Episode 27 – TOS 1×27: “The Alternative Factor”

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So this is one of those times where “hot mess” doesn’t quite do the episode justice.

The Enterprise is minding her own business, doing a boring, run-of-the-mill planetary survey, when all of a sudden, existence blinks. Literally, the entire universe seems to shiver and shudder and very briefly stop existing. How they, or Starfleet, which immediately dials them up to go “WTF!”, detect this precisely is a mystery best left to the annals of TV history. Maybe a Reality Integrity Detector is standard equipment for the farfaring starship?

Down on the aforementioned boring planet, there is suddenly a lifesign where once there was none. The crew investigates, and discovers Lazarus, who claims his enemy, who pursued him here and then attacked him, is out to destroy reality, and he needs the Enterprise’s help to stop him.

Lazarus... or Lazarus?
Lazarus… or Lazarus?

In Trek’s first foray into alternate universes, nobody can seem to decide how anything works. It’s like four different plots all crammed into one episode, at least half of them contradicting the other half. What people know and when and why they care about it is equally unclear; Lazarus, who turns out to have an alternate-universe doppelganger, switches identities so often that I stopped caring about keeping track. More than a quarter of the episode is taken up by our dimension-hopping guest star having body-switching fits up against bulkheads while the picture flares to negative-zone in the strangest TOS effects choice we’ve seen so far. And that’s all without even addressing the utterly baffling and consistently inconsistent take on how alternate universes work.

alternate universes diagram
Corene made us a diagram. It only sort of helped.








One bright spot (the biggest bright spot, who are we kidding) is the debut – and sadly, only appearance – of Lieutenant Charlene Masters (played by Janet MacLachlan, who had a guest role in basically every TV show made between 1965 and 1985), engineer, who steals every scene she’s in by being amazing and competent and simply does not have time for this alternate-universe-doppelganger nonsense.

Charlene Masters, does not have time for this.
I am TRYING to run an ENGINE ROOM here.

So this episode, kindly put, is crazypants. That’s not to say that as an artifact of sci-fi history, and Trek history, this isn’t interesting. There are a lot of threads that lead to later, more established Trek treatment of the whole alternate universe doubles trope, though I think it’s safe to say that later Trek, even later TOS, did a better job of keeping the many mechanisms of time-and-alternate-universe travel internally consistent. There’s a whole under-running theme here about positive v.s. negative universes that would be better ignored altogether. But this episode is high-stakes – the possible destruction of eternity, if Lazarus doesn’t succeed in stopping his double – and is resolved in one of our favourite ways: with Kirk and a guest star having a talk about science and thinking out the problem.

And then some hilarious wrestling. But what would an episode of classic Trek be without that?

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