Thursday, September 22, 2016

Amok Time (Joseph Pevney)

For the 50th anniversary of Star Trek

Mad men

Fifty years! Fifty years watching and re-watching and poring over the minutiae of this '60s show by TV veteran Gene Roddenberry that lasted at most three seasons (that third almost universally reviled) featuring low-budget effects, cardboard sets, green-dyed women. Broke some ground with a racially diverse cast, was mostly forgiven for the somewhat misogynistic treatment of women (Short-skirted uniforms anyone?), was generally considered the most intelligent science-fiction TV series of its time (if we forget Dr. Who and The Prisoner). 

Of the seventy-nine episodes less than half might be considered decent; of the half ten--maybe twelve--might be considered gems. Trekkers and casual viewers often cite "The City on the Edge of Forever" (director Joseph Pevney) as the best episode ever, ostensibly for three reasons: 1) It's by science fiction legend Harlan Ellison (just try calling him a sci-fi legend--just try); 2) It's one of the earliest attempts in the series to introduce time-travel paradoxes (There was "Tomorrow is Yesterday" but who remembers?) and the most effective in dramatizing the stakes involved (crazed crew member goes back in time, changes history; Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) must follow to try change it back); and 3) It's a fine love story. 

Watching recently I was struck by how Kirk isn't impressed so much by Edith Keeler's beauty (Joan Collins, mind) as by her visionary idealism. "One day soon man is going to be able to harness incredible energies," she declares, "energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in in some sort of spaceship." To show she's not all tech she further claims that humanity will "be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases" and "give each other hope and a common future." It's Roddenberry's muscular technophile optimism in a handful of sentences, given a touch of eloquence by Ellison; it's also perhaps the high point of Collins' career--if we don't include her memorable big-screen collaboration with Howard Hawks--and she gives them her all in a creditable performance

Edith later confronts the two friends about their incongruous demeanor. "Where would you estimate we belong Ms. Keeler?" challenges Spock. "You?" she replies; "At his side. As if you've always been there and always will." Ellison makes a case for her uncommon perceptiveness, that she's worth falling for; thanks to his careful preparation the finale is suitably poignant. 

All that said I much prefer "Amok Time" (scriptwriter Theodore Sturgeon, director again Pevney--not just prolific, he handled some of the series' best stuff). If Ellison's script mused on the kind of craziness we're prepared to commit in the name of love, Sturgeon decided to tackle a really spiky subject, especially for '60s television: sex.

This was the second season's premiere episode, with the characters by now solidly established: Kirk the two-fisted do-gooder and ladies' man, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly) the crusty but lovable ship's physician, Spock the coldly logical Vulcan first officer. Sturgeon flipped all that with a simple question, directed by Spock to Kirk:

"How do Vulcans choose their mates? Haven't you wondered?"

"I guess the rest of us assumed that it's done quite logically." 

And that in my book is the brilliance of Sturgeon's premise: Vulcans being so consistently rational (aside from the occasional sarcastic response) we (Kirk included) naturally thought all aspects of Spock's life were equally geometric. We never really considered the possibility that aliens (humans too) might have some portion of their lives ruled by emotion--by acts and feelings we would regard with profound embarrassment, often attempt to hide behind rituals and a wall of secrecy. Substitute 'masturbation' for 'emotion' in that last sentence (though anything up to and including 'golden showers' apply) and you see what I mean--Spock might be some flushcheeked teen trying to explain the stains on his bedsheet to his dad and the tone and dynamics of the scene would be the same.

So--Spock acts (temper tantrums, shaky hands, a demand for immediate shore leave not just anywhere but on his home planet), is confronted about his behavior; his eventual confession is hilariously painful, as if Kirk were yanking out molars. Part of what makes the scene so effective is Sturgeon's dialogue, the delicate attempt to handle an indelicate subject ("It has to do with biology." "What?" "Biology." "What kind of biology?" "Vulcan biology"); part is Spock's ferocious sense of shame (if anyone has any doubts about Nimoy's acting chops this scene should end them). Upshot of the conversation: Spock is to be married to his arranged bride on Vulcan, and Kirk and McCoy are to come along as Best Men (But aren't they always?).

There's a subplot--a running gag, really--about the Enterprise needing to be at Altair VI for an important diplomatic ceremony, an imperative Kirk brushes aside, for the sake of one he calls "the best first officer in the fleet...that's an enormous asset to me."

Vulcan in its one and only appearance in the original series doesn't look or feel like your standard-issue alien world (no cardboard sets or beautiful green women): the sky is a furious red; the rocks curve to form an arena space and are a palette of reddish brown accented by green jade (a hanging metal gong, a gaggle of tinkling windchimes). The presumed heat causes Kirk and McCoy's foreheads to shine with sweat; a fire pit full of sparking crystals add to the hellish ambiance. 

Perfect setting for the web of rituals and intricate social codes that compose Spock's wedding. Doesn't help that Spock's bride T'Pring (Arlene Martel) manipulates the rules to satisfy her own agenda, that Spock's intimidating family matriarch T'Pau (Celia Lovsky)--one of the most powerful figures on the planet (and "The only person to ever turn down a seat on the Federation Council!")--is officiating, that Kirk and McCoy are obviously in over their heads (Spock is no help; he's totally lost in his plak tow or 'blood fever,' a presumed hormonal madness that renders him unable to think or communicate). T'Pring insists that Spock fight for her; worse he must fight Kirk for her, and the captain may have to kill him to survive ("That's not what I came to Vulcan for is it?" Kirk asks).    

It's a comedy of errors of an episode that turns deadly serious then turns into small-scale tragedy, despite which one might be hard put to point out any real villains--well there's T'Pring but she was at most acting on behalf of her own interests; she didn't intend to hurt anyone, or (more likely) doesn't care if she did. 

This isn't the first time Sturgeon sailed into the topic of sexuality, human and otherwise: there was his short story "The World Well Lost" (about alien homosexuality) and Venus Plus X (about a planet of hermaphrodites). "Amok Time" came out a month before his short story "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" appeared in Dangerous Visions (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess what aspect of sexuality Sturgeon is dealing with here).

In effect Sturgeon is no stranger nor shrinking violet when it comes to recreational reproduction, is in fact quite the philosopher about its polymorphous aspects. 

I submit though that "Amok Time" is about much more, and the key exchange illustrating this happens late in the episode, between Spock deep in his plak tow, his unthinking fever, and his family matriarch: 


"Thee speaks?"
"My friend does not understand." 

"The choice has been made Spock. It is up to him now."

"He does not know. I will do what I must T'Pau, but not with him. His blood does not burn. He is my friend." 

T'Pau is startled to see Spock can communicate despite his blood lust; she's equally impressed that Kirk and McCoy elect to stay, despite the complications that arise in the wedding. I suspect she'd be as impressed to know that Kirk had sacrificed his career to bring Spock to the wedding (cue classic Alfred Doolittle ditty)--or did she already know? She wouldn't have sent a special message to the Federation for nothing, after all.

What am I talking about?  I'm talking Spock and Kirk and McCoy  throughout the episode again and again setting life and career and biological imperative aside to plead the case for their very apparent affection for each other. All else is secondary, all else follows or as Kirk puts it (referring to the Altair VI mission): "Very impressive, very diplomatic, but it's simply not that vital."

O they've done the life-saving bit in other episodes (in every episode, not to mention the feature film franchises) but never in more clearly dramatized terms, never with the stakes higher or more intensely felt.

I'm talking Sturgeon, clever clever man, writing an episode about Vulcan sex that turns out not to be about sex at all--that's just exotic gift-wrapping--but about something more familiar and comforting yet far more powerful than any mere biological drive

I'm talking a passion (not necessarily physical) able to douse a plak tow, inspire grief so deep only resurrection can cure it, pierce a Vulcan's stoicism to induce an unheard-of smile. "I'd hoped I would be spared this" the trembling Vulcan tells Kirk, "but the ancient drives are too strong." Yes they are, Mr. Spock; yes they are.

First published in Businessworld 9.16.16


Corylea said...

Thanks for your interesting review of "Amok Time." This is my favorite episode of TOS, and I'm pleased to find someone else who also thinks it's TOS's finest hour. There are so many wonderful things in this episode; I'd list them all, but that would only bore you. :-)

As for "The City on the Edge of Forever," it's true that most TOS fans think of this as the best TOS episode ever, but I am not among them. I loved it when I was in my teens, but when I rewatched it at 55, I was less impressed. I think it's good, don't get me wrong, but I didn't really believe that Kirk could fall in love with Edith Keeler, and if Kirk isn't in love with her, then gosh, it's an awful shame that they have to let such a nice woman die, but it's not the great tragedy that it would otherwise be.

It's not that I think Ms. Keeler isn't lovable; of course she is. She's kind and smart and progressive (and gorgeous), and that all seems great. What I didn't buy was Kirk -- I didn't think Kirk had the emotional ROOM to fall in love with anyone, no matter how wonderful.

While Kirk is stuck in the past, he's frantically trying to keep history from unraveling. The entire future rides on Kirk's and Spock's shoulders, and everyone they have ever loved and all that they have ever known will cease to exist unless they do the right things. Furthermore, Kirk is stuck in the past with a Vulcan. If the wrong person sees Spock without his cap -- or if he cuts himself helping in the kitchen or even just barks his shin on something and bleeds green -- the authorities will take him away to question ... or to dissect.

Kirk has lost his ship, his co-workers, his family, his world, and he's in danger of losing the one person he's brought with him. With all that on his mind, I don't care how nice Edith Keeler is, it just seems as if his attention and his emotions would both be fully occupied elsewhere.

I realize that this is a minority point of view. :-) It wasn't one that I held in my teens, but my middle-aged self has a different perspective. It's still a good episode, even if one doesn't believe in Kirk's love for Edith, but it's no longer grand tragedy, so it doesn't quite achieve best-ever status.

I do love the Guardian of Forever, Spock's trying to build a mnemonic memory circuit out of "stone knives and bear skins," Kirk's frantically coming up with an explanation of Spock's ears for the police officer, and the heavy tension that comes from their having lost their entire world without knowing why. It's a great episode, but to my mind, not best ever.

Noel Vera said...

O I'd consider it tragic not because Keeler's nice or beautiful but because she's a visionary. She hits Rodenberry's (by way of his creation Kirk's) sweet spot. If you allow for that perhaps you'd allow for real love which in turn might allow for tragedy. A lot of allows I admit.

But Amok Time is sexy AND funny. Which I much prefer.