Angry Red Planet
Warned by McCoy that Spock is acting a little "off," Kirk is forced to agree after the Vulcan assaults Nurse Chapel with a soup bowl. Spock awkwardly explains that he’s in the grip of an irresistible sexual urge and that he’ll die if he doesn’t mate Real Soon. Kirk can easily relate to this, so he defies Starfleet orders to return Spock to his home planet. Vulcan is the most PC planet in the cosmos: a world of unemotional, rational, pacifist vegans. It’s logical, therefore, that we are introduced in short order to:
- A masked executioner
- T’Pring, a betrothed woman who desires another man and enters into a murder conspiracy rather than be seen to defy conventional social mores
- Stonn, a co-conspirator so full of lustful rage that he can’t help blurting out unhelpful clues to his complicity ("No, I was to be the one!")
- T’Pau, a planetary ruler so smug and bigoted that she indulges in playing lethal "gotcha!" with naive strangers ("Des combad ees to de deat")
One is left to wonder why these Vulcans can’t behave with the emotional restraint, integrity and open-mindedness of that cute T’Pol and her countrymen on “Star Trek: Enterprise.” Spock winds up fighting Kirk. Unlikely as this seems, it’s a lot more gripping than watching Spock in a death struggle with the third walk-on Vulcan from the left. McCoy saves the day by doping Kirk in contravention of the International Olympics Committee rules for Koon-ut-kal-if-fee.
In the end Kirk gets to live, Spock gets better, T’Pring gets Stonn and T’Pau gets punk’d. There’s no way that T’Pau would hold McCoy’s little bit of chicanery against Starfleet or the human race, of course. That’s like suggesting that Tony Soprano would whack a guy for talking to the Feds. So, she covers Kirk’s hinder with Starfleet.
Like they were really gonna discipline him just for disobeying direct orders. Again.
"Why do they call it love when they mean sex?"
The thousands of popular stories written by the cohort of American science fiction authors who came up through the pulp magazines and early paperback markets of the 1940s and 1950s are the very foundation of the original "Star Trek." Theodore Sturgeon was among the most talented and influential of that group. A brilliantly original short story writer and novelist, he assayed a number of television assignments over the decades but only "Amok Time" stands out as more than an average work-for-hire product (my apologies to admirers of giant white rabbits and strafing biplanes everywhere).
His decision to portray the Vulcans in a way opposed to what audiences might reasonably have expected based upon what they’d been told in previous episodes was inspired. It’s certainly reflective of one of his own noteworthy observations: "Nothing is always absolutely so." Today, of course, he’d be pilloried from some quarters for violating a season’s worth of "canon" about Vulcan behavior and culture ("It’s twenty-odd episodes worth of research, how lazy can he be?").
If anything, he might well have taken his charge here from Nurse Chapel’s single remark in "The Naked Time" to the effect that "the men from Vulcan treat their women strangely." Evidently, the women from Vulcan return the favor.
Sturgeon’s vision of life on Vulcan strengthens and deepens the internal conflicts which had already made Spock the most fascinating of the Trek characters by placing them in the context of the world from which he springs. Not only is Spock torn between his Vulcan and human heritage but also now we see him as the product of a culture with its own deep fissures and unexamined contradictions. He chooses to identify with the self-declared "rational" culture in which he was raised rather than the supposedly chaotic civilization of his mother’s family, but it’s his Vulcan biology that drives him to behavior that he finds too humiliating to reveal to his human shipmates. Sturgeon includes a line of dialogue – "I’d hoped that I would be spared this" – suggesting in an ironic fashion that Spock might have been banking on his human heredity to enable him to be more rational and dispassionate about his sexuality than most of his people.
All real human cultures negotiate a complicated balance between their expressed ideals and mythologies about themselves and the actual ranges of behavior and beliefs of the individuals who live in them. Love and sexuality, in all varieties, were the central themes of much of Sturgeon’s work. "Amok Time" is all about such ideas and experiences, specifically in the context of a society that denies and suppresses them. Written for a heavily content-and-language restricted medium, in an America undergoing revolutionary changes in what would be considered acceptable sexual behavior and discourse – a liberalization which he was very much a part of both personally and ideologically – Sturgeon was mature enough a writer to examine the ultra-repressed Vulcans he created with intelligence and empathy rather than simply derisively portraying them and their culture as hypocritical. This subtlety of understanding, as much as anything, is what marks "Amok Time" out as one of the best of the original "Star Trek" episodes. The story speaks with undiminished authenticity across the decades, in marked contrast to such airily self-congratulatory polemics as "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield."
Most notably, no screenwriter but Sturgeon ever has written dialogue for "Star Trek" that as succinctly articulates the commonplace truths of human experience as Spock’s nearly elegiac observation on the conundrum of desire: "After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting."
The Effects – What’s Changed?
CBS Digital has got the deep space exterior and orbital shots of the Enterprise down solid at this point, much as they’ve been acing the planetary globes from the beginnings of TOS-R. In the case of those planets, though, they seem to have moved on from approximating the look of TOS planets toward attempting more fully realistic worlds. This week Vulcan is represented as almost a kind of alternate Mars in coloration and detail, but with a polar ice cap that’s probably bigger than Earth’s arctic right now. Aside from the ice, this Vulcan is consistent with its visualization in the Trek movies and later TV series.
Speaking of consistency, there are several shots of a beautiful matte painting showing the arena from a distance overhead. The entire area is revealed to be the flattened summit of a mountain overlooking a nearby city. That city closely resembles and probably represents Shi’Khar as first shown in the "Yesteryear" episode of the animated "Star Trek" series, and the elevated arena itself is very much like the temple where T’Lar reunites Spock’s body and soul in "Star Trek III: The Search For Spock."
Unless I’m mistaken, this episode thus becomes the first instance of the original series’ visual effects being adjusted in such a way as to bring them explicitly into line with Trek continuity created in the decades, movies and series that followed.
There’s a super-close flyby of the Enterprise that’s quite showy – i.e., "look how close we can get to the mesh without it looking CG." People will doubtless argue whether it does or doesn’t. For my money, it looks pretty much like I’d expect the original eleven-foot Datin-built model to look if photographed so close up (and I’ve spend quite a bit of time looking at that very model from a similar distance, behind glass in the gift shop of the National Air and Space Museum a few miles from my home). That said, the attempt does underscore the lack of detail on the original practical model – it wouldn’t have looked like a real big spaceship from that distance, and neither does the mesh.
A Vulcan-style homey background has been added to the image of the child bride T’Pring that we see on the viewer in Spock’s quarters. It’s a nice touch that makes it look a lot less like her folks popped over to the Shi’Khar Sears to take advantage of the $19.98 family photography special one Easter afternoon after church.
What’s Left Alone
The featureless cyclorama sky over the Vulcan arena, obviously. This would have required an enormous and impractical amount of rotoscoping. The folks at CBS Digital also don’t appear to consider "correcting" Trek’s occasional editing glitches as part of their mandate, probably a good thing. Last week, that would have involved fixing the "flopped" close-up shot of McCoy in "The Doomsday Machine." In "Amok Time" there are several continuity errors (in the strict filmmaking use of the term) involving the players in the Vulcan sequences. My favorite is the juxtaposition of a shot where Spock crosses the arena to hit the gong and is followed by T’Pring. She makes it maybe a quarter of the way across the arena behind him before we cut to a close-up of her still standing with the wedding party, then beginning her cross again.
It’s thus canonically established that Vulcans can be in two places at one time. J.J. Abrams, take note.