Dec. 29, 2020

017: TOS: The Alternative Factor

We Can Learn Something Even When Invasion is Imminent

On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek The Original Series, The Alternative Factor (Season 1, Episode 20 - or 21 depending on how you count). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Kirk.

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Welcome, everyone! Thanks for joining me today. After our last episode I’m really hoping for a good one. I’ll be honest, I’m not one that always remembers an episode from its title. So, let’s head in this together, as we check out season one, episode 20 - or 27, depending on where you’re watching - of the original series, The Alternative Factor.


It’s a boring, routine day on the Enterprise. What? You thought they had awesome, cool adventures all the time? No, I’d say almost all the time it’s just another day at work for them. Today they’re cataloging and scanning planets and this looks like it’s about as boring as they come. <No surprises>. 

I love this open! Not every minute of every day is exciting. In fact, they are mostly boring and routine, right! I think that, often times, when we think of leadership we think about these moments, these important and intense moments where some is having a crisis or where you are working diligently to unlock the potential in someone. But, the reality is, most of it is just showing up and being there. In fact, I remember one of my first upper management jobs. I had worked as a line supervisor for years and finally had a position where they supervisors reported to me. This is the good stuff, right? 

Well, one day, I finish an email and realize I don’t really have any work to do right away. There isn’t a line of things just waiting for me – which, honestly, may say a lot about the need for layers and layers of management – but, the reality is, I had nothing pressing to do the rest of the day. I swung by my boss’s desk and let him know. His response was interesting, and, in a way, reflected here with Kirk. He said: sometimes, leadership is just being there. 

So it’s not always these exciting moments. It’s not always even working on a one-pager or a report. Sometimes, it’s just being there. And in this moment, that’s what Kirk is doing. Spock, the cartography team, the sensor team; they’ve got it under control. Kirk’s just being there. 

And it’s a good thing too! It all falls apart! 2 HUGE impacts to the ship. They’re rocking and rolling! Spock analyzes and Kirk tries to get to the meat of what just happened <I want facts>. Spock says it is as if the entire magnetic system in the solar system just blinked; for a split second, nothing existed.

And now, at the very moment stuff went down, there’s a living, humanoid creature on the planet’s surface when before there was none. Kirk puts together an away team and they head to the surface. 

They locate a small, one-person ship, crashed on the surface. They investigate, but before they can reach inside, the human, a man, yells at them saying he needs help. He falls from a cliff and Kirk has him beamed directly to sick bay. 

On the ship, we learn the dilithium crystals were drained from the phenomenon. Kirk orders them to be recharged. Spock learns that the phenomenon was centered on the planet.

Uhura gets a hail from Starfleet Command <code factor one, sir>. That means invasion status. At the time of this episode, that was just a way to add some stakes to the episode. But, now that we have decades of Star Trek after this, this makes total sense. Spoiler time, if you haven’t watched Discovery yet. The first season of Discovery shows the start and the end of the Federation - Klingon War. This episode occurs on stardate 3087.6, which translates to the year 2267. The War ended just 10 years prior, in 2257. And in that War, although victorious, the Federation was decimated. They would be understandably be on a high alert, still, when it came to a potential invasion. In fact, just a few episodes from the Alternative Factor – spoiler alert again – conflict with the Klingons occurs again. 

The addition of Discovery, 23rd century Discovery, changes and enhances a lot of the little details, like this, in the original series. 

Kirk puts the crew on battle stations and takes the message from Starfleet Command. Commodore Barstow comes on and lets them know this disruption impacted every quadrant of the galaxy. Kirk postulates that this is the prelude to an invasion and the Commodore agrees. He orders Enterprise to determine what is happening. They are the only ship in the area as they are evacuating all personnel near the solar system. So they are on their own. 

Kirk pauses a moment. Like many of Kirk’s flashes of brilliance, this happens very quickly. The communication ends and he takes a beat just to breathe. So far, the episode has tried really hard to make us believe this is a big deal, that the entire Federation is at stake and they are on the brink of war. To add to it all, Kirk was just told he’s pretty much on his own in staving this off. He’s a pro and he’s accustomed to being given difficult assignments, but this is huge. He doesn’t have time to digest the whole thing so he does two things. And these are both things you can put into practice today; immediately. 

First, he stops; pauses, and takes a breath. This may not seem significant, but it is huge! Doctor Kristoffer Rhoades, a clinical neuropsychologist at Harborview Medical Center says taking a breath, a deep breath, specifically, helps to calm your nerves and reduce stress and anxiety. How does it do that?

Ok, biology lesson. Your autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions like heart rate and digestion, is split into two parts. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, controls your fight-or-flight response. The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, controls your rest and relax response. These two parts of your nervous system can’t be turned on at the same time, which means if you work to activate one, the other will be suppressed. And stopping to take a breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

You think Kirk is feeling some stress and anxiety right now? I would imagine so! Now, to fully reap the benefits of deep breathing, it’s a focused exercise that can take some time; at least 60 seconds. Kirk doesn’t have that, and I’m sure you don’t always have it either! But just the act of sitting comfortably, closing your eyes and taking an intentional, deep breath can help reset your mind so you can focus on next steps.

Which is the second thing he does. He immediately leans on his expert, Spock, and goes through what they know <let’s take it from the top>. This accomplishes a few things. First, in the spirit of the deep breathing we just talked about, it helps to calm you down. Being told you’re on the brink of invasion and that you alone can stop it can impact your stress levels just a little bit. Like, in a completely and totally overwhelming way! But going through the facts, reviewing what is known and not known gives you an objective list that can dilute that overwhelmed feeling. 

Another critical thing it accomplishes is providing action items or next steps. By stepping through everything, they know they have more to learn on the planet – Spock’s responsibility – and more to learn from the human they found – Kirk’s responsibility. Instead of panicking or exciting everyone around him, Kirk worked to calm himself, determine next steps, and took immediate action. 

Kirk’s talking with the man, Lazarus, in sickbay. He describes a horrible, murderous monster that he’s been chasing as it destroyed his entire civilization. He’s horrified by this thing and calls its destruction a holy cause. Kirk joins Spock and his team to try and validate Lazarus’ story. 

Visual inspection and scans of the planet reveal there are no other lifeforms. Spock straight up calls him out on being a liar <I’ve made the logical deduction you are>. This causes another disturbance, this time localized on the planet and on Lazarus. We spend, an uncomfortable amount of time, watching some late 60’s special effects that kind of look like two guys fighting in an awkward slow motion. And it goes on forever…..

When it finally ends, the planet is shaking, there’s lightning and Lazarus, alone, collapses to the ground. Lazarus is beaten up pretty badly. He is fired up and wants Kirk to join him in his fight <kill, kill, kill>. Yikes.

McCoy patches Lazarus up. Looks like glitter band-aids will still be a thing in the future. Kirk and Spock, again, talk through what has happened. While they don’t believe there is another person, Lazarus’ wounds tell a different story. Spock confirms that the disturbances occur at the exact moment Lazarus claims to have his battles with the thing. They agree there is still much to learn as McCoy calls Kirk to Sickbay.

McCoy is worried. He knows he treated Lazarus for wounds and lacerations<I’m a bright young medic>, but after just a few minutes, he shows no signs of them. It’s like he’d never been injured. He left sickbay on his own and headed to a crew lounge.

The crew is hanging out and they talk about the work they’re doing with dilithium crystals. An unbandaged Lazarus overhears and tries to follow them but he has another incident. This one is mercifully shorter, but when he comes out of it, he’s bandaged up again. At that very moment, Kirk and McCoy find him. Kirk isn’t pleased <ship’s physician with strange send of humor>.

Kirk takes Lazarus to the bridge with him. Spock has found a source of radiation that is not there <I’m at a loss for words>. He describes it as a rip in the universe. He mentions dilithium crystals and Lazarus gets excited. He says that with the crystals he can trap the murderous thing. Kirk refuses, saying none of Lazarus’ explanations have been believable. Upset, he leaves <I’ll have my vengeance>. 

We get to see dilithium crystals! Lieutenant Masters has finished recharging them. Lazarus Metal Gear Solids his way into Engineering. Takes out Masters and snags some dilithium. In this, we’ve seen Lazarus change from bandaged to unbandaged Lazarus and back again a few times. Kirk and Spock are interrogating Lazarus, bandage Lazarus, who claims he is not the one with the crystals <find the beast>. Kirk puts together a landing party, along with Lazarus, to check out the planet. Again.
We get a solid 5 minutes of people just walking around on the planet. Literally, just scenes of people walking. Then we get another 60’s special effect fight scene. The planet’s shaking, there’s lightning, and then bandaged Lazarus falls from a cliff. Again. A kind of higher cliff this time, though. 

Back to sickbay. Kirk questions him. Again. The crew has fact-checked Lazarus’ backstory and it was all a lie! He finally gives the real story. Turns out his planet is the planet they’re orbiting. His ship is a timeship. He’s been chasing this creature through time for years. The dilithium crystals will get his ship flying again and he can continue the chase. He continues to claim the creature has the crystals. McCoy keeps him secured in sickbay. 

Spock determines the radiation comes from outside their universe. He and Kirk talk about the possibility of a parallel universe and come to the conclusion the universes, coming into contact with each other, has caused the rip and is causing the disturbances. They continue to talk and ultimately determine the Lazaruses are two different people, but only one can occupy a universe at a time. So we have plus Lazarus – no bandage, and minus Lazarus – bandage. <matter and antimatter cancel violently>. They must contain them and never let them contact each other or everything will be annihilated. 

Bandaged Lazarus starts a fire in engineering so he can snag some crystals. We see the Enterprise DC team in action as Lazarus beams himself down to the planet. Kirk chases, on his own. As Lazarus loads the crystals into is ship, Kirk reaches inside and is zapped out of our universe.

We get another, painfully long, negative effect, slow-motion running scene that, when it finally ends, finds Kirk in a similar but different universe. Unbandaged Lazarus is there in his crashed ship. He’s very calm and reasonable; very much the opposite of bandaged Lazarus. Kirk explains the situation and he fully understands. He explains there is a negative energy corridor, of sorts, that keeps the two universes safe. He describes it as a prison with explosives at the doors. He proposes that they trap bandaged Lazarus in the corridor, along with himself, and that Kirk destroys their ships; trapping them there for eternity. This will keep both universes safe. Kirk agrees. 

He heads back to his universe, grabs bandaged Lazarus and throws him into his ship, sending him into the corridor. He orders Enterprise to fire on the ship, destroying it. <then what of Lazarus>. We get a quick scene of plus and minus Lazarus fighting in the corridor and Kirk orders Enterprise away. 

<<Red Alert>>

Wow. I am so sorry. Two episodes in a row that are just terrible. At least Unforgettable had Virginia Madsen going for it. This had…well, nothing. 

When I was a kid I always remembered this one as the one with the guy that has a fish beard. Lazarus’ makeup was, well, to be kind, it was inconsistent. 

Now, a lot can be forgiven in the makeup and acting departments for Lazarus. Originally, John Drew Barrymore was supposed to play Lazarus. In a moment of prescient brilliance, he no showed the filming. Robert Brown happened to be near the set on the second day and was literally pulled in to fill the role. With absolutely zero prep, he really played two different characters in a very poorly written episode of a sci fi TV show not too many people knew about yet. 

Even with that grace, this is basically unwatchable. A number of sites and publications rank this among the worst of all Star Trek and I have to agree. The story really didn’t make any sense. I think Lazarus’ changing stories were the writers just spit-balling ideas to move the episode forward. And then end – while merciful, it was awful. “What of Lazarus?” Yeah, what of him?? He gave up his eternity for two universes and all he gets is Kirk pondering what that would look like. 
While I’m sorry I subjected you to this episode, I think it shows how serious I am about watching, and, yes, learning, from every episode of Star Trek. You’re welcome!

<<Command Codes>>

Terrible episode or no, we can glean leadership lessons from each episode of Star Trek. I hope. 

The first thing we talked about was “a day in the life.” Kirk is clearly bored in the opening scene. But, he’s doing the things you do when you’re on a mission of exploration. 

To me, the lesson here, for us, is that leadership still has a job attached to it. Usually, at least. I have days where I work on a budget presentation, or review audit reports. I can only imagine the work you do every day in your job. But, for all of us, we have the grind. Even Captain Kirk!

But the grind is easier when you’ve also done the leadership stuff. The only other cast member we really see anything out of in this episode is Spock, but we see the benefits of training, development, and trust building between him and Kirk. He creates a culture where his team is well prepared for the unexpected, even in the most routine of circumstances. 

The reality is, if the boring and routine was the norm, we wouldn’t need people in leadership positions. We need leaders because the routine is shaken up all the time. We need to develop people to be able to respond to the unexpected. We need to develop strategic plans so we aren’t lost when things go south. Running through a playbook, or a drill on your continuity of operations plan, as examples, help prepare your teams for those things that fall out of the routine. 

We see this in the open of the episode. Boring, daily routine, and then the galaxy is under threat of immediate invasion. At no point does anyone lose their cool. In fact, everyone performs at a high level. Lt. Masters identifies problems with the dilithium crystals, offers a solution and executes. Spock is researching the problem and looking for solutions. Everyone steps up because Kirk, and this is an assumption on my part, regularly drills and prepares his crew for the unexpected. He has a talented crew and trusts his department heads to handle the technical aspects of their job. He helps elevate them to top performers in all situations.

Kirk and Spock are a great team. On a number of occasions, they go through an exercise that keeps them on track and solution oriented. They go over the facts, one at a time. By reviewing what they know and identifying what they don’t know, it keeps them moving forward towards a solution.

This is an exercise you can use. It helps to simplify complex issues. It also helps to maintain an objective point of view. Work with your team, review what you know. Hopefully you’re not in a situation where the entire galaxy is depending on you, so you have tools like performance metrics, task lists, deliverable schedules, etc. to help guide the review. I really enjoyed the scenes where they did this exercise. Well, to be clear, I enjoyed these scenes more than others, but that isn’t really saying too much. 

But, in these scenes, it’s great to watch them go from a place of confusion to a place where they have action items and are moving towards a solution. 

<<Hailing Frequencies>>

Shorter episode this time; there just wasn’t a lot to review. What are your thoughts? Let me know, I love hearing from you! I’m on all the social media @jefftakin Jeff, t as in terrible, a k i n. If you have enjoyed the Starfleet Leadership Academy, please tell a friend or colleague about it.

Now let’s see what we’re going to watch next time…. 

Oh, here we go! Ok, outside of the pilot episodes this is our first 2-parter. On these, I’m going to combine the two parts into one episode so we can look at it in its entirety. And this is absolutely one of the most iconic two-parters in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, episodes 7 and 8, Unification parts 1 and 2. Nothing wrong with more Spock! 

Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!


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