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The Alternative Factor

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at November 25, 2005 - 9:40 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Alternative Factor' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise is about to leave orbit around a planet with no animal life when a magnetic effect causes all matter in the region to wink momentarily out of existence. Starfleet Command fears that this may be a prelude to an invasion from another dimension and demands that Kirk investigate. On the planet, the Enterprise crew discovers a human named Lazarus who blames the effect on an attack by an extremely powerful humanoid. When pressed, Lazarus claims that the dead planet they are orbiting - which is the center of the disturbance - is his home, and that he is a time traveler, which is how he survived destruction of the entire planet's population. He asks for dilithium crystals to fight his adversary but Kirk says that the Enterprise needs them too badly. When the crystals are stolen but cannot be found on Lazarus' ship, Kirk discovers that there are actually two Lazaruses. One is from Kirk's own universe, and is a madman; the other is sane, but from a parallel universe, and if the insane one manages to force a meeting, it will be like matter and antimatter coming together, causing the destruction of both their universes. The sane Lazarus has a plan to trap the insane one in a magnetic corridor to protect both universes. Though it means that the sane Lazarus will be trapped for all eternity with a madman bent on destroying him, Kirk helps him do so, keeping his universe safe.

Analysis: Although "The Alternative Factor" isn't one of the original series' stronger offerings in terms of execution, it has a very compelling central premise. What if you found out that you had an exact parallel in another universe? What if your parallel hated the idea of your existence so much that he was willing to destroy his universe and yours just to eradicate you? This is a sort of prototype of the concept that became full-blown in the Mirror universe episodes, which don't work exactly the same way because the doubles aren't "antimatter" to the ones from this universe - otherwise the Intendant couldn't have come on to Kira so directly - but the two Lazaruses, one smart and sane, the other unhinged and raving, bear some similarities to the two Kirks from "Mirror, Mirror" and his fellow crewmembers.

In "The Alternative Factor", however, the humor is absent: this is a deadly serious business, with total annihilation of the universes at stake. The Lazarus from Kirk's universe is unnerving - he speaks like a religious fanatic and seems absolutely convinced that this great villain is responsible for whatever cataclysm occurred on his planet and is occurring to the rest of the universe. We never do get a good explanation of exactly what happened to Lazarus or to the world where he and his double keep meeting. Did his time traveling and attempts to meet his double have nothing to do with the dead planet, or, like Annorax in Voyager's later "The Year of Hell", is he personally responsible for the destruction of everything he ever loved and mad in his pursuit of vengeance?

The fact that such questions are left hanging is one of the weaknesses of "The Alternative Factor"; another is the amount of technobabble necessary to try to explain what will happen if the two Lazaruses meet. We're told that the "winking out" effect is magnetic, that it is an anti-magnetic corridor where the two can meet safely, and it never really makes much logical sense. Kirk's working out of the problem is laudable, after Spock's declaration that the ship's sensors should pick up any object in their universe leads to the logical conclusion that the radiation source on the planet is not from their universe; once we know that we are dealing with two universes, the "positive" and "negative", it becomes much easier to follow the matter-antimatter theory, though I'm still not sure how that would work on an atomic level, how a mirror universe "antimatter" body would contain the precise atoms in the precise patterns necessary for annihilation. One Lazarus has a cut on his head, the other does not; wouldn't this create cellular difference, hence atomic difference? Yet Kirk can stand and talk to the alternate, antimatter Lazarus without the matter in his body interacting and causing the end of the universes.

Probably it's best not to try to think about "The Alternative Factor" on a heavy scientific level, or questions arise about the nature of the connections between the universes themselves. Kirk assumes that when he destroys the ship of Lazarus+, it will also destroy the ship of Lazarus-, thus trapping them both. I suppose this means that if Kirk shot Lazarus+, it would kill Lazarus- as well. But what if he merely wounded Lazarus+, cut off his arm, destroyed his ability to make war on his counterpart? Wouldn't that keep the universes safe without imprisoning an innocent man? Kirk makes so many imbecilic decisions where Lazarus is concerned that it doesn't surprise me when he simply accept that trapping them both in the corridor and forgetting them is the way to go - he repeatedly fails to place proper security on Lazarus on the Enterprise, even after he's lost a pair of crystals - and he doesn't try very hard to think of alternatives that might preserve both universes and Lazarus-.

There are other pleasures in this episode - a female engineer we never see before or after, McCoy claiming to be just a country doctor, Spock telling Lazarus of his logical deduction that Lazarus is a liar, Lazarus screaming, "Kill, kill, kill!", Kirk thinking McCoy is joking about seeing Lazarus without his head wound and telling him that if he had time, he'd laugh. Robert Brown gives a strong performance as both Lazaruses, though the mad one is far more memorable, shrieking "Are you deaf as well as blind?" when Kirk won't just hand over his dilithium crystals. It's always fun to see ethe crew off the ship and on real terrain - in this case California's Vasquez Rocks again, thus bearing a remarkable similarity to the planet in "Arena". And the portrayal of the winking out effect and the corridor between universes, first the starfield and nebula, then the characters appearing in photographic negative, remains visually compelling in an era of far more sophisticated visual effects.

Starfleet comes across singularly unimpressive in this episode - faced with the potential imminent destruction of the universe, they send one starship to investigate and pull everyone else back to hide, even after acknowledging that the effect seems so widespread that there is no hiding anywhere in known space. This in opposition to Lazarus-, who is not only willing to sacrifice his future to the anonymous protection of untold billions of lives, but has been actively plotting to do so; instead of trying to evade his double, he meets him head-on. It's the kind of thing Kirk would do and Kirk evidently respects him for it.

What is the relationship between the two Lazaruses, whose lives have evidently followed parallel courses but one is mad and the other sane? If the destruction of a ship in one universe causes the same in the other, it would seem that every counterpart should have a similarly close bond. Does the rational man hope to reason with the madman? Having no idea what eternity feels like in that corridor, without eating or sleeping or a sense of time, perhaps he expects to go mad as well. I've always been puzzled in the Mirror universes about how the universes manage to develop so very closely - when the Mirror Kirk assassinated the Mirror Pike, did that somehow trigger the accident that caused our universe's Captain Pike to lose touch with his surroundings, thus enabling our Kirk to rise to the same position? There isn't a lot of logic, but it's entertaining enough to watch the twinning effect and the shared curiosity and resentment about the doubles even among the sane.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green s a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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