Thursday, March 19, 2009

TOS Rewind #26: "The Alternative Factor"

Today's episode:  The Alternative Factor
(03/30/1967)  I enjoyed a nice Dewars Scotch with our podcast (and no, I'm not trying to rip off Ron Moore's podcasts!).

Eric, Rob, and I did a podcast for this one.

This is one of those episodes that, while having some very interesting ideas, ultimately doesn't work as well as it could for me due to the way it's executed.  Back when I saw this one growing up, I doubt I was as critical as I am today.  After all, it had some space-like effects and a few fights with funky lighting and effects.  Cool!

Here's what I did like about it.

There are some compelling and unusual, for 1960s TV, ideas presented here.  The parallel universe concept and the "corridor" allowing someone to travel between them is great sci fi (not SyFy!) stuff, even if it'd probably been written about before in books. 

The teaser and first act of the episode work very well.  The buildup with the mysterious effect and the somber invasion message from Starfleet (the first time we see Kirk and co. interact with anyone at HQ) cast a somber tone on the show right away.  Then, this batshit crazy man named Lazarus appears and we really don't know what the hell is going on.  As I said, the intro is very effective which makes the rest of the episode more disappointing.

The interactions between Kirk, Spock, and Lazarus are interesting at times.  Kirk comes off as genuinely conflicted as he has to decide what to believe.  Spock gets some good skeptical science officer time here and even gets in this jab at Lazarus:  "I fail to comprehend your indignation, sir. I have simply made the logical deduction that you are a liar."   The scene where Kirk and Spock figure out the nature of the two universes and the potential consequences is actually well done.  Here is a scene where nothing exciting happens; the two of them are just hanging out in the briefing room having a chat.  The camerawork and music builds up a good tension as it dawns on them what they are dealing with.  Sure, it may seem over the top, but it does convey the situation without anything other than the acting and some economical production.

Unfortunately, for me, the episode is undone by a few things.

The guy playing Lazarus manages to seriously out-scenery-chew Shatner.  The ranting and raving get old after a while and is giggle-inducing at times.  I understand they were trying to portray an insane character, but it doesn't always come off right.  Also, other than trying to spot the on/off cut on his forehead, it's almost impossible to tell the two Lazarus' (Lazari?) apart as they both tend to babble on crazy-like.  Then there's his endless running around on the planet falling off cliffs.  Rob and I laughed out loud one of the times.  I understand that some of this was padding to fill in a missing romantic subplot involving Lazarus and the engineering officer.  At least that might have made the episode more interesting and fleshed out the middle section, but it was cut from the script  and, AFAIK, never filmed.  By the way, where's Scotty?  And where did his engine room set go?  Then there's the strange facial hair Lazarus has.  Sometimes it looks glued on and on the verge of coming off.  OK, that's nitpicking...

Things sure seem lax on board the Enterprise in this episode considering how easily Lazarus manages to steal two sets of crystals.  The red guy in the transporter room is a joke.  Kirk has this frank discussion with Lazarus where he threatens to steal the crystals.  Next thing we know, Lazarus is waltzing around the ship. hanging out in the lounge/lunchroom, and into the engineering section to steal the stuff without much trouble.  Don't you think Kirk would have had him watched?  Another odd thing:  the planet-side scenes are obviously California locations, as usual.  But, when Kirk crosses over into the other universe to meet the sane Lazarus, who now acts calm and rational, the scene is obviously on a soundstage with fake rocks.  Hmm...

The effects just weren't able to convey they nature of the corridor and the other universe.  The bits where Lazarus and his twin are fighting look silly and I have to assume that the dialogue was written to compensate for this.  This is quite obvious where at the end of the episode and Kirk is ruminating about the fate of Lazarus.  He gives his dramatic, "How would it be?" bit, as if he is needing to remind the viewers just how significant the resolution of the episode is.  "What of Lazarus?!"

I watched the remastered version of this one, but of course the new effects didn't impact the fighting scenes.  As usual, the images are extremely clean and the exterior ship shots look modern, but little impact on the episode itself.

And now Eric's:

I have always found “The Alternative Factor” to be compelling, but it is flawed. There are continuity problems, such as the dilithium crystals being kept somewhere other than the engine room in the matter-antimatter reactor. And the basic mistakes in the science are glaring—an antimatter Lazarus wouldn’t have been able to exist in our matter universe. The instant he came into contact with a particle of matter, there would have been a BIG explosion. Also, the entire universe couldn’t have been annihilated. But we talk about this in geater detail in the podcast, so I’ll move on to why I have a die-hard affection for the episode.

The setup in the teaser is very well done. It draws you in immediately and doesn’t let go, and this is representative of the good storytelling throughout. (Even a ridiculous story can be engaging, even enthralling, if it is told well. Consider Aesop’s fables and “The Wizard of OZ.”) The parallel universe theme is also a staple of SF that never ceases to be fascinating. And we could no doubt get into a deep “duality of man” discussion based on the “Sane Lazarus” vs. “Nutso Lazarus” situation. But aside from all of this, I enjoyed seeing an epsiode that doesn’t have an overt socio/political message. “The Alternative Factor” exists for no other purpose than to explore the idea that is the basis of its theme. There is also some nice pathos for Lazarus’ plight, but in the end—I know I’ve said this before—I always love the episodes that convincingly convey a feeling of being alone and isolated in the distant reaches of the galaxy.

So, despite its flaws, I have to give “The Alternative Factor” a decent grade for effectively evoking a sense of being in deep space.

Next time:  “The City on the Edge of Forever”

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