative -- of your personality?

There's an implicit and dramatic danger inherent in the concept of anti-matter too: if matter and anti-matter should touch, utter annihilation (energy output...) results (likely in the form of x-rays and gamma rays, I think...). So, if we should extend our reach into the world of anti-matter, would man acquire knowledge, or only actualize his own self-destruction?

The Alternative Factor: Everything Within Range of Our Instruments Almost Winked Out...

Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (1966-1969) was one of the first genre TV series to tackle the concept -- and the dramatic possibilities -- of anti-matter. In terms of background information, we learned in the classic series that the starship Enterprise was powered by the energy created from a matter/anti-matter intermix reaction in Scotty's beloved engines.

But anti-matter itself became a central plot point in a first season episode entitled "The Alternative Factor." In this story by Don Ingalls and directed by Gerd Oswald, the Enterprise (on stardate 3087.6) experiences a cosmic winking out -- a literal brush with cosmic non-existence. The terrible phenomenon is felt in every quadrant of the galaxy simultaneously, and seems to center on the very planet the Enterprise is orbiting. Kirk and crew soon encounter on the planet surface a madman, a humanoid named Lazarus (Robert Brown), who claims to be hunting a "creature" who is "anti-life," who "lives to destroy."

Spock and Kirk soon deduce that Lazarus is actually stalking his own counter-part from an opposite universe; an anti-matter universe. Worse, if the two Lazarus counterparts should meet -- in either physical universe -- both universes will be destroyed. It will be the end of all existence. Everywhere.

"The Alternative Factor" also posits a bridge between matter and anti-matter universes; a a kind of "magnetic corridor" or "safety valve that keeps eternity from winking out." For a being of the "minus" universe to enter the "positive" universe (and vice-versa...) this safety valve must first be breached. "The Alternative Factors" resolves with Captain Kirk trapping both Lazarus counterparts in that safety valve for all eternity; essentially destroying the only entrance and exits (Lazarus's time ship, which is powered by dilithium crystals) with the ship's mighty phaser banks. There, in that sealed-off safety valve. the good and evil Lazarus will battle for all eternity, but matter and anti-matter universes will be safe, at least.

The name "Lazarus" originates from a Hebrew word or name, meaning, essentially "God's Assistant," and that's the role that Lazarus explicitly plays in "The Alternative Factor." Or, at least one Lazarus fulfills that role. In offering to spend an eternity at the mercy of his evil self, the good Lazarus preserves all of God's handiwork: creation itself, for all time.

The word "Lazarus" -- in science -- also refers to a thing or organism that is mysteriously resurrected after being believed dead. The Lazarus of Star Trek also fits that particular bill. Here, Lazarus re-appears on his home planet generations after all his people have disappeared...after they have become extinct due to the matter/anti-matter conflict. So Lazarus is resurrected in the far future of his own time-line; after his very race is dead.

What remains most interesting about "The Alternative Factor," -- which is generally considered a weak episode of classic Trek -- is that, in keeping with the series' humanist, psychological bent -- the resolution of the cosmic, existential crisis comes from humanoid sacrifice and selflessness. The entire universe -- all of creation itself -- is preserved by the act of one mortal man. There is no God or God Being controlling this universe; but rather a fallible man who has "sacrificed" himself for the rest of us.

Ironically, this also means that all successive generations of Star Trek exist in a universe wherein existence itself is held in the delicate hands of one, fallible man (Lazarus). We have occasionally seen in Star Trek how Starfleet has issued a few draconian directives: the Omega Directive (which results in a search and destroy mission should a particle of a substance called Omega be discovered...) and the General Order that establishes a death penalty should any Starfleet officer visit the planet Talos IV. Given the fragility of the universe itself, and Lazarus's importance to that survival, it seems that every Starfleet captain would have standing orders to kill him on sight, should he re-appear. Why? Because if Lazarus ever meets his counterpart in our space (or negative space...) all is destroyed.

In the case of Star Trek's "The Alternative Factor," we learn something about the structure of existence itself: an anti-matter universe exists; and a bridge to that universe exists too. Ultimately, dealing with either is playing with fire. Exploring the anti-matter realm (or even opening the door to the anti-matter realm) is equated literally with letting the genie (or Lazarus) out of the bottle.

Planet of Evil: You've Come to the End of Your Piece of Elastic

In 1975, during the Tom Baker years, the Time Lord known as the Doctor also had a brush with anti-matter and the order of existence. The serial was called "Planet of Evil" and it was written by Louis Marks. In the year 37,166, on the planet Zeta Minor, "at the very edge of the known universe," a fallible Morestran scientist named Sorenson (Frederick Jaeger) has discovered what he believes to be an energy source that can replace his planet's dying sun. That inexhaustible supply of energy comes from -- you guessed it -- anti-matter.

When Sorenson attempts to leave Zeta Minor with several canisters of anti-matter crystals in his possession, his action activates a kind of Monster from the Anti-Matter universe whose job it is to retrieve those crystals. The creature arises from a gaping black pit on the jungle surface of the planet, and it carries out this mission with murderous intensity...even able to hold a powerful spaceship in orbit. The Doctor unwittingly falls into the pit on Zeta Minor, but is able to engineer a truce: the return of the anti-matter fcrystals or the safe evacuation of the Morestran rescue ship.

Also, in a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde touch, Sorenson physically changes due to his exposure to the anti-matter crystals. He is "infected" by the anti-matter, his "brain cells" destroyed, rendering him a "murderous brute." In other words, he pays the price for tampering in the order of things.

As in the case of "The Alternative Factor," the universe of Doctor Who thus posits an anti-matter universe "opposite" to our own domain of matter. Here, there is not a magnetic corridor or safety valve to reckon with, but rather the black, bottomless pit, which seems to bridge universes too. And again, we get the implicit notion of an ordered existence. Anti-matter is to remain in the anti-matter universe (or on the cusp of the anti-matter universe: Zeta Minor) no matter what, and there are mechanisms in place to assure that is so (the rampaging monster). When man (or Morestran) transgresses this law, he activates the mechanism that keeps matter and anti-matter from combining in annihilation.

Matter Never Dies: Life and Death, Balance and Imbalance.

The denizens of Moonbase Alpha twice had brushes with anti-matter life-forms in the series Space:1999 (1975 - 1977). In the first season episode by Johnny Byrne (based on a story by Art Wallace) -- "Matter of Life and Death," --- an anti-matter sentinel takes the form of Helena Russell's husband, Lee (Richard Johnson) and cryptically warns the wandering Alphans not to settle on a planet of anti-matter called Terra Nova.

In the episode's final act, after the sentinel's warning is ignored, we see what Doctor Who and Star Trek only hinted at: total, absolute, fiery annihilation. On the surface of Terra Nova, the planet is ravaged by earthquakes, and the Alphan exploration party is killed. In space, the moon itself explodes. All is lost. Fortunately, a last minute re-set occurs after Lee Russell appears to Helena again and warns her not to let Commander John Koenig make the same mistake twice. Terra Nova cannot be their home; physical laws must be obeyed at all costs. Order must be restored and matter and anti-matter must remain forever separate.

In the second season episode, "A Matter of Balance," -- set 1702 days after the moon's breakaway from Earth -- an anti-matter population is far less helpful (and forgiving) than Lee Russell was. A sinister alien named Vindrus (Stuart Wilson) of the planet Sunim ("Minus" spelled backwards) exeutes a plan to drag the Alphans into the anti-matter universe. This is necessary because the anti-matter universe is a true opposite to ours: instead of evolving "forward" it is a time before the big bang and to non-existence itself. Eventually, according to Vindrus, all life in his anti-matter universe will "revert" to the primordial slime of pre-existence. Thus Vindrus hopes to land the Alphans in this degenerating universe of death. But to do so, Vindrus must obey the laws of nature: he must maintain "balance." For every Sunim individual who comes into the matter universe, one Alphan must be transported to the anti-matter universe in place.

In both of these Space:1999 stories the underlying principal is the order of the universe; the belief that physical laws that must be obeyed if existence is to continue chugging along as it is. Even the villain, Vindrus must obey the laws of the universe, in this case, preserving a balance. And Lee Russell was, in a sense, preserving order as well: keeping matter out of contact with anti-matter on a remote world.

In each of these four examples of sci-fi programs featuring anti-matter then, there is an unspoken law that seems corollary to the old sci-fi movie canard "do not tamper in God's domain." Only in these cases, it is not God or a supreme being that is being tampered with, but the nature of existence itself. Each story posits a brand of "repair" mechanism that can heal existence if man is foolish enough to tamper: a safety valve between universes ("The Alternative Factor"), a monster that collects anti-matter should it be dispersed in the matter universe ("Planet of Evil"), a lonely sentinel warning against matter-anti-matter mixing ("A Matter of Life and Death"") and even a physical law of "one for one" that prohibits large scale crossing over of universes or realities ("A Matter of Balance.")

Other space adventure programming of the classic period (1965 - 1980) also deployed anti-matter as a narrative device. 

A Lost in Space episode entitled "The Anti-Matter Man" (written by Sutton Roley and airing December 27, 1967) created a villainous doppelganger of Professor Robinson, one who casts no shadow and is a "bad father." In this case, opposite or "anti-matter" was equated not just with being "negative" in physical nature, but evil in psychological nature (like the mad Lazarus of "The Alternative Factor.") The balance that was restored was not just universal; but personal...the balance of the nuclear family.

Each in unique fashion, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Space:1999 and Lost in Space viewed Anti-Matter universes and Anti-Matter Men as forces of disorder; ones that threatened the very existence of our universe. These were forces better left alone, or at least respected, the various series concluded. 

One might extrapolate this edict as a kind of "space" environmental message. A warning not to plunder resources we don't understand; not to harness an energy source more dangerous than "nuclear fission," as the Doctor described anti-matter. When we go forward into the mysteries of space; we must tread responsibly.

Albert Einstein once wrote that "there is no logical way to the discovery" of elemental laws; that there is "only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance." Every one of these fictional TV encounters with anti-matter may be scientifically inaccurate, even occasionally ridiculous, yet each narrative helps us to understand -- through intuition and imagination -- the "feeling of order" behind the existence of anti-matter; behind the secret order of the universe itself

1 comment:

  1. Fine look at the subject and the TV shows that used the concept of antimatter, John. I enjoyed "The Alternative Factor" on ST:TOS and don't think it a lesser episode. It truly was a daring and cataclysmic show. One that fell on a mortal to secure eternity, the realm of the gods, and keep it on safe ground. Both factors, the human and the 'anti', would be used to an even more profound extent by John Carpenter in PRINCE OF DARKNESS a couple of decades later. Good one, my friend.