Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When The Universe Collapses, The Enterprise Must Investigate "The Alternative Factor!"

The Good: Most general concept, Reversal, Much of the acting
The Bad: Specific concept does not work, Bits of performance, No real character development, Tech-heavy
The Basics: When the universe blinks out of existence, one man and his doppleganger seem to be the cause in an very technical Star Trek which does not satisfy.

Sometimes all that separates a good episode of Star Trek from one that ends up as a razor decision is the execution of an idea that seems reasonable and good on its surface. In the first season of Star Trek, there are very few close calls in the average episodes; I usually know if I'll recommend them or not. "The Alternative Factor" is one of the episodes that came down to a cointoss for me as to which way I went on the "recommend/not recommend" because ultimately, it left me so ambivalent to the work.

The reason it comes so close either way in this particular episode is quite simple; the idea is not a bad one, but the execution of it requires a leap of logic that is far beyond a suspension of disbelief. Indeed, in order for the episode to be possible the way the phenomenon is explained, there can be no phenomenon. So, to a certain extent, "The Alternative Factor" just does not make any real sense.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is cruising through space when it suddenly registers a universal blink where existence stopped being. The moment of nonexistence concerns StarFleet as it appeared to happen on the universal scale and StarFleet sees that the phenomenon was focused on the sector the Enterprise is in. Fearing an invasion, Kirk investigates a nearby planet and discovers Lazarus. Lazarus and his crashed ship appear to be the source of the universal disturbance and Kirk soon is troubled to learn there may be two Lazarus's, one made of matter, one of antimatter, who are shifting between two universes apparently at will. This troubles Kirk because should the two Lazarus's meet in either universe, that universe would be utterly destroyed, a prospect made very real by the fact that one of the Lazarus's is insane!

The end of the universe is a pretty common theme in the Star Trek franchise. It preoccupies the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Remember Me" and the Deep Space Nine novel collection Millennium. "The Alternative Factor" begins that preoccupation with armageddon on a grand scale and the only real problem is that it is remarkably inconsistent in its execution and the general concept.

The first flaw is not based on minutiae or anything particularly nitpicky. The universe blinks out of existence. That's fine, very cool idea, very menacing. How would anyone within the universe know it happened? It's not a small thing to observe that if something ceases to exist and one is a part of that, they would have no real way to perceive that. When the universe stops existing, time stops, so there is no way to measure or understand or even observe the phenomenon by any being within the galaxy. I mean, even sensors that would observe that sort of thing would stop existing when the universe blinked out of existence. So the first problem is there's no episode here because none of the crew could actually witness what they seem to be able to experience.

The second is the actual mechanics of the switchover. I understand the concept of matter and antimatter in the Star Trek context. It's how they power the warp engines and the meeting of matter and antimatter creates a controlled explosion of power. Without dilithium crystals, the reaction is much more violent, as witnessed in Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Timescape." So the idea of an antimatter Lazarus existing in our universe is somewhat preposterous. The moment antimatter Lazarus entered our normal universe outside a vacuum, he would literally explode (his whole body would vaporize all the matter around him in a pretty tremendous conversion into pure energy).

This leads to the idea of the dimensional corridor, which allows Lazarus and his counterpart to exchange places in each universe. The problem with "The Alternative Factor" is that we see on screen the two Lazarus's exchange places without physically going through the corridor and we see how they pass through the corridor and what happens when they do (thank you universal blink!). The problem with this whole idea is it is applied erratically. Kirk has to use the corridor to prime himself to enter the antimatter universe (makes sense or else he would explode upon entering that universe), but no alternate Kirk comes through. Ignoring that for a moment, there is no indication that the device works except when one passes through it. Yet the two Lazarus's exchange places at various points in the episode. That level of plot-convenient switcharoo is just poor writing, in this case designed to prolong the question of whether Lazarus is insane or if there are two Lazarus's.

That's not to say it is all bad. There is a sane and an insane Lazarus and I actually like which one is from which universe. The moment that is revealed is possibly the best written and executed moment of the piece. Furthermore, Lazarus is a fairly memorable character, despite the plot problems that motivate the reversals of sane and insane Lazarus. If that had been handled with consistency, the episode would have worked better.

But Lazarus is pretty much the most character "The Alternative Factor" sees. While Lazarus is dealing with a moral dilemma of either killing his counterpart or trying to save two universes (depending on the Lazarus), Kirk is talking about invasion and Spock is explaining plot points. Neither of them has a phenomenal bout of defining or exploring character this go around.

So, it actually falls to guest star Robert Brown to deliver the episode and he does as much as he can. Brown plays Lazarus with two very distinctly different performances and he does not belabor the mechanics so much as he embodies them. "The Alternative Factor" works (as much as it does) because Brown is able to completely alter his body language and vocal tones to convince the audience of the reality of both of the Lazarus characters. He does it well.

The rest of the cast, the principle actors, pretty much just show up. None of them truly shine or give even remotely interesting performances.

"The Alternative Factor" is very tech-heavy, making it inaccessible to drama fans. Fans of science fiction who might be predisposed to enjoy this type of episode are likely to be troubled by the technical aspects that I have already mentioned. That leaves only Star Trek fans and most of them will watch this simply because it's "Trek." The truth is the franchise executes the idea better in later episodes and series'.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please click over to my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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