Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Original Series

"Amok Time"

***

Air date: 9/16/1967
Written by Theodore Sturgeon
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Season two kicks off with an episode that can best be described as, well, fun. Spock finds himself at the mercy of the Pon Farr, the intense Vulcan mating cycle that clouds his logic and causes him to lose control of his emotions, eventually requiring him to return home and take a wife. Failure to do so would cause a chemical imbalance that could kill him. Interestingly, Spock is completely non-forthcoming about this problem—it's such an illogical and shameful dilemma that Vulcans cannot bring themselves to openly discuss.

"Amok Time" is the type of episode that is a success of attitude and character, and came at a time during the series where the characters were well defined. The plot isn't much to speak of, but it serves its purpose—although the rules of Spock's chemical-emotional overload seem a little bit arbitrary. (How could he be distracted by Kirk's death enough to overcome unconditional biological functions?)

A visit to Vulcan, a big fight between Kirk and Spock, and McCoy rigging the game with a clever ploy—it's irresistible stuff. And who could forget the classic moment when Spock finds himself overjoyed to realize that he hadn't actually killed Kirk as he had thought?

Previous episode: Operation—Annihilate!
Next episode: Who Mourns for Adonais?

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9 comments on this review

Paul - Tue, Nov 29, 2011 - 6:25pm (USA Central)
I hated Amok Time. In season 1, we believed that the Vulcans (or Vulcanians) were logical. In Amok Time, we saw a Vulcan society depdndant on the pomp of circumstance and males with a 7 year emotional cycle. How is this logical? And before anyone says it, I know its all make believe, but why create a logical society on the foundation of illogicality? Not one of Sturgeons finest hours. He created the law "99% of anything is crud". I think he underestimated in this episode.
Strider - Fri, Jun 1, 2012 - 1:25am (USA Central)
I've heard others question the premise that Spock could just "get over" his terminal hormonal overload because he'd killed Kirk, but it made sense to me that after the battle, the hormones were dissipated. Vulcans allow for either battle or sex at that time, and Spock engaged in a battle, so he didn't need the sex.

I liked the earlier scenes in this episode, with the concern and awkwardness between Spock and Kirk, and McCoy's worry over Spock's behavior. I liked that Spock asked both men, not just Kirk, to stand with him. The battle scene was a missed opportunity, though--we could have seen more primal bloodlust from Spock and more don't-make-me-kill-you concern from Kirk. And yay for McCoy being the hero!
mike - Sun, Mar 3, 2013 - 10:34am (USA Central)
As a life long Trekker who is old enough to have seen TOS when it was the ONLY Star Trek, you completely miss that this is one of the most important episodes in the Trek universe. This is Vulcan Culture 101! This is first time we learn about Pon Farr. This is our only visit to the much mentioned but never seen Vulcan. This establishes the character T'Pau. Fun? That is entirely too glib an analysis of one of the most essential episodes to understanding Star Trek. This is a four star episode because of it's importance to everything that we understand about Vulcans in every series and movie 40 years henceforth.
mike - Sun, Mar 3, 2013 - 10:41am (USA Central)
Before someone nitpicks about my previous comments, this is only visit to Vulcan in TOS. Still to dismiss Amok Time as just another episode is like saying Scotty is just another red shirt. You can't understand Vulcans without watching Amok Time period.


kerry - Sun, Mar 3, 2013 - 11:00am (USA Central)
Paul, you obviously don't understand Vulcans. The Vulcans are not naturally born logical. They EMBRACED logic as a matter of self preservation. Vulcans are by nature savage and warlike. They embraced logic after their vicious nature nearly destroyed their civilization. The mating drive is the only part of their nature they couldn't tame. Vulcans are disgusted and embarrassed by Pon Farr but just as with human sex drive, they can't rule over their sex drive work just logic. Sex isn't
logical. That was the whole point of Amok Time. I'm so sorry you don't get it.
M.G. - Mon, Sep 23, 2013 - 3:09pm (USA Central)
Very fun and clever episode. @Paul - I understand your complaint, but I actually took that as the point of the episode; the Vulcan people pride themselves on their cooly logical exterior, but up close their culture, like their mating drive is actually as messy as everyone else's. Interesting that the p'onn farr is presented as a secret; apparently the Vulcans hide quite a lot they don't want known from other Starfleet races. A sign of vanity or insecurity among the "purely logical" Vulcans, perhaps? Great bit at the end where we see Spock's authentic happiness; one of the few times he's allowed to express emotions not caused by diseases or weird alien influences.
Ren C - Mon, Sep 23, 2013 - 6:40pm (USA Central)
My question about this episode is if it's supposed to be a fight to the death how does Kirk explain his continued existence to the Vulcans? Does that mean that Spock didn't actually have to kill him after all but just defeat him?
Corey - Tue, Apr 1, 2014 - 10:26pm (USA Central)
I'd give this four stars.
William B - Tue, Apr 22, 2014 - 12:16pm (USA Central)
What really struck me on the latest rewatch is how even though Leonard Nimoy wrings a lot of genuine pathos out of Spock's problem in this episode, he also kind of plays Spock as an awkward, horny teenager: all lanky, seeming uncomfortable with his body, uncertain what to do with himself, trying in vain to remember what his normal behaviour is and to mimic it while his mind is elsewhere, and full of shame. One of the things that makes Spock so appealing to a lot of Trek's fanbase is, and I think always has been, that he's a geek icon (I don't mean geek pejoratively here, and count myself among them): like Data later will be, he is a character we are meant to admire who values intellectual pursuits, science, and rationality, and is disinterested in the emotional flights of fancy that everyone else seems to indulge in; but unlike Data, Spock prefers it that way. The world can sometimes seem hostile to people who value logic above emotion, to people who are "cold," and Spock is the repudiation of that, at least in part. Spock's embarrassment that he can't control his mating instinct, and that said instinct is totally irrational, seems to me to be partly directed at science nerds, especially teenage ones, who value logic above all else and yet find with a shock that they are at least partly at the mercy of their biology and hormones, after having made a big deal out of placing emotions low on the list of personal values.

I kinda sorta suspect, too, that the pon farr idea is part of the show's general effort to head off the possible negative consequences that one could expect from a hyper-rational perspective on reproduction. "Space Seed" pretty clearly lays out the show's stance on the Eugenics movement. But if there is nothing to reproduction but sensible, logical choices, and if emotion is also further eliminated (which is the assumption that Kirk has going into it), then Vulcans could all choose their mates based not on what is best for them personally but best for the species as a whole, and end up taking the reins of their own evolution and leading it who knows where. Well, or maybe not. If nothing else, the sex drive in *humans* is as powerful as it is because we need to continue propagating the species, and the desire to have sex sometimes is more powerful than the desire to have children in and of itself.

The choice to represent the mating instinct in Vulcans as something out of control, which can only be corralled through very extensive rituals, is mostly about the mysteries of love and sexual attraction in our world, which are fuzzy for *us*, and we as a species acknowledge emotions as valuable in a way Vulcans do not, and our emotions are much less extreme than Vulcans' are naturally. According to McCoy, "They still go mad at this time. Perhaps it's the price they pay for having no emotions the rest of the time." This makes sense to me; the pon farr probably becomes not just about mating, but about a ritual release of years of pent up emotions, a necessary catharsis. Back in "This Side of Paradise," Kirk wasn't sure that Spock would be able to restrain his anger against him once Kirk got him going; Vulcans keep a lid on their emotions partly because if they *start* to get carried away by their emotions, they may not stop, and the pon farr period is the time in which they let themselves get carried away. The ritual itself is appropriately weird, involved, and somehow resonant in a hard-to-pin-down way; the T'Pau character was a great touch, lending an air of gravitas to the proceedings. You get the impression that only someone of total self-control can enforce the rituals in a way that is suitable and acceptable to all parties. The scene takes place in the hot Vulcan desert, which connects to the series' various Western motifs ("wagon train to the stars") and also suggests the fragility of civilization and the return to ancient roots, which cannot be excised wholly.

This is of course a huge deal for the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triad, focusing in on Spock but also the amount of caring the three of them have for each other in general. This is one of the first times in which it's acknowledged outright that Spock and McCoy have affection for each other underneath the banter, and I think this would be difficult to play out before "The Galileo Seven" (for instance). Spock's eventually coming to confide in Kirk about his secret shame is a breakthrough in their friendship, too, because for the most part Spock maintains his unflappable air as much as possible even with those he is closest to; his trust that Kirk will not use this knowledge against him, or will not lose respect for him, is hard-won and difficult. Spock *begging* everyone not to let Kirk fight him, and Kirk's going in anyway because it might save Spock, works as well. And then there's the big fight scene itself, with the series' single most memorable music cue (not counting the theme song), that intense battle theme music which had been playing as a recurring theme all through the episode, much more slowly and quietly. Talk about your no-win scenarios for Kirk: either he dies or he kills Spock, neither of which he can obviously permit.

I don't actually mind that Spock breaks free of his blood fever trance after he "kills" Kirk, for reasons that other commenters have mentioned above. And partly because I do think that it's the catharsis that is needed; the intensity of emotion that leads up to the ponn farr may in fact not be to help spur Vulcans on to mating in and of itself, but to have the strength to kill for their mates, and presumably to then mate as some sort of "prize." (Which is a bit of a gross way of looking at it, of course.) More to the point, in a fundamental way, a part of Spock really did "die" when he apparently killed Kirk -- because, for everything else he is,

I do kind of mind the resolution from a plot level only insofar as McCoy's plan could easily have gone so absolutely, terribly wrong -- either Kirk could have passed out when Spock wasn't touching him, thus making McCoy's ploy obvious, or, much more seriously, Spock could just have killed Kirk when he passed out at which point Kirk would have been unable to defend himself. They got lucky, in other words, and it's a kind of lucky that the episode doesn't seem to acknowledge; I get the impression we're supposed to assume McCoy's plan was a good one, rather than an act of absolute desperation. But whatever: what does work about it is McCoy as a kind of trickster figure; Spock's being in the throes of the blood fever means he can't see outside it, and Kirk's absolute devotion to Spock and need to save him keep his vision similarly narrow. Even though McCoy is usually the most emotional of the three, this time he's the one with a cool enough head to figure out a way out of the situation through cunning and trickery, in a way that serves as a reminder of the importance of the trio as a trio rather than just a duo; the instability inherent in any group-of-three has the positive side effect that the third can help the other two out of a situation in which they're stuck.

My favourite scenes in the episode are the two major post-fight scenes -- the first between Spock and T'Pring, the second with the Big Three, wherein Spock discovers Kirk is alive. Spock's sad, dejected acceptance of the cold, methodical logic of T'Pring's manipulation and his warning to Stonn -- that having a thing is not so pleasing as wanting, something which at this point he knows very well, having achieved his goal of escaping from the ponn farr's hold on him but at enormous cost -- really work for me. And of course Spock once again *loses emotional control* at the episode's very end, upon seeing Kirk again, which is the positive flipside to his losing emotional control in the fight earlier in the episode. Really, part of this episode is about how, ultimately, Spock's emotional attachment to Kirk (and, indirectly, to Starfleet as a whole) goes beyond the bonds of marriage and romantic love to T'Pring, and even, as it turns out, beyond biology. During the fight itself, biology and tradition won out, but once he saw what he had done, he instantly "sobered up." Kirk is more important to him than T'Pring, and Starfleet is more important than Vulcan. It is perhaps unfortunate that they should be placed in such opposition, but it makes some sense that there is, since Starfleet is still a largely human endeavour. It makes sense, then, that part of the reason T'Pring prefers to rid herself of Spock is because his legendary status, which stems from his attachment to Starfleet, puts her off. This is an episode about the bonds of friendship and chosen life being stronger, when all is said and done, than mere biology, which I think is not so much anti-marriage or anti-relationship (though it *could* be interpreted that way) as a celebration of chosen bonds rather than ones chosen for one, by tradition and biology.

Other notes: this episode gives no indication of whether female Vulcans undergo ponn farr too. I find it interesting and a little sad that Spock seems to be coming on to Chapel after it seems that he definitively won't be going back to Vulcan. It must be sad for Chapel to be such an absolute last resort, just marginally above dying -- especially since Chapel is so much more sympathetic a character than T'Pring. I think the seven year cycle is a reference to "The Seven Year Itch."

I think this is a 4 star show, and it kicks off season two very well. Season one is probably the best season of the show, with relatively few weak episodes and a huge number of strong ones, including "The City on the Edge of Forever," which is probably the best episode of the series. But season two, while much more uneven, has a greater concentration of absolute top-tier classics, IMO -- I'd probably put "Amok Time," "Mirror, Mirror," "The Doomsday Machine," and "The Trouble with Tribbles" above all but "City."

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