One of my favorite things about the remake of Battlestar Galactica is the sense that these are people that live on a battleship. These are people stuck in the middle of space without a chance of escape or rescue. No one’s coming. No one’s going to save them.
But you still have to get drunk.
Despite the overall grimness of the series as a whole, there’s still a ton of scenes of Starbuck, Lieutenant Gaeda, Gaius Balthar, Lee Adama and a couple of random pilots sitting, playing cards, drinking and smoking. It helps set up a sense that these are people who have lives that aren’t entirely made up of jumping through the galaxy, shooting up Cylons and generally being at each other’s throats and it makes the moments where they do come into conflict even more powerful.
That’s something that Star Trek has always struggled with. I’ve made jokes before about how all the Enterprise does is jet around the galaxy solving problems because it’s mostly true. All we see is Kirk go into ass-kicking mode and Spock solve intergalactic quandaries. We don’t have much of a sense of what normal life is like there.
There’s a moment in today’s episode, “The Alternative Factor” when a few people banter over coffee and it does manage to provide this sense. Its short, but it does help reinforce the idea that not everyone on the ship is in this for the heroics. There’s guys who mess with dilithium crystals all day and there’s gals who are just there for Kirk to schlup. They didn’t sign up to get harassed by Balok or get blown up by Klingons. It really adds something to a series that mostly just boils down to cowboys pulling up to the newest mysterious town week after week.
And what a mysterious ghost town this week’s is. After a mysterious occurrence destroys gravity throughout the universe, Kirk and a landing party head down to a deserted planet to figure out what happened. There they come across Lazarus, a super-healing crazy person who babbles incoherently about a beast he must kill. They bring him up to the Enterprise where he is treated for his wounds, and Kirk and Spock try to figure out what to do.
The first thing to note is that this episode moves slow. I mean, really painfully slow. I’ve been noting recently that a lot of episodes seem to drag and could have been condensed to pretty tight half-hours, but “The Alternative Factor” isn’t one of them. The speed sets a really interesting pace, with Lazarus mentally struggling with his opponent and Kirk and Spock arguing about alternate dimensions like they’re stuck on an island with a bunch of fucking polar bears or something.
This is a good time to note the special effects that are at work on this episode. They’re a little cheesy to say the least. A pair of guys wrestle in a psychedelic smoky room while a barrage of colors reflect all over the screen. It can be a little hard to take serious, but once you understand the context of what is taking place in the interdimensional space, it makes a fair amount of sense and it is a pretty creative way to deal with the idea within the constraints of the time and technology that was present.
Kirk and Spock conclude that there are two Lazarus-es (Lazarusi?) that exist in a pair of parallel dimensions. When the two come in contact due to their travels in the time stream, it unleashes devastation on the universe. Luckily, their few conflicts have occurred in this interdimensional hallway, and the damage has been minimized, but if Lazarus 1 has his insane way, they may come in contact in the Prime Material Plane (yes, I do know that Prime Material Plane is all capitalized). The way that this scene is handled is artful. We’ve had hints that there are two different versions of Lazarus, but we’re learning this as the characters learn it, rather than our knowledge of something that occurred while the characters were not in the frame tipping us off. It makes this episode considerably more satisfying to see the characters figure it out as we do. To add to that, they do a really great job explaining something that they could have done a really horrible job at explaining, leaving it as another “I don’t know, he can just do crazy shit with space and time” moment.
Lazarus 1 claims that to defeat the beast that is causing the chaos throughout the galaxy, he’s going to need the dilithium crystals from the Enterprise. Kirk refuses and eventually, after staging a few near catastrophic accidents, Lazarus gets a hold of them and beams back down to the planet. Kirk gives chase and ends up getting transported into a transitory plane of existence, the level where Lazarus has been facing his interdimensional doppelganger and the source of the chaos. He comes out the other side and meets Lazarus 2, who proposes a rather complex way to trap Lazarus 1 in the corridor, preventing devastation from being wrecked on the universe. However, he is damning himself to an eternity of constant struggle. It’s a moving moment, and it may be the first time in the series where Kirk is faced with a moral dilemma. Ultimately, he helps trap Lazarus 1 in the corridor and re-boards the Enterprise, prepared to destroy the door that links the two dimensions.
The episode concludes on the bridge. Kirk knows that in order to protect the universe, he has to destroy Lazarus 1’s ship, permanently sealing the two beings in the intradimensional space. There’s a moment of hesitation. We can see the pain he’s going through. He seems more than just unwilling to trap two humans in a never ending hellscape, but ultimately, he pulls the trigger.
Ironically, it compares perfectly to Battlestar Galactica again. Captain (and later, Admiral) Adama is often faced with a similar question. In fact, much of the show rests on that very question. Is one life worth the lives of thousands of others? Can we fire on civilians? Should a women be allowed to have an abortion, despite the fact that humanity is going extinct? Is a cylon woman the same as a human woman? We see the effects that these questions have on Adama and we feel for him. This is the first time I’ve actually felt for Kirk. He has had to make tough decisions before, but we have never seen the pain. Usually, his actions are in the heat of the moment; a phaser blast here, an ethically difficult decision there, yelling at a computer elsewhere, etc. Now, he has to ponder his actions. He can make the other choice.
But he doesn’t. Kirk is a hero, and he knows Lazarus 2 has accepted his fate. He makes the sacrifice, and although he has made the right decision, the pain lies heavy on his face. It’s probably one of Shatner’s best acting moments on the show and it really adds to the episode.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about performances, but there I’ve really failed to mention the tone of the whole episode. I talked briefly about how the sense of pace was very deliberate in this episode and it applies here. This is an episode for established fans of the series and it may be the first one to do that yet. Previous episodes have mostly been very Twilight Zone-y romps through a space-opera-morality play. We see a character or a society act fundamentally wrong and Kirk eventually corrects them and we all learn a valuable lesson. “A Taste of Armageddon” is a prime example of this. We all learn about the price of war by seeing a society that has eliminated the price of war.
“The Alternative Factor” doesn’t do that. It’s a story that could only work in the context of Star Trek and whose value can’t be applied aptly to the real world. Some people may say that this makes the episode nothing more than pulpy sci-fi trash, but the episode is done so well and with so much dignity that it escapes that classification.
“The Alternative Factor” is one of my favorite episodes. It explores the unknown in a perfect fashion and establishes itself in a very firm and confident way in the Star Trek universe. This isn’t a show that is searching for new viewers or scrounging up ratings. It’s an episode that knows what it wants and fucking goes for it.
Spock gets a ton of really badass lines in this episode.
“I fail to comprehend your indignation, sir. I’ve simply made the logical assumption that you are a liar.”
“Sometimes pain can drive a man harder than pleasure.”
They might oversell the ending a little bit when Kirk says “But what of Lazarus? What of Lazarus?” but I blame the writing room more than Shatner for that one.
Sulu is replaced by some white dude in this one. Sucks.
Next Up: “The City on the Edge of Forever” and its going to be awesome.