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Star Trek – The Alternative Factor (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

Well, here we are. The Alternative Factor. We’ve had weak episodes before. I’ll concede that shows like Court Martial and The Menagerie, Part II wouldn’t rank among my favourites of the season. However, there was always just enough there to make them interesting, if not compelling. There were good ideas, clumsily executed. There was something value to be found in watching these episodes. The Alternative Factor lacks those sorts of redemptive values, and it’s the first time on this re-watch I have actually wondered where my fifty minutes went, and lamented the fact that watching The Alternative Factor inched me ever-closer to death.

The Alternative Factor is – I’d argue – the weakest episode of a remarkably strong first season of Star Trek. While some would consider it one of the worst episodes the show ever produced, I’m reluctant to commit to that sort of certainty. After all, we still have the third season to come, and I’m hesitant to rank The Alternative Factor as that much worse than The Turnabout Intruder or The Way to Eden or And the Children Shall Lead or Spock’s Brain. Yep, there’s a lot to look forward to if I ever get around to finishing the third season of the show.

Still, the fact that The Alternative Factor might possibly not be the worst thing to happen to Star Trek in its nearly fifty years of existence is damning with faint praise. But I’m sure the episode will take whatever it can get.

It hurts!

It hurts!

First, I feel the need to qualify this rather harsh assessment. The producers and writers working on Star Trek in 1967 were very unlikely to suspect that the show would become a cult phenomenon. Given that home media didn’t really exist on the mass market, you’d forgive them for assuming that they were just producing a television show that might air once or twice in syndication before fading into obscurity.

More than that, it’s clear that the team working on Star Trek were making it up as they went along. There wasn’t really a precedent for a show like this, and it’s clear watching the first season that the writers and producers were flying by the seat of their pants, trying to keep a show on the air on a week-to-week basis. Continuity was flexible for most of that first year. The Menagerie was put on the air when the show ran out of scripts. Shore Leave was re-written as it was filming. It’s a wonder that these turned out well at all.

My brain hurts a lot...

My brain hurts a lot…

It’s worth noting that a lot of shows currently broadcasting on television have relatively truncated seasons. The most respected cable dramas – The Sopranos, Mad Men, etc. – typically restrict their seasons to around thirteen episodes or less. Even network drama seasons tend to be getting shorter. When the franchise was revived in the late eighties, a typical Star Trek season would run twenty-six episodes. This was pretty high. The average season of The West Wing or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer in the nineties ran to twenty-two episodes.

So, by any measure, producing twenty-nine episodes for the first season of Star Trek was quite an accomplishment. At the risk of sounding fatalistic, quality control was bound to slip at some point. Even critically-acclaimed dramas tend to have problems extending their seasons. Compare the tightly-plotted miniseries and truncated first season of Battlestar Galactica to some of the bloating and padding obvious in the second and third seasons of the show.

I think I see a point to all this!

I think I see a point to all this!

Being entirely frank, it’s surprising that the first season doesn’t have more episodes like The Alternative Factor. But that’s all academic. Enough excuses, and let’s just get to it. The Alternative Factor is a mess of an episode that looks like it has been stitched together using the remains of a script that simply wasn’t working. It seems like the story arrived in the writers’ room in critical condition, and the production team were tasked with bandaging it up before it could be sent out for filming.

It’s understandable. It’s almost forgivable. If Star Trek hadn’t been a cultural phenomenon, nobody would even be thinking about The Alternative Factor right now. It would just be a forgotten show that aired some time in the sixties. The problem – as much as it could be considered “a problem” – is that The Alternative Factor is the exception. Even if other episodes in the first season were produced under similar constraints, they generally hold together reasonably well. Not always perfectly, not always fantastically, but still functionally.

The light at the end of the corridor...

The light at the end of the corridor…

It’s quite clear that The Alternative Factor was hacked apart and then quickly tied back together. For example, the original script involved a romance between Lazarus and the supporting character Lieutenant Masters. This angle was dropped, for whatever reason. Perhaps the network affiliates were nervous about an interracial romance on a prime time television show. Perhaps the writers were wary of using a plot device that would be used to much better effect in Space Seed. Perhaps somebody realised that while Ricardo Montalban oozed charisma and sex appeal, Lazarus was hardly a believable character to seduce a trained Starfleet officer.

Whatever the reason, this plot point was excised from the episode. Apparently the producers decided to pad out the episode with lots of wandering and wrestling in cheesy special effects to make up for the runtime that had been lost, leading to an episode that feels extremely bloated and padded, while still refusing to make sense. It’s a very strange cocktail mixture, and it’s completely unsatisfying. It’s very hard to be both dull and confusing, but The Alternative Factor manages it quite deftly.

If a guest-star pulled this on my show, I'd be just as upset...

If a guest-star pulled this on my show, I’d be just as upset…

Again, this isn’t a problem unique to The Alternative Factor. Court Martial suffered from the exact same problem, where it’s clear that the crew weren’t working from a final draft so much as an impromptu hatchet job, with plot points and motivations shifting between scenes, complete with set-ups that never paid off. Court Martial is one of the weaker episodes of the season, but it manages to slightly redeem itself by virtue of being Star Trek‘s first legal show and for the fact that Finney’s plan is absolutely insane. These hardly turn Court Martial into a good episode, but they make it more of a fun curiosity than an outright failure.

The Alternative Factor lacks any of these redemptive factors, and is really just a mess from start to finish. There’s a very clear sense that nobody involved was trying especially hard, and that everybody realised that this one was a bit of a lost cause. Guest star John Drew Barrymore couldn’t even bother to show up on set, forcing a last-minute recast of the main guest role and leading to a six-month ban from the Screen Actors’ Guild. (Apparently he was double-booked, but it’s clear that skipping The Alternative Factor was the smarter move no matter what the other project was.) The show’s continuity staff can’t even consistently maintain Lazarus’ impressive goatee from shot-to-shot.

Plot development on the rocks...

Plot development on the rocks…

In a way, The Alternative Factor feels a little bit like an early example of the fatigue that would set in during the second half of Star Trek: Voyager‘s run, produced with the mentality of “it’ll get made, so why worry?” It is a lot easier to forgive here, due to the fact that it’s an aberration in an otherwise impressive season. It hasn’t quite become the mission statement for the show, and it’s clear that while the production staff are settling for “sorta hangs together” here, they haven’t started aspiring to it yet.

Indeed, The Alternative Factor even falls back on one of the more common errors the later Star Trek spin-offs would make. Unable to generate a sense of dramatic tension or high stakes, the script instead has characters offer techno-babble nonsense as a way of assuring the viewers that things are really serious. Even the usually fantastic Leonard Nimoy can’t do too much to sell it, and the weaker cast members are hopelessly lost. “Whatever that phenomenon was, it drained almost all of our crystals completely,” Lieutenant Masters informs Kirk at one point. “It could mean trouble.” It’s a clunky line, but Janet MacLachlan delivers it as if she’s letting Kirk know the results of the last crew bingo night.

"Scientific analysis confirms that it is crap, sir."

“Scientific analysis confirms that it is crap, sir.”

The script is just terrible, as the show insists on trying to tell us how serious the stakes are as we watch people wander around in the middle of a desert. “Two parallel universes,” Spock states. “Project this: one positive, the other negative; or, more specifically: one matter, the other antimatter.” Even the reliably hammy William Shatner can’t muster much enthusiasm for Kirk’s dramatic response. “Do you know what you’re saying? Matter and antimatter have a tendency to cancel each other out. Violently.”

Again, this isn’t something unique to The Alternative Factor. Star Trek has always been relatively fond of techno-babble. After all, these are characters who use replicators and transporters and warp speed. The Naked Time features convenient time travel. The Enemy Within uses the transporter to rip Kirk in two. However, The Alternative Factor is the first Star Trek episode to feel like it is using this sort of pseudo-scientific exposition to eat up time and to create a cheap sense of drama.

Because there's no way that Kirk wants him coming back on the show...

Because there’s no way that Kirk wants him coming back on the show…

The episode is rife with poorly-conceived exposition. At one point, a senior officer appears on screen purely to prompt the audience about the questions they should probably be asking at this point. “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 centring on the general area which you are now patrolling. The question is, are these natural phenomena or are they mechanically created, and if they are, by whom? For what purpose?”

It gets to the point where even Kirk seems to realise how much trouble the script is having making sense. Confronting the rambling Lazarus, Kirk demands, “All I’ve heard is double-talk, lies, threats, accusations that don’t hold water.” It’s hard not to empathise, but it doesn’t seem like a wry moment of self-awareness from the script. If it were, the script would probably start making sense once Kirk had called attention to its failings. Indeed, almost immediately, the dialogue once again descends into gibberish and nonsense, with the script falling into a holding pattern as it buys time and waits for the end credits.

Don't worry, Bill, you'll get to do some rolling and fighting in the next episode...

Don’t worry, Bill, you’ll get to do some rolling and fighting in the next episode…

It’s not that there aren’t some interesting elements here, even if the script doesn’t allow them to coalesce into anything worthwhile. For example, there’s a very clear religious subtext to Lazarus’ ramblings. The character’s name is itself a biblical allusion, and he speaks in terms of fire and brimstone. Discussing his doppelgänger, Lazarus explains, “That’s how I came to be down there, Captain, pursuing the devil’s own spawn, a thing I’ve chased across the universe. He’s humanoid outside, but inside, he’s a hideous, murdering monster. I’ll get him, Captain. I swear it.”

The final fate of Lazarus even hints at some sort of grand mythological theme. The idea of the same person literally wrestling with himself for the fate of the universe for all eternity should be a truly epic climax for the story – recalling various religious myths and legends about figures holding up the sky or chasing one another through the cosmos. Instead, it falls flat, because it is never really built up and the episode has no idea how to visualise that sort of large-scale concept.

... but we do get a gnarly space craft.

… but we do get a gnarly sixties space craft.

Describing his opponent, Lazarus raves, “That was he! He’s death! Anti-life! He lives to destroy!” It reads like it should be awesome, but the episode never knows quite what to do with crazy!Lazarus’ religious fanaticism. “Then you’ll join me in my holy cause?” he asks Kirk at one point. “Help me in visiting justice and vengeance upon him?” Star Trek does deal with religion over the course of its run, with Kirk frequently deposing super-computers posing as gods, so it isn’t completely out of left-field.

However, the show never really delved into religious fanaticism, and Lazarus would seem to present an interesting opportunity. After all, the character has obviously witnessed terrible things, and had his consciousness and sense of self eroded by the strange metaphysical realities of the universe. Despite the fact that the franchise is associated with a rational approach to the universe, Star Trek would occasionally present a Lovecraftian view of the cosmos – What Are Little Girls Made Of?, The Immunity Syndrome and The Man Trap come to mind. Lazarus could be an interesting character, driven insane by an existential horror, a reality we can’t perceive.

I do love the show's wonderful lighting, though. "Look into my eyes!"

I do love the show’s wonderful lighting, though. “Look into my eyes!”

And the script comes close to grasping that. In a typically exposition-laden scene, Kirk meets not!crazy!Lazarus on the alternate planet – which looks suspiciously like the same area of desert shot with a weird night filter. Because we’ve spent so much of the last forty-odd minutes running in circles, not!crazy!Lazarus has to provide some clunky exposition to explain what the hell is going on. It’s awkward and stilted, but he gets the basics across. And his explanation for crazy!Lazarus’ behaviour seems to reflect these Lovecroftian themes.

“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,” our trustworthy Lazarus explains. “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.” It’s a nice idea. What would it mean to know you were not unique? That you were not special? That there was somebody else who was you in every conceivable aspect? That would be horrifying and maddening to some. If the episode dropped that idea at some point before last five minutes, I’d be a lot more interested. I might even be forgiving.

If we're going to listen to more exposition, Kirk might as well make himself comfortable...

If we’re going to listen to more exposition, Kirk might as well make himself comfortable…

Indeed, The Alternative Factor continues the trend of Star Trek hitting on interesting ideas in the strangest places. The Naked Time was the first episode of the show to feature time travel – a future staple of the franchise. Of course, that ending was intended to lead into Tomorrow is Yesterday, but the separation of the two episodes means that the last-minute time-travel feels strange. As such, the fact that The Alternative Factor introduces the concept of alternate universes feels a bit strange, given that the show would use the same high-concept so much better in both The City on the Edge of Forever and Mirror, Mirror.

It doesn’t help that the special effect used to convey passage between universes is a negative camera shot twirling over a star field. Star Trek always had a cheesy vibe, but this is one of the worst effects in the history of the franchise. Even the “space warp” effect from The Cage had an almost redemptive quirky charm to it, whereas this feels lazy. It seems as if the crew opted for the easiest way of shooting those sequences, with little regard for the fact that they look appalling. I’m never concerned with the realism of Star Trek‘s special effects. I like the studio back lot feel, and the obvious fakery. However, this is just ugly in a way that the original Star Trek seldom is.

Kirk is not impressed with the shooting script...

Kirk is not impressed with the shooting script…

Apparently, the very idea of The Alternative Factor is cursed. Certainly, Jack Kirby’s very similar Fantastic Four storyline (The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man) ran into similar problems. Still, it’s not the end of the world. As a franchise, Star Trek tends to fluctuate in quality – largely due to the episodic nature of the adventures. So it’s possible to have a clunker like this amid a run of very strong episodes, without the sense that the series is breaking its stride.

Indeed, I’d argue that every season of Star Trek has a clunker or two. I would make a very serious case that the fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the strongest year in the show’s long history, and it contains probably the worst episode of that entire Star Trek series in Let He Who is Without Sin…. This first year of Star Trek is quite impressive, and all the more impressive for the fact that it was clearly being made up as the crew went along. The Alternative Factor doesn’t diminish that in any way.

Let's get the hell out of here...

Let’s get the hell out of here…

If anything, the fact that this is very much the exception rather than the rule is testament to the skill with which the show is being crafted. That doesn’t make The Alternative Factor any easier to sit through, but it makes it forgivable. Well, mostly.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

7 Responses

  1. I love your Trek episode reviews! Great job. This is one ep that I watch very rarely. Just doesn’t jibe with me for some reason.

    • Thanks Victor. It’s exhausting. Yep, I’ll agree that The Alternative Factor is the weakest episode of the season. Although it’s remarkable the rest are so strong.

  2. This episode IS the worst. Phenomenally stupid, The answer was simple: all sane Lazarus had to do was off himself. Universes saved. All Kirk had to do (once he knew the truth) is grab a phaser from a redshirt and off nuts Lazarus. Universe saved. Kill one guy to save everything? Done!

  3. I have a soft spot for this episode. It’s definitely flawed (poor beard continuity and all), but when I first watched it at age 12, the concept just *blew my mind.* It was so weird and unpredictable, and I loved being so surprised by the ending. It’s just pure nostalgia for me, and I can’t be too hard on it.

  4. I’ll take this episode any day over the ones with children or hippies!

    • To be fair, I think that at least those episodes have something interesting happening beneath the surface – they can be fun to dissect or think about. This just… kinda… is there.

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