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Star Trek - Original Series The one that started it all...

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Old May 12 2013, 07:26 PM   #1
Caligula
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"The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

So I just finished watching "The Alternative Factor" on Netflix, remembering that I'd never met a fellow TOS fan who liked it. Yet, when I watched it as a kid, I actually enjoyed it. Now, at age 31, I still don't understand the hate for this particular episode. It has a decent storyline. It has the perfect resolution (making the anti-matter universe Lazarus into an ultimate heroic figure by his self-sacrifice). It seems to me that there are plenty of episodes from Season 3 that are far worse, so what gives?

Beyond the lame special effects for the two Lazarus jumping from universe to universe, as well as actor Robert Brown's ability to out-ham William Shatner, exactly what makes this a bad episode in your opinion?
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Old May 12 2013, 07:33 PM   #2
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

I've never understood the hate for it either. It's one of my favorite TOS episodes.
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Old May 12 2013, 07:36 PM   #3
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

The illogic of the whole situation.
  1. The entire universe endangered? Fine, zap one Lazarus. Hell, why doesn't sane Lazarus just vaporize himself? Problem solved.
  2. How are the Lazurii switching places without going to their ships? If the ships are a necessary component, blow one up.
  3. The crew act like idiots. The universe is in danger and they let this nut wander the ship without an escort.
And that's just the broad strokes.
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Old May 12 2013, 07:58 PM   #4
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

It's got plenty wrong with it. For one thing, its portrayal of antimatter is unspeakably stupid. It claims that matter and antimatter only annihilate each other, not if identical particles and antiparticles come into contact, but if identical people do -- so matter Kirk can interact just fine with an antimatter universe, and antimatter Lazarus can exist readily in ours, but if the two Lazaruses meet, it's kaboom. Also it makes the equally idiotic claim that if a matter-antimatter explosion occurs, it will destroy both entire universes.

Which not only contradicts real physics, but everything else in Trek as well. It had already been established in "The Naked Time" that matter-antimatter annihilation was what propelled the Enterprise itself. So this completely fanciful take on antimatter just didn't fit with existing continuity. Not to mention its portrayal of dilithium. Previous and later episodes treated dilithium as a means of focusing and channeling the energy of the engines, but TAF claimed that the crystals were themselves the power source.

The way Kirk and Spock reason out the annihilation threat is also completely inane. The leap from "matter and antimatter... cancel each other out violently" to "absolute annihilation... of everything that exists" is arbitrary and inexplicable. The cosmic-level threat is ill-justified and ridiculous, tacked on to what's really a much smaller story in a crude effort to manufacture a sense of peril. (Note that this is actually the only TOS episode or film in which the entire universe is said to be in danger, and one of the very few such instances in all of canonical Trek -- although universal destruction is a far more common threat in Trek novels for some reason.) Not to mention Spock's stupid line about how the sensors are "designed to locate and identify any object in our universe," so anything they can't detect must be from another universe. That's just so totally idiotic. How can sensors be designed to detect something that isn't yet known? I think that even as a kid I was troubled by the illogic of that line. (And again there's a contradiction of previous episodes, since the galactic barrier in the second pilot didn't register on sensors either.)

The episode also contradicts its own internal logic as well as the rest of the franchise. At some points, the switch from one Lazarus to another can only happen at the portal site on the planet surface and causes a "winking out" effect that's allegedly felt universe-wide, but at other times it happens aboard the Enterprise with nobody noticing. And maybe there's a scene that was cut, but the first time we hear about the two Lazaruses switching is when McCoy mentions his bandage disappearing, whereupon they promptly switch back, so it's awkwardly structured.

And there are just too many ideas that we're told about but are never followed up on. Like Lazarus being a time traveller -- that never has any relevance to the story. The backstory about planetary destruction and the epic vendetta is too dependent on telling rather than showing. "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" had a similar premise, but there we could actually see the two enemies confronting each other directly, so it was sold much better -- and if "Last Battlefield" does something better than another episode, that other episode is in trouble. It doesn't help that the mad Lazarus is just completely over-the-top and unsympathetic, whereas we see too little of the good one to identify with him. (Maybe he would've come across better if they hadn't written out his romantic subplot with Lt. Masters.)

And then there's the beard. Let's not even talk about the beard.
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Old May 12 2013, 08:07 PM   #5
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

Maurice wrote: View Post
The crew act like idiots. The universe is in danger and they let this nut wander the ship without an escort.
That one bugs me too.

Overall, the episode never gels because it was made under very rushed and awkward circumstances. Behind the scenes, John Drew Barrymore was originally cast as Lazarus, but on his second day of filming he went to lunch and never came back. He just abandoned the shoot.

So, with the episode now two days behind schedule, actor Robert Brown was brought in as an emergency replacement. He didn't have time to prepare a character well (note the unconvincing facial hair), and there was no time for him to even learn his lines and get off book, let alone craft his performance.

Although none of this was his fault, it led to the regular cast being irritated with him, everybody having a bad week, etc. And the scramble to catch up that week destroyed the usual process of polishing the dialog, figuring out the best way to play the scenes, and whatnot. That's why the finished product barely hangs together as a narrative, and many of the spoken lines are awkward or hokey.

Edit: Christopher and I were writing at the same time. I see he made a lot of good points about the story itself.
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Old May 12 2013, 08:35 PM   #6
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

ZapBrannigan wrote: View Post
Edit: Christopher and I were writing at the same time. I see he made a lot of good points about the story itself.
Both of you make excellent points, many that I wouldn't have considered while watching the episode. I'm particularly ashamed that I didn't notice the huge leap in the perceived danger between highly volatile to "end of everything" cataclysmic.

I'd heard about John David Barrymore having been originally cast as Lazarus, but not the subsequent on set problems between Robert Brown and the cast. That's interesting, and makes sense in particular with the scenes that Brown and Shatner have together.

One other question, and this is one of the few problems I come away with when watching this episode: Where are Sulu and Scotty? Shore leave? Seems odd not having Sulu at the helm or especially Scotty in Main Engineering.... considering that so much of the plot figures on that section of the Enterprise!
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Old May 12 2013, 08:45 PM   #7
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

...It's all the sadder to see so many other TOS episodes feature comparable illogic without the excuse of a drunken actor ruining the production timetable.

"Science" is awkward, unrealistic and contradictory in most of the Trek episodes that attempt to use it as a plot element. "Jeopardy" in turn is often cast in a ridiculous light - that is, what for the villains is a matter of life and death or more is presented to the audience as inane bickering any adult such as our heroes would quickly put an end to; in this sense, the universe-ending jeopardy here isn't particularly special.

The flow of scenes in "Alternative Factor" is inexcusably clumsy, though, and undermines the use of all-new Enterprise sets and location shoots, unique visuals and large custom-built props - a rare combination for any TOS episode. We get new insight into the ship's inner functioning, except it's inconsistent due to left-out technodialogue and illogical cuts. We have the perfect excuse for a suspicious guest character to "wander" (he's capable of winking in and out of the universe) and to be an "obstructionist" (he is genuinely confused when our heroes interrogate him, as he only ever experiences half the interrogation), but this is totally fumbled when the audience isn't allowed to see the key scenes to this mystery or even to hear our heroes' exposition in full.

Give the episode two days more work and you could have a mystery adventure on par with "Wolf in the Fold" at the very least. Give it four and you could have a real gem...

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Old May 12 2013, 08:47 PM   #8
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

ZapBrannigan wrote: View Post
...Behind the scenes, John Drew Barrymore was originally cast as Lazarus, but on his second day of filming he went to lunch and never came back. He just abandoned the shoot.
I seem to recall reading that he just never showed up. I tried to look it up in Inside Star Trek but the index is incorrect about the page numbers concerning Barrymore.

EDIT: Correction. I found the quote.

HERB: ...the morning he was scheduled to begin work, November 16, 1966, John Drew Barrymore disappeared, ignoring his role, his moral obligation, and his contract. Calls to his home, his agents, his publicist brought us no insight or explanation. They didn't have a clue. The son of the famous John Barrymore had skipped out on Star Trek.

Inside Star Trek
p.201
No mention in that section about Brown having difficulties with the regular cast, just that the show ran a day over schedule.
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Old May 12 2013, 08:59 PM   #9
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

It's not even fun to watch. Bele and Lokai running through the Enterprise corridor is a masterpiece compared to the tilt-a-cam view of the two glowing Lazari at each other's throats. And the closing line is a stinker.
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Old May 12 2013, 09:27 PM   #10
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

CorporalCaptain wrote: View Post
And the closing line is a stinker.
The line "What of Lazarus?" has always struck me as a literary allusion, given the way it was delivered. It doesn't seem to be an actual Bible quote, but in Googling it, I've found it used in a number of posts, articles, sermons, etc. about the Biblical Lazarus, though I don't know what the original source is. It just seems to be a commonly used phrase.
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Old May 12 2013, 09:41 PM   #11
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

Christopher wrote: View Post
CorporalCaptain wrote: View Post
And the closing line is a stinker.
The line "What of Lazarus?" has always struck me as a literary allusion, given the way it was delivered. It doesn't seem to be an actual Bible quote, but in Googling it, I've found it used in a number of posts, articles, sermons, etc. about the Biblical Lazarus, though I don't know what the original source is. It just seems to be a commonly used phrase.
That pretentiousness inherent in the line is part of why I hate it. Shatner delivers the line perfectly, for what it is, so it's not his fault.
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Old May 12 2013, 11:44 PM   #12
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

A character falls off of a cliff twice and you have to ask, "...what makes this a bad episode..."?

The overlong sequences of "negative" stuntmen fighting in a smoke room don't help either.
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Old May 13 2013, 12:04 AM   #13
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

Everything in the episode is too long; it seems like a 25 minute idea stretched to twice that length.

And, as has been argued in detail already, the idea wasn't very good to begin with. It is surprising that Don Ingalls was asked back for the second season, but, then again, he was an old drinking buddy of Roddenberry's.
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Old May 13 2013, 01:49 AM   #14
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

I agree with pretty much everything that's been said so far. IMHO, "The Alternative Factor" is the only truly bad episode of TOS's first season. It was obviously extremely rushed in production and probably in writing as well. Those repeated spinning starfields and stuntmen fighting in dry-ice fog just scream "padding." And the wonky science is even wonkier than the usual level of wonk in Trek science.

At the time, though, I thought Lazarus's little one-man ship was kind of cool-looking. Pity it was missing a door!

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Old May 13 2013, 02:48 AM   #15
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Re: "The Alternative Factor" - Why is it so universally hated?

Some terrifically insightful points have been made, and far be it for me to wanna argue with some of you, whose points I've grown to look forward to reading....but as poorly done as The Alternative Factor is......at least Shatner isn't on all fours naying like a horse with a midget on his back riding him. For 43 years I had a BIG problem with THAT embarrassment of an episode, and feel as though I need to apologize for it to anyone that views it that isn't a true Trek fan

The Alternative Factor is indeed weaker than the majority of the 79 episodes, but it has its charm and has never made me cringe.
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