|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.