Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Star Trek at 50: The Alternative Factor

Season 1
Episode 20: The Alternative Factor
Filmed: November 1966 
First Air Date: March 30, 1967

Karen: What a convoluted backstory this episode has. "The Alternative Factor" is widely panned by fans, and it definitely has problems. But beneath the muddled plot, uneven performance by Robert Brown, and continuity errors, there feels like a good story struggling to get out. Unfortunately it never does.

Karen: Just so you know I care, I watched this again...twice in the span of two months...and it still makes no damn sense. The Enterprise is in orbit around a planet when everything -the whole universe -seems to "wink" out of existence for a moment. A quick trip down to the planet reveals a terrible, Disneyland-teacup of a spaceship and a ranting weirdo with scraggly facial hair. He turns out to be Lazarus (although there are never any formal introductions). Lazarus is chasing after a being whom he says is responsible for these disruptions of reality. He's clearly nuts. But also somehow involved with the reality winks. But Kirk never puts any security on the guy; he just freely roams the ship! We're introduced to a Lt. Masters, who is in charge of the ship's dilithium crystals, an integral part of engineering. But other than getting knocked out by Lazarus, she has little to do (I'll discuss why later). Kirk and the Starfleet admiral in charge think the reality blinks have something to do with an invasion -why? It's not explained. Eventually, in what is probably the best scene in the show, Kirk and Spock work out what is going on: there is a gateway opening to a parallel universe -an anti-matter universe -and it could cause the destruction of both universes. There are two Lazaruses, one from each universe. Kirk goes after our universe's Lazarus, who has fled to the planet with the dilithium crystals, and confronts him. Kirk gets shunted to the anti-matter universe and meets the anti-Lazarus, who is actually sane and good. They work out a plan to trap the other Lazarus into a "negative magnetic corridor" with anti-Lazarus, where the two of them will be stuck for all time. And that's just what happens. And we close with the famous, "But what of Lazarus" uttered by Kirk.

Karen: This episode plods and repeats certain points, all going nowhere. The Anti-Lazarus even tells Kirk that he and the other Lazarus are time travelers -what? Where is that coming from? What does that have to do with the parallel universes? And Robert Brown's performance -OK, Lazarus is supposed to be insane, but good lord, he really milks it. He's not helped by a bizarre beard that is sometimes very thick, and sometimes just a wisp of hair. 

Karen: The effects really let the episode down too. When the "reality blink" occurs, we get a rather lame superimposition of a nebula over the screen along with thunder sound effects and a spinning plate. When the two Lazaruses (Lazari?) are in the corridor, it looks like a room with smoke on the floor, filmed in negative -because that's what it is. It just seems unimaginative even for 1967. (Please excuse Lazarus yelling "Kill!" again in this clip, it was the best I could find to demonstrate the effects).

Karen: What went wrong? Let's start with the story. We get an excellent peek behind the scenes via Marc Cushman's These Are The Voyages, Volume One. The original story was brought to Trek by a friend of Gene Roddenberry's, also an ex-cop, named Don Ingalls. He had written for shows like Have Gun -Will Travel, The Virginian, Whiplash, and others. The story outline presented Lazarus as a sort of tormented hunter, who the younger Enterprise crewmen admire, and Lt. Masters falls for. But even in the initial story outline, it was difficult to keep the two Lazaruses distinct. And the way Lazarus seduces Masters to help him was very similar to how Khan would seduce Marla McGivers into betraying her duty in "Space Seed," which was already in development. It was felt that the betrayal element was more necessary to "Space Seed," so "The Alternative Factor" was the one to change. The romance was removed from the script; it may have avoided creating two similar episodes but it probably made Lazarus a less interesting character.

Karen: Another problem occurred in casting. The original choice to play Lazarus was John Drew Barrymore, son of John Barrymore, future father of Drew Barrymore, and at the time, a prominent young actor (albeit somewhat troubled). It was a coup that Trek had signed him for a guest role. He came in for a wardrobe fitting on the first day of filming (he didn't have scenes that day). That afternoon, the Trek crew was notified that he wouldn't be coming in for work the next day -he was backing out of the role! There is mixed information as to why -some say he didn't like the script; other sources say he was incapacitated. Whatever the case, another actor had to be found quickly. Hurried calls were made, and at 11 pm that night, Robert Brown was signed, coming in cold the next morning to perform. So perhaps he should be cut some slack if he seems a little off. Unfortunately make-up was no help to him either, with that inconsistent beard. You can see it change from scene to scene. That's just sloppy.

Karen: As for Lieutenant Charlene Masters, they had decided to hire Janet MacLachlan, a young Black actress on the rise. According to Cushman, NBC was uncomfortable with the idea of an interracial romance -or even the suggestion of such -and pressure was on Gene Coon to either replace MacLachlan with a white actress or change the script. Ultimately, the combination of the similarities to the upcoming "Space Seed" and the network discomfort resulted in the romance angle being removed entirely -making Masters seem almost pointless.While I applaud the decision to keep MacLachlan, it is a shame they didn't do more with her. But despite Trek's seemingly progressive ways, women were still seen as primarily playing roles that supported men - as objects of romance, typically. We're lucky that Uhura was never paired up with anyone on the show. In that respect, the new Trek movies are regressive, with Uhura now seen mainly through the lens of being Spock's girlfriend. But I digress.   Indeed, one wonders why Masters is overseeing the dilithium crystals instead of Scotty. But Scotty is not in this episode (neither is Sulu). And why are they in a tiny room labeled "Engineering"? We know the engineering section is much larger than one room! Masters also wears a blue, sciences uniform -this was a holdover from an early version of the script when she was a chemist, not an engineer. And of course, she has no rank braid on her sleeve. I could go on, but what's the point? The flaws are plentiful.

Karen: The concept behind this episode -of alternate universes -was handled much more adeptly (although without the matter and anti-matter angle) in the second season episode, "Mirror, Mirror." As for "The Alternative Factor," pretty much everyone involved knew it had been a mess. John Barrymore certainly threw a monkey wrench into the production, and he would take heat for it. Desilu decided to file a complaint against Barrymore with the Screen Actors Guild. SAG sided with Trek, and Barrymore was given a $1,500 fine and his SAG card was suspended for six months, which effectively put him out of work for that time. But blame for the failings of this one can go all around. As it was, although filmed as the 20th episode, it was pushed back and aired as the 27th original episode. So much for Lazarus!


Edo Bosnar said...

Oh, man, this is probably the only episode of Trek that would prompt me to change the channel when it came on. It's just a hot, largely incomprehensible mess. And it's my counterargument whenever Trek purists complain about how 'lousy' season 3 was. Yep, I'll take "Spock's Brain" over this one any day of the week.
Lt. Masters, by the way, is another one of those characters, like Riley, who made only a single or very few appearances and then disappeared, but who had quite a bit of potential. Don't see any reason why she couldn't have become a semi-regular down in engineering, helping Scotty keep things ship-shape.

Also, re: "..the new Trek movies are regressive, with Uhura now seen mainly through the lens of being Spock's girlfriend." This, so much this. Among the many things I really dislike about the NuTrek is the fact that silly, fan-fiction romance that totally diminishes Uhura as a character.

david_b said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
david_b said...

I would tend to agree with Edo.., I really find nothing redeemable about this episode, and folks here know that for even the third year Trek, I'll enjoy the episode for the sub-plot ship on-goings, if the primary plot ends up being lousy or annoying.

And by the way, I'm a big fan of 'Spock's Brain', probably for all the wrong reasons.

I could tend that the alternating facial hair on Lazarus could be a disorientating/surreal visual effect, but I'd agree it was just sloppy continuity (typically there's a guy or gal that takes still photo's during shooting to prevent this). And yep, Masters was a waste.., which is only made worse by the potential of having a 'second black actress' making reappearances on an ongoing network series. For 1966.., what a provocative concept.

As Edo eluded to, wouldn't she had made a great assistant for Scotty, like Christine Chapel did to Bones..?

Typically by mid-season, most action series tend to imbed some weaker episodes around this time (like burying a weak song in the middle of an album's second side..); in contrast, Trek was actually ramping up it's sophistication, quality stories and deepening relationships.

That makes it even more surprising that 'Alternative Factor' was even broadcast without further quality control.

Ehhhh, call it a lemon, move on. We have 'City On the Edge of Forever' to look forward to quite shortly.

J.A. Morris said...

I'm with Karen and the other two commenters on this episode. I've never cared much for it, didn't like it when I was 10, don't like it today. But thanks for the background info, I'd never heard the story about John Drew Barrymore quitting at the last second. I'll cut it some slack, but slack notwithstanding, still one of the worst episodes of the season.

Garett said...

Yep this one was bad. My memories of it are like the special effects: foggy and unpleasant. I don't remember Robert Brown's acting being bad, just that the story was murky.

Anonymous said...

I don’t remember this episode being that bad, although I haven’t seen it since some time in the early 80’s. It’s kind of a shame because it’s the first episode that gets into alternative realities, etc, so you’d kind of want it to be better. It’s also directly followed by (spoiler alert) City of the Edge of Forever, right? So good luck standing next to your hot friend.

Karen, I don’t get the bit where you say that Starfleet & Kirk bafflingly conclude that the winking effect presages some kind of attack. Surely, if someone is switching all of existence off, that’s a bad thing, right? If I were Starfleet Command, I’d be at Def Con minus one.

Karen, do you know a creaky old British sci fi movie called ‘Invasion’? I haven’t seen it since I was 8, so I barely remember it, but I do remember that this episode of ST reminded me of it because it involves an alien who is seemingly a goodie being pursued by baddies, but it becomes clear that he is lying and he is in fact the one on the run.

I like that the first Lazarus is presented as a victim of this terrifying monstrous murderer who wants to kill him, but in fact, he is insane and the ‘demonic’ Lazarus is in fact the goodie.


Pat Henry said...

I've watched this episode more than once, and I've generally had the impression that the two Lazaruses (Lazarii?) were switching periodically throughout the show, and that contributed to (and explained) the continuity errors and sense of confusion. Then you layer on to that the changing make-up and you're never quite sure which Lazarus is which, a subtlety that is rather central to the plot and resolution. Now I realize I could be wrong about even that, the switching, and it becomes even more confusing.

They should have brought in Bret and Bart Maverick.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the consensus...this is worse than "Spock's Brain"; at least Marj Dusay gave a half-decent guest performance in that one, whereas Robert Brown in this episode...

I wonder if things would really have been better if Barrymore had stuck around? He may have given a stronger performance, but that wouldn't have fixed all the script problems and last-minute changes Karen pointed out.

Mike Wilson

Karen said...

The thing that is so frustrating about this episode is the sense that with a little work, it could have been quite good! It has a solid science fiction core to it, with the parallel universes. But there are just too many problems: as pointed out, the two Lazarii are never distinct enough for the viewer to know what the heck is going on. At least when Kirk was split by the transporter, we had the visual cues of different shirts being worn, and of course, Shatner's performance being quite distinct for 'good' Kirk and 'bad' Kirk. Here, it's really just about impossible to tell the two apart. The science behind the story is never really made clear, either. We get some vague talk about why and how things are happening, but they don't really make sense (like the quick remark that the Lazarii are time travelers).

Add into that the lost romance sub-plot, continuity errors, and "Kill! Kill!" and it just adds up to, as Edo said, 'a hot mess' of an episode.

But every time I see it, I have the vain hope that it will make more sense. How's that for blind devotion?

Richard, I haven't seen "Invasion," although I have heard of it. The reason I said that Kirk and the Admiral's thoughts that the reality blinks are part of an invasion didn't make any sense is because, to me, there's nothing there to lead to that conclusion. How would the universe winking out of existence benefit an invader? I just didn't see why they would jump to that conclusion ahead of say, the unexpected result of an experiment or something like that. Of course, you'd be on high alert, but there's no signs of invading starships, or anything like that. It just seemed like an odd conclusion.

I am curious what people think of the new Trek films. Maybe we should run a post next month, when the new film comes out. While I thought the first two were OK, this next one looks pretty terrible (Fast and Furious Trek) to me.

Martinex1 said...

When I saw this episode I had the same reaction as Pat Henry. There were times when I wasn't sure if they switched, if they were temporarily imitating each other, if the faux beard was a "faux beard" in the episode itself. The performance needed to be a little less subtle. Maybe Barrymore would have made a difference. Costume and makeup could have also made a difference.

But I have to say I was intrigued by the two opposite Lazari battling each other in limbo for eternity. That is actually a terrifying tragedy and it's too bad the episode wasn't able to capitalize on that horror. And again the retro designed negative and smoky effects didn't help.

Regarding the new film coming out I was disappointed to hear that one of the stars said Star Trek cannot be cerebral in today's day and age. That's the kind of sentiment that makes me feel old and crabby! But it perhaps summarizes most things today.

Despite all that, I really want to see the movie now that I understand Star Trek more now.

Humanbelly said...

And I always wondered if it was just me (that thought this was a pretty awful episode)--!

Knowing the back-story on how/when Robert Brown stepped into the role does explain some of the problem, though. Even in the flash-learn-the-script world of television filming, he came in just about as cold as it's possible to be, which means he was having to discover the character and figure out moments, etc, pretty much while the cameras were rolling. Effectively, you get a broad, rough sketch of a performance, with big over-the-top choices-- subtleties tend to be discovered with a few more rehearsals and run-throughs. Also-- unless he is/was actually a bad actor, a lot of the responsibility really lies with the director, I think. (Missed who that was for this episode.) That raving "are you all BLIND?" moment in the clip could have been done any number of more effective (and affecting) ways-- but for some reason my instinct is saying that the director was saying, "More crazy-- just give me MORE crazy--", and left it at that. The fact that he/she obviously didn't care about the truly absurd discrepancies (I mean, to the point of SCARY MOVIE-level satire)in the facial hair seems to speak volumes about where the final responsibility lies for this bad egg.


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