Thursday, October 4, 2012

Amok Time

Amok Time is the episode which confirms Spock's position as Star Trek's breakout character. The first episode of the second series, the shop window episode, is given over to the character the viewers are most likely to recognise, the guy with the ears; a trick Star Trek would try again in a year with the much more exploitatively titled Spock's Brain. Amok Time is also the episode which creates Vulcan. Filling in acres of detail about Spock, his character, his planet, and his biology.

It's remarkable the episode got made. In 1952 CBS decided the word “pregnant” could not be used to describe the lead character in I Love Lucy, the acceptable terms were “expecting”, or “with child”. Five years later the same network refused to approve the d├ębut episode of gentle comedy Leave It To Beaver because the show's two child characters hide a baby alligator in a toilet cistern (the agreed compromise was that the toilet cistern could be shown but not the toilet itself). Nothing much had changed by 1967. Stephen E. Whitfield's The Making Of Star Trek is full of notes from NBC's Standards and Practices Department. Dagger Of The Mind: Please delete the underlined in Janice's speech, “I'm a damned attractive female.” Miri: Caution here where Janice opens her uniform to check on the progress of the disease; avoid exposure which would embarrass or offend. Space Seed: Caution on the embrace; avoid the open-mouth kiss. And yet Amok Time is an episode in which Mr. Spock must surrender to his throbbing biological urges and return home to claim his child bride; or die. "I realised that by creating a separate world, a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network." Gene Roddenberry's often used quote has never seemed more appropriate. Certainly the implication of Amok Time is that NBC was happy to talk about sex, as long as it was alien sex.

That said, there is a certain amount of coy tap dancing round the subject. The most explicit Amok Time gets is this exchange.

SPOCK: It has to do with biology.
KIRK: What?
SPOCK: Biology.
KIRK: What kind of biology?
SPOCK: Vulcan biology.
KIRK: You mean the biology of Vulcans? Biology as in reproduction? Well, there's no need to be embarrassed about it, Mister Spock. It happens to the birds and the bees.
SPOCK: The birds and the bees are not Vulcans, Captain. If they were, if any creature as proudly logical as us were to have their logic ripped from them as this time does to us. How do Vulcans choose their mates? Haven't you wondered?
KIRK: I guess the rest of us assume that it's done quite logically.
SPOCK: No. No. It is not. We shield it with ritual and customs shrouded in antiquity. You humans have no conception. It strips our minds from us. It brings a madness which rips away our veneer of civilisation. It is the pon farr. The time of mating. There are precedents in nature, Captain. The giant eelbirds of Regulus Five, once each eleven years they must return to the caverns where they hatched. On your Earth, the salmon. They must return to that one stream where they were born, to spawn or die in trying.

Film editor James D. Ballas allows most of that scene to play out as a single shot which makes it a masterclass for comparing the acting styles of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Shatner seems more inclined to play the scene lightly, looking for the sort of gentle laughs a sitcom might get out of a scene where the father of the family attempts to discuss the facts of life with a son. Nimoy plays it straight but makes the interesting choice to play against the intent of the scene. Instead of being embarrassed he makes Spock visibly angry at not only being forced to discuss something so deeply personal, but at having to keep explaining points to this stupid earthman. Both actors also reverse their usual body language so the more physical Shatner stands very still, while Nimoy writhes in shame. And, of course, the shot is impeccably set-up by director Joesph Pevney who has both actors stand in the centre of the frame, facing the camera, their stances identical with their hands behind their back. Capping the whole scene is Gerald Fried's evocative score.

What's remarkable about Amok Time is how right this all feels. After 29 episodes this influx of backstory could have been a clumsy graft, like suddenly revealing Scotty was married, instead it feels entirely appropriate. Theodore Sturgeon's script puts the audience in the same shoes as Kirk and McCoy, suddenly exponentially increasing their knowledge of Spock and Vulcan. Within the Star Trek universe it makes you realise what a closed world Vulcan must be. More so even than the USSR at the time the episode was written. Almost like North Korea today. Plus, it's a terrific example of a wish backfiring. Spock is ashamed of his human half and wants to be more Vulcan then with the onset of his Pon farr he realises he is more Vulcan than he hoped. It's a lovely moment which shines a light at the heart of his character and the conflict between his Vulcan and human ancestry.

The what's-wrong-with-Spock mystery is only half the episode. At the beginning of act three Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to Vulcan where the duplicitous logic of Spock's bride T'Pring manoeuvres Kirk and Spock into fighting each other. The greatest achievement of the episode may be that Vulcan extends beyond the boundaries of the studio set. Throwaway lines give it history, “[that's] T'Pau. The only person to ever turn down a seat on the Federation Council,” and a sense of place, “It's lovely. I wish the breeze were cooler.” Even better, the series has the self confidence not to worry about making Vulcan customs look silly. The black masked Vulcan carrying an axe, the blizzard of alien words (koon-ut-kal-if-fee, kroykah, plak-tow), the constant jingling of bells all look, and sound, a little silly. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for the production team to play it safe and cut them from the script but they didn't. And Amok Time is a better episode as a result. Customs often look weird to outsiders. In the same way that Guardsmen wearing Bearskins, or Beefeaters, or Morris Dancers end up looking indistinguishable from Monty Python's Flying Circus fish-slapping dance. Being presented in all its wind-chimed, bell ringing glory, gives Vulcan more depth and the alien words benefit from being put in a context which the audience cannot grasp but is obviously there. Removing anything from the script in case the audience might laugh would leave the series looking terribly po-faced. Worse it would remove a magnificent piece of editing when Spock is “deep in the plak-tow.” The two bell ringers march round the plinth Spock and T'Pau are standing on. A sequence of rapid cuts follows; a close-up of Spock, a close-up of the bells, a dutched angle close-up of T'Pau; T'Pring; Kirk; McCoy; Stonn. All backgrounded by the bells jingling and Gerald Fried's fighting music (also known as the national anthem of Decapod 10 from Futurama). It's brilliantly bizarre, the closest Star Trek ever got to a genuine sixties freak out. And just when you think it can't get any better a thunderflash goes off sending a plume of smoke curling into the sky. All that's missing is a fisheye lens close-up of Spock (like we'd see in season three's The Tholian Web).

Amok Time is one of those episodes where everyone seems excited to be involved and has raised their game. Extra care has been taken over even small details. When William Shatner takes the lirpa he drops his arm as if the weapon is heavier than he expected. The blood effect on his wound is slightly gorier and more realistic than might normally be seen. Someone has even taken extra care over the photograph of T'Pring as a child. It's barely on screen for three seconds and yet a set has been constructed for the background. In fact, someone seems to have gone to the trouble of constructing a unique set because it's not one I recall seeing in the episode. It would have been easy, and cheap, to photograph the young T'Pring against a neutral background. That extra money was found to make even a still photo look as good as possible shows everyone concerned wanted Amok Time to look great. And the end result of the production team's pride in their work is that sense that Vulcan is a living world. Even the photograph of T'Pring raises all sorts of questions. Who took the picture, Spock's parents? Young Spock himself? Does he have other pictures of T'Pring? Or a photo album of images from Vulcan? Speculation opened up simply because someone put a more than normal effort into an image on screen for three seconds.

Star Trek is not a series which does introductions but the other notable event of Amok Time is the first appearance of Ensign Chekov. Not that you'd notice from the way he's filmed that he was any different from the other interchangeable bridge crew we saw in season one, but finally, the gang's all here. 

Enterprise crew deaths: None, again. It's been a good few weeks for the Enterprise crew.
Running total: 26

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