Friday, October 8, 2010

Love And Armed Conflict For Spock In "Amok Time," A Perfect Star Trek Episode!

The Good: Acting, Interesting character development, Music, Most of the story
The Bad: Minutiae, it's close enough to perfect!
The Basics: When Spock begins to go crazy on the crew of the Enterprise, he reluctantly reveals that he must return home to mate . . . and marry!

Vulcans; they look human but with pointed ears and arched eyebrows. We know very little about them; our experiences have been filtered through the lens of a half-Vulcan, an outsider named Spock. Star Trek fans wanted to know more about the Vulcans and the producers of Star Trek provided with "Amok Time," one of the few episodes of Star Trek that was so well-done and vital that it has become enshrined in pop culture imagination. It is ironic that for all of the episodes with strong social messages or allegories to problems of the day, it is "Amok Time," one of the most self-referential episode of the series, that can be recognized so easily when it is alluded to.

But there is good reason; this is a wonderful hour of television. And, it's all about sex! Well, sex and violence. I guess Theodore Sturgeon knew what he was doing when he penned "Amok Time!"

Mr. Spock, half-Vulcan first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, has been exhibiting asocial behavior and after days of seeming irritable, he explodes with a violent outburst. Shocked at the behavior of his normally stoic Science Officer and friend, Captain Kirk tries to understand why Spock is acting up but Spock simply informs him that he needs to get to Vulcan. Happy to oblige, Kirk has the Enterprise head toward Vulcan, when StarFleet orders the Enterprise to a different sector for a ceremonial position at an inauguration. After a back and forth of course changes between Vulcan and the other place, Dr. McCoy reveals that a medical workup on Spock shows that his metabolism has been significantly and negatively altered and that unless Spock returns to Vulcan, he will die. Faced with the possibility of Spock dying from the changes to his body, Kirk disobeys StarFleet's orders and redirects the ship to Vulcan, where it seems Spock is to be married off!

"Amok Time" is the episode that introduced to the collective unconscious the idea of Pon farr, the Vulcan mating cycle, which occurs every seven years. The idea was so clever, intriguing and unique that to this day, it is referenced in television shows that make pop culture references, like The Simpsons and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The episode is so well constructed with its mating drive that turns into a marriage ceremony/fight to the death, that elements throughout the episode are alluded to in many things that instantly clue the viewer into the savvy of the person using it. So, for example, in the second season of Family Guy in the episode "Peter Peter Caviar Eater," Stewie has two butlers fight to the death and the fight scene from Spock's wedding ceremony is recreated, along with the highly recognizable and memorable musical score for the scene. It's hilarious and it works for those of us who get the allusion because the Kirk/Spock fight to the death scene is so memorable and powerfully done. This becomes a can't miss episode of Star Trek, not just for fans of the series, but for anyone who loves popular culture!

But the reason the episode has resonated so well into popular culture in general is easy to see: despite the somewhat simple plot, which has to delay the arrival at Vulcan for several acts, this is one of the best acted character studies to come out of Star Trek and it works beautifully to establish an alien culture and breathe new life into the stoic and somewhat monolithic Vulcan people. The writing is tight, the acting is wonderful and it has character elements that are intriguingly explored.

The episode is very tightly focused on Spock and for the first time in the series, the viewer is given a compelling reason why Spock chose his Vulcan heritage over his human one. Because of the flat-out psychosis of the Vulcan mating drive, Spock was pretty much doomed to go through Pon farr (though he'd hoped he would be spared it) so it makes sense that he would hedge his bets and side with his Vulcan side in order to best prepared for it when it came. Watching the logic, reason and facade of emotional control stripped away from Spock until he is a brutal, predatory killer is difficult to watch, but it makes us appreciate the depth of his control in every episode that follows!

Captain Kirk illustrates, possibly for the first time in the series, just how far he is willing to go for Mr. Spock. In "The Devil In The Dark" we see Spock set aside his strong moral reservations about hunting down the Horta in order to be a good officer and show his faith in Kirk, but "Amok Time" might be the first time Kirk illustrates a reciprocation that puts his career in jeopardy, a theme that will continue through the last of the Star Trek films. Captain Kirk becomes a better and more reasonable commander through his emotional and professional dependence on Spock and this episode plays that out by illustrating that Kirk knows he is not on his mission alone.

And while Dr. McCoy is presented in a very humane light in "Amok Time," it is surprising how much character work is done with the Vulcan characters who appear only in this episode! T'Pring, Spock's betrothed, delivers some of the best lines of the episode, lines that reveal a character full of cunning, guile and a surprisingly rich backstory. Even T'Pau, the Vulcan matriarch who presides over Spock's wedding is given such a backstory as to eliminate the menace to Kirk for his disobeying orders. It's incredible how much the viewer comes to know about these guest characters based on so little airtime, but "Amok Time" truly packs in the character work and information! And they are all compelling and understandable, which makes the episode of a higher caliber than most.

As well, all of the actors bring their a-game to the episode, including the guest cast. While Lawrence Montaigne and Arleen Martel might seem stiff as Stonn and T'Pring, this works to realistically portray a stoic, unemotional person and their performance is actually quite deep. Indeed, it is in the face of their performances, as well as Celia Lovsky's T'Pau, that the viewer comes to realize just how much Leonard Nimoy emotes as Spock! Sure, he has very restrained body language, but compared to these three, he might as well be flailing his arms in distress every time he arches his eyebrow, so unsubtle his mannerisms now seem!

William Shatner delivers one of his best performances as Captain Kirk in "Amok Time." No trace of hammy or camp acting, Shatner delivers a performance that illustrates Kirk's compassion, humanity and kindness without ever losing his authoritarian edge. Instead, he seems remarkably well-rounded and Shatner transfers effortlessly between the compassionate and military Kirk without it ever seeming unnatural or out of character.

It is Leonard Nimoy who provides the killer performance in "Amok Time," though! Nimoy is able to play his full range, from emotionally controlled to angry to illustrating a sense of wrestling with powerful, conflicting emotions to a scene where he is able to convince the viewers that he is in an absolute bloodlust. The true acting gem from Nimoy comes at the climax of the episode and that Nimoy is able to make Spock's display of unbridled joy still seem in-character, like Spock, illustrates his timeless genius. That Nimoy did not win any acting awards for "Amok Time" is a crime against theatrics!

What the episode also does with incredible proficiency is establish a very real sense of mood. "Amok Time" has a unique score that utilizes a very tribal sound to ratchet up the tension in the fight sequences and anyone who sees the episode will be able to recognize the music from it. It's rare that a television score can so deeply embed itself in the collective unconscious, but this music does . . . brilliantly.

What is so impressive about "Amok Time" is that while it truly is an episode that is all about fleshing out the Star Trek universe with a character study of one of its most beloved characters, it is so accessible to a general audience. Everything a viewer needs to know about the characters and culture are contained within the episode, making it remarkably easy to get into for people who are not necessarily fans of Star Trek or science fiction. The truth is, anyone who likes a good character study will enjoy "Amok Time," so fans of drama in general ought not to be nervous about approaching this episode. It is solidly entertaining and fun. It lives up to its hype, even after forty years.

Perhaps that means it hasn't been hyped enough!

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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