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Star Trek: "Amok Time" / "Who Mourns For Adonais?"

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And here we are at Season 2. Take a look around, get acquainted with the place—settle in for the long haul. Seems mostly the same, right? But there are some changes. DeForest Kelley now has a much deserved "Also Starring" credit in the opening titles, and the episode name gets listed along with the writer; which means for the first ep of the season, we know right away we're watching "Amok Time" by Theodore Sturgeon. (Whose name we haven't seen since "Shore Leave," for those keeping track.) There's even a brand new crewmember on the bridge, the horribly wigged Chekov (Walter Koening).

Apart from that, though, things haven't changed much. It's the blessing and the curse of old school TV; without needing to maintain anything but the most minimum of continuities between episodes (same actors, same sets, same premise, and generally dead people don't come back), there's more of a week-to-week freedom to do whatever the hell you want. Provided you can wrap it up in fifty minutes and change, there aren't any real rules here. We're not building towards anything, we're not trying to tell one cohesive, season-long story. So have Scotty lusting after a random crewmember, or give Sulu a yen for biology—there's no worry about being part of a larger puzzle.

The problem is that when you spend this much time with the same characters, you want to know more about them; you've gotta have at least an illusion of a consistent backstory, even if it's not a persistent one. "Amok Time" is a terrific opening to the second season. It's got a great hook, solid acting all around, and some terrific twists. Maybe most important of all, it's also one of the first serious attempts to create a mythology for Spock. We've had bits and pieces of his past before—we know he's half-Vulcan, and that he may or may not have had a love affair with a human back at Starfleet Academy—but that past has never been the main focal point of an episode.

Hell, this is the first time in the series where the entire plot is generated by the history of a main character. We've had McCoy and Kirk and even Nurse Chapel interacting with old friends and lovers before, but in those cases, the relationships were just added flavor to a story that would've worked just fine without them. Here, Spock is the main show, and the effect is a powerful one. Spock's alien-ness defines who he is, but before "Time," that definition was restricted to his reliance on logic and his pointy ears. Finally we're given a sense of just how Other he can be, and it's unsettling, because this is somebody we've come to trust. In a very real way, by giving Spock a culture—a smart and well-considered culture—the show is one step closer to what Trek was destined to become.

So, Spock's having some issues. It's so bad that even McCoy notices; Pointy-Ears isn't eating, he's "increasingly restive," and when Nurse Chapel brings him some yummy "plomeek soup," Spock freaks and throws the soup and Chapel out of his room. (The "You never give up hoping" to Chapel is pretty dickish, all things considered.) When Kirk confronts him, Spock refuses to explain himself, instead asking that the Enterprise take a quick detour and drop him off on Vulcan. Kirk's willing to help out, but orders come in from Starfleet that the ship has to arrive at its destination a week earlier than scheduled; which means a detour to Vulcan is out of the question.

Watching the story build here is a joy. First, we learn that Spock is freaking out, but the reasons are left up in the air. He says he needs to go home, but he won't say why, which puts Kirk (and us) in the uncertain position of wanting to help a friend but not knowing exactly what that help entails. The screws keep tightening: after Starfleet's orders come through, McCoy tells Kirk that getting Spock to Vulcan is absolutely imperative. Massive amounts of adrenaline are being dumped into his body, and something has to be done to stop it, or he'll be dead inside a week. Spock's still on duty, but his problems are affecting his performance—he secretly sets course for Vulcan, and when Kirk confronts him, Spock doesn't deny doing it. He just has no memory of the action.

You could say that's a kind of denial in and of itself, but I think Spock is being honest here. Part of what makes his troubles so compelling is that he's sympathetic and frightening both at once. When Kirk finally forces him to confess what's going on, Nimoy does a great job conveying the incredible amount of trust and shame he has to overcome to explain himself; after spending his whole life priding himself on his stoicism and control, he's now stripped betrayed by his own biology. Sure, it's an entirely Vulcan problem, but that doesn't make it any easier to accept.

Spock is experiencing Pon farr, the Time Of Mating, and while the idea sounds a little silly—stone-faced Nimoy suddenly turned into a randy thirteen year-old, lusting after nurses and throwing temper tantrums at the slightest provocation—the result is anything but. Once every seven years, all Vulcans must go through this, and the only way to deal with it is to travel back home and follow the usual ceremonies. It seems odd that someone as generally well-prepared as Spock would get caught off guard by the condition, but as he tells Kirk, he had hopes he would've been spared it, given his half-human ancestry. That's out the window now, and as much as Chapel would wish it otherwise, no one on the Enterprise can help him.

It makes you wonder, how did Spock's human mother hook up with his dad? Actually being on Vulcan must be the important part here. It's never explicitly explained, but that works to the episode's advantage. We're stuck watching everything through Kirk and McCoy's eyes, so we only know as much as they do—less, really. This specific aspect of Vulcanian culture isn't the sort of thing outsiders would know about (I wonder how many Vulcans work off-world? Must have some kind of "seven-year-itch" clause in their contracts), which means the rules aren't set down for us in stone. One of "Time"'s biggest strengths is taking a familiar face and twisting it into a stranger's, and that's helped by maintaining a certain level of mystery.

In the end, Kirk disobeys orders to save his friend (duh), and we find out that not only is Spock overcome with throbbing biological urges, he's also got a wife named T'Pring waiting for him back home. It was an arranged thing, done by their parents, and they haven't seen each other in years; unsurprisingly, she does not appear that happy to see him. (Although she is a Vulcan, so who the hell knows?) Spock asks Kirk and McCoy to accompany him to the ceremony—apparently it's his right to bring his closest pals, which is possibly the first time we see acknowledged that he and McCoy really do like each other. So that's nice.

Vulcan is, turns out, very, very hot. (The air is thin, too; both of these come into play later in the story, but it's also neat to have characters noting the different environment. It's something that the original series tended to let go by the wayside, more often then not.) The Pon farr ceremony takes place on ancestral land, inside what looks like a more complete version of Stonehenge. A few minutes after Spock and the others arrive, the marriage party makes it's grand entrance, led by none other than T'Pau, a big important type lady in the planetary government; important enough to have turned down a position in Starfleet multiple times. We get our first Vulcan hand salute between T'Pau and Spock, and she doesn't seem all that fond to see Kirk and McCoy hanging around. But as Spock says, this is his right, and she has no choice but to accept it.

T'Pring makes her entrance, along with a stupid looking guy who we keep cutting to for reasons that will become obvious in ten minutes or so (or immediately, if you're clever). Everything seems to be going to plan, but when Spock tries to go through with the ritual, T'Pring stops him. She has chosen "the Challenge," which means there's going to be some fighting; and when it comes time to select her champion, T'Pring picks—Kirk.

While Spock probably gets the most attention in "Time," and deservedly so, we're seeing other heroes in new lights as well. It's worth noting that this is one of the few times in the series where Kirk's propensity to keep butting his head into everything actually works to his disadvantage. When T'Pring chooses him to fight against Spock, Kirk decides to accept, reasoning to McCoy that Spock wouldn't stand a chance agains the stupid looking guy (who seems very unhappy that T'Pring didn't pick him). It sounds like a noble attempt to do the right thing, and in a way it is—but it's also pretty damn stupid. Spock is much, much stronger than Kirk, and he's in the grip of an adrenaline blood lust, which generally doesn't make a person weaker. The thin air and heat put Kirk even further at a disadvantage, because he's just not built to handle it. And to top it off, not once does he think to ask about the rules or the nature of the combat. He just assumes that it'll all work out okay if he bluffs his way along.

But it won't, though. Because the combat is to the death.

The fight between Spock and Kirk that follows is well-choreagraphed, and for once the doubling (what there is of it) isn't screamingly obvious. The best part of the whole thing is that Kirk loses; it's only by McCoy's quick thinking that he walks away in the end. Nimoy does some excellent work here at the end of the fight—with Kirk "dead," he's back to his usual calm self, in control enough to even congratuale T'Pring on her manuevers. (And to get a really excellent "Fuck you" line in to her doltish suitor.) Back on the Enterprise, Spock turns himself in to McCoy for arrest, but it turns out he didn't murder anybody. McCoy managed to inject Kirk with a compound that would simulate his death, finding a way for everybody to get away unscathed. Spock is delighted to hear it; I think the smile he has on his face when he says "Jim!" is the first non-pharmaceutically enhanced one we've seen on his face.

As the original series goes, this is really as good as it gets. Which is maybe why "Who Mourns For Adonais?" seems like such a let-down. After expanding our crew's past, we're back to doing a greatest hits package up of some old themes. There's the godlike alien being; there's the attempts to push that godlike being to the limits of his endurance; and there's a female crew-member who becomes enamored of said godlike being, to the point of forgetting her obligations to Kirk and crew. "Adonais" has a clever idea or two, and it's entertaining enough in parts, but the structure is definitely wearing thin. Even the sadness at the end seems more out of obligation than anything earned.

One thing the episode does have going for it is what must be one of the goofiest images in Trek history: a giant hand holding the Enterprise frozen in space. It's an almost defensible visual—there is something at least a little creepy in a normal appendage getting blown up a million times bigger than its supposed to be, and the absurdity of that appendage latching onto a starship like a spoiled boy grabbing a Christmas ornament… Well, it could've worked. Maybe. But in practice it's just silly.

The Enterprise is out investigating, and Space Thing appears out of nowhere and nabs them. According to Spock, it's not a physical presence but an energy field; whatever it is, they can't break free of it. Which would have to be pretty embarrassing when it came time to send a report back to Starfleet.

Things get even weirder when a disembodied head pops up on the view screen. Classic profile, crown of laurel leaves, and the dude is definitely making with the fancy talk. He welcomes Kirk and the crew like he's been waiting for them—for 5,000 years, turns out. In spite of Kirk's best efforts, the guy refuses to give any more answers than that, instead demanding that somebody beam down to the nearby planet surface for a chat. (Anybody but Spock; the dude is only interested in humans.) Should they refuse, the head controls the hand, and the hand can squeeze the ship whenever it wants to.

So down to the planet we go: Kirk, McCoy, the irritatingly endearing Chekov (I think if I'd actually watched this when it aired, I probably would be more annoyed with the character, but since he's such a part of the original crew, it's hard to judge him critically), Scotty, and the current object of Scott's affections, Lieutenant Carolyn Palamas. One of "Adonais"'s many flaws is its clumsy attempts at gender politics; there's a bit at the beginning when we find out Scotty's putting the moves on the much-younger-than-him Palamas, and it's hard to know how to take it. McCoy says he's concerned about Scotty's efforts (so I guess he's a doctor and a matchmaker) because he doesn't think the young woman is interested—kind of hard to blame her there. Then he goes and makes things worse by saying, "On the other hand, she's a woman. All woman." So, um. Yeah, I guess.

When Kirk et al arrive, they find themselves in a pastoral setting, with a small Greek temple and patio area, and the dude himself, sitting on a throne in a golden toga. He identifies himself as Apollo, and explains that 5,000 years ago, he and the other gods were on Earth, showing everybody all kinds of special cool things, and then they left; in the time since, Apollo's just hung around waiting for humanity to improve and develop to the point where they could meet again. This concept, and the deductions Kirk makes from it, are the strongest part of the episode—the notion that Greek gods were actually incredibly advanced aliens isn't original, but it's solid, and the fact that Kirk and the others now have to deal with one of those "gods" on nearly equal terms could've made for some good drama.

It doesn't really go that way. Apollo lectures and yells, Kirk objects and yells back, and on the Enterprise, Spock works double duty to save everybody's ass. Apollo is instantly smitten with Carolyn, and she with him; as she's identified as an expert in ancient civilizations, it all plays out like a much dumber version of the Khan/Marla relationship back in "Space Seed." He transforms her boring old uniform into a pink robe, offering her a chance to show off her midriff where before she'd been showing off her legs, and then wows her by talking about how great he is. The fact that she's delighted by all this speaks poorly for her character; and the fact that Scotty keeps trying to throw himself in the middle to protect her "honor" speaks even worse of him. Curiously, their "relationship" is never resolved, and Scotty's repeated attempts to fight for her don't actually accomplish anything.

Well, maybe one thing; Kirk eventually realizes that Apollo, despite being able hold a ship in space and change the planet's weather with a whim, doesn't have inexhaustible resources. He gets tired from time to time, which is something that the Enterprise folks understandably want to take advantage of. Having apparently learned nothing from his earlier encounters with godlike beings, Kirk decides that Apollo must have some kind of energy source on the planet, and if they can destroy that source, everything will work out just fine. Surprisingly, unlike the five billion other times they've tried just such a strategy, this time it actually works.

Or does it? With Palamas's help, Kirk and the others manage to distract Apollo just long enough to let the Enterprise fire on the temple (hey, the hand's gone!), laying the place to waste. Once Apollo sees what they've done, he gets all sad and gives a speech addressing the other gods—the ones who used to be his buddies, who left long ago. Then he disappears himself. So maybe the temple was his main power source, or maybe he was just so disappointed that the new humans don't have much interest in worshipping him and decided it was time to move on.

It's the sort of ambiguity that could've been powerful, but instead comes off like authorial laziness. "Adonais" isn't a complete waste of time: there's entertainment in that ship-grabbing hand, Apollo makes for a distinctive presence, and some of Kirk's efforts against him, like the four way shouting match, are fun. And though it's a small part of the episode, watching Spock, Uhura, and Mister Kyle work together to try and get a message down to the planet is cool. (Hell, Spock even gives Uhura a compliment.) But it's all undone by lazy scripting and bizarre dialogue—like Kirk's impromptu, "Aw, maybe we shoulda worshipped him" after Apollo leaves. In the end this is one of those far-less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts eps, occasionally memorable, but a bit of a chore to get through.

"Amok Time": A
"Who Mourns For Adonais?": C+

Stray Observations:

  • T'Pau: "Live long and prosper." Spock: "I shall do neither. I have killed my Captain… and my friend."
  • On his first episode in the opening credits, McCoy saves the day. Very cool.
  • And yeah, that music cue rocks. (Notice how it gets a brief early in the episode, when Spock tries to explain to Kirk what's happening to him.)
  • Next week: "The Changeling" and "Mirror, Mirror." To the Agony Booth!