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Amok Time

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at December 16, 2005 - 9:28 PM GMT

See Also: 'Amok Time' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While the Enterprise is en route to a presidential inauguration, Spock begins to behave erratically, even violently, and changes course for Vulcan against Kirk's orders. When required to undergo a medical examination, McCoy discovers that his bodily functions are becoming imbalanced. Spock explains reluctantly to Kirk that it is the time of "pon farr" when a Vulcan must return home to mate or die trying. Violating Starfleet orders, Kirk takes the ship to Vulcan where Spock invites him and McCoy to be witnesses at his marriage ceremony, to be officiated by a powerful Vulcan named T'Pau. But Spock's bride-to-be T'Pring calls for the challenge and chooses Kirk as her champion. Believing that Spock may be too weak to fight a full Vulcan and thinking he can withdraw if he has any trouble, Kirk accepts the challenge, only to learn that the fight is to the death. McCoy asks T'Pau to be allowed to give Kirk an oxygen compound to give the human a fighting chance in Vulcan's thin atmosphere, but Kirk collapses during the combat. Believing that he has killed his captain, Spock tells T'Pring that she is free to marry Stonn, the Vulcan she wants. Beaming back to the ship to turn himself in, he finds that Kirk is alive after all, for McCoy injected him with a neural paralyzer to simulate death.

Analysis: Amok Time establishes the foundations of pretty much everything Star Trek fans know about Vulcans - how their logic lapses, how their families operate, how much of their barbaric past remains within their orderly culture. For that reason, it's a monumentally important episode in Trek lore, but it's also a character-defining story for Kirk, Spock and McCoy; it starts the second season by deepening the relationships that formed all through the show's first year and establishing the balance and humor that defines the original series' main trio. Kirk makes it clear here that he would give up his command with scarcely a second thought if Spock's life were at stake. Spock, whose entire self-definition hinges upon being Vulcan rather than human, invites his human friends to his Vulcan wedding and snaps out of his blood fever to plead for Kirk's life. McCoy, who has often found little to love in Vulcan impassivity and human bravado, saves both of his friends with some quick thinking and a cheat that one suspects T'Pau must see through all along.

This is one of Star Trek's best-balanced episodes in terms of drama, action and humor; it's perhaps a little talky at the beginning, when Spock is explaining Vulcan biology to Kirk, but since the subject is sex, I suspect that few viewers ever get bored - particularly since Nimoy gives such a fine performance showing Spock's barely-controlled shame and frustration, his shaking hands, his desire to stab or smash things. It's funny, sad and unnerving at the same time to watch Spock fling a bowl of plomeek soup at poor Nurse Chapel, who seems simultaneously pathetic and sympathetic in her desire to help a man she should know by now she can't have. This episode marks Chekov's first appearance on the Enterprise, and his moments are mostly comic, joking in two scenes with Sulu about all the changes in course and how he's going to get spacesick. The camaraderie on the bridge is so well-established that Uhura can ask Spock about the identity of the lovely woman who calls him home to Vulcan and Spock answers that very personal question for all to hear.

Yet it is only Kirk to whom he will explain the intensely private details of Vulcan bonding, though McCoy guesses independently the nature of the biological drives afflicting the first officer. The captain's response to the revelation - "I haven't heard a word you said, and I'll get you to Vulcan somehow" - is one of those perfect Kirk moments, wry and warm and determined, where it is utterly obvious why a logical half-Vulcan follows this impulsive human around the galaxy. Kirk won't actually lose his ship to save his first officer until Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, but he would have, right here, if necessary. Although T'Pau tells Kirk and McCoy that Spock will not speak again until he has passed through the blood fever, Spock interrupts the preparations for the Kal-if-fee to ask T'Pau to prevent Kirk from taking part in the challenge, and when he thinks he has killed Kirk, the blood fever vanishes. "It must have been the combat," he tells McCoy, explaining that the madness was gone - a facile answer from someone who had just broken into the only full smile of joy we ever see on his face when he's not under the influence of spores, time travel or the like.

Four decades later it's still hard to know what to make of the Vulcan mating rites. It's not clear from "Amok Time" whether men have the same right of challenge, whether T'Pring will become "property" as a wife by definition or whether this is because she demanded the challenge, whether the husband is considered the property of the wife as the wife is of the husband, even whether T'Pring burns to the same degree as Spock - she seems far more coldly logical, yet she is the pure-blood Vulcan. We learn in this episode that Spock's family is likely important; though his human mother does not attend his wedding, the formidable T'Pol officiates. And we learn that Spock has become a legend among Vulcans, so much so that T'Pring resists the fame that will accompany her position as his wife.

Is this because Spock is half-human, a well-known Starfleet officer, the son of another famous Vulcan? Or is all this just an excuse because T'Pring wants Stonn, either for himself or his full Vulcan blood? What Spock calls her flawless logic in choosing Kirk as her champion seems more questionable from a distance - if she will casually accept adultery as an option if Spock forces the marriage, why not take his name and property to begin with? There should have been little likelihood that Kirk would accept the challenge, thus necessitating that she risk Stonn's life in the combat. She makes a lucky guess that Kirk will fight, and Kirk made what is arguably a foolish decision, launching himself headlong into a situation about which he knew nothing. Then again, he had already risked his career to bring Spock to Vulcan, so perhaps both his honor and his sense of duty demand that he try to help his friend here as well.

It's fun to watch Spock out of control and it's fun to watch Kirk first preening a little that he has been invited to this ceremony with T'Pau, chosen by Spock's intended, only to discover that he is in hopelessly over his head. It's particularly fun to realize that McCoy must have rigged the fight; the viewer knows it before Spock knows it, because of course Captain Kirk isn't going to die! But it's also fun in a guilty way to watch Kirk and Spock in mortal combat with all the Star Trek staples - the drumming music, the long camera angles on shots clearly involving stunt doubles, Shatner's ripped shirt. The lirpa! The ahn woon! At the local Renaissance fair I go to every summer, the troupe that demonstrates 16th century swordplay and dagger fights also does a lirpa battle. Klingon bat'leths have been the weapon of fashion for fans since The Next Generation, but this is, to use a clichť, classic stuff.

And it's moving. Spock bursting into that smile at the end, in full view of Kirk, McCoy and Chapel, is an unforgettable moment and a key defining point for the character. Never again are we going to believe that Vulcans don't react emotionally no matter what excuses he provides. (Kirk is just as happy; he forgets to worry about the fact that he went off against Starfleet orders and could be court-martialed until he gets the call from Uhura telling him that he's off the hook because T'Pau put in a request for the Enterprise to divert to Vulcan.) McCoy even goes easy on his picking-on-Spock at a moment when he could really get in some jabs. The tableau at the end, with McCoy standing to the side swallowing a smirk while Spock raises and eyebrow and Kirk grins at both of them, is repeated in so many of the series' great tags ("Well, thank pitchforks and pointed ears, then!").

And once the existence of the blood fever and the combativeness of Vulcans in heat is established in "Amok Time", it must be addressed with pretty much every Vulcan who shows up on Star Trek. Thus we get to see The Next Generation's Sarek married to another woman after the death of Amanda, Voyager's Tuvok mating with a holographic representation of T'Pel and Enterprise's T'Pol marrying out of duty a Vulcan to whom she feels no bond other than the one her family established for her. "Amok Time" is the most emotional story of the bunch, however...and not difficult to read as the classic Vulcan love story, though not between Spock and T'Pring.

It's Kirk upon whom Spock's focus remains even when he's supposedly so deep in heat that he shouldn't be able to talk. It's Kirk who makes him smile, not the bride who can fulfill his blood lust and save his life. This episode provided the basis of hundreds if not thousands of slash stories (slash being named for K/S, or Kirk/Spock, a code among readers for The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name, now applied to everything from Hamlet/Horatio to Clark Kent/Lex Luthor to canonical historical pairings like Alexander/Hephastion). But "Amok Time" set off its own subgenre: a story prototype in which a heterosexual man who'd do anything to save the life of his best friend finds himself stranded with said best friend someplace where the best friend is dying from a biological imperative to mate, offers himself up as the only source of salvation and discovers that the psychological and emotional bond they share goes much deeper than those he had with any of the hot space babes he pursued and dumped with the excuse that he was married to his ship. And similarly, the logical Vulcan realizes that there's a reason his grief over his captain made him lose all interest in his intended.

I don't want to "ruin the episode" for anyone, as I have on occasion been accused of doing by bringing this theme up, as there are so many delightful details from Spock's playing the Vulcan lyre to McCoy checking out the Vulcan wind chimes to the snarking in sickbay over the necessity of Spock's having a physical. Whenever I mention homoerotic undertones in Star Trek in a review, someone writes to me to object that slash is tawdry. David Gerrold, the writer of "The Trouble With Tribbles", famously slammed slash in The World of Star Trek (something Gene Roddenberry never did, choosing instead to acknowledge its possibility in the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture). And, okay, having read a good deal of it over the past 20+ years, I must admit that that is true that there's a lot of gratuitous porn and a lot of corny out-of-character silliness. But that doesn't invalidate the initial premise. We see in "Amok Time" that Kirk will sacrifice almost anything to save his first officer and that Spock can be distracted from a biological imperative to mate out of concern for his captain. The episode almost begs the question: If Kirk and Spock were stranded on some planet by a magnetic storm or a tachyon pulse or name your anomaly, and Spock did suffer from that-time-of-the-seven-year-cycle, what would Kirk do? To me this is a no-brainer, and one of the more interesting sociological questions posed over Star Trek's initial run.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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