Star Trek: The Alternative Factor

Star Trek Opening TitlesConceptually, this should have been one of the strongest episodes of Classic Star Trek that ever existed.  A hole in the fabric of space time, a supposed time traveler, and a person who flips between universes… this has all the hallmarks of a classic.  In theory, that is!  In actuality, what we have is one of the most tedious, weird episodes of Classic Trek ever produced.  We should have known something was up the moment we saw a redshirt navigating the ship.  Or when Kirk and Spock leave the bridge to beam down to the planet, and don’t leave anyone else in charge.  Or, if there were no other warning signs, Rick Sanchez’s ship should have given something away!

All joking aside, the story starts off well enough.  A mysterious being on a planet where no one existed leads to a GALAXY-SPANNING magnetic collapse.  What does the Federation think: Invasion.  Now, let’s just say for an instant that Code Factor 1 is the right call.  What is one ship going to do against an invader that is coming for the whole galaxy?  Let’s try to put this in terms that are even mildly equal.  Ant Farm.  Tsunami.  If we could tune in to what the ants are saying, is it: “hey, Zanti, stay near that hole in case an invader comes through.”  Because, if that’s what’s going on, Zanti is about to get a rude awakening.  Or, more likely, a rude ending.  It’ll be fast and furious and poor Zanti will be gone in 60 seconds.  (I figured, why not run with the theme while I’m at it…)  What Starfleet hopes to gain by leaving Kirk there while everyone else evacuates … well, I guess at this point they were expendable.

On a purely personal note, I started listening to another Doctor Who audio drama just this morning on the way to work.   Those of you who follow this blog know I don’t check what episode comes next; I just put the CD in and away I go.  Oddly, I started Project: Lazarus today.  I say oddly because little did I know I’d be watching The Alternative Factor tonight, which featured a man with the worst facial hair of all time, named Lazarus.  Maybe an alternate universe version of me is trying to tell me something.

On the plus side, the music in this episode is rather good.  It goes from fun fight sequence music (accompanied by the spinning newspaper effect – that never ends up being a newspaper, no matter how often I thought it would) to the eerie “this is strange” music that made up so much of The Man Trap.  Sterling endorsement, huh?  It’s just that, there are so many ridiculous things in what could have, if nothing more, been a damned good Jekyll/Hyde story.  Here are some questions for you, my dear readers:

  1. What’s up with the Lieutenant who has ZERO peripheral vision?  She’s not able to see a 6 foot man wearing non-standard attire coming at her through the open mesh wall??  Ok, maybe she has a stigma…
  2. When Lazarus is playing the part of Sylvester McCoy 20 years early (see: Dragonfire), what was he climbing to when he knocked the rock down that almost kills Kirk?  He didn’t even have an umbrella with him!
  3. When Kirk says “I want every inch covered” to search the planet, why does the entire landing party (barring Lazarus, mind you) stay as a big group?
  4. How does Lazarus go from having strands of a beard to having a full fledged beard and worse, why does no one notice???  McCoy was all caught up on a bruise… what about that beard?
  5. Where are the smoke alarms on the Enterprise?  Did Scotty forget to change the batteries?
  6. Was the Transporter engineer knocked out or pretending?  Lazarus knocks him out and one minute later, Kirk runs in to find the engineer standing at his post.  Did he not think to say something?  “Captain, sorry, he punched me and I fainted…”  (I’m not sure I smell a promotion in his future!)
  7. And why doesn’t anyone reference what happened to Kirk in The Enemy Within when Kirk starts to realize there are two versions of the same man?  Not similar enough?
  8. Finally, what are the recuperative powers of a dinosaur, really?   And how does McCoy know what they are?

I wanted to like this episode, but barring the negative lighting effect (which I do love), what does it have going for it?  A moment to ponder what is happening to a man stuck for all eternity in unending combat?  That’s bleak!  Or should we perhaps focus on Spock’s words: madness has no purpose.  News flash: ALSO BLEAK.  (That’s what the spinning newspaper would have said if it ever made it through!)  Or Kirk’s line of wisdom, “Sometimes pain can drive a man harder than pleasure!”  Yup… also not the hopeful message Roddenberry was aiming for, I shouldn’t think.

All I know is that if Rick Sanchez were here… well, actually it probably would have been far worse, come to think of it.  Maybe we got off light.  But if we want a better Jekyll and Hyde story, just refer back to that event no one on the ship remembered.  The Enemy Within is a far more effective telling of that classic tale.  ML

The view from across the pond:

Some sci-fi ideas are a gift for a writer and rarely fail to result in a strong story. Among those ideas are the following:

  • Parallel universe
  • Antimatter
  • Somebody meeting themselves. Boom!

Doctor Who has tried all of these, and it has resulted in some bona fide classics. So how did Don Ingalls manage to use all three and churn out an absolute turkey of a story? If you take just the first on the list, parallel universes, it probably takes more effort to make a bad story out of the idea than a good one. I think it mainly comes down to one problem: he keeps all the good stuff back for the last ten minutes of the episode. So what does that leave for the other 40 minutes? Mainly a lot of talking, some of the usual captures and escapes, with another of the usual villains on board the ship, a lot of repetition, and a story that twists itself in knots and doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. It’s frustrating to watch, and really boring.

All of this relies on everyone making the same old mistakes in order to keep the story limping along. Lazarus is clearly a threat but is not properly guarded, and is allowed to escape to wreak havoc. Twice. Nobody joins the dots about what is going on until about ten minutes after the viewers have, for each and every detail of the episode, and before they do that they endlessly reiterate information we already know about. The dimension between universes is a fun idea, and actually quite scary, and it is represented in quite a cool way for the 60s, but the scene of Lazarus fighting there is repeated several times through the episode and always goes on too long. Flashy stars, blue light. Rinse and repeat. Even when we do get to the good stuff at the end, we are still subjected to yet another Kirk fight of the week, with all his colleagues inexplicably standing around and watching while he struggles with Lazarus.

When we finally get to the point, it turns out that there was actually a good story hiding in among this mess, although I say that with the proviso that Lazarus’s actions (either of him, but especially the sane one) don’t make a great deal of sense in terms of the revelation of what has been going on. But there are some interesting and scary ideas: the physics of the whole universe being thrown into chaos for a few seconds; the prospect of two universes cancelling each other out; the door between worlds; the void between worlds. Most terrifying of all is the fate of Lazarus, trapped forever with a madman, and it’s pretty clear that forever means forever.

“Is it such a large price to pay, for the safety of two universes?”

Well… quite a large one, yes. But then Kirk fails to be the hero beyond the very traditional sense of the word (fisticuffs), fails to find or even attempt to find a third way, and just does what he’s told and condemns a man to a living hell for all eternity, mumbling a few empty words of pity at the end before doubtless moving on with his life and forgetting all about the poor chap.

Somewhere, occupying the same space and time, the anti-matter version of me is writing about how much he loved the anti-matter version of this episode. I hope we never meet, because that guy is nuts.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: The City on the Edge of Forever

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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7 Responses to Star Trek: The Alternative Factor

  1. scifimike70 says:

    John Drew Barrymore was originally cast as Lazarus and was fired for his irresponsible behavior. Robert Brown, whom per William Shatner’s suggestion was a last minute replacement, had stated (or so I read once) that if they didn’t get him, they would have skipped the episode entirely.

    There are many things about The Alternative Factor that can make Trekkers wish that the powers that be had skipped it. It stays on the map for having paved the way for all multiverse adventures in Trek from “Mirror, Mirror” to Discovery’s S1 multiverse odyssey. It’s worth watching for Robert Brown’s great acting. As for the dimensional corridor fight scenes, once again you can tell that it’s done by stunt actors: Al Wyatt Sr. and Bill Catching (both acclaimed and yet both uncredited here).

    That’s all I can find it in my heart to say about this one. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I only watched this episode for the first time a couple of years ago and, on wow, was it bad. Not just bad, but boring.

    What made it worse was that, as the fine folks at the Junkyard have accurately pointed out, there are elements present that had the potential to result in a really good, interesting story… except, of course, they did not. It’s a huge waste.

    It has been suggested that John Drew Barrymore deliberately got himself fired from the job of playing Lazarus because he realized what an absolute dog of a script it was.

    There is, however, one bright spot in this dreary mess: Lt. Charlene Masters, played by actress Janet MacLachlan. A competent, intelligent black woman who is qualified to run Engineering? Why oh why couldn’t Lt. Masters have returned in some other, better episodes?

    Liked by 1 person

    • scifimike70 says:

      I once read that they considered a love story between Lazarus and Charlene that the evil Lazarus would exploit to manipulate her. I’m not sure why they took it out. But it would have been interesting.

      Liked by 2 people

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      Ben, what’s funny is that years ago, when my pal Alex lent me the newly released DVDs in remastered format, I saved this one for the last, because some part of my brain remembered it as awesome. I think that part of my brain was the anti-matter part, because when I watched this, I was so incredibly disappointed. How does one take so many good ideas and butcher them all?
      Watch this episode and learn!! ML

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Oooh! I found an informative behind-the-scenes look at the production of “The Alternative Factor” and, wow, is it a doozy!

    Liked by 1 person

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