Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Alternative Factor" (March 30, 1967)

Stardate 3087.6

While exploring an uncharted solar system, the Enterprise seems to “wink out” of existence momentarily, as though all of existence is unraveling.

Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) localizes the “rip” in space-time to a nearby planet, and Starfleet Command fears an invasion of the galaxy may be imminent.

Upon beam down to the planet, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) encounters a humanoid named Lazarus (Robert Brown), who may be insane. Lazarus is hunting through time and space for a “monster,” he insists, one who could destroy all of reality itself.

After some time puzzling through the mystery, Kirk and Spock learn the truth. 

Lazarus is hunting an anti-matter duplicate using his time-space ship.  He requires the Enterprise’s Dilithium crystals to power his vessel, and trap and battle that duplicate.

The command crew comes to realize that both matter and anti-matter versions of Lazarus must remain trapped in a “dimensional corridor” -- a kind of gateway separating the two universes -- for all of time, if reality is to remain whole.

If there is one less-than-successful episode in Star Trek (1966-1969) season one, it would have to be “The Alternative Factor.”  The episode lands smack-dab in a run of great, classic shows, and stands out for not being of apiece.

There are no doubt hard, fast reasons why the episode is seen as an ambitious failure by many fans. 

For example, the actor originally cast to play Lazarus, John Drew Barrymore, did not show up to play the part on the first day of shooting.  Robert Brown replaces him on-screen and does a quite creditable job in a difficult role. 

But the upshot is that the episode was clearly made under the gun, and with difficulties.

Similarly, the episode’s concepts -- though relatively straight-forward – often transmit as muddled and confused. 

The matter and anti-matter Lazarus are often depicted switching places, with a head-bandage as the only visual cue, for example, of which individual we are "seeing." Spock comments on the bandage,  and the two Lazarus versions during a briefing room scene that seeks to explain the story, but it is baffling why he does not bring up the issue sooner, given its importance.

Also, each Lazarus instantaneously replaces the other during the rip in space sequences, at least to our eyes.  So the question becomes:, how can they ever meet if they spontaneously transpose in this fashion, simply flip-flopping one universe to the other?

The upshot, I fear, is that we never quite know which Lazarus we are dealing with, what the stakes are, and how everything works. 

His fate is fascinating (and horrifying) but Kirk’s repeating of the line “and what of Lazarus?” in the coda is over-operatic. Lazarus is not a character we have fallen in love with, and the episode works extra hard (hence the repeated line) to make certain we understand the character’s sacrifice.

Also, this is an episode in which it feels like our crew is playing guest roles. They stand-by and attempt to figure matters out, while Lazarus does his work to save reality. Kirk gives him a hand in the last act.  But imagine how much more immediate the story would feel if Kirk -- or someone aboard the Enterprise -- had to step in and battle the evil Lazarus for all eternity?

Ultimately, as I said, we just don't care enough about Lazarus to be crushed by his fate.

And finally, the wink-out effects are pretty lame. A beautiful image of a galaxy is simply superimposed over a shaking, quaking ship.

Despite these issues, I must admit that I boast a real fascination with “The Alternative Factor.” It is a story that is filled with so many ideas.  True, they tend to be half-developed, but still...

First, I really like the design of the one-man time ship. It’s a single-seater saucer, with a transparent bubble dome and a nifty cockpit. It must also be incredibly powerful, considering it eats up Dilithium crystals.

It sparks my imagination to think of Lazarus using this device for a life-time, chasing his “negative” mirror-self across time and space.

Secondly, I enjoy the “mythic” nature of the story. Remember, Star Trek is quite intentionally a secular adventure. Gene Roddenberry was an avowed atheist, and looked to eschew religious trappings in the series.

Accordingly, “The Alternative Factor” goes to great lengths to create a secular, scientific version of Hell.

Think about it: the two, opposite versions of Lazarus will live forever, outside time, at each other’s throats, so that the universe might live.

That dimensional corridor is thus a scientific version of Hell: a place of eternal suffering and damnation for those trapped there. I find it fascinating that a secular version of damnation has been proposed, and conceptualized by the series.

The fate of Lazarus, to fight with his opposite for all eternity reminds me, specifically, of the (afterworld) fates of such mythic and literary characters as Sisyphus or Tantalus.

Lazarus, of course, is named after a Biblical character, one raised from the dead by Jesus. The character appears in the Gospel of John (11:1-44, 12:1-11) and is known as Lazarus of Bethany. In Scripture, Lazarus represents Jesus’s ability to perform miracles, and in particular, conquer death itself.

Though not in a way of his choosing, no doubt, Lazarus in Star Trek also escapes death. He lives forever…though in ostensible torment.

I am also fascinated by the structure or “reality” as suggested by “The Alternative Factor.” 

Our dimension is pushed up against another, anti-matter dimension, and only the bottle-neck or dimensional corridor keeps them from annihilating one another.  

This idea strikes my imagination as well.  I would love to know if there was an ‘intelligent design’ behind this structure preserving two realities.  

And if there are other dimensions in existence, do they also have this structurally-vital escape valve protecting them?  I would love to see a scientifically-grounded but speculative (and yes, spiritual) Star Trek story about a ship exploring these two particular realities. How did the corridor come to exist? Is it a natural occurrence? Put there by some cosmic intelligence?

I realize that sounds more like the perfect Space:1999 story, but I still find it fascinating to speculate about.

Another one of the ideas that fascinate me most about the story, however, involve Lazarus’s background. He is a brilliant scientist who discovers parallel dimensions and grows insane when he realizes that he is not unique; that each dimension contains a “version” of him.  He loses his mind and wants to wipe out all other “versions” of himself...ostensibly because he is no longer unique.  He becomes genocidal, a maniac.  Again, a Biography/History novel of Lazarus’s life would, to me, make fascinating reading. 

Certainly, one can make the following claim about “The Alternative Factor.”  As wordy and as muddled as it remains, it introduces a number of fascinating concepts to the Trekverse.  

Not the least of which is parallel realities. A better meditation on that theme is season two’s “Mirror, Mirror.” 

Still, what of "The Alternative Factor?"

Next week: "City on the Edge of Forever."


  1. Sheri2:50 PM

    I appreciate your take on this problematic episode and feel pretty much the same way about it. If the original romance between Lazarus and Lt. Charlene Masters had not been scrapped due to network interference, we indeed would have felt we had a stake in Lazarus' fate, which would have made all the difference. As filmed, they are clearly supposed to have some connection, but we don't know why and nothing really comes of it. If the rewrite hadn't been such a scramble, it might have been possible to retain some personal backstory for them without the romance angle.

    I think it further hurts the audience's involvement with the character that the "good guy" is the antimatter Lazarus instead of the one from "our" universe, which places him at further remove unnecessarily. I mean, if I understand the plot correctly! In addition, having him dressed in rags as if he's been crawling through rocks and brush for eons just makes it seem silly that he doesn't draw more scrutiny from random crewmen when he keeps turning up in odd places. Nobody really tries to engage with him in the dining area, and nobody really seems suspicious when he wanders around engineering. As if a guy in dirty, torn rags (probably stinking) is hardly worth a second look!

    There is a Starlog Magazine interview with Robert Brown in which he described the immense pressure everyone was under; nobody was quite sure what which Lazarus was up to bat at various points. Brown ended up in the thing at the suggestion of William Shatner, who had worked with him years earlier on an unsold pilot, and I've never understood the scathing attitude toward Brown on the part of so many Trek fans. He made more of this incoherent hash of a role than anyone had a right to expect. Not his fault this episode is such a befuddlement.

    How wonderful it would have been if Lt. Masters had been retained for another episode or two, ala Kevin Riley. Janet MacLachlan makes such an impression in a mere moment of screen time. And we see that engineering anteroom that is never shown to us again! It makes one want so much to go back in time and provide a real budget for them!

  2. Interesting episode that does seem like a potential Space:1999 episode. Parallel realities are the basis of Sliders(1995-2000) series.


  3. John,
    You and I seem to see eye-to-eye on a variety of genre subjects, so I am glad to hear your thoughts on "The Alternative Factor" and happy that you've found reasons to admire this ambitious entry.
    This episode has taken a lot of heat from the fans for many years, but I've always found something admirable about the look and feel of it. There's a dreamlike quality to every scene in which Lazarus appears, as if his very ambiguity is intruding into the clear and bright world of the Enterprise crew.
    While Kirk's final musing may seem a bit melodramatic, we need to remember that he's been to Lazarus' hell and back, has seen his world first-hand, has met the "hideous, murdering monster" and found him to be noble and worthy of remembrance. He knows the sacrifice Lazarus has made to preserve the very existence of the Universe, which seems to bring out his introspective side. Kirk's empathy is on full display in this moment, and it resonates. He is mourning for Lazarus, who has been consigned to a fate worse than death.
    That the episode is flawed is quite obvious, as Sheri has pointed out; it's confusing (I always thought the good guy was from our Universe, but come to think of it...) and Lt. Masters is a great character who enriches the show with a single appearance. All really great points you make, Sheri.
    SGB, I've never even considered that this would've made for a great episode of Space:1999, but you are right. That show was always trying to go for the deeper meaning (in Year One particularly), and I believe "The Alternative Factor" is trying to do the same thing.
    Whether it succeeds or not is very much up to the varying mileage of the viewer.

    1. Yes, definitely SPACE:1999 year one it would fit.


    2. Sheri2:08 PM

      Now I have to watch the episode again, Steve, to see if I really have it right which Lazarus is the "good" Lazarus, darn it.

      I'm with you in that I can't see what's wrong with Shatner's "What of Lazarus?" line reading. There is no right way to deliver a line written so stylistically out of keeping with the rest of the work. It needed to be changed to something like, "Yes, but what about poor Lazarus?" But line changes like that require going up and down the chain of approval, and they were already heavily pressed.

      I have to add that I always liked Lazarus' ship, too, and never understood the derision some fans have had for it. It's a little out of keeping with the overall design aesthetic for the show, but what should a little one-man craft look like? I think it looks cool! Although a little Jetson-ish (should we hear it go bleeble-bleeble-bleeble-bleeble-bleeble when it takes off?)

    3. Sheri,
      LOL! Now I can't unsee George Jetson behind the bubble on Lazarus' ship!

  4. I actually read this story in James Blish's Star Trek 10 collection before I saw the episode and I'm glad I did because the story was more fascinating to me as prose. When I finally got to see the episode on TV, the weaknesses were more apparent. Also, because I experienced this story early in my fandom, it really confused me with regard to the whole concept of anti-matter and how it related to the Enterprise engines (still does to be honest). I assumed that all the anti-matter in the universe was stored in this other dimension. Therefore, how could they only be discovering it now? I later realized that this was not a proper assumption, but I still couldn't see how they could control matter/anti-matter in their engines, but not find a way to control this corridor between the two dimensions. Definitely lots to ponder.

    1. Sheri2:19 PM

      Neal, I agree that the matter/antimatter issue was confusingly presented in itself. Perhaps the reaction could have been controlled technologically, but not by the Enterprise crew and not in time to deter the determined madman. Worse, the show universe treated matter and antimatter as if ANY contact between the two would cause destruction, but this episode suggests such destruction would occur only if Lazarus and his counterpart came together. The idea would have worked much better if it had just been presented as parallel universes whose counterparts must not come in contact with one another, which would not have contradicted "Mirror Mirror" since none of the characters comes in contact with their specific counterparts in that episode.

  5. Many years after seeing this episode, I also became a Doctor Who fan. And it hit me--Lazarus is a Time Lord! His ship is a TARDIS! The dead planet is Galifrey! Perhaps he is even the Doctor himself in his final incarnation--fighting Omega (who was last seen disguising himself as The Doctor and turning into antimatter! Fighting a duplicate of himself to save two universes is just the sort of self-sacrifice The Doctor would make!
    Well, that theory fell through when Doctor Who was re-vamped, of course--but it was still a good thought while it lasted!

  6. I watched this episode last night for the first time in 30+ years and I have to say that, in spite of the issues you describe in this review, I found it to be a gripping episode which asks questions that people in the late 60's and even now are not ready to answer nor are they even contemplating them! I enjoyed the episode very much.