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Under-rated episodes: "The Alternative Factor"

"The Alternative Factor" (TOS): What would you do to save the Universe?

The Enterprise is orbiting an uninhabited planet when there is an inexplicable momentary event affecting the galaxy—apparent momentary nonexistence—centred on the planet. They find that a human being (with a miniature ship) has appeared on the planet. He is named Lazarus, and seems crazed, asking Captain Kirk to join him on his "holy cause", to destroy a monstrous being (humanoid in appearance) who can destroy worlds. It should be noted that Lazarus has some truly bizarre facial hair, a thin hanging fringe. What significance this has is never revealed, but it's memorable. At first Lazarus's clams seem nonsense to Kirk, except that it might connect to the strange phenomenon. Later Lazarus says that he and the enemy are time travellers, that he has pursued him across time, and that this planet was destroyed by the enemy. Periodically there is a whirling disorientation, and Lazarus (in photographic negative) seems to be struggling with someone else. Kirk and Spock begin to believe that there are actually two Lazaruses, from alternative universes, and that there is a sort of breach between the universes.

While investigating, Kirk gets too close to Lazarus's ship, and finds himself alone, in what looks like the same place, with an identical ship (it's for inter-universe travel), and an identical but quite uncrazed Lazarus, with identical strange beard. They're in the alternative universe. Lazarus explains that when his people discovered the existence of an identical alternative universe (though one is antimatter) his counterpart went mad, "He could not live knowing that I lived." If they meet outside the "corridor" between the universes it will mean the destruction of everything. Sane Lazarus proposes that Kirk should force his Crazy Lazarus into the corridor, and he will hold him there. They must then destroy the ship, and the corridor will be sealed, saving both universes at the price of sealing them in forever. (Apparently they will live forever in this state.) This is done. As the Enterprise leaves, Kirk ponders on Lazarus's fate, trapped in an eternal fight with a madman. The universe is saved, says Spock. "But what of Lazarus?" asks Kirk.

This raises deep questions. "Is it such a large price to pay for the safety of two universes?" Lazarus asks, but Kirk seems to wonder whether it may be. Would you do what Lazarus does? Should you? Could you? There is a well-known thought experiment about Utilitarianism ethics, the idea that the right choice depends on "the greatest good of the greatest number". Suppose you could achieve Utopia provided that just one innocent child is tortured and never allowed a normal life? This would surely provide a good result for the vast majority, so isn't that the right thing to do? But most people feel that this is not acceptable. This thought experiment was dramatized by Ursula Le Guin in her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", where Omelas is the utopia which somehow requires one miserable child. You may notice that although most people don't feel they could justify living in Omelas, the idea that something "must" be right if it benefits most people is often used in public discussion to justify torture and other immoral actions which supposedly have beneficial results.

The episode's ending isn't quite the same, though. In this case the victim is making the choice, and it can be taken as suggesting the self-sacrifice of Christ. On the other hand, is Kirk justified in helping Lazarus do this to himself?

The episode is memorable. Somehow the image of Lazarus, in that bizarre beard, staggering around the ship ranting about his enemy sticks with you.

Incidentally, it's worth noting that the episode includes as a minor character one Lieutenant Charlene Evans (Janet MacLachlan), a stereotype-busting Black woman in Engineering. (I don't think we learn whether she is African-American, African, etc.)

Copyright © 2024. Not to be reproduced without permission. ||  Saturday, 20 July 2024

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