Star Trek Animated Series Re-Watch: “The Ambergris Element”

The Ambergris Element
Written by Margaret Armen
Directed by Hal Sutherland

Season 1, Episode 13
Production episode: 22013
Original air date:  December 1, 1973
Star date: 5499.9


Mission summary

The Enterprise is in orbit around Argo, a run-of-the-mill class M planet that was submerged underwater due to seismic activity. Starfleet is interested in the hows and whys of this global catastrophe because an identical Federation planet may soon suffer the same fate.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a redshirt board the “aqua shuttle,” a catamaran-like shuttlecraft, and hope to spend a lazy afternoon on the planet’s oceans collecting algae and other samples. But wouldn’t you know it, these plans are violently disrupted by a giant red tentacled Cthulhu from the deep.

It chews on them and tosses them around like dog toys. By the time it’s all over the shuttle has been completely obliterated and Spock and Kirk are missing for five days. Scotty and McCoy eventually find them amidst the wreckage, faces planted in the water. They seem to be in good health, minus some lungs and plus some webbed hands. Wait, what?

MCCOY: Something’s changed their whole lung structure. They can’t live in the air anymore.

No one can figure out what exactly happened, but they were injected with something that turned them into water-breathers and no known treatment can turn them back. So they do the only thing they can do: give the pair a nice little aquarium by Sickbay. Kirk thinks that whoever did this must be deep beneath the water’s surface, and he’s going to find them and shake them down for a cure he’s sure exists. Spock seems skeptical, but what’s he going to do, stay in the tank?

They go back to the surface and swim their little legs out, before they finally find some fish people at the bottom of the sea. The fish people–the Aquans–don’t like Kirk or Spock at all and tell them to get lost. But that’s never stopped the duo before, who chase the natives to an underwater city. But they soon discover they’re not the only ones being chased when a huge net grabs them, and some fish people drag them to the High Tribune.

The old dudes on the Tribune are convinced Kirk and Spock are spies from the air-breathers on the surface (who may or may not even exist), while the young kids with their rock music think these guys came in peace, since they have no weapons and seem to pretty dense. Kirk explains that they’re not from the surface, they’re from another world, but that just confuses Gramps Fishhead even more:

CADMAR: Enough! Clearly, this is a lie. The air-breathers have come again to destroy us.

They sentence Kirk and Spock to die by suffocation on the surface. One of the fish people, Rila, thinks this is unnecessarily cruel and tries to free Kirk and Spock from their net. But it’s too strong for her, so Kirk sends her to the main landmass where he knows Scotty will be. Meanwhile, Scotty has discovered that an enormous seaquake will strike in four hours and destroy most of the civilization below. He’s been searching helplessly for Kirk and Spock to tell them the news, but Rila gets to him first and takes him to his friends.

Scotty then shares the bad news about the seaquake. Rila is frightened–that’s exactly what happened when this place became Atlantis and the water levels rose, wiping out the land masses. Spock guesses that that’s how they evolved, but he’s not entirely accurate, cuing some exposition:

RILA: We did not evolve, Mister Spock. When the surface places began to sink, many air-breathers were mutated through surgo-op, just as you were. As the centuries passed, the mutations became hereditary.
KIRK: Strange that such a highly developed race would be violent.
SPOCK: Apparently they were exposed to a frightening geological disaster. Such hardship induces savagery and violence.
RILA: They hunted and killed us. We feared they would contaminate us with their violence. That is also why it is forbidden to mutate back to surface forms.
KIRK: Then reverse mutation is possible.
RILA: There are legends of sealed places in the sunken ruins where many knowledge records of it are kept.

That sounds pretty good! But Rila doesn’t want to take them there, it’s against the ordainments! Kirk explains that he needs this knowledge not just for himself, but for the planet like Argo that could suffer the same fate. She seems persuaded and shows them the way.

Kirk and Spock come upon the ancient ruins of the surface people, and deep within the building find some scrolls with everything they’ve ever wanted to know about gill mutations.  They snatch ’em and run, are briefly chased by Cthulhu before it’s crushed by falling debris from a seaquake, and make it back to the ship. McCoy can parse the cure, which is sort of like ambergris, but a key ingredient is the venom from the Argo sur-snake. Dammit! Back to waterworld.

Rila is really not keen on helping them, again, when last time she got in such trouble she was threatened with exile to the open seas. Kirk persuades her and her friend anyway, and they do help them net a sur-snake. They get some venom, but it’s not enough! Before they can get more the snake is crushed by more falling debris. This venom will just have to do.

McCoy whips up an antidote, guessing on dosages, and tries it out on Kirk. The captain turns several shades of red before returning completely to normal. Phew! You’re next, Spock. And everyone is back to normal.

Later, Rila and her friend Domar are onboard the Enterprise with some Kang and Kodos-like head bubbles. Kirk explains that they’ll use the Enterprise’s phasers to shift the epicenter of the seaquake, sparing their people total destruction. Because he can do that. For some reason.

On the surface, Rila shows Kirk the newly risen-to-the-surface ruins, and Domar explains that all the young fish people will voluntarily mutate back into air-breathers and rebuild the civilization lost so many years ago.

KIRK: Only the young Aquans?
DOMAR: Senior Aquans cannot adjust to the thought of becoming air-breathers. We will remain at the Aqua City.
KIRK: Don’t lose contact with each other like your ancestors.
DOMAR: We will pass ordainments to forbid it.
RILA: And we, this time, will not ignore them.


FRY: This is unbelievable! What do you heads do all day?
NIMOY: We share our wisdom with those who seek it. It’s a life of quiet dignity.
HANDLER: Feeding time!

How did Kirk and Spock eat in that tank, anyway?

I’m impressed, but not for the right reasons. Has any other episode so dramatically misunderstood plate tectonics, evolution, biology, and physics all at the same time? I, for one, had no idea you could a) speak underwater without air or gills; b) make bubbles while speaking underwater with no air; c) witness an entire continental shelf sink in minutes; d) crumple to the ground while underwater (maybe they got more dense?); e) casually walk along the bottom of an ocean with no weights (really really dense?); or e) change the epicenter of a quake. And did you know that an entire planet can sink or rise periodically, somehow, even though the amount of water covering it is still the same?

But okay, let’s pretend all the science is solid–it still doesn’t make sense. So these fish people are so advanced they can perform surgical Darwinian genetic mutations, yet they can’t monitor or sense seaquakes? That’s like a farming community that can’t puzzle out the weather.  No explanation–not even a perfunctory one–is offered for why the scrolls containing important knowledge are kept off-limits. And would those scrolls even still be readable at the point that they’ve been underwater for so long?

Sense-making, however, turns out to be the least of its flaws. “The Ambergris Element” contains some of the most offensive, backwards moralizing we’ve seen in the series. Spock walks around repeatedly making proclamations about the barbarism of the Aquans (who seem a lot nicer than him). When they run from him, he explains that “The instinctive reaction of all frightened creatures is to retreat to a place of safety.” So they’re creatures, not persons? They swim and talk and build cities and have advanced medicine and science and they’re just animals? Then he claims they’re running because “It is quite possible, Captain, that they find us grotesque and ugly. And many people fear beings different from themselves.” It can’t have anything to do with them being dangerous strangers who, for all intents and purposes, are assumed to be the murderin’ ancestors from above–no, it’s that they’re small-minded and prejudiced. And finally, when Rila explains the evolutionary split between the air-breathers and the water-breathers, Spock nods along that of course the air-breathers became warlike because “Such hardship induces savagery and violence.” Huh? When did Spock turn into such an arrogant asshat?

Everything comes to a neat and tidy conclusion when the Aquans more or less decide to re-evolve into the obviously superior air-breathing variety, abandon their perfectly good civilization below, and rebuild their old society that they have pretty much no connection to. Because you know, deciding en masse to undergo drastic genetic mutation into an entirely different species is entirely reasonable given no outside threats or motivation.

I’m just going to pretend they were all founded by Andrew Ryan, waited out the mass death of the parasites on the surface, and decided to return and establish their unregulated Galtian paradise above. Yes. Because that’s less outrageous-sounding than what actually happened. Ugh. Another stinker from Ms. Armen.

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

Eugene Myers: I hadn’t seen this episode before, but I’ve been fascinated with the title, “The Ambergris Element,” since I first read about it as a kid and I always wondered what it was about. In fact, it’s probably the only reason I even know what ambergris is. Not that this has turned out to be terribly useful information in my life so far.

I had the sneaking suspicion that I would be disappointed when I finally managed to watch it, especially considering the writer, but it was fairly diverting and despite servicable yet uninspired dialogue (“they find us grotesque and ugly”), many things are done well. The search for Kirk and Spock, their recovery, and the tanks in Sickbay were some highlights for me; of course, the idea of their temporary mutation is cartoonish, but they play it straight and put in enough effort to sell it scientifically and medically that I won’t fault them for it. Much. What I will call them on is the constant use of coincidence to get Kirk and Spock out of bad scrapes, a lazy method of creating conflict without taking the time to work out a credible solution. For instance, how many times did rocks fall on that poor sur-snake, saving the people it was chasing in the nick of time?

I wonder if J.J. Abrams saw this episode as a kid, because that serpent looks like something that might pop up in one of his latest films, or all of them. At least the creature ended up being an important key to reversing their mutation, though this could also be chalked up to another coincidence: We need the venom from a sur-snake? Well, I know exactly where to find one, and it just happens to be unconscious! Score.

These attempts to raise the stakes with artificially-heightened tension are even more blatant in the final sequences of the episode, where Dr. McCoy begins administering the cure to Kirk. He’s worried that he may have the dosage wrong, constantly reacting (and narrating) with alarm as strange things happen to the captain’s body, but then calming down as he returns to normal. It’s like an emotional roller coaster ride, and he just comes off as inept. Oh my God! Something’s happening! What is it? Oh, it’s nothing. Phew. In the end, he managed to get the dosage right on the first try and the captain is perfectly fine. Convenient that. He should at least experience some sexual dysfunction or decreased appetite after all that, right? On top of everything else, we are led to assume that the same dosage will work for Spock’s vastly different Vulcan physiology. And the fear that they don’t have enough venom? Nothing to worry about. How did McCoy even translate those medical scrolls? Shhhh… Never mind.

The Aquans were interesting, albeit generic merpeople like the kind you’d find on Super Friends. I half expected Aquaman to make a cameo, which would have been kind of awesome, actually. But as a new civilization in the Star Trek universe, the Aquans had an involving, if convoluted, back story. The conversation in the Council Chamber or throne room or whatever was the hardest thing for me to follow because there were so many characters and the conversation went all over the place very quickly. Fortunately it seems that they either sprung for a few more voice actors this time, or Doohan and Nichols varied their performances more–I swear I recognized one of the voices from various roles on He-Man. I just don’t really know what the weird underwater politics are between the young ones and the old ones. And Kirk succeeds once again in completely altering another society by the end of the episode. All in a day’s work, right? Sure, they promise that this time things will be different, and they won’t ignore their “ordainments,” but if you ask me, they’re all doomed. Doomed, I tell you! Doomed.

Meanwhile, what’s the long-term impact of Starfleet’s access to the Aquans’ ancient records? They know how to divert earthquakes on planets just like Argo, which they should have been able to figure out on their own anyway and has a rather limited applicability. I guess they never figured out how to capitalize on the ability to make people into fish. And they’ve learned that Enterprise doesn’t deserve nice things like aqua shuttles.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3

Best Line: KIRK: Look at this place…a tank! I can’t command a ship from inside an aquarium! I can’t live in here!

Trivia: The “aqua shuttle” and “scouter gig” make their first and last appearances here.

Other notes: Margaret Armen also wrote “The Lorelei Signal,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “The Paradise Syndrome,” and “The Cloud Minders.” She kept getting hired back for some reason…

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 11 – “The Time Trap.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 13 – “The Slaver Weapon.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. 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 adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.