Category Archives: Vulcan

“Amok Time”

This fight is to the death. Thee should be used to that by now.
“This fight is to the death. Thee should be used to that by now.”

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.

Hey Spock, he's got an "aw wound." Get it?
“Hey Spock, he’s got an ‘aw wound.’ Get it?”

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).

I just had some great plomeek soup!
“I just had some great plomeek soup! Want some?”

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.

Final thoughts

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.

“Balance of Terror”

“I can’t figure out why there’s a camera right here. Guess I’ll call tech support …”

The Romulan Star Empire — a mysterious former nemesis of Earth unheard from for a century — returns and destroys several border outposts with a mysterious and super-scary weapon. The Enterprise responds and has protracted battle sequences (think submarine warfare … in space!) before Kirk’s tactical genius bests Spock’s dad — err, the Romulan commander (Mark Lenard) — and destroys the invading ship preventing another war and cementing our boy Jimmy as, well, our boy Jimmy. He’s apparently of a kind. And a sorcerer!

Why it’s important

“Balance of Terror” introduces one of Trek’s main villains, the Romulans, and does so in a way that is amazingly consistent with what we see of them for the next 40 years — unlike, say, the Ferengi, who go from allegedly eating their enemies to caterers and bartenders in six years flat. Of course, the episode also has the big reveal that the Romulans are offshoots of the Vulcans and introduces the concept of the cloaking device to Star Trek. It’s an extremely foundational hour of the franchise. Just think if that racist dude Stiles (Paul Comi), the Enterprise’s navigator in this episode whose ancestors fought and died in the previous conflict with the Romulans, had stuck around!

“Just a second, Enterprise. I need to make sure you get video from me even after my outpost is destroyed.”

What doesn’t hold up well

The previous conflict with the Romulans as stated by Spock and others, is too Earth-centric even for first-season TOS standards — and especially if you consider the events of “Star Trek: Enterprise” (but even if you don’t). Apparently, Earth’s war with the Romulans occurred after the coalition that would become the Federation was established in Enterprise’s final episode “These Are the Voyages …” but before the Federation itself was formed. Or something.

Dramatically, it’s interesting in “Balance of Terror” that the Romulans have never been seen by humans (and it sets up the Big Moment™ when Spock sees a dude who looks just like his pops on the viewscreen — even though we don’t see Mark Lenard playing Sarek until season two). But it’s hard to believe that no visual communication or prisoner taking was previously possible, based on the 22nd-century technology on “Enterprise,” to say nothing of the visual communications technology available in the real world in the 21st century. It’s too bad that Spock didn’t just say that the Romulans refused visual communication back in the day. That would have been more believable than the apparent lack of Skype on Romulus or Earth 150 years from now. Maybe the Romulans were just way into Snapchat?

“Enterprise” also later pisses all over the wonderment of the cloaking device by giving Jonathan Archer’s crew’s a clear understanding of the technology and knowledge that the Romulans (and others) use it. “Selective bending of light,” indeed, Mr. Science Officer.

Lastly, the bad science of TOS pops up by asserting that the Romulans are a real threat despite their vessel’s lack of warp drive. Maybe Romulans have warp (even though the Bird of Prey seen in this episode doesn’t) making the Romulans a threat to the Federation in a larger sense, as opposed to being on par with the goofy aliens from TNG’s “The Outrageous Okona.” But the cat-and-mouse game is undercut by the fact that the Enterprise should be able to outrun the Romulan vessel several times over.

“My bigotry is too big for my quarters. Sir.”

Final thoughts

Complaints aside, it’s possible that this episode set up the very idea of recurring villains in Star Trek, a huge, huge deal. Soon after, the Klingons were introduced, and the two main rivals of TOS were set (with all due respect to a certain dude in a certain rubber lizard suit and Harcourt Fenton Mudd). Beyond that, “Balance of Terror” is fascinating because it’s willing to show actual bigotry (from a 23rd-century human!) as a way to show why bigotry is wrong and something humanity was still working to move past (and mostly succeeding). It’s very effective, but it’s also unusual for Trek and would have been unheard of in TNG, when all humans were apparently beyond such things.