Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Alternative Factor

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: March 30, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0 (but the entire universe is nearly destroyed, shouldn’t we be terrified that this is even possible?)

Bellybuttons: 0

Honestly, it was tempting to skip “The Alternative Factor.” Something of a mega-sized “The Enemy Within,” with dueling opposites of the same personality, “The Alternative Factor” lacks the thoughtfulness of that earlier episode (not to mention its coherence), and it doesn’t achieve the entertaining camp factor of goofier episodes like “Spock’s Brain.” This week, while the Enterprise maps a planet with no unusual qualities, a disturbing phenomenon occurs that causes the planet to attain “zero gravity” and known space to briefly enter a state of “nonexistence.” Spock describes the galaxy as being “on the verge of winking out.”

Not that kind of wink.

Panicky Starfleet decides this galaxy-wide phenomenon may be the prelude to some kind of invasion, but this plotline is never followed up. Immediately following the “winking out” episode, the lifeless planet now contains one humanoid life form. This turns out to be Lazarus (Robert Brown) and his groovy spaceship. Lazarus claims to seek a mysterious opponent, who he describes as “a beast” who is “antilife.” Later he claims to be on a “holy cause.” He asks Kirk for help in destroying his foe but is vague about his purpose and origin. Most of the episode consists of technobabble about alternate universes while the characters stumble aimlessly from set to set like a Benny Hill skit without the cleavage or wacky music.

Performed to the tune of Yakety-Sax

Spock claims instruments on the Enterprise are designed to locate and identify any object in the universe. The entire universe! Kirk and Spock rely on this and the few available facts to jump to the astonishing conclusion that they have encountered a “rip” between our own matter universe and an antimatter universe. Lazarus, whose personality and wounds from multiple falls on the planet are inconsistent, is not one but two people, a matter-Lazarus and antimatter-Lazarus. If the two Lazaruses (Lazari?) should meet, everything that exists will be destroyed. This potential end of the world is so serious that Lazarus is never put under confinement or surveillance; instead, the crew repeatedly allows him to wander freely about the ship, making off with mission-critical dilithium crystals that aren’t secured in any way (each Lazarus does this, costing the Enterprise four crystals). McCoy treats Lazarus twice and both times turns his back so his patient can easily escape (the second time this happens, McCoy has just assured Kirk that Lazarus would remain in bed): “This is a big ship, I’m just a country doctor,” is McCoy’s defense, as if he’s a moonshine-swilling bumpkin and not chief medical officer on the Federation’s flagship. The widespread dereliction of duty and mumbo-jumbo about “plus” and “minus” universes is headache-inducing.

Kirk’s actual dialogue: “Sometimes pain can drive a man harder than pleasure. I’m sure you understand that, Doctor.” He does indeed, Captain. He does indeed.

The closest we come to appreciating any real threat is when Spock recommends that Lazarus must be stopped, “destroyed if necessary,” an extreme step that he only advised previously in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Kirk, on the other hand, has never been more incompetent. Even after Lazarus specifically demands the dilithium crystals, Kirk still permits him free access to the ship. During the last of a tiresome number of trips to the planet, Kirk beams down alone when he should really bring about a thousand red-shirts considering the entire universe is at stake.

Lazarus’ ship, it turns out, is a corridor between the two universes. Antimatter-Lazarus establishes himself as the good guy, ready to sacrifice himself to save the multiverse. He describes the corridor as a necessary “safety valve,” which makes no sense. If wholesale destruction of both universes is so easy, the necessity of a corridor is a fatal design flaw. Never mind the question of how the corridor ended up in Lazarus’ ship. Nonsense, however, is in keeping with the entire episode.

Make-believe in two centuries: Lazarus’ ship and a “UFO” photographed in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1952

Let’s consider what little does work in “The Alternative Factor.” Our representative from engineering this week is not Mr. Scott but Lieutenant Masters (Janet MacLachlan). She doesn’t get much dialogue but she’s an interesting enough character that a recurring role would have been an excellent addition to the series. And the idea of a parallel universe is always interesting, but TOS will explore it much more effectively in the season two episode “Mirror, Mirror.”

As for Lazarus himself, his name seems to have no special significance. In the end, matter- and antimatter-Lazarus are trapped together in the corridor, doomed to battle each other for all eternity. Biblical Lazarus of Bethany was resurrected by Jesus four days after Lazarus’ death. Lazarus went on to live a relatively ordinary life and experience a normal death. He was not granted immortality (other than the claim of eternal salvation promised in the Bible), but some fiction writers over the years have turned Lazarus into an immortal, tragic figure. However, the resurrection of Lazarus was the last of the seven signs of the Gospel of John; this event confirmed beyond all doubt that Jesus was the Biblical Messiah and led directly to authorities’ decision to crucify Jesus. In that sense, Lazarus becomes both tragic and revelatory. It does not, however, correlate with an inter-universe corridor. While Kirk asks, “And what of Lazarus?” the viewer is more inclined to ask, “And what of the time I’ve spent watching this story that goes nowhere?”

This is awkward in any universe

However, matter-Lazarus, the villain, is a man obsessed with destruction without purpose, and this makes him frightfully relevant to our times. We learn that matter-Lazarus was driven mad by the sheer existence of his antimatter counterpart and wants to kill him for that reason alone. “Madness has no purpose,” Spock says. “Or reason. But it may have a goal.” Matter-Lazarus has no regard for the fact that killing antimatter-Lazarus will be the death of both universes, including himself. He has no other motive. He calls to mind the iconic dialogue from The Dark Knight (2008): “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” More importantly, matter-Lazarus represents the power-hungry throughout history, whether politicians who give to the rich while the poor suffer and die, heads of state who wage war for flimsy personal vendettas, religious charlatans who serve their own glory and not the spirit, or CEOs who trample their own employees for a quarterly bonus: all those who sacrifice the needs of the many to add an iota of wealth or territory to their kingdom. We remember Lazarus of Bethany not for his own achievements, but because he allowed himself to be an instrument serving a greater purpose. Sacrifice is a recurring theme in Star Trek and it’s a quality we should expect from our leaders, whether they lead from the statehouse, the pulpit, or the boardroom. Our tolerance for many serving one has turned the world upside down. The antimatter universe might seem antithetical to our own, but antimatter-Lazarus is the role model we need, one serving many throughout time.

Next: The City On the Edge of Forever