Absolute Annihilation: TOS #20: “The Alternative Factor”

Kirk wrestles with a bizarre pair of near-duplicate antagonists whose meeting threatens to wipe out the entire universe.



  • This is in the running for worst Trek episode ever, with an incoherent premise, overwrought acting, and sloppy writing and direction.
  • The story set-up is routine: the Enterprise is conducting a survey of an ordinary, albeit arid, planet. (With an “oxygen-hydrogen” atmosphere, says Spock – really? Presumably scripters meant oxygen-nitrogen.)
  • Then some violent event rocks the ship, and who knows what else, which we see depicted as an image of the Trifid Nebula (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trifid_Nebula) – not the galaxy, as Cushman says – that is superimposed over our view of the bridge, and whirls in and out for a few moments, then stops. What was that? Spock announces that it’s as everything suddenly ‘winked-out’ – a moment of nonexistence. Moreover, the formerly barren planet below now shows evidence of a single human on the surface.
  • Three plot lines commence.
  • First, a crew beams down to the planet surface – yet another episode filmed at Vasquez Rocks – where they discover the lone human, a crazed man named Lazarus who talks about battling an enemy in a ‘holy cause’, an enemy who destroyed an entire civilization and who must be killed. They take him up to the Enterprise.
  • Second, a Lt. Commander Charlene Masters reports to Kirk that the event has drained the ship’s dilithium crystals, without which the ship’s orbit will decay in 10 hours. [Another instance of the Trek physics issue that orbits decay unless the ship maintains constant power.] Kirk orders her to ‘reamplify’ the crystals, and subsequently we see Masters and her assistant doing so in a special Engineering set we’ve not seen before.
  • Third, Kirk learns from a commodore at Starfleet Command (apparently they have instantaneous communication) that this blinking-out effect has appeared over a wide area, “and far beyond”, and this commodore is ordering evacuation of all Starfleet units and personnel within 100 parsecs. (Really?? 100 parsecs? *Evacuation*? Of hundreds and people and facilities out of an area 100 parsecs around?) Leaving the Enterprise to handle this problem all by itself.
    • Because it was dumb luck that the Enterprise just happened to be near the planet where this cosmos-threatening winking-out event occurred. What greater coincidence could there be in all of literature or pop-culture?
  • Sloppy writing: once aboard the Enterprise, Lazarus is allowed to just roam around the ship. We see the ‘blinking out’/Triffid Nebula effect again and again, and though no one else apparently notices, we see that Lazarus changes: the raving maniac with a bandage on his forehead is switched for a calmer, rational Lazarus with no wound to the forehead. McCoy does notice, but by the time he notifies Kirk, the effect has happened again.
  • For some reason Lazarus hears about the dilithium crystals, and for some reason they are exactly what he needs for his own little ship – a bubble-headed saucer prop perched down among Vasquez Rocks – and plots to steal them. (Curiously, there’s never a plot point about investigating this little spaceship.) This involves Masters and her crystal recharging room.
  • Once Lazarus installs the crystals in his own ship, he’s able to activate his ship and appears in some kind of negative/magnetic corridor, fighting another person – these scenes shot in negative effect, with a tilting camera to make the scene look unsteady.
  • In a scene with Spock and Kirk in the briefing room, the two make a series of remarkable deductions: that since there are (they realize by now) two Lazaruses, and since the radiation they detect from the planet is not from their universe…that there are therefore two parallel universes. That they must be positive and negative. Like matter and antimatter. Meaning if the two Lazaruses meet, that would result of complete annihilation – of *everything*.
    • This is a series of analogies masquerading as scientific deduction. For instance – why might there not be an infinite series of parallel universes?
    • Anyway, no, the two Lazaruses meeting would not result in complete annihilation – it would only result in the annihilation of the pair of Lazaruses.
    • Ironically, the idea of anti-matter shows up later in the series, not mentioned as yet, as being the source of power of the Enterprise engines, i.e. a fuel source, not a danger to the existence of the universe.
  • Further scenes on the planet, i.e. at Vasquez Rocks, involve Lazarus falling off a high rock a second time, Kirk accidentally transporting into the ‘magnetic corridor’ that connects the two universes, and Kirk wrestling the evil Lazarus into that same corridor – with two security guards standing placidly in the background – in order to trap him there.
  • Kirk meets the rational Lazarus, who explains what’s going on, how his civilization discovered the existence of a parallel, opposite universe, and this so enraged the maniac Lazarus, he became obsessed with destroying his duplicate.
  • The plan to resolve this is to trap the two Lazaruses in the corridor, and then for the Enterprise to destroy Lazarus’ ship on the planet, so they can’t escape. Leaving the two trapped in the corridor forever.
  • Which they do.
  • Why not just destroy the ship in the first place, cutting off the transfer?
  • Why is there one scene, the one with Kirk and the sane Lazarus, obviously filmed on a sound stage? And why in this scene is Kirk standing with casually folded arms, as if they are not talking about the existence of all existence?
  • Cushman’s book has two back-stories to the production of this episode that are more interesting than the episode itself.
  • First, the character of Charlene Masters was written in early drafts to be a love-interest to Lazarus. This was rejected by Coon because of the similarity to a plot point in another script in development, “Space Seed”; and thus some of the scenes here, such as the one in the rec room, are stubs of their original selves. Also, it was a tad daring for the time, apparently, for the actress to appear with a natural ‘afro’ hair-style, however short, rather than the stylized straight hair that black actresses at the time, including Nichelle Nichols, typically wore.
  • Second, the actor who played Lazarus, Robert Brown, was a last-minute recruit to replace the actor originally hired, John Drew Barrymore, who objected to late changes in the script and refused to show up for filming. Brown was hired the Monday night before filming with his character began on Tuesday.
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