One Trek Mind #41: "The Alternative Factor"
In a previous One Trek Mind column -- THIS one -- I discussed how, in my youth, I'd stay up late, letting TOS reruns lull me to the Land of Nod, and sometimes the show would seep into my dreams. (I fully expect you to remember all my One Trek Mind tidbits, by the way – there will be a quiz when we're done.)
For quite some time I was convinced that “The Alternative Factor” was a bizarre, meandering tale only because I'd drift asleep before making it to the final credits. Then one day I watched it all the way through while I was wide awake – and that still was no help. Most will agree that “The Alternative Factor,” TOS' 27th episode, is the first that is, let's face it, a stinker. I'll go one further and say it is the most surreal of all 'em out there.
The stream-of-consciousness quality begins right at the onset. A superimposed image of a nebula zooms in and out as Kirk, Spock and company rattle and roll on the bridge. “What was that?” the Captain asks and Spock, having only looked at his instruments for about three seconds, concludes that for a split second all matter in the area was on the verge of “winking out.” Why this phenomenon would cause a spacequake (or have such a visual representation) isn't quite explained.
“I want facts, not poetry!” Kirk shouts. Not only is he very angry, he has an odd definition of poetry.
The dead planet below now has a humanoid on it, so they beam down and a guy with a more-ridiculous-than-usual fake beard looks at them and says, “You came!” Despite this exclamation, never again will there be any evidence that Lazarus (the bearded one) was in any way expecting the Enterprise, or that his activities hoped to summon someone.
This is quickly forgotten, though, because he swiftly falls from the top of a bunch of rocks. And not for the last time.
The story switches gears when Kirk receives a Code Factor One from Starfleet Command. The anomaly emanating from their location was felt throughout the galaxy and all are warned to prepare for an incoming invasion. Invasion from whom? Not addressed, but don't worry – this topic is all but ignored for the rest of the episode.
We go speak with Lazarus, who rants and screams like a crazy man. His head is bandaged, but Dr. McCoy later swears he sees him with no head injury at all.
What Kirk should be thinking is, “Hey, one of my most trusted officers and dearest friends may have noticed something, and this ship is no stranger to adventures with a good version and a bad version of someone (ahem, 'The Enemy Within').” Instead, he just starts yelling at him.
We in the audience know what's up, because whenever Lazarus is alone the crazy nebula appears and timespace rifts and the two Lazaruses (Lazari?) switch places. Earlier, these moments were so dramatic that they were felt all the way back on Earth. Now, however, they just happen in the hallway and no one bothers to come out of the rec room.
It's around here when it really starts to feel like “The Alternative Factor” is somehow being made up as it goes along. To hide this fact are a number of sequences when Lazarus and anti-Lazarus tussle inside a photograph negative. The trumpets blast, the camera goes upside down and when it gets really bad there's a spinning square that flies at the screen. You practically expect to see the classic newspaper headline effect. (“Extra: Baffling Trek Episode Vamps With Footage of Blue People in Slow Motion.”)
Eventually, Kirk and Spock have a lengthy scene where they talk out what's probably happening. Parallel worlds. Of course Lazarus had, I dunno, about 15 opportunities to TELL them this. Later it's explained that he's actually the crazy one, but considering that Lazarus wanted Kirk's help it still would have been a good idea to clue him in rather than running around in the wind and continually falling off of rocks.
The episode ends where it begins, with poetry. Each Universe's Lazarus is forever trapped in the interworld corridor, engaged in a never-ending fight between sanity and insanity. “But what of Lazarus?” Kirk rhetorically asks, over and over again.
Usually when an episode ends with Shatner posing a downbeat phrase it is poignant, even heartbreaking. In “The Alternative Factor,” the only real reaction is “Huhhhhh?!?”
Now, listen, I'm a Star Trek fanatic. To me, there's no such thing as a bad episode. “The Alternative Factor” has its moments. Lt. Masters is a pretty neat character, even if this is the only time she shows up. But the fact that not much really happens in this one, and what does happen is so strange, makes it all feel like a fever dream. Mention “The Alternative Factor” and all I think of is two blue upside-down forms sluggishly fighting as inappropriately loud music blasts on the soundtrack. It feels less like an episode of my favorite television show and more like a weird, trippy cult film.
What do you think? I'm I being a little harsh? Does “The Alternative Factor” have a similar, spaced-out quality for you, too? Let me know in the comments below.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at UGO.com for more than four years. He has produced two independent films (look 'em up!) and is a member of the New York Film Critics Online. In 2005, he was named the Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast by IFC. Jordan fell in love with Star Trek through TOS reruns just as TNG was getting ready to launch. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels. He has a funny story about the one time he met Leonard Nimoy.