Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Alternative Factor

The Alternative Factor was a troubled production. Contracted guest star John Drew Barrymore failed to turn up for the first day of filming causing delays while Robert Brown was cast in his place. Before that the script had an entire sub-plot removed, a romance between Lazarus and Lieutenant Charlene Masters. It's been speculated the sub-plot was cut at a late stage because Janet MacLachlan, the actress cast, was African American and John Drew Barrymore was Caucasian, and there was concern television stations in the American south would simply refuse to air the episode. Frankly, it's more likely the sub-plot was cut because it contains risible dialogue.

LAZARUS: I have moved through eternity to find you. You know that, don't you? When we first saw each other... you must have felt it.
CHARLENE: were like a wounded eagle...
LAZARUS: An eagle looks a long time for his mate... and once he finds her, he never leaves her. I have looked a long time...

It's a cheap shot but given the dialogue above it's no surprise John Drew Barrymore was a no show. Using less eagle references Space Seed would cover the same territory more effectively with the relationship between Khan and Lieutenant McGivers.

How much does this background detail matter? Should we excuse an episode's faults by pointing to production chaos? When Star Trek started running out of usable scripts Gene L. Coon wrote the first draft script of Arena in a weekend. William Shatner's father died during filming of The Devil In The Dark and production eventually had to close down for a day. Jill Ireland was ill during filming of This Side Of Paradise and all her location scenes had to be filmed elsewhere. Chaos doesn't automatically produce a bad episode. The strange thing about The Alternative Factor is that everybody concerned seems to have given up simultaneously. As if all the accumulated stress of making the whole Star Trek series was dumped on this one episode.

As always a bad episode starts with a poor script. The setup of The Alternative Factor is reasonably straightforward. There are two universes. The Star Trek universe, let's call it universe A, and a second, opposite universe, which we'll call universe 1 in a tribute to Futurama. Connecting the two is a corridor which acts as a safety valve. The people of universe 1 discovered the corridor and popped into universe A (by now it should be clear these names are being used in an attempt to generate the same confusion as the episode). The knowledge that an identical version of himself existed was too much, Lazarus A went mad and vowed to destroy Lazarus 1. If the two should ever meet outside of the safety valve corridor then both universes will be destroyed. This much is clear. The rest of The Alternative Factor is lost under terrible scripting, poor characterisation, and a general contempt for narrative.

Take the protagonist(s) Lazarus. In a process which seems to be random and beyond the control of either version of the character they swap between universes. No reason is given for this extraordinary ability. It just happens. What's missing is not Star Trek: Voyager style made-up science, “friction between elecromagnetic waves and luminiferous Ether led to a build-up of Vril on the sector gears of the higher-order columns,” but a simple explanation. Is the transfer related to the expedition the people from universe 1 took to universe A? Did Lazarus 1 cause it? Was it an accident? Is it what drove Lazarus A mad? It's as if The Enemy Within started with Kirk already split in two and no reason given for how this occurred. The audience is simply expected to accept Lazarus has this ability, and that the timing, and effects caused by the switch are dependant on the scripts requirements at that moment.

The first time the episode shows the effect of the switch is in the teaser. The Enterprise shakes, there is the sound of an explosion, and on screen a photograph of a starfield and nebula is overlaid to convey the galactic effect of the event we are being shown. Spock describes what the Enterprise sensors recorded. “For a split second each time, everything within range of our instruments seemed on the verge of winking out.... the entire magnetic field in this solar system simply blinked. The planet below, the mass of which we're measuring, attained zero gravity.... non-existence.” The second time is, if anything, even more dramatic. This time as well as the overlaid photograph and sound effects there is dialogue with added echo. “No! You've come back in, is it? Well, don't stop. Here I am. Come at me again. We'll finish it!” Plus the picture flares to white, like lightning, there's a blurring effect as if vaseline has been smeared on the camera lens, and it looks as if a wind machine was taken on location to blow foliage around. The third time. Nothing.

When the third transfer takes place the writer has a series of script problems to resolve. Kirk and Spock have another 20 minutes of script before they realise the link between the transfer process and the cosmic winking out. However, the writer also needs to get Lazarus 1 onto the Enterprise so he can learn about dilithium crystals. Kirk and Spock also need to think Lazarus A and Lazarus 1 are the same person, but the writer would like to generate some tension by cuing the audience in on this so they can know something the characters do not. The writer's solution to these multiple problems is the laziest one possible, while Lazarus A is treated in sickbay by Doctor McCoy he swaps places with Lazarus 1, and the effect previously described by Starfleet as reported, “in every quadrant of the galaxy and far beyond,” suddenly become unnoticeable to Doctor McCoy who has stepped into a different room.

This scene also contains the first of many examples of truly terrible characterisation. Lazarus A's treatment by McCoy, and switch with Lazarus 1, is not shown, it is reported to us when Kirk and McCoy have a scene in sickbay. The scene ends with this exchange.

KIRK: Where is he?
MCCOY: I don't know, Jim. This is a big ship. I'm just a country doctor.

McCoy let Lazarus wander off. His patient instantly went from injured to healthy and McCoy just let him leave sickbay. This is the writers solution to the problem of keeping Kirk and Spock ignorant of Lazarus' true nature, while also getting Lazarus 1 to where he can learn about dilithium crystals. First the cosmic effects of the transfer process are dialled back, then McCoy shows no professional interest or intellectual curiosity in a patient who heals in seconds, and finally McCoy allows Lazarus to walk out of sickbay. Show, don't tell is the adage of scripting but it is clear the reason this scene is reported to the audience is because any attempt to show it directly would look laughable.

Kirk also has to act stupid for the plot to work. Kirk allows Lazarus to roam the Enterprise corridors even though he believes Lazarus to be a ranting madman. Then, after two dilithium crystals have been stolen Kirk, Spock, Lazarus, and three security guards beam down to the planet to look for them. Lazarus walks away from the group by himself, and no one does anything to stop him. Later when Lazarus is back in sickbay (he fell off a cliff, the second time he does this in one episode) under guard and being interrogated by Kirk we get this immortal dialogue.

MCCOY: He's got to get some rest, Jim. And would you get that muscleman out of my Sickbay. [gestures at the security guard]
KIRK: Dismissed. [The guard leaves]

Unbelievably McCoy requests Lazarus be left unguarded. Despite Lazarus being a proved lair who, rants madly about nothing getting in the way of his vengeance, who is also prime suspect in the theft of two dilithium crystals and an attack on two of the Enterprise crew, and who has also already walked out of sickbay once in this episode. Naturally Kirk agrees. Lazarus promptly walks out of sickbay, rewires the energising circuit to start a diversionary fire, and steals two more dilithium crystals.

So far this review has only discussed the awful script. For the sake of balance the bizarre directing and editing decisions should also be mentioned. When Lazarus A and Lazarus 1 exchange places they meet in the corridor between universes. While there they fight, or at least slowly wrestle. To show this corridor is outside the normal universe the footage is shown in negative (the closing titles to The Squire Of Gothos show a still of Kirk in the corridor before it has been processed to look like an inverted image) and the camera is tilted from side to side. By any standards this is a dull fight. It's slow, and filmed with a single camera so the usual tricks to make fights more exciting, fast edits and closeups and different angles, are not available here. The first time the fight is shown it takes up almost a minute of screen time, subsequent repeats of the footage are shorter but as it is shown for the fourth time it's hard not to believe the audience is expected to find this interesting not because the images are fascinating in their own right, but just because it's a different colour to normal.

It's also worth keeping an eye on the two security guards in the background of the final fight between Kirk and Lazarus A. For some reason the director wants them in the back of shot but has apparently instructed the pair not to move at all. “Stand back,” Kirk orders them, as the pair make no move to get involved. As Shatner manfully struggles with Robert Brown the one on the right keeps smirking, as if he is trying not to blow the take by laughing out loud.

Lastly, Kirk's reaction shot at the end of McCoy's, “this is a big ship. I'm just a country doctor,” line is held just a fraction too long. As a result it looks as if Kirk is about to give McCoy a mouthful of abuse for his lax attitude towards patient care and sickbay security.

What it comes down to is this, This Side Of Paradise is an episode where a good script fires the enthusiasm of the production team, and the cast respond to that enthusiasm and put in good work, which enthuses the production team even more, which makes the cast work better, and so on. The whole episode is lifted by a feedback loop of enthusiasm. The Alternative Factor is the opposite. A stupid and drab script, and a production team apparently depressed by additional problems, results in the cast putting in workmanlike performances. No one really seems to care and the end result is the worst episode of Star Trek's first season.

But having said that, there's the ending. Not Kirk's feeble attempt at profundity. “But what of Lazarus? What of Lazarus?” Just the concept itself. Spending eternity locked in a corridor between universes being attacked by a lunatic. It has an odd way of gripping the imagination. Certainly on the few occasions I've watched this episode it's been something I've thought about afterwards. What would it be like to be in that situation? Can either of the pair die? Can they be hurt or injured? The simple fact I've tried to imagine what it would be like shows I've engaged with the ending. Even the worst episode of Star Trek, so far, works on at least one level.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. 
Running total: 26

No comments:

Post a Comment