The original Star Trek series consists entirely of standalone episodes; there are no plot arcs. But that doesn’t mean there’s no development.
On the contrary, the first episode of the second season, “Amok Time” demonstrates that the show’s creators learned a lot over the course of the first season, and are determined to build on it.
Mainly, they learned that everything is Spock, Spock, and more Spock. Great SF writer Theodore Sturgeon and director Joseph Pevney lean so far into Leonard Nimoy love, they just about fall into the Vulcan soup, and then they lean in even more. Then they grab hold of threads of characterization from past episodes—Nurse Chapel’s attraction to Spock, Spock’s occasional use of Captain Kirk’s first name, the series’ insularly obsessive celebration of masculine relationships—and tie them all into beautiful bows of emotional payoff.
And there’s more! The introduction of Navigator Chekhov (Walter Koenig), the last member of the core bridge crew. A wildly over-the-top score by Gerald Fried. Great guest stars. And some of the series' most breathtaking cinematography. Put it all together and you have one of the all-time, all-time Treks.
Weep for Salmon Spock
The show starts as Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) tells Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) that first officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is behaving oddly. He’s been irritable and even violent. He hasn’t been eating. And as they watch, he yells at Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett), and throws the soup she’s made him at the wall. Then he demands shore leave on his home planet of Vulcan from Kirk, and gets super testy when Kirk asks him why.
In other words, the whole episode setup is based on your knowledge of Spock from season 1. He’s supposed to be the emotionless, dedicated, self-sacrificing, and brilliant lynchpin of the show. Except when he’s zapped by hippie flowers or stung by mind-controlling giant gloppy cells, he is absolutely reliable. What could be wrong?!
It turns out that what is wrong is that male Vulcans essentially go into heat, stripping them of their logic and rationality. Spock desperately needs to get back to Vulcan to his wife T’Pring (Ariene Martel) or else according to Dr. McCoy, the emotional and physical stresses will tear him apart.
Did we mention Spock has a wife? Gives that whole dalliance with the hippie flowers another level.
There’s a further complication in that the Enterprise has been ordered to Altair IV to provide an impressive diplomatic presence at a key leadership change. The Admiral orders Kirk to go to Altair IV, Spock’s mating needs be damned.
There is a good bit of back and forth (much to the grumbling of adorably cranky navigator Chekhov). But eventually, Kirk decides to defy Starfleet and save the life of his first officer and, as he says, of his “friend.” (Aww.)
Spock, upon learning they really are going to Vulcan, calms down, and has a tender moment with Nurse Chapel, brushing a tear away from her face and telling her he’s dreamed of her, which may have something to do with the mating frenzy thing, but we won’t look too closely into that. He asks her to bring him soup. (Awww.)
For the marriage ritual, Spock is allowed to bring some friends, so he asks Kirk and McCoy to go with him. They agree and get to walk across a dramatic land bridge to the staging area, in one of the most dramatic shots in the series so far. When they get to the ominous ritual circle, they discover that the wedding is being presided over by T’Pau (Celia Lovsky), one of the most important officials on Vulcan or in the Federation.
Spock figures he’ll just bang a gong and then he and T’Pring will get it on, as Marc Bolan says. However, T’Pring stops the gong, and demands he fight a challenger for her. Everyone thinks she’s going to choose obviously eager suitor Stonn (Lawrence Montaigne), who, it’s important to note, has some of the worst hair of the entire series. But instead, T’Pring chooses Kirk as her champion.
Was it because of the hair? We can only guess.
In any case, Kirk is somewhat confused, but he’s worried that Spock with his blood-burning won’t be a match for Stonn or his hair. So he says yes. Then he learns that it’s a fight to the death. This is why it’s important to figure out the rules of armed combat before you start, Captain.
Spock is essentially berserk and really tries to kill Kirk. McCoy asks to give Kirk a shot to help him compensate for the low oxygen air on Vulcan. T’Pau agrees, but despite the help, Spock manages, with the aid of the extremely dramatic music, to kill his Captain.
The shock brings Spock back to himself. He asks T’Pring what the hell.
She explains that she was sick of being married to a legend and likes Stonn. She figured that if Spock won he’d be mad at her and if Kirk won he wouldn’t want her. She’d win either way. Spock compliments her on her logic, and then tells Stonn, “She is yours. After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”
Stonn looks like he’s swallowed a Vulcan guppie, which is what you look like when Spock curses your marriage.
Spock gives the Vulcan “Live Long and Prosper” (IDIC) salutation for the first time. T’Pau responds “Long Live and Prosper,” to which Spock says, “I shall do neither. I have killed my Captain and my friend.”
Theodore Sturgeon could write some damn dialogue is the lesson here. (Have I had that line memorized for the better part of 40 years? Let us not speak of it.)
Spock beams up to the Enterprise to live a short life of misery and turn himself over to the authorities.
It turns out that Kirk is alive. McCoy gave him the wrong shot, and put him into a deathlock trance. Spock is so happy at the revelation he shouts “Jim!” and smiles, in a moment that launched a billion steamy Kirk/Spock fanfics. You can’t really blame the fanfic writers; it really is a marvelous moment of television.
They learn that T’Pau has smoothed over things with Starfleet, so Kirk won’t lose his career. Then Spock gamely tries to explain that getting a big smile and shouting “Jim” was all perfectly logical, to McCoy’s open skepticism.
Kirk/Spock and Everyone Else
Kirk isn’t openly skeptical. He’s patiently amused. That’s the tenor of his performance throughout. Nimoy’s Spock quivers with barely repressed passion, anxiety and embarrassment, terrified to say the three-letter-word starting with s, ending with x, and with the e in the middle. Kirk, in contrast, is all raised eyebrows and delicate amusement.
It’s brilliantly done on its own merits. But it’s also a wonderful reversal of their usual dynamic, where Kirk is the boisterous one and Spock’s the quiet sidekick.
The intimate, caring male/male relationship stands in stark contrast to Spock’s interactions with his (stunning) wife. T’Pring is all icy beauty; a logical Vulcan femme fatale. Spock barely knows her; their formal declaration of eternal devotion sounds like it’s being delivered by mannikin robots.
This rigid division of the sexes is supposed to be a characteristic of the (obviously Orientalist) Vulcan culture, with its mating rituals draped in tradition and barbaric violence. But that’s clearly projection. It’s Star Trek itself that is uncomfortable with women, who it systematically relegates to secondary roles (like Nurse Chapel) or to walk-on (mini-skirted) parts as quasi-romance of the week.
“Amok Time” is a kind of justification, and perpetuation of, Star Trek’s own gender obsessions. The central relationship of the series, it’s become increasingly clear, is that between Kirk and Spock. A real female love interest, like a wife, creates impossible tension in this beautiful space-bound bachelor idyll.
Watson’s marriage is a threat to the very structure of the Holmes detective stories, with their comforting male aura of pipe smoke and comradely ratiocination. Just so “Amok Time” is amok because it’s a time for women to take center stage.
T'Pring pretty understandably wants no part of a guy who is constantly off-world and also obviously emotionally obsessed with that Kirk fellow. She’s supposed to be the villain of the piece, but her actions really are logical.
More than that, her actions are designed to save the series. Kirk/Spock is a necessity. So T’Pring swoops in, a Deus ex Femme, and makes sure the two of them will never be sundered. McCoy gets some credit, for his magic injection. But it's really the woman here who makes the universe safe for that slash. Thanks to her, both she and the series and Kirk and Spock can live long and prosper—with a smile.
Rating: 10/10 SPECS
Star Trek: The Original Series is streaming on Paramount+.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.