Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Alternative Factor”

“The Alternative Factor”
Written by Don Ingalls
Directed by Gerd Oswald

Season 1, Episode 27
Production episode: 1×20
Original air date: March 30, 1967
Star date: 3087.6

Mission summary
The Enterprise is orbiting an “iron-silica” planet: uncharted, lifeless, arid. Just as they are about to complete their survey they get a case of the wooglies—cue shaky-cam and a film overlay of a nebula. Once things return to normal Spock explains that the universe just “blinked” briefly out of existence. But before he can explain (or maybe just because he can’t), he finds that a human is on the surface of the planet, where moments ago there was no one.

Kirk, Spock, and four redshirts beam down to the surface. They come across a tiny little spaceship pod, complete with bulbous dome-shaped cockpit.* But no one’s inside. Suddenly, a crazy man with an even crazier beard appears on top of a cliff face and shouts at them: “You came! Thank the heavens. There’s still time. It’s not too late. We can still stop him. But I, but I, need, need your help.” He then stumbles and falls down the rocky cliff face.

Back aboard the Enterprise everyone is mildly freaked out. Lieutenant Masters, a woman engineer (oh the crazy things they came up with on this show), explains to Kirk that the dilithium crystals were nearly entirely drained by the last blinking-out-of-existence episode. Uhura then reports that Starfleet Command would like to have a word with Kirk—and they issue “Code Factor One,”or invasion status. All report to battle stations as Kirk gets put in touch with Commodore Barstow from Starfleet Command. Barstow tells Kirk that the blinky-woogly bit wasn’t just unique to the Enterprise:

It occurred in every quadrant of the galaxy and far beyond. Complete disruption of normal magnetic and gravimetric fields, timewarp distortion, possible radiation variations. And all of them centering on the general area which you are now patrolling.

Barstow instructs Kirk to stay put, because he’s pulling all other ships out of the area: The Enterprise will be the bait for whatever this threat is. His strategy? Uh, still trying to figure that one out…

Kirk goes to talk to Mr. Crazybeard, who’s recovering from his fall in sickbay. Crazybeard—aka Lazarus—explains that he’s been chasing “the devil’s own spawn.” He’s human on the outside, but inside is a “hideous, murdering monster.” He claims this man-creature-thing destroyed his entire world and wants to destroy everything in the universe: “He’s death, anti-life, he lives to destroy.” Kirk agrees to go back to the surface to check out the man’s story. (How he could confirm or deny on that surface is a mystery to me.)

They beam back down but find no traces of this other man. Lazarus, however, is overcome by a psychedelic fugue—cue more wooglies, bad overlays, and shaky-cam. Things just get weirder from there. McCoy tells Kirk that Lazarus’ head wound has mysteriously disappeared, but when they confront the man it’s there again! Spock then discovers a “rip” in space, where the laws of physics do not apply. It’s emitting some kind of radiation that Spock was only able to detect with the dilithium crystals.

The mention of the crystals drives Crazybeard into a frenzy—he demands that Kirk turn over the ship’s crystals to him. Kirk nearly laughs in his face, but Lazarus will have them. He overhears Lt. Masters discussing them in the mess hall and follows her to engineering. Incapacitating the other engineer, he attacks her. By the time Kirk and his men arrives two dilithium crystals are already gone. Lazarus swears that the he-monster took it, not him, and wants to beam back down the planet to prove that he doesn’t have them. For the nth time this episode, they beam down and discover that Lazarus indeed does not have the crystals—nor will he answer any questions about why possession of them is so important, or what the danger is to the Enterprise from this allegedly evil man-beast out there. Suddenly, the wooglies, and in what feels like stock footage at this point, Lazarus falls from the cliff’s face during the nebula overlay vision.

Back in sickbay, Crazybeard tries a different story. He tells Kirk and Bones that he’s actually a time traveller, and that the evil man monster out there is a time traveller, too. But Kirk isn’t convinced and he meets with Spock, trying to figure out what’s causing this blinking phenomenon and what on earth is wrong with this hobo they picked up.

KIRK: What have we got, Mister Spock? A magnetic effect which produces a winking-out phenomenon. A mysterious, unidentified source of radiation on the planet. Lazarus, a walking powder keg. Your rip in the universe. A so-called murdering humanoid.
SPOCK: True, Captain, but more significant to me is the fact that our ship’s instruments are specifically designed to locate and identify any object in our universe, be it energy or matter.
KIRK: But by using those instruments you were unable to identify the source of the radiation on the planet.
SPOCK: Correct. Which would seem to be impossible.
KIRK: Are the instruments in order?
SPOCK: Perfect working condition.
KIRK: Then what you say leads obviously to one alternative. The source of radiation is not from our universe.
SPOCK: Nor in our universe, Captain. It came from outside.

Wait, what?! That’s the wackiest conclusion we’ve seen yet. Kirk goes on to suggest that while Kirk and Spock and the Enterprise exist in the “positive” universe, there may be an equal-but-opposite “minus” universe. This would explain the radiation, and the threat of invasion (huh?), and even Lazarus—no one man could be both mad and rational, but two men could be. Now they worry that Lazarus or this creature could force matter and anti-matter to come into contact with each other and “cancel out” one another, unmaking the entire world.

Their fears are right, of course, because meanwhile Lazarus is nonchalantly opening a high voltage control panel (which looks suspiciously like a set of Legos) to sabotage it. The electrical short nearly explodes the console that Lt. Masters and the other engineer are working on, and they flee Engineering before the whole place explodes. While it’s full of smoke, Lazarus grabs the last two dilithium crystals, overpowers a transporter room drone, and transports himself down to the surface.

Kirk beams down in pursuit, and finds Lazarus happily inserting the crystals into his machine. But when Kirk leans in to confront him, Kirk disappears!

He reappears in what seems to be the same planet—but a much calmer, friendlier, and cleaner Lazarus stands before him. This is the “minus” universe, with the “minus” Lazarus.

KIRK: Exactly what did I pass through?
LAZARUS: That’s hard to explain, Captain. I call it an alternative warp. It’s sort of a negative magnetic corridor where the two parallel universes meet. It’s sort of a safety valve. It keeps eternity from blowing up.
KIRK: This corridor, is it what caused the magnetic effect, the winking out phenomenon?
LAZARUS: Precisely, Captain, but not because of its existence. Because, because my foe entered. The corridor is like a prison, with explosives at the door. Open the door, and the explosives might go off. Stay inside
KIRK: And the universe is safe.
LAZARUS: Both universes, Captain. Yours and mine.

Let’s just pretend this makes sense.

KIRK: Surely Lazarus must realise what would happen if you should meet face to face outside the corridor.
LAZARUS: Of course he knows, Captain, but he’s mad. You heard him. He’s lost his mind.

When our people found a way to slip through the warp and prove another universe, an identical one, existed, it was too much for him. He could not live knowing that I lived. He became obsessed with the idea of destroying me. The fact that it meant his own destruction, and everything else, meant nothing to him.

Lazarus instructs Kirk to return to his world and force Positive Lazarus back into the corridor—with both Lazari there, they will become trapped, doomed to struggle each other for all eternity, and incapable of doing harm to either universe. Kirk does what he’s told, and once Lazarus disappears into the corridor he aims the ship’s phasers at the ship, destroying it in both worlds, leaving them trapped forever.

KIRK: There is, of course, no escape. How would it be? Trapped forever with a raging madman at your throat until time itself came to a stop? For eternity. How would it be?
SPOCK: Captain, the universe is safe.
KIRK: For you and me. But what of Lazarus? What of Lazarus?

There’s really nothing to recommend this episode. The story is nonsensical and difficult to follow, even forgiving the handwavium; the plotting is painfully slow, and the repetitious Lazarus-falls-down-on-planet-surface/Lazarus-recovers-onboard-the-Enterprise cycle is a weak excuse for story; no one, not even the minor characters or the guest star, have any interesting character development; and there aren’t even any interesting aliens.

I didn’t find Lazarus to be a remotely compelling character. His motives were unexplained until the end, and all the build-up led to a resolution of “he’s mad,” a fact which was abundantly clear the whole time. That’s it? I never saw a difference between the “sane” Lazarus and the “mad” Lazarus. They both seem nuts, and the guy we meet at the end, the “sane” one, seems more like he’s been drugged than anything else. If he’s been swapping in and out the whole time, why did he never tell Kirk anything? Why steal the dilithium crystals when he could have just explained the whole situation?

So much didn’t make sense. How did they make this portal? Where’s the mirror version of Kirk? Why do the Commodore and Kirk get the initial sense that there’s going to be an invasion? Lazarus runs away and sabotages things constantly, yet no one puts him under surveillance? What the hell is attached to his face?

As for the regular crew, they don’t do anything here. Even Spock is on desk duty this go-around. Kirk beams back and forth from the planet to the ship, pointlessly exploring the surface. Lt. Masters gets the most exciting story here, and we of course never see her again. Every scene felt like filler.

The episode skirted some interesting ideas—what if there were parallel universes? Would you sacrifice yourself to save the world? But it lost interest in its own conceptual framework about halfway through the episode (and it lost my interest even sooner). The fake science is too vague and nonsensical to engage with any cool ideas. And what of the religious imagery? Lazarus is an odd name for someone caught between worlds, but I guess we do see him take falls that would kill any other man and then swiftly recover. He constantly refers to his chase as a “holy cause,” a pursuit for “justice.” But these allusions and images don’t add up to anything—they seem purely coincidental, and never go anywhere, just like everything else.

The bad pacing and weak plotting didn’t hold my attention, and I found myself counting the minutes until it was over. A pointless episode.

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 1 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: This is pretty much an idea episode, exploring the concept of parallel universes for the first time in Star Trek. Spock says, “The possible existence of a parallel universe has been scientifically conceded,” which is true enough of 1967, when the existence of a “multiverse” was finally being considered seriously by a wary scientific community. But to make this episode work, Don Ingalls really should have established the existence of parallel universes as fact in the future (the way they did with ESP in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”), since Kirk and Spock take the mere possibility and run with it, positing that there is a “minus universe” composed of anti-matter, which won’t play nice with our own universe. This, coincidentally enough, is exactly what is happening, but I doubt many viewers could have figured that out without having it explained directly.

One of the big weaknesses of the episode is the vagueness of it all. We’re given some wacky special effects to show the “negative magnetic corridor” as negative images, weird zooms on a starscape overlaid on the screen, and thunder and lightning. Lazarus’s waffling behavior and appearing and disappearing wounds is really not enough to go on. If I hadn’t seen this episode before, I wouldn’t have had any idea of what was going on, and the resolution drops pretty quickly once the meaning of the visual effects is made clear. It’s further crippled by the fact that Robert Brown (apparently a last-minute replacement for John Drew Barrymore) is not the best actor, at least not as the crazed Lazarus on his “holy cause,” and Ingalls needed to stop dropping him off of cliffs and landing him in Sickbay to move the plot along. Mad Lazarus was more of a threat to himself than his negative counterpart. Conceptually, it makes sense for mad Lazarus to hide the truth, but when the rational version of him switches in, why doesn’t he just explain the situation to Kirk (as he ultimately does on the planet) rather than steal the dilithium crystals? Kirk also comes across as rather churlish with Spock and McCoy through this episode, which doesn’t help to make this an entertaining episode.

Unfortunately this episode had a terrific start with a truly epic catastrophe threatening the entire universe, but it failed to deliver on any meaningful drama or character conflicts. Memory Alpha mentions a subplot about a romance between Lazarus and Lt. Masters was cut; had it been included, this could have been a better story. It’s interesting that the “negative” Lazarus was the good one, while the one from the “positive” universe was nuts. And I like the idea of the two Lazari struggling between dimensions for all eternity, protecting the fabric of their universes like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, but aside from Kirk’s depressing “What of Lazarus?” at the end, it doesn’t deal with the implications of this sacrifice. Nor do we really care about the guy anyway, more the shame.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: KIRK: “Sometimes pain can drive a man harder than pleasure. I’m sure you know that, Doctor.” (Only for the unintentional giggle it inspired.)

Syndication Edits: After returning from the planet, Kirk calling battle stations, McCoy’s first medical report, and Uhura telling Kirk that the message from the Commodore is ready; The second half of the first captain’s log; the first part of Kirk’s discussion with Spock after returning to the bridge; some pointless exploration scenes on the planet’s surface; Lazarus’ explanation in sick bay before he finally tells the truth; a big chunk of the psychedlic Kirk sequence near the end.

Trivia: The woogly scenes were filmed in a small, bare room with orange and purple walls. They flooded the floor with smoke to hide a safety mattress.

Other Notes: Eugene mentioned two bits already: John Drew Barrymore, father of Drew Barrymore, was originally contracted to play Lazarus in this episode. He never showed up to work, and the ST production team filed a grievance against him, making him unable to find work for several years afterwards.

The other is that Lt. Masters was supposed to be a love interest for Lazarus, but since a black actress was given the part, southern broadcast channels were apparently reluctant to show an interracial romance on television. This meant cutting all the romantic scenes and replacing them with redundant surface exploration scenes. The original draft of the script sounds much more interesting: the “sane” Lazarus falls in love with Lt. Masters, and then the crazy version manipulates her and exploits their relationship to obtain the crystals.

* I will not make a joke about this. I will not make a joke about this. I will not…

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 26: “Errand of Mercy.”

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 28 – “City on the Edge of Forever.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.