Season 1, episode 27 of Star Trek: The Original Series, The Alternative Factor is not only pretty darned bad, it’s nearly incomprehensible at times. Written by Don Ingalls and airing on March 30, 1967, it stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, with guest star Robert Brown.
Welcome to what is likely the worst episode of Star Trek – The Alternative Factor. It makes no sense, whatsoever. It begins with the entire universe blinking out of existence a couple of times. You know, as it does. And then everything gets weird.
After the universe blinks out, a dude named Lazarus appears on a planet the Enterprise is orbiting. Then that guy spouts a whole bunch of nonsense about hunting something across the universe. Then they find no answers at all, and the Enterprise’s power starts draining away. The camera goes blurry with an overlay of stars, then the picture spins and goes negative, with a Lazarus fighting himself, all while the picture rotates. You don’t believe me? Watch this:
Star Trek has its hokey moments from time to time. If we survive this rewatch through The Next Generation, you’ll see some of those moments. However, none are so utterly, unwatchably bad as this. And it just gets worse from there.
What’s frustrating here is that this is intriguing, to begin with. Lazarus rants on and on about “pursuing the devil’s own spawn, a thing I’ve chased across the universe. He’s humanoid outside, but inside, he’s a hideous, murdering monster. I’ll get him, Captain. I swear it.” This is really interesting! Man, what they could’ve done with that premise! A man on a quest across the universe hunting pure evil? That’s the stuff of greatness! ‘
But there are no answers given. No sense is made of it. He just slinks around the ship, screaming a lot, falling off cliffs, sabotaging things, and stealing the dilithium crystals for some unknowable reason. And then they add in these strange episodes of madness where he fights himself and looks really constipated with an ever-worsening beard. It’s stupid.
When what is clearly a deranged, dangerous man with multiple personalities who was wounded in a fight with himself escapes from his sickbay, Kirk asks Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) the reasonable question: “Where is he?” McCoy blithely replies, “I don’t know, Jim. This is a big ship. I’m just a country doctor.” Are you joking? There wasn’t any security with him? Kirk’s reply: “If I had time, I’d laugh.” Nope. For everyone ranting about Star Trek: Discovery being “not my Star Trek,” please. There has been one poor episode of the bunch, but not one reaches the depths of awfulness that this does. “The Alternative Factor” isn’t my Star Trek. It’s pure garbage.
The Alternative Factor’s only saving grace (or as close as anything can come to making this watchable) is Lt. Charlene Masters (Janet MacLachlan). In a show that tends to be dominated by mostly white men, she’s a welcome departure. She’s an African-American woman in charge of engineering, because for some reason Scotty isn’t there, saves a fellow crewman’s life, and has a significant speaking role. She’s one of the few people in this episode actually doing something! Once again, the frustrating thing is that this is the last time we’ll see her. She could be a great addition to the cast, but then she’s just gone.
Apparently, John Barrymore (father of Drew Barrymore) was so disgusted by this episode that he quit before showing up. There were extensive rewrites that made it the incoherent mess that we see here.
Seriously, throughout The Alternative Factor, Lazarus’ beard gets bushy, then scraggly, then nearly nonexistent. Someone gave up during the entire process of this episode.
Spock: “Captain, the universe is safe.”
Kirk: “For you and me. But what of Lazarus? What of Lazarus?”
– I don’t care. Even a little.
Coming up next…
Oh, you’ll be pleased! Next week is “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which is widely considered to be the best episode of Star Trek, bar none. And it’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen it. I’m looking forward to it! Join me!
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.