50 years ago, we got our first glimpse at Vulcan and the deadly consequences of Spock’s blue balls.
Last year, when Trekkies gathered at the annual Las Vegas Star Trek convention to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the original series, Jordan Hoffman (host of Engaged: The Official Star Trek Podcast) led his One Trek Mind panel to definitively select the ten best episodes from the entire franchise. Fans stepped up to the mic to plead their case for their favorite episodes, and the debate resulted in a varied selection running the gamut across Trek’s entire lifespan. As with all lists, we could spend the rest of our lives battling its merits but at least there were no genuine clunkers (click HERE to see for yourself). Sitting confidently at Number 4 is “Amok Time,” which is celebrating its own golden anniversary today.
When I think about the original series it’s “Amok Time” that springs to mind first. The episode is certainly notable for introducing the Vulcan salute into the canon, but it’s the Kirk on Spock royal rumble climax that paints a million wallpaper laptops. Bashing and slicing at each other with instruments straight out of American Gladiators (the lirpa, a traditional Vulcan weapon), Kirk and Spock nose to nose in combat is undeniably iconic and worthy of its Hallmark ornament status. The primal fight music composed by Gerald Fried cuts into your brain immediately and never leaves. His score would return for several other episodes when skirmishes were required, and celebrity Trekkie Ben Stiller would steal it for his film The Cable Guy during Jim Carrey’s Medieval Times showdown with Matthew Broderick.
Watching “Amok Time” today, the episode is less about its inescapable pop culture touchstones and more about the uncomfortable Vulcan biology that boils Spock’s blood into a deadly fever. After Kirk attempts to dismiss Dr. McCoy’s concerns for his patient as nothing more than one of Spock’s contemplative phases, we witness the usually reserved science officer hurl a bowl of soup over-doting Nurse Chapel. Spock is losing it.
As logic centered and emotionless as Vulcans claim to be, during the 79 episodes of the original series we often saw Spock break down into his baser human instincts. We’ve seen him smile, laugh, cry, but the rage seen in “Amok Time” is distressing bordering on icky. When Kirk confronts Spock about the soup-tossing the only explanation he is given is that “it is undignified for a woman to play servant to a man who is not hers.” That’s a line of dialogue that obviously flies in the face of Star Trek’s infinite diversity in infinite combinations ethos but certainly, fits in a show populated with the shortest of miniskirts. Gene Roddenberry was enlightened in some areas but still a Cro-Magnon when it came to women.
While gripping tightly to some sort of space-stylus behind his back, threatening to pop it into his Captain’s neck, Spock begs for leave back to his homeworld. A diplomatic mission calls them elsewhere and Kirk refuses the request. While he is sleeping, Spock hijacks the command and sets course for Vulcan. As usual, Kirk is barely bothered. As we see from every Captain of the Enterprise, Starfleet orders were made to be broken.
Directed by television workhorse Joseph Pevney (who only got to escape the boob tube to direct bizarro genre pieces like Night of the Grizzly) and written by sci-fi figurehead Theodore Sturgeon, “Amok Time” gives its audience their first real glimpse at Spock’s home planet. As much as we’ve heard about their logic-centered philosophy, during the first season we rarely saw more than two Vulcans interacting with each other. It took 31 episodes for an Enterprise landing party to beam down onto Vulcan, but the weight is paid off with one of the series’ most memorable sequences.
Spock’s biology is rupturing because Pom Farr is upon him. This ritual is what transcends Spock’s discipline of service. As McCoy explains it to Kirk, “there’s a growing imbalance of body functions as if in our bodies huge amounts of adrenaline were being pumped into our bloodstreams…if it isn’t stopped somehow the physical and emotional pressures will simply kill him.” Soooo, yeah, if Spock doesn’t release these tensions through the Pom Farr ritual of mating his blue balls will result in heart failure. Toss in a salmon swimming upstream to spawn metaphor and we’re good. Yep, that’s Gene Roddenberry through and through. Less talk about the creepy sexual needs of aliens and more Spock on Kirk gladiatorial combat! And here is where we can trace the path back to the birth of slash fiction.
Of course, Pom Farr requires a partner. Since he was seven years old Spock has been betrothed to T’Pring, but she no longer wants anything to do with the Vulcan who fled for Starfleet. T’Pring has found solace in the arms of Stonn, a proper Vulcan who has never cracked a smile. To get the man she desires she manipulates the heroism of Captain Kirk when she chooses him as her champion against Spock. To the victor go the spoils. Minister T’Pau, the officiant of the ritual asks of T’Pring, “are you prepared to become the property of the victor?” T’Pring has no hesitation. Cue the fight music.
“Amok Time” is a total blast of a watch. You have to cheer its climax when Spock satiates his biological desire via a good Kirk bashing, and that resulting beam of a smile when he discovers his Captain still alive sends my heart pitter-pattering. Every Trek showrunner has found weirdo sex stuff to sprinkle into their Star Trek (anyone up for a lathering of decontamination gel from the prequel series Enterprise?), and I’ll be curious to see how kinky the new Star Trek Discovery allows its Jefferies tubes to get. When exploring the brave new world of the final frontier you’re going to bump up against outdated notions. For every cell phone prediction there’s a marshmelon dispenser. It’s the exploration of humanity’s reach that’s important, the failures are interesting, but ultimately take second seat to the attempt.