Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Amok Time

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: September 15, 1967

Crew Death Count: 0 (Spock’s love life is the only real casualty)

Bellybuttons: 0 (but Kirk’s uniform is torn again)

The TOS season two premiere “Amok Time” was written by highly regarded s-f author Theodore Sturgeon, more than making up for any misfires after also writing the season one episode “Shore Leave.” Frustrated by critics who made claims along the lines of “Ninety percent of science-fiction is crap,” Sturgeon developed a response that became known as Sturgeon’s Law: Ninety percent of everything is crap. Thankfully, “Amok Time” fits comfortably in the good stuff from the remaining ten percent.

“‘Ten minutes could save you ten percent’ just doesn’t sound right…”

This week, Spock goes on something of a rampage, and one of our first questions is why he suffers no consequences for his shocking behavior. He threatens to break McCoy’s neck – that alone must be a court-martial offense! He practically assaults Nurse Chapel when she brings him a bowl of plomeek soup (more on that later), then is verbally abusive to Kirk when he asks Spock for an explanation. Things take a truly dark turn when Spock requests – practically demands – shore leave on Vulcan: while awaiting Kirk’s response, Spock holds a knife behind his back with shaking hands. Does he plan to assault the captain? Or is he desperate enough to take his own life? The intent of this disturbing image is never clarified.

Eventually McCoy, acting as part therapist and part physician, determines the issue, leading to a heartfelt confession from Spock: the first officer will die if he doesn’t return to Vulcan for the every-seven-years mating ritual of pon farr. It turns out that Vulcans are committed to marriage at age seven by their families in a mind-meld exercise that “locks” together the future mates’ minds. Spock fully acknowledges the logical failing of the custom. Returning to the place of his birth is a biological imperative for Spock, like a salmon swimming upstream (that’s really the comparison he makes).

“It’s just a copay. We bill you for the deductible later.”

The first half of the episode establishes the crisis and demonstrates the difficulties in getting to Vulcan on time, as the Enterprise has been ordered to fulfill an important diplomatic mission by attending a presidential inauguration. Here we have more grievous violations from both Spock and Kirk. Spock hijacks the ship! He orders a course change to Vulcan without consulting the captain. This is the second time Spock has done this – the first time, he faced trial for taking the Enterprise to the forbidden Talos IV. Here, the only response we get is a tepid dressing-down from Kirk. No surprise, as Kirk commits the same crime himself soon after, ignoring direct orders from a Starfleet admiral to get on with the diplomatic mission pronto. The episode’s only real flaw is a complete breakdown of Starfleet hierarchy with no discussion of how problematic this can be.

Like “Operation-Annihilate!” and much of the rest of s-f that Theodore Sturgeon would have called “not crap,” the story hinges almost entirely on relationships between the various characters. Sulu, for example, now has a regular cohort at the helm, as Chekov makes his first appearance, and the two share jokes about the flip-flopping course changes. We also get more depth to Chapel’s unrequited love for Spock. For one thing, McCoy’s observation, “You never give up hoping, do you?” indicates that her feelings have gone public. Knowing that Spock isn’t eating, Chapel personally makes plomeek soup, a considerable act of kindness which Spock forcefully rejects in his irrational state. Later, Chapel checks on Spock while he rests; when he wakes, Spock shows sincere affection for Chapel and requests another serving of plomeek soup. Chapel agrees with tears in her eyes, and whether she’s grateful for this moment or the prospect of future romance, the scene is genuinely touching. “Amok Time” also gives our characters some historical perspective. Spock’s betrothed, T’Pring (Arlene Martel), reports that Spock’s Starfleet exploits have made him something of a legend on Vulcan. Kirk recognizes the Vulcan elder T’Pau (Celia Lovsky) on sight, considering her so important that he refuses to withdraw from the duel with Spock for fear of dishonoring himself and the Federation (“How can I back out in front of her?”). It is T’Pau’s influence that convinces Starfleet to retroactively approve the Enterprise diverting to Vulcan.

One spacefaring life to live

In another connection to “Operation – Annihilate!” the Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio is further explored. Once McCoy understands the life-or-death nature of the situation, his life-first philosophy takes over and he becomes Spock’s fiercest ally in lobbying for a detour to Vulcan. Finally, McCoy makes up for his complaining from prior episodes (Remember what a nag he was in “The Galileo Seven”?) by bailing out both Kirk and Spock during their kal-if-fee death match; his secret decision to fake Kirk’s death by administering a neural paralyzer is an act of medical genius. Throughout the episode, McCoy demonstrates the compassion and wisdom we expect from the chief medical officer of the Enterprise.

Kirk also behaves with compassion that is almost excessive. Even before he has a satisfactory answer, Kirk goes out of his way to get Spock to Vulcan. When Starfleet orders make the diversion seem impossible, he tries to console his first officer by reciting “one of Finagle’s laws,” something Sturgeon derived from Finagle’s law of dynamic negatives, first used by Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell, Jr., and later elaborated on by Larry Niven: “Anything that can go wrong, will – at the worst possible moment.” The variation Kirk offers is more relevant to Spock’s dilemma: “Any home port the ship makes will be somebody else’s, not mine.” Later, without a second thought, he forgives Spock for redirecting the Enterprise to Vulcan (an act Spock claims not to remember in the heat of hormonal imbalance). Kirk goes out of his way to find an excuse to help his friend and convince Starfleet Command to allow the diversion, even if it means they’ll be a day late to the inauguration ceremony. When Spock confesses the details of his humiliation to Kirk, the captain promises confidentiality with the noble response, “I haven’t heard a word you’ve said.” Finally, seeing no other option, Kirk simply ignores his orders and goes to Vulcan anyway. On Vulcan, once T’Pring hijacks the wedding ceremony for her own ends, Kirk commits fully to Spock, even as Kirk’s own safety is increasingly threatened.

“Is this a dagger which I see behind me?”

All of this risk-taking and law-breaking serves the trauma of pon farr and its effect on Spock. Pon farr is reminiscent of Festival from “The Return of the Archons,” a period of abandon that relieves the accumulated stress of an otherwise mundane existence. Medically, McCoy compares it to a dramatic over-production of adrenaline in humans. Spock describes pon farr as “almost an insanity,” a deeply embarrassing experience because of the raw emotions involved. Since pon farr is a holdover from Vulcans’ primitive ancestors, one would think the Vulcan people would be better prepared for this inevitable fact of life. Spock seems to have lived in denial (what happened seven years ago?), telling Kirk, “I’d hoped I would be spared this, but the ancient drives are too strong. Eventually, they catch up with us and we are driven by forces we cannot control to return home and take a wife or die.” Looking to the episode’s title offers insight into why the Federation received no heads-up from Spock or any other Vulcan. The phrase “running amok” originates in cases observed in Malaysia and Indonesia, though it was later understood that this phenomenon exists in every culture. We still see it today, we’ve just labeled it differently. Like pon farr, “running amok” involves an unexpected outburst of irrational and dangerous behavior. In its full manifestation, running amok has four stages (from the linked Facts and Details article by Jeffrey Hayes): “(a) brooding and withdrawal, (b) homicidal paroxysms, (c) continuation of homicidal behavior until killed, restrained, or falling into stupor or exhaustion, (d) complete or partial amnesia.” So wherever Spock was during hist last pon farr experience, thanks to the amnesia phase of amok, he has likely forgotten the worst of it.

“Call me a half-breed again, you dumb honky.”

“Amok Time” provides delightful insight into Vulcan culture. We see the first use of the Vulcan salute with the phrase “Live long and prosper.” Spock tries to calm himself by playing his lyre. Everything relating to pon farr and the koon-ut-kal-if-fee ritual is a revelation and a reminder that Vulcan culture, for all its contemporary logic, has not forgotten its ancient past. When T’Pring pulls a fast one and presents the dullard Stonn (Lawrence Montaigne) as her preferred mate, Spock doesn’t seem surprised at her treachery. Just the opposite, he admires her fool-proof plan, demonstrating not only how steeped in logic Vulcans are, but also what a politically savvy species they are. Perhaps living with such a relentless mating drive forced them to become ruthless in their negotiations. Pon farr serves both a social and evolutionary purpose: The fact that mating instincts only take over every seven years relieves Vulcans of the transient distractions of mating and matrimony, but helps assure continuation of the species by literally killing off those Vulcans who don’t mate.

Spock confronts Bridezilla T’Pring and the inert Stonn

That relief from whims of romance and mating – the transitory nature of lust, material greed, or any other manifestation of desire – is the primary theme of the episode; remember that “amok” is an abrupt and short-term condition. Contrast that with the enduring qualities of culture and friendship. The very presence of Kirk and McCoy is disruptive because only Vulcans have witnessed this spectacle passed down “since the time of the beginning.” The site of the koon-ut-kal-if-fee ceremony is land that has been in Spock’s family for two thousand years. And for all her wisdom, we get the feeling T’Pring’s subterfuge will not offer true contentment in the long run. Spock spells out the message for the lifeless Stonn at episode’s end: “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.” This conflict between short-term gain and long-term prosperity was a suitable theme for a 1960s America in the midst of figuring out what it wanted to be. A flourishing economy (the Dow Jones Industrial Average passed 1,000 for the first time in 1966) was offset by long-term trends of corporate expansion at the expense of family-owned businesses. Economic goodwill led to increased corporate sponsorship of the arts and a legislative Great Society intended to level the playing field, sharing the wealth with the sick, elderly, and poor, expanding civil rights, and implementing greater environmental protections for the sake of future generations. All that hope was absorbed by the financial black hole of the Vietnam War, America’s own “Amok Time,” when dark passions distracted us from matters of substance.

Reunited and it feels so good…reunited cause we understood…

Thankfully, Spock survives pon farr, but not by mating with T’Pring, the one thing he had believed could save him. Instead, he is roused from his amok condition by the loss of his closest friend. When Spock believes he has killed Kirk, his fundamental priorities are restored and nothing else matters. Of course, Spock was never going to end up with T’Pring, just as Kirk could never have ended up with Edith Keeler. They have already learned that their friendship, forged in the life-and-death furnace of exploration, is the enduring experience of their lives. This is the Sturgeon’s law of life, the 10% that is good and worth fighting for.

How far should we extend ourselves for our friends? Would you suffer alongside a friend through a bout of mental illness? Kirk does: when Spock describes the “distasteful” pon farr, the captain answers, “You’ve been most patient with my kinds of madness.” Would you risk your career? Kirk does this, too: “I owe him my life a dozen times over. Isn’t that worth a career? He’s my friend.” Would you risk your life? In the end, Kirk does this, also: he isn’t aware of McCoy’s subterfuge and believes his life is on the line. Unlike temporary desire – romantic, materialistic, or any other form – friendship is the stuff that lasts: Kirk will repeat all of this to save his friend again in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). Spock’s exuberant reaction in the final scene of “Amok Time,” when he learns that Kirk still lives, answers all of our questions. If the degree of risk we accept correlates to the depth of the friendship, Kirk and Spock are the template we can all emulate. They will risk everything, but only because they have chosen to face the risk together. And like these two, we should consider “our dearest blood” with every decision, and may we all be blessed with a friendship so strong.

Next: Who Mourns for Adonais?