When it comes to the original series, there are a handful of episodes that I’ve watched so many times that I can practically recite the dialogue along with the characters. Many of those episodes come from the mid-point of season one to the mid-point of season two when Gene Coon’s influence on Star Trek became more prominent.
But even in that near-perfect run, there are one or two stinkers that don’t make their way into my viewing rotation that often.
“The Alternative Factor” is one of those stories.
It may be the episode of the original series that I’ve re-watched the least. There are a lot of reasons for that, the most prominent being that it’s confusing as all get out and repeat viewings don’t do much to help it make any more sense.
The teaser for “The Alternative Factor” is eerily similar to that of “City on the Edge of Forever.” Both episodes start out with the Enterprise in orbit around a planet that seems to be the focal point for “rock the ship” acting. But that’s where the similarities end with “City” becoming one of the best-regarded episodes not just of the Trek canon but all of television. And then there’s “The Alternative Factor” with its crazy discussions of mirror universes, people switching places and Lazarus with and without his head bandage.
There are so many things that just don’t add up in the episode. For years, I wondered why the story was so confusing with Lazarus apparently exchanging places between non-bandaged Lazarus and bandaged Lazarus at will with the episode offering up little in the way of explanation. I couldn’t help but also be a bit disturbed by how lax security is on the Enterprise. Lazarus is allowed to roam freely the corridors of the Enterprise, despite previously announcing he needs the dilithum crystals from the warp engines to do – well, there I’m not quite sure and neither is the story for this one. Needless to say, it feels like they might have wanted to post a red shirt or two on our near the guy. In a few episodes, Khan will get guards posted outside his quarters once Kirk and company realize he could be a threat. So why isn’t it a standard procedure here?
The good thing about the behind the scenes books on the history of Star Trek is that they have finally provided a bit of insight into just where this episode went astray. The initial concept sounds interesting enough, including a high profile guest star in John Barrymore and a script that included a romance between Lazarus and Lt. Masters. But Barrymore didn’t show up for work because the NBC censors wouldn’t allow the romantic subplot to stay in place. So, the script was slashed and rewritten and then we had a hasty last minute replacement take on the role of Lazarus. Honestly, this is one of those episodes where I’d rather see a dramatic re-enactment of what went on behind the scenes than the actual episode itself. It sounds far more compelling.
I can’t help but wonder if the multiple scenes of Lazarus falling off rocks were inserted into the episode because the Masters/Lazarus romance was stripped from the original scripts.
There is some wonderful location shooting at Vasquez Rocks peppered in here. But that’s really about the only thing that I can say is going for this episode.
Honestly, I’d rather watch “Spock’s Brain” than this one.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what others say:
Mission Log: “The Alternative Factor”
Star Trek Fact Checker: The Alternative Factor
Tor’s Star Trek Rewatch
Onion AV Club Review
The Movie Blog
The Uncommon Geek
Scruffy Rebel Fan Commentary