Star Trek “The Alternative Factor” (part 1 of 6)

SUMMARY: Kirk and company must stave off boredom, I mean… some sort of vague invasion/end of existence-type deal that sort of centers on a very melodramatic man with bad facial hair.

Just when I think I’m out, Star Trek pulls me back in! I honestly didn’t plan on doing another Trek article. After all, I’ve taken the TNG crew back behind the woodshed twice, ribbed the fifth movie’s rather overly generous DVD presentation, and given DS9 a solid slap upside the head. What more could I possibly have to say about the franchise?

Then it occurred to me that I haven’t really given any attention to the original series. We’ve had two episodes from the third season, and while that season does have an embarrassment of riffing riches, it’s also like shooting fish in a barrel. Today’s tepid tale comes from the first season, a miracle of television that yielded legit classics such as “Space Seed” and “City on the Edge of Forever”.

It also managed to grunt out “The Alternative Factor”, the twentieth episode shot and twenty-seventh aired. It is truly one of the most confusing, poorly thought-out fifty minutes I have ever witnessed (not counting any random stretch of fifty minutes from any Michael Bay movie, other than The Rock).

In light of this, I have Tylenol and a bottle of Cabo Wabo on hand, just in case. Why Cabo Wabo? Because Sammy Hagar rocks, that’s why!

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Very little actually happens, and what little that does comes about only because Kirk and Company are written to act in such a way that can only be described as severely brain damaged. Confusion reigns here, folks. Abandon hope all ye who enter, for we are truly about to enter Hell.

Star Trek "The Alternative Factor" (part 1 of 6)

We begin, as tends to be the case, with the Enterprise orbiting a planet. On the bridge, Spock is looking over some readings while Kirk signs something for a random officer. Hmm… I wonder if they’re still using Space Pens.

And no, that sort of pun is not beneath me. In fact, given how bad this episode is, puns may be the only thing that saves me.

Spock begins to report on the planet, noting that it’s pretty much nothing worth talking about… much like this episode. As Kirk gives some orders to the replacement helmsman (no Sulu or Scotty in this one—maybe they read the script), the ship is suddenly rocked by something (done by way of the classic “moving the camera back and forth” trick), while a spatial anomaly is superimposed over the bridge.

Star Trek "The Alternative Factor" (part 1 of 6)

After a second round of this, in which we see an interesting contrast between William Shatner’s acting style and Leonard Nimoy’s, things settle down again. To clarify, Nimoy throws himself around the set, while Bill puts his hands up like an actress in a silent movie being menaced by Lon Chaney while twisting around in his chair.

Caption contributed by Ed

Easily startled, the Canadian Hamasaurus will seek shelter in its own armpits.

Kirk leaps up and demands an explanation. Well, Leonard is a somewhat more reserved, traditional performer, while you, sir, are such a bizarre ham that even Nicolas Cage would tell you to tone it down.

Spock, after some back and forth, explains that everything ceased to exist for a brief moment. Uhura chimes in, reporting that Starfleet has issued a general alert, which I would imagine is bad. Spock comes back with a report of one lifeform on the planet whose appearance coincided with the bout of non-existence.

Spock is at a loss for an explanation, but reports that the lifeform could pose a potential threat to the ship. Kirk puts together a security team to beam down to the planet, and we go to the opening credits.

Back from the credits, we arrive on the planet, played more than likely by the area near the Bronson Caves. Sadly, there will be no guy in a gorilla suit wearing a diving helmet to provide laughs; we’re nowhere near that lucky.

Overly dramatic music starts up (it’s like the composer knows the plot is a dud, and is overcompensating) as Kirk, Spock, and a few random redshirts beam down. A captain’s log reiterates what we already know (for the folks who were taking a leak for the first four minutes of the episode) and after some wandering around, they find a small one-man spaceship.

The music blares upon the reveal of this, which would be okay if this wasn’t a sci-fi show that featured spaceships all the time. This is sort of like having a musical sting on a cop show every time you see a dude in blue with a badge.

As they approach the ship, a voice cries out, “You came!” from behind. They turn to see a disheveled looking man with a cheesy looking fake beard on a mountain. He rants for a bit about there “still being time to stop him” before doing a rather overly dramatic stage faint and falling.

Star Trek "The Alternative Factor" (part 1 of 6)

This will prove to be Lazarus, played by Robert Brown. No, not the one who was “M” in a few James Bond films. This one has done…Well, not a hell of a lot outside of some TV guest spots, but I’d guess he has an extensive stage background going by the way he plays his scenes. It gets to the point where Shatner just says, “Fuck it, I’m going low-key if this guy is going to do it like that.”

Brown, it seems, was a late replacement for John Barrymore, Jr. who was initially cast in the role. Apparently, Mr. Barrymore didn’t show up for filming. Given the script, I can’t say I blame the fellow. The rest of the cast should have done the same thing, to be perfectly frank.

Ed Harris

A fan of less than great cinema since childhood, Ed divides his time between writing scripts, working an actual paying job and subjecting himself willingly to some of the worst films society has produced.

Multi-Part Article: Star Trek "The Alternative Factor"
TV Show: Star Trek

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  • Cristiona

    Oh, hey. A text recap.

  • Olaf_the_Lofty

    Well, this gave me several good laughs, especially every time I looked at the Incredible Variable Beard. Thank you!

    • DamonD

      Lazarus’s beard is genuinely horrifying. Lovecraft has nothing on that…thing.

  • Crazy Fish

    I have to admit, I actually liked this episode, but you have successfully convinced me that it’s awful. I still say that the basic premise (guy meets alternate universe self, goes insane, almost destroys both universes in his insanity, is stopped by Kirk) does have merit, but the execution was terrible.

    See, the way you build mystery in a story like this is by trickling tiny bits of the answer to us, so we can figure it out bit by bit as we go. Instead, the writers in this episode just have absolutely dick-all happen for an hour and then explain the whole plot right at the end, which is….not a good way to do things.

  • John Lewis

    I recognize Robert Brown as the character Jason Bolt from Here Come the Brides, as well as Carter Primus from the series Primus.

    You obviously didn’t spend as much time in front of the tube as I did growing up.

    • Graeme Cree

      I never saw Here Come the Brides, but I remember Primus all right. That’s the show I watched when they stopped re-running Sea Hunt, and I kept wishing it was Sea Hunt.

  • Text recap? Oh, this brings me back to the good ol’ days…

  • Terrifel

    I always kind of assumed that this episode was written around the spaceship prop, which looks like it might have originally been part of a theme park ride. My guess is that somebody (Roddenberry, I can’t help but suspect) picked up the prop cheap at an auction or something, then tasked the writers with the chore of structuring an episode around it. There’s no way Desilu signed off to have that thing specially built. The plexiglass dome alone would have been prohibitively expensive to cast just for one TV episode.

    I am frankly incredulous that you managed to get through this entire review, with all those screencaps of Robert Brown’s alarmingly tousled coiffure and variable facial hair, without a single reference to David Hasselhoff. Remember that episode of ‘Knight Rider’ where he had to fight his evil mustached/soul-patched twin? How have you guys not gotten around to reviewing that one yet? Clearly you were too busy watching ‘Dallas’ instead.

    The unicorn horn in sickbay is easily explained. According to medieval tradition, the unicorn’s horn (or “alicorn”) is a sovereign remedy for poison. Obviously, to treat newly discovered space poisons, you need the horn of a space unicorn.

    • Terrifel

      P.S. Dang I forgot to add: please don’t let the text recaps fall entirely by the wayside! I for one enjoy the written recaps and reviews over the videos. Surely they must also be easier to produce. Also (ahem) they are easier to enjoy discreetly at work…

  • Gmp2

    While this is certainly one of the lesser episodes from Season 1, I do think you should cut it a bit of slack. As recounted in a couple of books (like “The Star Trek Compendium” by Allan Asherman and “Inside Star Trek” by Solow & Justman), the hassle that John Drew Barrymore caused major problems for the production crew. And, given the pressure they were already under, it’s amazing they were able to get most of the season done at all.

    Oh, and SAG didn’t buy Barrymore’s explanation for his absence (as I recall, he just forgot) and leveled some serious sanctions on him.

  • The FX work is part of the reason I really dislike this episode. The ‘space anomaly’ is actually just the Trifid Nebula, which even in 1967 wasn’t particularly unknown, especially to Trek’s most-likely demo of SF aficionados.

    More appalling was the blue antimatter corridor room tunnel prison place, which looked insipid the first time we ever saw it in the TZ episode ‘Little Girl Lost’, and which did not improve with age. They didn’t even do a particularly good job making the background depthless.

    This episode is a good example of what might have been a decent story, undone by sloppy direction, half-assed writing, and absolutely barrel-bottom effects. The premise is sound – an advanced culture attempts to invert space and time in order to permit time travel, ends up knocking a hole into a parallel cosmos, and the would-be temponaut must forever cancel out his opposite’s influence lest both universes implode into one another – and there’s a real possibility for pathos (what, indeed, of Lazarus?), but nothing was framed out sufficiently to capture an audience, and in the end no one really got to know Lazarus well enough to give a flying handshake what the hell happened to him.

    Alternate universes are not new to Trek (goatees!), and neither are episodes that are so stunningly idiotic that they actually cause your brain to liquefy and ooze out of your tear ducts (that godawful ep of Voyager that had Janeway and Paris mutate into salamanders, for chrissake), and there are examples of episodes that could have been rather good, with a little effort. It’s rare, however, to find it all wrapped up into one neat little package, as we do with this particular lumpy fart.

    In closing: More text recaps, please. Not all of us can provide the linear and engrossed span of attention required by video.

    • coling1969

      I agree – text is best (not that I don’t enjoy the videos)

  • Voyager 6

    Ah, The Alternative Factor. Poor old episode. Always gets bashed like yesterday’s beefsteak, while vastly worse episodes from Seasons 1 and 2 like Court-Martial (Scooby Doo Joins Starfleet), Who Mourns For Adonais? (No-one; he’s a dick) and The Squire Of Gothos (yes, let’s redo Charlie X, which was already a rip-off, but halve the budget and make the god-child Liberace this time) get off Scotty free. TAF suffers from needed-a-further-rewrite-itis, but it’s really not any worse as entertainment as, say, The Return Of The Archons (ahead, snore factor 19) or The Conscience Of The King (Awful overacting everywhere, but we get to see the shuttle bay observation deck for the first and only time, even though by that point the actual shuttle hadn’t even been glued together from milk carton sides and painted grey…I mean, constructed…yet). Avoid consensus opinions, folks….make your own mind up. That said, this recap is fitfully amusing at times. Bit mean-spirited and ‘How dare the show not look and play like SGU’ ish, but I think that was the point. Shatner may be a ham, and a dreadful human being in general, but no-one can deny that he took that role of Kirk and FUCKED THE SHIT OUT OF IT. God bless him.

    • Bo Cephas

      Kudos for your penultimate sentence. I have long maintained that ST would have never been the rerun phenom that it turned out to be w/o The Shat. Debatable of course, but Bill brought the swagger of a pirate to the role that made it all his. Really, who the hell else could you imagine playing Kirk?

  • Ssscott3001

    This episode always disturbed me when I was a kid. Apparently the idea that two scruffy nutjobs in theme-park ride castoffs could muck around with the very existence of the cosmos was an affront to my youthful sense of the proper universal order. I also couldn’t help wondering if a more reliable solution could have been achieved by simply shooting both Lazari in the head.
    Good to see the text format isn’t entirely dead — “text recap, come forth!” I access the net through my smartphone, and video of any sort is a major hassle, to the point that I seldom come here anymore.

  • Old_number_53

    This episode certainly seems to be a victim of a good idea cut down to incomprehensible nothingness by time, budget, and general production restrictions.

    PS: Ditto on all comments about the text format. I miss it. I find the text recaps to come off funnier and more clever than the videos for some reason, and it’s virtually impossible to view the videos from smart phones and tablets (which are fast taking over the net-verse!) anyway.

  • Monoceros4

    The ham acting on display is enough to make this episode somewhat watchable for me but it probably does take the prize for the worst excuse for a plot. Supposedly Lazarus and anti-Lazarus are always switching places; supposedly one’s sane and the other’s mad but, until the confrontation at the end between Lazarus and Capt. Kirk after Kirk’s transported to the other Universe, the two Lazaruses come across exactly the same. They both rant and rave, they both commit various crimes in order to get the dilithium crystals they want, and appearance is no clue because (as you point out) the sparseness of Lazarus’s beard varies all over the damn place.

    And let’s not get into what would really happen if some being composed of anti-matter actually were somehow to materialize in our Universe.

    There’s not much to watch, either. How many scenes do we get of Kirk and his boys beaming down to the planet, where Lazarus falls off a rock, then return to the ship without having really learned anything? Yeah, this one’s a turkey. “Squire of Gothos” worse than this? Yeah, right.

  • Carl Rood

    It’s one of those episodes where Kirk looks like an idiot, because several better, more merciful solution are quite obvious:

    1. Just destroy the ship. Why force these guys to spend an eternity fighting (no aging between dimensions?), when without the ship there’s no way to cross?

    2. Just lock one of them up somewhere secure. The insane one would be preferable, but either would do. If he’s willing to “spend all eternity with a madman at his throat”, I’m sure hed agree to a life in some secure facility. The Federation could make him quite comforatable.

    3. As stated above, just kill one or both of them. Again, the crazy one is crazy and it would be less stressful than fighting forever.

    The advantage to all of these is that it actually takes into account someone else developing the technology and letting these guys out.

    Now to the one really “What the..?” moment. Kirk returns from the powwow with anti-Laz and goes to throw matter-Laz into the corridor. Now there’s Spock and a couple of security guards who have managed to maintain a pulse. These guys have phasers with a stun setting (and kill, but that was covered above). Kirk, who really needs to get over his need to prove how tough he is, tells them to “Stay Back!” Admittedly, Kirk should be the better fighter, but wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to have the others help, including Spock who’s the strongest guy there? Better yet, stun the guy or have Spock nerve pinch him. At least you’re giving anti-Laz an easier time of it.

    Next, what does Kirk do. Do they run for cover and call for the phaser strike on the communicator? No. He beams up to the ship, exit the transporter room, get in a turbo lift, get to the bridge, and then order the strike. Did he need to see it in HD from the comfort of his chair? Isn’t this whole idiotic operation hinging on the amount of time anti-Laz can hold regular-Laz in the corridor?

  • Scowl

    As gmp2 mentioned, “Inside Star Trek” said this was the part of the season when they were quickly running out of shootable scripts and were desperate to shoot anything to keep the season on schedule. They were also being thrown off schedule by special effect shots. They were also under pressure from the network to have “planet episodes”.

    This script unfortunately fit the bill at the time. They thought they would get Berrymore as a guest star. The good/bad Lazarus switcheroo could be repeated until the episode was long enough. The special effects shots were limited to the Enterprise shooting phasers (essentially a still photo), some easy composite shots, and the “fight” sequences were underexposed, backlit and cross-processed in the lab which cost almost nothing. There was probably a day of on-location shooting, one planet set, and lots of jibber jabber on the Enterprise. No Doohan or Takei saved a few bucks. The little spaceship was probably the most expensive thing in the episode.

  • Graeme Cree

    John Drew Barrymore’s skipping out on this episode had nothing to do with the quality of the script. The explanation he gave at the hearing was that he forgot, which is Hollywood-speak for “he was drunk or stoned out of his mind and unable to appear”. Nobody forgets acting engagements; they have agents to remind them. Barrymore was busted by the Screen Actor’s Guild and prohibited from acting for over a year after he skipped out of this show without warning. Not the kind of thing you do if you just don’t like the script. In that case, you don’t sign up in the first place.

  • Kid Charlemagne

    Actually, though the Biblical Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus, Lazarus was not one of the 12 Disciples.

    Now to the episode itself:

    Monoceros4 already pointed out what a brain-bending misunderstanding of antimatter the writer and editor(s) displayed. The instant Anti-Laz entered the matter universe, he should have disappeared in a tremendous explosion, bigger than the one used to destroy the “vampire cloud” (my favorite Trek monster) in “Obsession” (bigger because more antimatter).

    A lesser, but still jaw-dropping, error slipped past everyone earlier in the episode. I don’t know if the scriptwriter, Leonard Nimoy, or both goofed, but Spock reported the planet’s atmosphere as being composed primarily of hydrogen and oxygen, not nitrogen and oxygen like ours.

    Even if such an atmosphere could somehow be formed, the first lightning bolt to happen would have sent the whole atmosphere up in flames.

    Can you say “Hindenburg”, boys and girls? I knew ya could.

  • Strelnikov

    Part 3’s link is broken.

    I always liked this one because it was confusing. I always got the feeling Lazarus’ ship was from an Outer Limits episode I hadn’t seen…..Robert Brown’s shifting beard was always odd. The idea of an antimatter universe is cool, except that they already use antimatter in their engines, so what is so shocking about it? With some work, this could have been a good episode for an anthology sci-fi series, just not Star Trek.