The end of Star Trek’s first season has a remarkable run of high-quality episodes. “Space Seed,” “A Taste of Armageddon,” “This Side of Paradise,” “The Devil in the Dark,” and “Errand of Mercy” are all highlights of the original series, of the franchise, and I’d argue of television in general. The show could do no wrong.
And then, it could.
With 29 episodes in a season, it’s inevitable that there’s a clunker or two. It’s kind of amazing that the first Star Trek season managed to get almost all the way through its run before it hit a real stinker.
But that doesn’t make “The Alternative Factor” any more fun to watch. Don Ingalls turns in a repetitive, talky script, which Gerd Oswald directs with a stylelessness veering between static tedium and incoherence.
Buried in there is a half-baked Cold War parable about the moral necessity for endless war. But it’s hard to be too irritated by that given the incompetence with which the message is delivered.
A Parallel World in Which Star Trek Sucks
The Starship Enterprise is circling a boring planet taking boring science readings. Then suddenly, inexplicably, reality blinks out, accompanied by a star field image imposed over the bridge in a quite unimpressive special effect. Science Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) says that reality has blinked out, and that it is inexplicable.
Sensors then tell them that there’s a life form on the planet. Captain Kirk (Leonard Nimoy) and Spock beam down and find a wild-eyed guy with a scraggly beard named Lazarus (Robert Brown.) He falls off a rock formation because there has to be some drama and nothing else much is happening. They take him back to the ship.
At which point…honestly, the plot summary is kind of misleading, because it inevitably makes the narrative sound more coherent than it is. For instance, we never hear Lazarus telling anyone his name is Lazarus; Kirk just starts calling him that. Maybe Kirk has telepathy. Maybe the guy’s name is really Boris and he’s just too embarrassed to correct Kirk.
Similarly, events don’t really unfold as much as they are vaguely gestured at and then explicated at great length in Kirk/Spock dialogue that makes less sense the longer it goes on. But the gist is that Lazarus is two dudes, one matter, one anti-matter.
The antimatter Lazarus from a parallel identical universe came into the matter universe, startling matter Lazarus so much he went insane. Now insane Lazarus wants to confront antimatter Lazarus, which would cause an explosion destroying the entire universe. Antimatter Lazarus hopes instead to trap matter Lazarus in a corridor between worlds, where the two will struggle forever, which will suck for them, but will keep both universes safe.
In the meantime, Lazarus keeps falling off rocks and escaping from sick bay. Security on the Enterprise is always laughable, but in this one you really start to wonder at what point in the advanced tech future they invent door locks.
Lazarus steals half of the ship’s vital dilithium crystals without which they all die, and then anti-Lazarus steals the other half. Or maybe anti-Lazarus stole them first? You’re supposed to be able to tell because of a cut on one of their heads that keeps appearing and disappearing. But it’s hard to care enough to pay attention.
Eventually, antimatter Lazarus wins and the world isn’t destroyed. Kirk expresses wistful regret that the Lazarus’ are doomed to eternal torment. Spock seems more philosophical about it. Like the rest of us, he’s sick of them.
Sometimes Endless War Is the Price of Peace
The Cold War metaphor here is clear enough, even if little else is. Antimatter and matter Lazarus are two equally matched superpowers, one sane and reasonable (like the US!), one ranting and rabid (like the USSR, from the perspective of the US!) If they ever engage in open conflict, Lazarus and Lazarus will destroy the universe in a giant explosion, just as the US and the USSR would precipitate annihilation if they were to come to open war.
You’d think the answer here would be to agree not to fight each other. But mad Lazarus is mad; he can’t be reasoned with. He can only be stopped.
Open force in the matter universe or the antimatter universe is out of the question. So conflict must be taken elsewhere. To a third world, if you will.
That conflict will be eternal, as Kirk reiterates. “You'll be trapped inside that corridor with him forever. At each other's throats throughout time,” he warns. Lazarus says that’s a small price to pay for preserving two universes.
Which seems noble if it’s one guy sacrificing himself for the greater good. But it sounds less laudable in the context of the metaphor, which seems to suggest that to keep the American homeland safe, people who live in countries like Vietnam must be sacrificed to never-ending proxy wars.
The preceding few Star Trek episodes have a healthy skepticism towards colonial ideology. “Errand of Mercy” can even be read as a satire of US imperialism. Kirk’s promises to protect a planet from Klingon incursions make him sound like a gangster, not a philanthropist.
But the general confusion and slackness of “The Alternative Factor” rob it of any critical edge. The script doesn’t allow anyone any real choices; it just drifts along in a foggy sludge of anxiety and regret.
You could see this as a kind of unintentional replication, or illustration, of how Cold War propaganda was supposed to function. The specifics are difficult to parse, and even the military commanders on the front lines don’t have enough of a grasp on the situation to change anything worthwhile. The world is threatened, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to un-threaten it.
Fate and plot grind on.
There’s no way out of the corridor.
Rating: 2.5/10 SPECS
All episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series are currently streaming on Paramount+.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.