In the twenty-seventh episode of the first season of Star Trek, Spock literally tells Kirk that there are “no surprises” on a lifeless planet AND THEN IT’S FORTY-FIVE MINUTES OF SURPRISES. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
I can’t get over this. SPOCK, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE.
I appreciate that the ending of this wild episode does not ignore how utterly disturbing “The Alternative Factor” is, but I think that this story showed me just how far Star Trek was willing to go. In one sense, I don’t think it strays all that far from some of the usual storytelling patterns: the crew is faced with a bizarre mystery that isn’t solved until the final third of the episode. There’s yet another threat to the Enterprise. Captain Kirk is very serious. And yet, “The Alternative Factor” didn’t feel anything like what I’d seen before.
Part of that comes from how openly bewildering this story is. The show gives us clues and hints, but they’re all so non-sensical and seemingly disconnected that it doesn’t really matter that they’re there. When we first meet Lazarus, it’s par for the course. An unexplained being in space! It’s not exactly new ground for the show, but his arrival brings with him an unreal mystery: HOW DID THE UNIVERSE PRACTICALLY WINK OUT OF EXISTENCE IN THE SPAN OF A SECOND? Clearly, the two are connected, but the show doesn’t shy away from demonstrating the horrible scope of this problem. It was SO WONDERFUL to get a chance to see that message from Starfleet, both because we don’t often get to witness them and because it told us just how far-reaching this incident was.
And then there’s Lazarus himself. Robert Brown’s acting is particularly over-the-top, but it’s with the big twist at the end of the episode that we understand why he seemed so hammy. (That doesn’t excuse that horrific facial hair. I’M A BEARD BIGOT, I ADMIT.) Still, I was INCREDIBLY confused throughout “The Alternative Factor,” though it’s clear now that this was how I was supposed to feel. Lazarus himself doesn’t exactly ease us into this conflict, though now I realize that’s because… well, it’s complicated. Perhaps too complicated? Regardless, I’m not sure that Lazarus understood what was at stake here. Ultimately, this is a story about obsession, isn’t it? Lazarus discovered the existence of an identical (but diametrically opposed) parallel universe, found the version of himself in the space between worlds, and became convinced that this double was out to destroy him. It’s a horrible misunderstanding, one that fueled his erratic behavior throughout this episode.
Lord, I WAS SO CONFUSED BY THIS. Was he able to heal himself? How could his personality change so quickly? WHY DID NONE OF THE ENTERPRISE‘S INSTRUMENTS WORK CORRECTLY? WHY DO I UNDERSTAND NONE OF THIS? I mean, look, if Spock can’t come up with a theory, then how am I supposed to? He knows everything! I actually found that his interactions with an increasingly perplexed Kirk helped make this such a memorable episode for me. Granted, I wouldn’t say that the main character study belongs to any of the crew; it’s Lazarus who gets all the development here. But watching how Kirk interacts with Bones and Spock is so much fun! I don’t need this show to be serialized at all, and yet it’s fun to see how their performances rely on the history they have with one another. AND LIEUTENANT MASTERS OH MY GOD PLEASE COME BACK.
But really, let’s talk about Lazarus because he is so fucked up. One of the central conflicts here is his need of the dilithium crystals to fight his “enemy.” For most of “The Alternative Factor,” we have no reason to question that Lazarus is fighting some sort of antagonist in that weird space where everything looks like a photo negative. (I GET IT NOW, OH MY GOD.) I certainly felt like he wasn’t telling the complete truth about this “destroyer,” but at the same time, I suspected that maybe he didn’t truly understand who or what he was fighting. That being said, asking for the dilithium crystals seemed oddly specific. Yes, it provided the episode with the needed bit of conflict that involved the Enterprise being in danger (that poor ship!), but I wondered why they were so central to Lazarus’s destruction of his enemy. Why would Lazarus’s ship be able to defeat this thing? Why didn’t it defeat it in the past? WHY ARE YOU DELIBERATELY BEING VAGUE ABOUT THIS?
I think there’s an interesting analysis here: How much did Lazarus know about the parallel world? Did he stumble on it accidentally? Was he genuinely a time traveller??? Because that was never addressed again, y’all. WHAT THE FUCK. I don’t know how vital that is to understanding his character, but… time travel??? Really? By the time we finally meet Anti!Lazarus, I think it’s clear that this “enemy” Lazarus was fighting was never really an antagonist to begin with. That being said, was Lazarus’s homeworld truly destroyed? If so, by whom? We know for sure that the Anti!Lazarus’s world was destroyed by their curiosity for the parallel universe, so maybe???
I confess that there is some muddled shit going on here that I don’t quite get, but it wasn’t enough to turn me off the episode. I mean, the whole “anti-matter” universe doesn’t really make scientific sense to me, but DON’T CARE. This idea is so cool anyway, and I love that we now have canonical evidence that an identical parallel universe really does exist in this fictional world. PLEASE BRING THIS BACK, IT WOULD BE GREAT. And the end of this episode is possibly one of the most deeply unsettling things Star Trek has ever done. The only way to guarantee that these two universes don’t interact in a destructive manner is to close the doorway – with both the Lazarus characters stuck in between them forever. Anti!Lazarus is so calm about this, and I took that to mean that he’d already lost everything that mattered to him anyway, so sacrificing himself to save two universes wasn’t such a high price to pay. Still, Lazarus is left convinced that this copy of himself is a villain out to destroy him, and that leaves Captain Kirk with virtually no other option. It’s not like he could sit Lazarus down and convince him to abandon his obsession. It’s a sad and scary reality, and it’s clear by the end of “The Alternative Factor” that Kirk is fucked up by the choice he had to make. Seriously, THIS IS SO MESSED UP.
It’s a complicated story, sure, but I had a lot of fun watching this. It was a great episode to come “back” to, since it’s been over six weeks since I last watched “Errand of Mercy.” THAT’S SO WEIRD TO ME. Oh god, never again.
The video for “The Alternative Factor” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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