After behaving strangely for several days — throwing soup and stuff — Spock tells Kirk he must go to Vulcan to engage in a mating ritual, a diagnosis McCoy confirms. Kirk, never one to devalue a good mating ritual, defies orders and takes Spock to Vulcan, where he and McCoy accompany Spock to a sort of wedding ceremony. But Spock’s betrothed wife T’Pring (Arlene Martel) chooses a challenge (invoking an ancient right) and surprisingly picks Kirk as her “champion.” Figuring that the weakened Spock might be in trouble if he has to fight someone else, Kirk agrees — and then learns the fight is to the death. Spock, unable to stop himself because of his “blood fever,” goes full on after Kirk, before McCoy sneaks in an injection he says will help Kirk deal with Vulcan’s arid climate and atmosphere. Shortly thereafter, Spock appears to kill Kirk, and McCoy beams back to the ship with the body. Spock then learns T’Pring picked Kirk as a way to ensure she could be with another dude (the details aren’t that important). Back on the ship, Spock arrives in sickbay, all set to turn himself into the authorities when Kirk (alive and well) comes from behind a corner. Spock briefly reacts with joy, in a signature moment of the series, and learns McCoy actually injected Kirk with a substance to knock him out and simulate death. Then, Kirk and Spock head back to the bridge to mind the store.
Why it’s important
This is the original series’ closest look at Vulcan culture and the only time we get to Spock’s home planet before the movies. The idea of a society built on logic, steeped in antiquity, is established here and we get the clear message that Vulcans work so hard to suppress their emotions because they were (and are) capable of such rage. Spock, at one point, says his “blood burns.” McCoy even says that the ordeal Spock and other Vulcans go through once every seven years might be the price they pay for suppressing their emotions most of the time. It’s interesting stuff.
We get our first idea of the look and feel of Vulcan culture, too. Some of it works, though I’m not sure why the wedding officiant T’Pau (Celia Lovsky) speaks in Old English (maybe she really digs malt liquor?). Of course, we see T’Pau nearly 40 years later in “Star Trek: Enterprise” in a well-intended and mostly successful callback to TOS. She appears in the prequel series’s fourth season as a member of a group said to understand the “true” teachings of Surak, the father of Vulcan logic (though she doesn’t speak like a she’s doing Shakespeare in the Park in those episodes, thankfully). Turns out that T’Pau’s group actually has it right and that she and others help turn Vulcan society into what it is in 23rd century Star Trek (dignified pacifists) — as opposed to Vulcans we see in the 22nd century (treacherous bureaucrats).
What doesn’t hold up
It’s a nice moment when Kirk and McCoy explain (sort of) why T’Pau is important — because it shows that the Federation isn’t all about humans (a real problem in Trek’s first season). However, it seems like Kirk would know more about T’Pau if he knew she turned down a spot on the Federation Council. In “The Savage Curtain”, where we meet a recreation of Surak, Kirk’s never heard of the guy. So, Kirk’s heard of T’Pau, but not the Vulcan messiah, whose true teachings were uncovered (in part) by T’Pau in a spiritual awakening that changed Vulcan culture and involved Starfleet? Wouldn’t this be like Spock knowing who George Washington was but only that he was the first U.S. president — and not a famed general in the American Revolution?
It’s also odd that we don’t see or hear of Spock’s parents in this episode. In the first season, he speaks of them as if they were dead, but later this season in “Journey to Babel”, they’re quite alive and on Vulcan. Maybe the rift between Sarek and Spock was the reason they didn’t attend this ceremony. Or, perhaps parents aren’t supposed to attend such ceremonies, as part of tradition. Either way, it’s odd when we learn they are, in fact, alive (and that one resembles a certain Romulan commander). The simplest answer, of course, is that the writers decided Spock’s parents were dead until “Journey to Babel.” Same sort of thing happened with Captain Benjamin Sisko’s father 30 years later, FWIW.
I’ve always felt this episode was somewhat overrated. The fight scene is fine — and the music is pretty great — but such fight scenes were such a part of TOS that this episode isn’t anything close to groundbreaking. That said, as TOS tropes go, it’s not on par with exposition dialog miraculously diagnosing a complex problem, Kirk outsmarting computers or Bones’ medical pouch containing scores of day-saving goodies.
Also, while McCoy’s plan was fairly smart, it also was incredibly lucky. What if the order of the weapons used in the challenge had been reversed? If the bladed weapon had been the second one used, Spock could have easily beheaded Kirk — or bashed in his skull. Or, what if Kirk had simply passed out at a moment when Spock wasn’t attacking him? Then, what?
And, of course, T’Pau’s failure to explain the ancient ritual is a huge conceit. Would it really have been that hard to tell Kirk, before he accepted the challenge, that the fight was to the death? This flaw could have been fixed, by the way, by Spock simply being unhinged during the fight with the matter of “to the death” being vague. I know T’Pau telling Kirk the true stakes of the fight — after he’s accepted — is a thunderclap moment, but it’s too hard to swallow. It either means T’Pau wasn’t smart enough to consider Kirk wouldn’t just know that the fight was too the death or that she was too obstinate/prideful to tell him. The second option doesn’t fit with the idea that Vulcans are logical pacifists.
All that said, there are moments in this episode that I like a lot. Seeing Vulcan and the land owned by Spock’s family was pretty cool (this is an episode that really benefited from the new remastered effects, BTW). And T’Pau was certainly an interesting character. I liked her questioning of Spock’s humanness — in lines that (I believe) were sometimes cut for syndication. There are a couple other moments I didn’t love — was Spock about to seduce Nurse Chapel in his quarters when she came to tell him they were heading to Vulcan? — but Nimoy and the writing staff really did a good job overall.
The episode’s best moment, though, is when Spock asks McCoy to attend the ceremony for his “closest male friends.” It’s an important moment because it shows Spock and McCoy are not actually enemies, despite their trademark bickering. I know the surprised/happy Spock is what everyone remembers from “Amok Time,” other than the fight music that would show up again and again for the next two seasons. But Spock’s moment of vulnerability with McCoy was really wonderful.