Star Trek Re-Watch: “Amok Time”

“Amok Time”
Written by Theodore Sturgeon
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 2, Episode 1
Production episode: 2×05
Original air date: September 15, 1967
Star date: 3372.7

Mission summary
Something’s wrong with Spock! At least that’s what Dr. McCoy thinks, since Spock hasn’t eaten in three days and he’s a little edgy. Captain Kirk assumes his first officer is just being moody again, even after Spock throws a bowl of plomeek soup at Nurse Chapel. But then the Vulcan requests a leave of absence to visit his home planet, which definitely demands explanation.

Spock claims Chapel deserved mistreatment for being nice enough to bring him homemade soup that he didn’t ask for, but Kirk couldn’t care less about his misogynistic opinions, he’s more interested in the request for shore leave: “In all the years that I’ve known you, you’ve never asked for a leave of any sort. In fact, you’ve refused them.” Spock won’t share his reasons, but it seems pretty important and he obviously needs a vacation. The usually controlled Vulcan can’t even keep his hands steady. Kirk finally agrees to divert the Enterprise from its mission to Altair 6.

Unfortunately, the inauguration of the new president of Altair 6 gets moved up a week, which means the Enterprise doesn’t have time for a detour after all. Starfleet Command insists that their presence at the ceremony is important as a show of support, but Kirk decides they can just arrive fashionably late after dropping Spock off for spring break. Chekov informs him that Spock has already ordered them back on a course for Vulcan. What the hell, Spock?

Kirk has a word with Spock in the turbolift, but the Vulcan still offers no explanation. He doesn’t remember giving the order, continues to refuse to answer any questions, and asks to be locked up. Sounds like someone needs a trip to Sickbay, not Vulcan—and that’s exactly where Kirk tells him to go. Spock eventually submits to an examination. The prognosis isn’t good: McCoy determines that Spock will die in eight days if they don’t get him back to Vulcan:

There’s a growing imbalance of body functions, as if in our bodies huge amounts of adrenalin were constantly being pumped into our bloodstreams. Now, I can’t trace it down in my biocomps. Spock won’t tell me what it is. But if it isn’t stopped somehow, the physical and emotional pressures will simply kill him.

Back in his quarters, Spock is looking at pictures of young Vulcan girls on his computer. When his boss shows up, he hurriedly blanks the screen. Kirk orders him to tell him what’s going on, but Spock insists it’s not something that can be shared with non-Vulcans. Kirk promises confidentiality, and Spock gradually opens up, in the awkwardest possible way.

SPOCK: It has to do with biology.
KIRK: What?
SPOCK: Biology.
KIRK: What kind of biology?
SPOCK: Vulcan biology.
KIRK: You mean the biology of Vulcans? Biology as in… reproduction? Well, there’s no need to be embarrassed about it, Mr. Spock. It happens to the birds and the bees.
SPOCK: The birds and the bees are not Vulcans, Captain.

If Kirk knows anything, it’s…biology. But Spock tells him about something surprising: pon farr, “the time of mating.” During pon farr, Vulcan males essentially lose their reason and are compelled to return to their home planet to mate, or die. You know, like salmon. “But you’re not a fish, Mr. Spock,” Kirk observes, proving he does know some biology after all.

Kirk wants to help, but Admiral Komack refuses his request to bring Spock home. Unable to explain why it’s important, Kirk decides their mission wasn’t all that vital anyway and chooses friendship over command. They set course for Vulcan…again. This time for real! Meanwhile, Nurse Chapel sneaks back into Spock’s quarters as she sometimes does, and they almost acknowledge their feelings for each other. Now it’s okay for “Christine” to make soup for him. The only thing that could complicate things is if she finds out Spock is married—which he is, and she does. She’s on the bridge when his wife, T’Pring, calls to confirm their hot date.

Spock bucks tradition and invites Kirk and McCoy as best men to his wedding, though the Koon-ut-kal-if-fee, which translates as a “marriage or challenge,” isn’t for outworlders either. They beam down to Vulcan, which is noticeably warm and has thinner air than Earth, immediately causing Kirk and McCoy some discomfort. Spock bangs a gong and the marriage party arrives, accompanied by an elderly woman carried in a chair, T’pau, “the only person to ever turn down a seat on the Federation Council.” Spock apparently comes from an important family, so important that none of them are in attendance. T’Pau presides over the ceremony and provides necessary exposition to Kirk and McCoy, but just like a Vulcan she omits the important details. Better than nothing though, since Spock is unable to speak while under the influence of plak-tow, the blood fever.

The ceremony begins and the bride chooses kal-if-fee, the challenge. In accordance with ancient tradition, when Vulcans once killed to win their mates, T’Pring has the right to choose a champion to fight Spock for possession of her. Even more surprisingly, she selects Kirk as her champion. What?

Her bodyguard Stonn cries foul, because he wants her. At Spock’s labored protest, T’Pau offers Kirk an out, but he decides to accept the challenge out of friendship and pride, thinking he can incapacitate Spock without really hurting him. Besides, T’Pring is kind of hot. Once he accepts, T’Pau reveals that it’s a fight to the death! Oops.

Kirk and Spock first battle with lirpa, long poles with a blade on one end and a rounded club on the other. Kirk barely survives that round, his shirt suffering the most injury. McCoy complains that it’s an unfair match because the air is too thin. “The air is the air,” T’Pau says, “What can be done?” She allows the doctor to inject Kirk with a “tri-ox compound” to make him breathe more easily and even the odds, and the match resumes with ahn-woon, bola-like leather straps with weighted ends. Kirk goes down for the count pretty quickly and Spock chokes the life out of him. McCoy beams up to the Enterprise with his body and orders from the now coherent Spock to prepare a course for the nearest Starbase, where he will turn himself in. But first he demands T’Pring reveal her evil, but logical, plot:

You have become much known among our people, Spock. Almost a legend. And as the years went by, I came to know that I did not want to be the consort of a legend. But by the laws of our people, I could only divorce you by the kal-if-fee. There was also Stonn, who wanted very much to be my consort, and I wanted him. If your captain were victor, he would not want me, and so I would have Stonn. If you were victor you would free me because I had dared to challenge, and again I would have Stonn. But if you did not free me, it would be the same. For you would be gone, and I would have your name and your property, and Stonn would still be there.

That’s pretty cold. Satisfied with her explanation, if not sexually, Spock is done there. T’Pau bids farewell: “Live long and prosper, Spock.” He responds, “I shall do neither. I have killed my captain and my friend.”

Or has he? Spock goes to Sickbay and discovers that Kirk is alive after all! He’s thrilled, but quickly covers it when everyone else notices that he’s happy. It seems that McCoy dosed Kirk with a “neural paralyzer” to make it look like he was dead. Things get even better, because T’Pau has asked Starfleet to divert the Enterprise to Vulcan, granting Kirk a “Get Out of Court Martial Free” card, the least she could do after killing its captain. And with that, things can finally return to normal…

MCCOY: There’s just one thing, Mr. Spock. You can’t tell me that when you first saw Jim alive that you weren’t on the verge of giving us an emotional scene that would have brought the house down.
SPOCK: Merely my quite logical relief that Starfleet had not lost a highly proficient captain.
KIRK: Yes, Mr. Spock. I understand.
SPOCK: Thank you, Captain.
MCCOY: Of course, Mr. Spock, your reaction was quite logical.
SPOCK: Thank you, Doctor.
MCCOY: In a pig’s eye!

Analysis
Astute viewers will notice a few changes to the show in the second season. First of all, the opening theme music is now the familiar vocal arrangement as sung by soprano Loulie Jean Norman, rather than the orchestral version used in previous episodes. Also in the opening titles, DeForest Kelley now receives a long-overdue credit as Dr. McCoy, and as a sign of Gene Roddenberry’s diminishing involvement with the show, he now receives a “Created By” credit. Writers and directors are also credited along with the episode title from here on. The biggest change in the series is the appearance of Walter Koenig as Ensign Pavel Chekov, such a fixture on the Bridge for the next two seasons that most people don’t realize he wasn’t there the whole time—but even Khan made that mistake. Probably less noticeably, stripes have been painted in intervals across the corridors.

There are so many excellent things going on in this episode, I hardly know where to begin. Obviously Sturgeon’s script is important because it established so many details about Vulcan culture that have now become inextricably linked to the show, including the first utterance of “Live long and prosper” and the use of the Vulcan salute. This is the first visit to Vulcan in the series, and it’s treated as a momentous event, with more than the usual care paid to the red and rocky scenery and a dramatic musical cue when Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down. In one of many subtle directorial touches, Kirk and McCoy sweat heavily on the hot planet, while Spock remains dry and comfortable. (As opposed to the not-so-subtle directorial touches, such as the crazy angles, zooms, and quick cuts that mark the beginning of the ceremony.)

Since this serves as the foundation for later Vulcan-centric episodes, and particularly the films—mainly I, III, and IV—it’s a good thing they got so much of it right from the start. Vulcan phrases are archaic and beautiful, as in the greeting between Spock and T’Pring (“Parted from me and never parted, never and always touching and touched.”), and the elaborate marriage ritual is just complicated and insane enough to seem real. I really like the explanation of their relationship as “less than a marriage but more than a betrothal.” Sounds like a domestic partnership. I don’t know what’s going on with T’Pau’s (Celia Lovsky) heavy accent and thees and thous, but she brings the appropriate gravitas to the ceremony.

This episode gives Leonard Nimoy another rare opportunity to act out of character, and as always he pulls off an amazing performance. When Kirk questions him at the beginning of the episode, he clenches a stylus in a trembling fist behind his back, showing how much of an effort it is to control his emotions. He shows a wide range of feelings: anger, shame (when describing pon farr), gentle yearning (in his talk with Nurse Chapel), horrified realization (when he kills Kirk), and joy (when he finds Kirk alive).

Though Kirk and Spock’s friendship is explored many many times in the series and movies, this is perhaps the first time where we clearly see how important they are to each other. Kirk lies awake in his quarters struggling over whether he should help Spock, before ultimately deciding to change course (then finding out that Spock has already ordered it). Later, when the stakes are even higher, he defies orders to save his friend’s life, prefiguring stealing the Enterprise in ST:III to return to the Genesis planet in search of Spock. Kirk is such a military man, and loves command and his ship so much, this is pretty much the ultimate sacrifice. This gives their battle against each other in the kal-if-fee even more tension and drama. I’m sure this line helped fuel the fantasies of theKirk-Spock fanfic writers: “Ah, yes, the girl. Most interesting. It must have been the combat. When I thought I had killed the captain, I found I had lost all interest in T’Pring.” Hmm.

There’s also a fair bit of continuity, as the series starts to build on its own history. Kirk tells Spock, “You’ve been called the best first officer in the fleet,” hearkening back to McCoy’s comment in “Operation: Annihilate!” Spock’s family is important, but we won’t see how important until “Journey to Babel.” This is the first time we see the rest of Spock’s quarters, which have some funky decorations. And seeing T’Pring portrayed as a pouty and sexy Vulcan makes Enterprise’s T’Pol seem a little less outlandish. A little.

One of my favorite moments is when Chekov and Sulu discuss the constant changes in course, which gives us a glimpse into what it must be like for the underlings following orders, who may not have any idea of what’s happening or why. And the sex talk between Kirk and Spock is also one of the more delightful scenes in the episode, and is surprisingly frank given the kids watching at home in the days before cable television and the internet.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: What a fantastic season opener! And thanks to Eugene for pointing out all the changes from Season 1 to Season 2. I was stunned by the abrupt entrance of Chekov. They don’t bother to introduce him at all, but the Sulu/Chekov scene gives us from the get-go a good sense of his character. The other minor character I loved here was Nurse Chapel—her affection is so transparent and sweet. I love that when Spock throws her soup against the wall, you still see the stain of it there in the next scene! Hurrah for continuity.

As for the episode, I can now forgive Theodore Sturgeon for “Shore Leave.” This episode is brilliant and tense from start to finish. We finally get a glimpse at the Vulcan culture, and I love how alien it is. Vulcan sexuality is, well, weird. Spock tries to make analogies to other species (the “giant eelbirds of Regulus Five” and Earth’s salmon) but Kirk rejects the analogy:

KIRK: But you’re not a fish, Mister Spock. You’re—
SPOCK: No. Nor am I a man. I’m a Vulcan.

But as alien and unusual as it feels, it makes perfect sense. Vulcans have elected to be a repressed species, and for a Vulcan to fall victim to uncontrollable hysteria is both shameful and embarrassing. Spock doesn’t want anyone to see him like this—it feels like weakness, like barbarism. The pon farr is deeply illogical, and even the Vulcans’ attempts to bury that in complicated, rigidly organized rituals fail to erase the sheer absurdity of it. Their sexuality is as taboo as our own, but not for the same reasons. I was reminded a lot of the Next Generation episode “Sarek,” which features another Vulcan—Spock’s father, actually—who loses control of his emotions in a display that is similarly embarrassing and shameful. It feels like an entirely plausible extension of the path Vulcans have chosen.

This episode, for me, epitomizes what was missing in the Abrams film. Here we see a strikingly different and alien approach to reproduction, but one that shares our deeply held feelings of privacy and intimacy. The specifics are bizarre, but the feelings of sexual shame and taboo are familiar. I was deeply bothered that new!Spock’s Vulcanness is entirely subsumed in his humanness. They gave him an entirely conventional—read: human—sexual relationship. They took away an essential part of what makes him an alien, of what makes him fundamentally different and strange and weird. The point to me was always that those things are okay—friendships transcend that, and we can be close to people who don’t share in our culture or completely understand our rituals. Instead, new!Spock’s alienness is sacrificed on the altar of human hegemony. I’d rather have this Spock any day.

Final trivial thought: Who would’ve won the Star Trek: American Gladiator hamster ball race? My money’s on Sulu.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: Lots of good ones, but I’ve liked this quote ever since I saw it on a poster of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek”:
Spock to Stonn: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

Syndication Edits: A reaction shot just before Spock asks for leave on Vulcan. Kirk’s “Spock… I’m asking you,” just before he says “What’s wrong?”; Kirk resting in his quarters just before he calls the bridge; Kirk leaving his quarters when he learns the ship is on course for Vulcan; Kirk giving a destination of “Deck 5” before he talks to Spock in the turbolift; Spock wandering the halls to Sickbay, arguing with McCoy, and submitting to an examination; After walking into Spock’s quarters, Kirk reiterates McCoy’s report and demands to know why (which eliminates a continuity problem of Spock dropping the stylus then holding it again); Spock refusing to explain his situation to Kirk under direct order; After learning about pon farr, Kirk walks around Spock’s desk and promises to help, then leaves (which eliminates a production problem, where Spock’s sculpture apparently catches fire in the background); Reaction shots from McCoy and Kirk when he decides to disobey orders, and Chapel approaching Spock’s bed; Chapel telling Spock they’ll be at Vulcan in a few days (which eliminates another error, where Kirk has ordered them to Vulcan at warp 8, which could not be sustained for days); Reaction shots and close-ups when the marriage party arrives; T’Pau asking Spock who will pledge Kirk and McCoy’s behavior and his answer; McCoy smirking after Kirk and Spock leave for the Bridge in the last scene.

Trivia: Gene Roddenberry screened “Amok Time” for the first time at the 1967 Worldcon in New York over Labor Day weekend, nearly two weeks before it aired as the second season premiere. By then, fans had already heard rumors about an upcoming episode taking place on Vulcan.

As told by Nimoy, he originated the Vulcan salute when he felt the episode needed a unique greeting, basing it on a gesture used in Jewish High Holy services. Celia Lovsky (T’Pau) was the first actor who had to force her fingers into this position, since she couldn’t perform it naturally. Can you?

In the original script, Kirk didn’t need T’Pau’s help smoothing things over with Starfleet. Instead, he was friends with the officials on the other planet where the ceremonies were to take place and asked them for a delay; this planet was called “Fontana IV” in homage to Trek writer D.C. Fontana. In this early script, ahn-woon meant “unarmed combat.”

Walter Koenig is wearing a wig in this episode, as he did in several others shot before this one, while his natural hair grew to proper Monkee-length. This episode apparently marks Spock’s promotion from Lieutenant Commander to full Commander, judging by the nameplate on his door and the greeting from Vulcan Space Central; he probably deserved it after risking blindness in the previous episode. “Amok Time” was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1968 for Best Dramatic Presentation, as were several other episodes, but lost to “City on the Edge of Forever.”

Other notes: The combat music (composed by Gerald Fried) debuted in this episode reappears in several other episodes and is one of the more famous scores from the series. It is frequently used to parody Star Trek in pop culture, including the film The Cable Guy and episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama (where it serves as the national anthem for Zoidberg’s planet). Spock’s bass guitar theme was also utilized as his leitmotif in many later episodes.

One of the better known Star Trek bloopers can be seen in this episode. Shortly after T’Pring chooses Kirk as her champion, there are several long shots of Kirk talking with T’Pau. Nimoy can be seen casually leaning against a wall in the background with his arms clasped behind his back, unaware that he’s in the shot.


Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 29: “Operation—Annihilate!

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 2 – “Who Mourns for Adonais?” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.


This post originally appeared on Tor.com.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.