"The Ambergris Element" is odd in that it feels much more like a Saturday-morning cartoon-show adventure than an episode of Star Trek, just when this series started to feel more TOS-like. Does it deserve credit for pulling off the aesthetic of a kids' adventure, or does its departure from what feels like Star Trek make it seem ineffective? Or maybe both?
The Enterprise arrives at a water planet, where they use a submersible shuttle to explore. They are attacked by a giant sea creature and the sub-shuttle is destroyed. The landing party is missing for five days before the Enterprise locates them. Kirk and Spock are found face-down in the water, and when they're removed, they can no longer breathe regular air. Their physiology has been fundamentally transformed such that they can breathe underwater like fish, but suffocate outside of water. McCoy has to put them in a tank of water in sickbay while looking for a solution, which is a really odd dilemma.
Kirk and Spock decide they don't want to live the rest of their lives in a tank of water, so they go back to the planet's seas where they attempt to make contact with the underwater civilization that lives there. They're captured by the sea people, who see the "air breathers" as hostile intruders who have come to destroy them, based on historical experience from centuries past where there were hostilities between them and the planet's land-based society. It turns out their scientists transformed Kirk and Spock into water breathers, although it's unclear why they did so given how determined they are for them to leave.
There's also a culture clash between the elders and the youngsters in this society, and traditional rules that must be followed by decree of the law, although the junior members seem to care less about such things. But this generational clash is half-baked and doesn't really go anywhere.
Like a lot of TAS episodes, there's a theme in here somewhere, but it's buried beneath the plot machinations (in this case, all the hoops Kirk and Spock have to jump through — including multiple confrontations with the giant sea snake amid a countdown to a disastrous earthquake — in order to secure what's needed to de-transform them), and the plot spends time on all this (in what is a very talky affair) rather than tying into the larger themes and telling a more relevant story about this societal inner-conflict.
At its heart, this episode is about xenophobia and how this adventure allows the water breathers to gain a new perspective of the past and overcome that xenophobia. Meanwhile, the youngsters decide to use the new knowledge obtained in the course of the adventure to become air breathers and live on the surface (where the sunken cities have conveniently been resurfaced thanks to the aborted earthquakes). Unfortunately, all the Big Ideas are shoehorned into the final minute of the story and a few lines of dialogue and it just doesn't work. I'll give this story credit for packing 44 minutes of material into 22 minutes of air time, but it's such a muddled mess that the ambition can't overcome the incoherence.
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