Tuesday, June 25, 2013

“DARKSEID IS MY WILL!” The Alternative Factor

Then Captain Kirk left the Enterprise and went back to the space that was not a space.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, genre fandom underwent something of a shift in the way it expressed itself, at least on the Internet. A new generation of fans-turned-critics sprang up, ushering in a new style of criticism that can loosely be described as the Internet Review Show. Centred mostly around the website network Channel Awesome, which itself grew out of both YouTube and YouTube's copyright policies, these shows took concisely analytical and frequently equal parts extremely nostalgic and extremely negative, perspectives on science fiction and pop culture ephemera from the 1980s and 1990s, often using the analytical tools of film school. Two of the primary influences on Channel Awesome and similar sites were Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Agony Booth, both of which were known for their trademark style of sarcastically sending up assorted bits of genre fiction's past.

Don't you see? This is not Your ship. This is not Your crew. It's changed, different: It's already begun. It may be too late to undo the damage that has already been done, but You can set things right and prevent further harm from coming to Your universe. You see now the danger You are in? The natural order of things is at stake because of this! It's not only this plane, but all of them! The Future, Our Future, Your Future is on the verge of nonexistence. You must put a stop to this here and now so the proper path of Things-To-Come may unfold as it is destined to. Find him, stop him, destroy him, whatever it takes! You must do it and do it immediately! The fate of Reality-As-We-Know-It is in Your hands!

The reason I bring all of this up is because one of the primary ways by which Star Trek fandom as we currently know it was able to take shape was through The Agony Booth's text recaps of various episodes from across the franchise. The cancellation of Enterprise put Star Trek pretty clearly into the category of “the past”, and even in spite of J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann's two blockbuster cinematic reboots, there is still a lingering sense in many corners of the fandom that Star Trek as a relevant, extant thing remains dead and buried. Therefore, it was sites like The Agony Booth and related web efforts (like SF Debris) and its descendants (like Channel Awesome and other sites like it) that helped usher in a reflexive and introspective period of self-examination in Star Trek fandom. The one problem is that, given their status as entertainment based on making fun of things, the consensus of places like this is going to be extremely negative, or at the very least they heavily emphasize the parts of the series they look at that are the easiest to lampoon.

Yes, I am He, the horrific and terrible monster who destroys civilizations and can make reality vanish in the blink of an eye. But so is he, of course. It depends on your perspective. Much as a hole may become a door, should you choose to view it as such. He will tell you it is a grave threat that the two of us exist in the same place, and in one sense I concede he would be right. He and I are opposites, as you know. Matter and antimatter. Order and chaos. Our existence in the same place and the same time are logical impossibilities. And yet here we both are. And you, as well. My universe is breaking through into yours, and yours into mine. But I submit to you this is a mutability, there is play here. The destruction of one reality does not by default necessitate Nothingness.

This is a very long-winded and roundabout way of getting to the fact The Agony Booth gave “The Alternative Factor” a right panning, tossing out words like “incoherent” and calling Kirk and the crew “severely brain damaged” before finally dubbing the episode as a whole “one of the most poorly constructed fifty minutes I've ever seen” and declaring it “one of the true stinkers in the Trek universe”. I found this all terribly interesting, because “The Alternative Factor” is one of the single most enjoyable episodes of the Original Series I've seen so far.

I don't think you understand the full gravity of the situation at hand here. We are talking about plus and minus coming into contact. Matter and Antimatter. We are talking about the flagrant violation of every known Natural Law of both universes. As a lawkeeper yourself by trade, you must at least respect and understand the significance of that? What is happening out there now is a thing that simply can not and must not be! He would change all of this, sabotage it, reform it in his image: Remake reality in a way that would suit him and him alone. Surely you can see how a thing such as this cannot be permitted to continue? This incursion must be stopped! You must stop it! Help me defeat him and restore The Way Things Are Meant To Be!

This is not to say the episode doesn't have problems; it does, and they're frequently too serious to ignore. However, that said, the problems “The Alternative Factor” do have are purely structural ones, and that really must be stressed in a season that's seen both “Mudd's Women” and Yeoman Barrows. The one solid criticism The Agony Booth does manage to land in my opinion is the accusation of clunky pacing: That's definitely true: There are a few too many exposition scenes, and they could have been written a lot clearer. The battle scenes between Lazarus and Anti-Lazarus go on a bit long, and there's one extended scene near the middle of the episode that really slows things down to a crawl. However, there's an actual behind-the-scenes explanation for this: The script was split just about in half when prospective affiliates raised cane about a proposed love story between Lazarus and Charlene Masters, forcing it to be dropped at the last second. This really can't be seen as anything less than an overall, ahem, positive thing though I feel: Chief Engineer Masters is an absolutely brilliant character by Star Trek standards: Granted this is helped a lot by the fact her scenes were obviously written for James Doohan's Scotty (who's not in this episode for whatever reason), but still, to have an African woman in that role and not have the show draw overt attention to it has to be commended. Saddle her with yet another throwaway romance subplot, even if it's not with Kirk, and that would have hurt her overall effectiveness I argue. It's just a shame the change came about thanks to the southern affiliates throwing a fit over a potential interracial romance and not feminist introspection or good sense.

I do not seek to destroy, only to change, for change is flux and constant. In fact, it is the antithesis of change, that is, stagnation, that begets death, and it is death which pursues you. What you are witnessing now is a conflict at a point in time yet to come in your future, but that has already begun in mine and will continue to rage from now until eternity. He and I shall fight again and again until all of the stars and all of the worlds throughout all of the cosmos blink out and the vultures and death-dealers pick over the dried and bleached remains of creation. In this way our domains will be kept separate, for now. But there will come a time the door will open again: I've seen it before, and it will happen again. So be it.

Then there's Lazarus himself, who is significantly more interesting then perhaps he ought to be. First of all, Robert Brown was not the original choice for the role: He was a last-minute replacement when the actor who was actually cast, John Drew Barrymore, never showed up for work. Brown was such a last-minute addition, in fact, the show had to start shooting the scenes without Lazarus before they had even found a substitute, which would also account for the hectic and frenzied production. For an emergency stand-in, however, Brown is really quite excellent, and his mood swings and dramatic stage presence are really fun to watch. The name Lazarus itself is, of course, taken from the Biblical character Lazarus of Bethany. This is fundamentally another example of how indebted Star Trek is to Westernism at this point, but, just like the best parts of the Original Series, it's wonderfully oversignified thanks to a seemingly truly inept screw-up. See, the thing is Lazarus of Bethany is primarily famous for cheating death, as he's brought back to life by Jesus four days after he died as an example of how Jesus has transcended (or perhaps conquered might be the better word) the mortal shackles of death.

You're just going to let him stand there? You have to take action! You must send him back, he cannot stay here of his own accord! If he is allowed to assert his will on the universe, all of reality will be imperiled! The future that has been prescribed for us shall not come to pass and the stability of the entire cosmos will buckle! The universes must be kept separate! We must persevere over the Anti-Life! The timeline must be preserved!

This is problematic on a number of levels, most notably the fact this doesn't seem to hold any connection whatsoever to Lazarus' actual role in “The Alternative Factor”. And, once again, we see that Western motif I mentioned in “The Menagerie” post about one needing to “move beyond” one's Earthly limitations. But perhaps instead of being the Anti-Life we can reconceptualize Lazarus as the Anti-Death instead: Everyone in this episode seems in some way to be racing to outrun the Death Drive-before the Matter/Antimatter hook is introduced, it seems for all the world that Star Trek's internal narrative logic is on the verge of falling apart, and Lazarus describes his opponent as death itself. Even after we learn about the “antimatter universe” (an admittedly self-evidently silly sci-fi concept), that reading is still faintly there. Recall Anti-Lazarus' goal is to uphold reality by removing his duplicate from the multiverse: In a sense, he is sacrificing himself to ensure the continued life of us all. What we choose to do with it is up to us.

Change is constant. Even now, things are not as they were. Where are Christopher Pike and Number One? Doctor Boyce? Where is Earth Command, and what happened to the Space Air Force and the Space Navy? Starfleet and the Federation didn't exist before, and yet now they apparently have always existed. By his own admission he has reshaped reality. The outside universe bleeds in, and nothing remains as it once was. That which he so desperately wishes to preserve is as much an illusory construct as that which I wish to change. I wonder what he would have to say about that. Or you.


  1. Not sure I get your take on this episode, but if you’re implying it had a lot of unfulfilled potential, I agree :-)
    Don Ingalls wrote one other ST episode, “A Private Little War” where he changed his name to Jud Crucis, apparently a word play on Jesus crucified. Don’t know if that sheds any light on why his good/evil character is named Lazarus, the close friend whom Jesus is said to have brought back from the grave. Seems like many of the writers and actors of TOS would have been haunted by memories of the WW2 holocaust—Shatner and Nimoy, Gene Coon, etc. According to Susan Sackett’s book, Roddenberry’s mother was Jewish, though she was a regular Baptist churchgoer….
    The only sense I can make of the ending, is that civilization will survive if violence is contained as private inner conflict of the individual, instead of being unleashed on the world.

    1. "Jud Crucis" sounds more like "Judas Crucified." Which is what happened, according to the Gospel of Barnabas.

    2. Apparently Ingalls felt "A Private Little War" had been so mangled in rewrites (IIRC by Roddenberry) it wasn't his script anymore and the antiwar commentary he had written it to convey wasn't present at all in the draft that made it to screen. Ergo, he felt him and his story had been "crucified" in a sense.

    3. That's interesting, 'cause TAF and APLW are to me the two most dour and grim episodes in all of the original Star Trek. And yes, Little War does end up with a pro-Vietnam message, though it's not gunh-ho; rather sober and resigned.

      I give credit to TAF for a disturbing resolution that I've never been able to shake - if the episode were better-written, with a stronger story arc, and a more compelling reason why the two Lazarii have to be trapped in the corridor for eternity ... I still don't know that I could "enjoy" the harshly disturbing ending it has.

  2. Replies
    1. Why, thank you very much! I aim to please :-)

  3. It took me a while to figure out what precisely you were up to, Josh, but now that I have, I endorse this completely.

    About The Alternative Factor itself. I can't say for sure what the first episode of Star Trek I've ever seen was. But the first one I remember in detail was The Alternative Factor, I think because the character(s) of Lazarus appealed to me. (A mysterious man from another plane of existence whose sage attitudes and superior technical and moral knowledge to the Enterprise crew sets him up as the genuine hero of the story, relegating the ostensible star Kirk to the status of witness. I guess I've always been a Doctor Who fan at heart.) I loved this program as a 3-5 year old, and when I've watched it since, the plot holes don't matter to me as much as that story of the Lazari.

    I'm fascinated by this trend in Star Trek fandom of re-evaluation and rethinking the show's history in the forum culture. Despite the Abrams movies (which are really more conventional sci-fi action films with Star Trek characters and copyrighted material than they are Trek), Star Trek no longer being on TV has put it in a version of the Whovians' Wilderness Years. The first post-cancellation period (1969-1987) was a story of growing cultural cachet and a popular series of films through the 1980s. But now, Star Trek seems almost retrograde, or else entirely subsumed into the Abrams and Whedon paradigms of sci-fi. Since 2005, Star Trek could no longer claim to be the dominant strain of popular sci-fi in the United States.

    So The Alternative Factor goes from being a classic to being a naff. But there's more than this going on. Josh has done a great job of showing that the utopian humanism that Roddenberry long pimped as his vision of Star Trek was in fact a lie. Star Trek is haunted by its own evil, insane Lazarus: The Cage, and its vision of a hyper-logical space air force extending the military reach of Earth Command through the stars. It seems that evil Lazarus was named Gene Roddenberry. And no matter how far Star Trek may develop its utopian elements that Gene Coon started to develop, it will always be haunted by the militarism of its original conception. Its insane, murderous twin from a parallel world, the Gene Roddenberry of 1965.

    1. Many thanks for the thoughtful words and analyses, Alex! It's much appreciated. I don't have much to add to that, except to say I have a feeling you're going to really like what I have planned for the Rick Berman era :-)

      I think your take on "The Alternative Factor" is spot-on. It's IMO one of those cases where the concept and script are so unbelievably ambitious and intriguing the structural issues don't hold it back in the slightest. They're noticeable, sure, but they don't detract from how enjoyable this one is to watch.

      The 1969-1987 period is very interesting to me, and one of the reasons why is that I'm not sure it can really be called a wilderness or post-cancellation period: Star Trek never did well ratings-wise in its original run, it was kept alive for as long as it did mostly out of NBC's good faith and a small but *extremely* vocal group of fans. It really wasn't until the 1970s when it was in syndicated reruns that the show really began to amass any kind of significant following. Not to mention there actually was Trek briefly on the air during that period (the Animated Series in 1974) and the fact there was a 99% complete live-action TV reboot planned for 1977-8.

      This was also the period dialog between the fans and creators really began to be significant factor, and I think this proved to be bit of a perspective shift for Gene Roddenberry. But, things to come and all...

    2. Really, I think the closest thing to the Doctor Who Wilderness years for Star Trek was probably the last couple of years of Enterprise leading up to the Abrams movie. The television franchise had clearly run out of steam, and for all the fascinating ideas Enterprise had, every other major sci-fi franchise was blowing it out of the water. All the political concepts about the War On Terror™ that Enterprise worked with were far better written on Battlestar. The characters on Stargate SG1 were much more fun, and even though they were kind of programmatic, they were much more interesting and fun to watch than most of the cast of Enterprise.

      Now I think Star Trek fandom has to deal with a paradigm shift in who the big folks are in sci-fi. Essentially, Star Trek has been subject to a hostile takeover by J. J. Abrams, who has morphed the show into his style of thoughtful action movie. He's also achieved what seemed impossible to any Star Trek fan from the 1980s or 90s with Star Trek 2009: He turned it into Star Wars. It's a pretty common idea now that the plot of Star Trek 2009 is essentially Star Wars: A New Hope. So Star Trek is still big, but the franchise itself doesn't seem to have any power to create its own paradigms of how to do sci-fi. Instead, it's been folded into the J. J. Abrams vision.

      Hell, never mind what you're planning for Berman; I want to see what you're planning for 1977 when Star Wars hits.

    3. I think the position Star Trek is in now is somewhat unique among genre fiction. It's been able to become, partially by its own volition and partially through how people like Abrams and his corporate overlords have appropriated it, something that is at once the most logical endpoint for Soda Pop Art like it but also something no other franchise like it has managed to attain. This has both positive and negative connotations, but I can't quite elaborate on what I mean at this time. I'm sure you understand :-)

      I agree with you about Enterprise to a point: Your reaction to the show is the exact same one I had to it long about the end of Season 3, which is when I finally gave up on it pretty much for good. That said, I think the War on Terror parallels are just about the least interesting thing to focus on IRT Enterprise, just behind Season 4's gratuitous continuity porn.

      Star Wars will naturally get coverage in the late-70s, alongside just about every other movie you can probably think of that it's important I mention that came out around then. In terms of if or how that's going to play into the way I explore the narrative for Star Trek's future? Well...Stay tuned.

    4. By the way, I want to apologise to Adam for calling him Alex in my first reply. I had been out all day and was coming off of a lengthy stretch of writing and operating under four hours of sleep last night, so I wasn't as cogent as I perhaps probably should have been.

  4. You are engaging with the things I find most fascinating and most frustrating about modern-day fandom, and also referencing the New Gods. AWESOME. <3

    That said, one nit to pick: an antimatter universe is not at all a silly concept. Indeed, there's no known reason why our universe is mostly matter and not 50/50 matter/antimatter; a universe that was mostly antimatter seems like a pretty reasonable extension of that.

    1. Please forgive me for not being entirely up on the physics side of things in that case: I've heard a lot of snarking from various critical sources about concepts like antimatter universes so I was responding to that primarily.

    2. Quite all right! To be fair, the episode does seem to have kind of a wonky idea on how matter/antimatter collisions work.