Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Amok Time" (September 15, 1967)

Stardate: 3372.7

Aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) urgently confers with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) about some uncharacteristic behavior by Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Kirk witnesses some of that behavior, himself, and soon asks Spock what is wrong.

At first, Spock will not explain sufficiently, and simply demands that he be allowed to take shore leave on his home planet, Vulcan. Kirk complies, but new orders from Starfleet promptly assign the Enterprise to a presidential inauguration in the Altair system.

Spock orders the ship to change course for Vulcan, over Kirk’s orders, and Kirk demands that Spock explain the situation.

With great difficulty, Spock reveals information to his captain about the Vulcan condition of “Pon Farr,” wherein Vulcan adults must -- every seven years -- return to their home world…to mate or die.

When McCoy reports that Spock will die in seven days if not returned to Vulcan, Kirk realizes that there is much more at stake than his career. He changes course for Vulcan to save Spock’s life.

Once in orbit around Vulcan, Spock requests the presence of Kirk and Spock at his wedding ceremony to his betrothed, T’Pring (Arlene Martel).  The three men beam down together, and Kirk is surprised to see the respected Vulcan diplomat, T’Pau (Celia Lovsky) in attendance at the ceremony.

During the ceremony, with Spock deep in the “plak tow” -- the blood fever -- T’Pring chooses challenge over marriage. 

And she chooses Captain Kirk as her champion. Afraid to back out, Kirk does not realize that the challenge involves a battle to the death.

“Amok Time” may just be the single greatest episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) produced.

The second season premiere is funny, emotional, exciting and, at times, genuinely shocking. There is also, not surprisingly given the subject matter, some degree of eroticism involved as well. 

Most significantly, however, the episode reveals new, very personal information about Mr. Spock (and Vulcans in general), and showcases, to great effect, the Kirk-Spock friendship. Here, Kirk puts his very career as captain of the Enterprise on the line to save his friend’s life. He does so without looking back, or second-guessing.  Instead, he notes simply, that Spock has saved his life more times than he can count...and that's a debt that means more than a career does.

And the expression of relief and joy Spock’s face when he learns that Kirk is not dead is, surely, one for the ages. 

That coda is one of the most unforgettable and beautiful moments in all of Star Trek.

“Amok Time” also grants audiences their first look at the hot, arid planet Vulcan, as well as the denizens of that planet not named Spock. Depictions of Vulcan in The Motion Picture (1979), The Search for Spock (1984), The Voyage Home (1986), and Star Trek (2009) all owe much to what the production designers created for this episode.

Much more intriguing, however, are the glimpses of Vulcan biology and cultural ceremonies. 

On the former front, “Amok Time” establishes a key piece of Vulcan lore: Pon Farr. 

This is the natural instinct and drive to mate, which Vulcan adults experience every seven years.  

They can engage in sexual intercourse at other times, of course, but they must periodically return home to Vulcan, to “spawn” or “die,” in the episode’s lingo. Spock explains the details of Pon Farr with great discomfort, and Kirk hears those details with an equal level of discomfort.

As a longtime Trek fan, I love watching Shatner and Nimoy perform these uncomfortable scenes together, as Spock tries to provide as little detail as possible, and Kirk attempts -- with that very little bit of detail -- to understand fully what his first officer describes. These two men are friends, but there is still some terrain or distance between them, in terms of personal knowledge.  There are still places that their friendship has not touched. 

Pon Farr has recurred frequently in Trek history, both official and unofficial.  It appears briefly in the third feature, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), and is a key element of such Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) episodes as “Blood Fever.” It also is a prominent plot element in Enterprise’s (2001-2005) “Bounty.”  Fan fiction, of course, has really run wild with the idea.

In terms of Vulcan culture, “Amok Time” provides some fascinating details. We learn that young Vulcans are betrothed to one another via telepathy, hence their mates are selected for them before they enter puberty. 

Similarly, we learn that Vulcan women often carry tremendous power and authority. Here, T’Pau is revered by Kirk as “all of Vulcan in one package.”  

And T’Pring, though apparently destined to be the “property” of her mate, nonetheless demonstrates cunning and agency in a most effective way during “Amok Time’s” final sequence. T’Pring’s description of her plan, to Spock, is relentlessly logical…if cold.

This episode also introduces the Vulcan greeting/motto “Live Long and Prosper,” which has endured in the franchise right through the 50th anniversary, as well as the split-finger Vulcan salute.  Again, this is veritable trademark of the franchise by this point.

Some great Star Trek wisdom arrives in this episode too, straight from Spock.  "Sometimes having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true."

I noted that the episode is erotic, and to back up that claim, one need not only consider Mr. Spock’s physical condition -- desperate to mate -- but also brief scene in which the half-Vulcan begins to approach Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett) in his quarters. 

When Spock realizes there may be no way to reach Vulcan and achieve, he begins to talk to Chapel, rather cryptically, about their natures.  He discusses a dream he had about her.  In short, it’s clear he is planning for her to “step in” for T’Pring, should he be unable to return home. Right as he is about to make his move, he gets news that they are bound for Vulcan.

In some of Star Trek’s best episodes, there’s just so much to talk about, and it’s hard to remember each  and very detail.  Here, I must make note of the wonderful manner in which McCoy is depicted in this episode. Spock asks for him to be a “best man,” in essence, at his wedding. A lesser writer would have had McCoy crack wise, or quip at the request.

Instead, McCoy answers honestly, and with heart-felt emotion. He would be honored to fulfill that role.

And, of course, it is McCoy who -- with T’Pau’s apparent tacit approval -- saves Kirk’s life with his “tri-ox” compound. That’s some real quick thinking McCoy does under that Vulcan heat, and it saves the day.  

Once more, Kirk is lucky that his command crew thinks so inventively, and so rapidly, in such unconventional situations.

I pretty much write a review of Star Trek episodes every week, and I don’t know, this week, that I’ve done “Amok Time” justice. 

I have tallied the concepts it adds to Trek lore -- Pon Farr, the Vulcan salute, “Live Long and Prosper” – but I don’t know that I’ve signaled just how entertaining, or how emotionally-fulfilling the episode is.  

The Kirk-Spock friendship is, often times, what makes Star Trek so memorable, so effective, and finally, immortal.  Here, in “Amok Time,” that friendship is front and center in a most dramatic and memorable way.

I could literally watch "Amok Time" once a week and not get bored by it.

Next week: “Who Mourns for Adonais.”


  1. "Amok Time" is a great Star Trek episode for all the reasons you state including simply because we learn so much about Vulcan.


  2. Sheri5:13 PM

    "Amok Time" is a great episode, but it is hard to view it in its own context because it introduces some odd inconsistencies about Vulcan and Vulcans that infuse Star Trek going forward. We've already seen that Spock has often demonstrated a rather snooty superiority concerning humans, and now we have T'Pau harping on Spock's lack of Vulcanness ("Are thee Vulcan, or are thee human?") in a society that is supposed to venerate logic and the value of all sentient beings. Dorothy Fontana was obviously trying to represent a background for Spock as alien as possible from Earthlings, and she of course didn't know then that Star Trek would become an ongoing phenomenon that would expose these internal contradictions over time.

    Thank you for noticing that the characters of Kirk and McCoy are as well elucidated here as Spock is! The story allows McCoy, for once, to employ his medical ingenuity in a way that achieves a desired outcome. We wonder: did T'Pau suspect he might do that? Is she hoping he will?

    This episode, among many, belies the stupid notion of Kirk as renegade cowboy that has somehow pervaded the culture. He was never that, and here he is, trying mightily to navigate two competing requirements that cannot be reconciled: follow orders, which he tries to do until he just plain can't, and save his best friend.

    There is such great acting in this episode! Those who accuse Shatner of being nothing but a ham artist know nothing. Look at the way he invades Nimoy's space gently and inexorably, forcing the squirming Vulcan to divulge uncomfortable truths. That conversation scene is almost too uncomfortable for the viewer to watch! The fight scene, where Kirk glances at the ahn-woon and clearly wonders what the hell he's supposed to do with this thing. How about that moment when Kirk emerges from the turbolift, hands on hips, like Daddy about to escort Spock to the principal's office! I don't think there's any better-shot, better-directed, better-acted episode of television anywhere, and it's one of many well-acted, well-shot, well-directed episodes of Star Trek.

    The score! The score! The wonderful fight music.

    I always have wanted to see one addendum to this episode: a scene where Kirk excoriates Nurse Chapel for running to tell Spock they're returning to Vulcan, something she has no business doing! Ship's orders are for the captain to disseminate at his discretion, and from a medical standpoint it's McCoy's job and not hers; yet her stupid, insipid character couldn't wait to run to Spockie's quarters and blurt. What if she turned out to be wrong because something interfered with Kirk's plan? I always wanted to slap her stupid annoying character silly, and this is one good reason why.

  3. I too love Amok Time for all the reasons you elucidated, but I always found it hard to swallow that Federation officers would not be familiar with Vulcan mating habits. Surely, there have been other Vulcans on other ships who would have needed this special leave. Even if it was not commonly known to Star Fleet, Spock would have known the time was coming and put in for leave in advance. It's one of those situations where the whole story hinges on events occurring that would probably not happen in the real world. Spock keeping it a secret and the crew being oblivious are essential or the story doesn't exist, but that just doesn't seem logical.

  4. John,
    Another great episode, and a strong start to the Second Season. I can't argue with your assertion that this might be one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever, if not the best.
    Sheri, you have more than put a bow on John's great review and wrapped it up nicely. The infamous fight music was echoed recently in the soundtrack for Star Trek Beyond!
    Neal P, that is a very valid point and difficult to reconcile. I know in Dagger of the Mind that Spock is gravely reluctant to discuss the Vulcan Mind Meld with humans; might not the same criteria be applied here? I know how flimsy an argument that is, but perhaps Vulcans just bury their mating urges away and forget about them because they're too illogical to deal with? Maybe the Federation doesn't grant leaves on a five-year mission? I don't know the answer, other than the practical one: nobody thought about it during the time the episode was being made.
    Fans, however, have had a field day writing about Pon Farr. I remember one infamous story that might be an urban legend, which had Kirk and Spock too far out in deep space to reach Vulcan, so the two of them...Well, you can draw your own conclusions. I think it's where the term "shipping" got its start.
    At least we never got that episode. ;)


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