Some Star Trek episode titles conjure up strong images. Mention Arena for example and visions of Kirk and the Gorn slugging it out man-o-lizard instantly comes to mind. Others like The Alternative Factor are a bit more of a mystery. That is until we’re a few minutes in and I realise that it’s the one with Lazurus (Robert Brown). Uh oh, we’ve got a bumpy ride ahead ….
To begin at the beginning. There’s a fine example of throwing yourself about acting (to simulate extreme turbulence) during the pre-credits teaser. Most science fiction series required this skill, but The Alternative Factor is an object lesson in how it should be done.
Continuing to watch the series in production order throws up some interesting storytelling quirks. This is the second episode in a row where Kirk gets very gung-ho, ordering a red alert and convincing himself that an invasion is just round the corner.
The episode also reiterates the notion that it’s a big galaxy out there. The Enterprise is required to face a mysterious phenomenon (which may be natural or could be alien-made) alone – no other ship will be able to reach them in time.
This is partly budget related of course, but it also works from a story-telling point of view. The way that Kirk and his crew are cast in the roles of pioneers, exploring uncharted terrority, raises the stakes (there’s no starbase to run to when the going gets tough).
The production was affected by John Drew Barrymore electing to leave the role of Lazarus at the last minute (during the first morning of filming in fact). Robert Brown, drafted in as a very hasty replacement, therefore had a tough task, so we should cut him some slack.
Brown’s performance is very full on (to put it mildly). But he could only work with the material he was given. The script is … not good. There’s some interesting concepts at work – Lazarus is at war with an anti-matter version of himself – but the realisation is a very muddled. After a while my attention tends to drift as Lazarus simply isn’t that engaging a character. A little of his fire and brimstone raving goes a long way with me.
There are still some incidental pleasures to be found though. I love the wonderfully blunt way Spock tells Lazarus that he’s lying. It seems rude, but Spock is able to explain this away with logic (of course).
Also noteworthy is the appearance of a black female lieutenant who isn’t Uhrua. Lt. Charlene Masters (Janet MacLachlan) doesn’t have the largest role, but at least Masters isn’t as feeble as some of the wilting Enterprise females we’ve seen so far this year.
Earlier drafts did feature her more prominently though. A romance between Lazarus and Masters might have been interesting, but that was one of many ideas which ended up getting cut (the interracial angle was a concern to the network).
Oh, and Bones referring to himself as a humble country doctor is delightful.
Overall, this isn’t very good at all, but then you can’t strike gold every week. Indeed, given the fact that the first season ran for twenty nine episodes it’s remarkable that the general quality remained very high.