Every so often, an episode comes around that transcends the show it’s a part of (no matter how good that show is). I’m thinking of episodes like “New Eden” (Star Trek: Discovery), “wej Duj” (Star Trek: Lower Decks), or “No Win Scenario” (Star Trek: Picard).
“Spock Amok” is one of those episodes.
I remember immediately after I saw it for the first time thinking that I couldn’t believe that I had just sat through 50-plus minutes of an episode where the crew didn’t go anywhere, the stakes were minimal, and the vast majority of the story was about character. I had been pining for a low-stakes Star Trek for a while and this absolutely fit the bill. It’s also a lot of fun.
I will interrupt my gushing for just a second and acknowledge that this is also a somewhat divisive episode. For all the reasons I cited about why I love it, those same reasons are also why others don’t enjoy it. If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s completely fine. But you may want to stop reading as I am going to continue with the praise throughout.
I remember when I saw clips from the opening scene on Vulcan in the trailer and thinking that it felt a bit like they were going a step too far referencing a famous TOS episode or just doing pon farr again just because they could. So of course, the reality of this scene absolutely worked for me.
Is the idea of Spock (Ethan Peck) fighting himself in the kal-if-fee ritual campy? Absolutely! It’s also exceedingly entertaining, especially when Nami Melumad dusts off that Gerald Fried music. I’ll even forgive the exceptionally tropey moment of Spock sitting up in horror as he wakes from the nightmare because the scene prior is worth it.
When writing about “Strange New Worlds,” I briefly touched upon the show’s decision to do a bit of retconning/rehabilitation with Spock’s relationship with T’Pring (Gia Sandhu) and how I thought it was a brilliant decision. This begins to pay off here, as T’Pring arrives with one goal in mind: some alone time with Spock. She even reminds him, not unreasonably I might add, that their last time together was cut short by Spock’s unilateral decision to return to Enterprise. Spock assures her that this will not happen again; he has only a minor diplomatic matter to attend to, and then he will be completely free of obligations.
Famous last words.
A meeting between Admiral April (Adrian Holmes), Captain Pike (Anson Mount), Spock, and Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) reveals that a small unaffiliated group, the R’ongovians, are strategically located near both the Klingons and Romulans, and diplomatic negotiations with them haven’t gone well thus far. This meeting immediately goes sideways when the R’ongovian captain, Vasso (Ron Kennell) shows up and immediately demands to begin negotiating with Pike and company.
I have to give major props to Ron Kennell here, as he is able to project a feeling of stern impatience that immediately melts away into an expression of warmth and friendship upon shaking hands with Pike. It’s immediately disarming and wonderfully portrayed, especially when you consider that it’s being done through considerable makeup (which is also fantastic). Unfortunately, the sudden commencement of diplomacy means that Spock misses his dinner date with T’Pring.
When he returns to his quarters, she coldly and logically (and rightly I might add) informs him that she too has a job and duties (a nice update to the character in itself), but she chose to prioritize their relationship and expected Spock to do the same. She then leaves Spock with a final cutting remark that perhaps they might not be compatible after all. Spock is once again, in the doghouse.
As he should be! And this brings to the fore the most interesting aspect to me of the writers’ exploration of T’Pring and her relationship with Spock. In “Amok Time” we were never explicitly told why T’Pring chose to end their arranged marriage. Was it simply because she preferred Stonn and needed a way to make that happen? Or perhaps it’s more that she simply “didn’t want to be the consort of a legend” (a rather terrible bit of 60s phrasing, that). Either way, T’Pring comes off as the person who decided to end things, leaving poor Spock in the lurch. What I’m learning from these early interactions in Strange New Worlds is that, in reality, Spock is a pretty lousy fiancé. More and more I am thinking it will be because of his failings that this relationship doesn’t work out. We shall see…
What are friends for?
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew is anxious to begin their shore leave. This includes Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush), who is looking forward to some time with her casual hook-up, Lieutenant Dever; Ortegas (Melissa Navia), who we gather has a good bit of experience as Chapel’s wingman; and Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun), who wants nothing more than to go fly fishing in his ridiculous hat.
On the way off the ship, M’Benga accidentally lets slip that Una (Rebecca Romijn) and La’an (Christina Chong) have earned a nickname for their inability to relax and have fun (“They don’t shore leave, they shore stay!” remarks Ortegas). The two women pretend that the nickname “Where Fun Goes to Die” doesn’t affect them, but their behavior certainly says otherwise.
[The nickname]’s stupid. The yeomen don’t know what they’re talking about. If they did, they wouldn’t be yeomen.Erica Ortegas
Unfortunately for Chapel, her idea of a no-strings-attached fling meets up with reality when Dever starts talking about wanting her to get reassigned to his ship and…[Peanuts adult trombone noises here], but thankfully she spots Spock brooding at a nearby table. This gives her an ideal opportunity to get away from Suddenly Serious Guy (who honestly seems a bit dull too) and help out someone who clearly looks like they could use some advice.
With all the other things happening in this show so far, I haven’t given enough attention to just how good Jess Bush is (I felt this way going back to my first watch). Christine Chapel, at least as we knew her in TOS, was all too often limited to pining for Spock while occasionally being a competent assistant to Dr. McCoy (and just as often being dismissed with that casual 60s sexism that makes me groan today). If ever there was an award for Most Improved Character, Christine Chapel would win hands down.
From her very first scene back in Episode One, Jess Bush gave Chapel dimensions and a personality that Majel Barrett was never allowed to show because of the thin writing she was stuck with. The effortless way Bush interacts with Ethan Peck in this scene is great. I love the way she reaches over and smacks Spock upside the head, her relating to Spock’s story about I-Chaya with her own1Milo is a great dog name, and Spock gives as good as he gets in his pretending to not understand rhetorical questions. It’s immediately clear that these two have way more chemistry than Chapel and Dever ever did.
Spock’s conversation with Chapel also convinces him that he needs to try harder with T’Pring. He takes her advice to try and understand T’Pring better a bit too far though when he suggests a merging of their two katras—a ritual that ends up with them accidentally ending up in each other’s bodies. It’s profoundly silly, and if you had told me this was the plot of the episode without me having seen it, I would have rolled my eyes at how dumb it sounded. It shouldn’t work. And yet, it does and then some.
A lot of this goes to Ethan Peck and Gia Sandhu, who take on their respective vocal inflections, mannerisms, and overall behavior so f***ing well that it’s simply a joy to watch. Sandhu is perfect as Spock trying increasingly wacky ideas to break the ritual (“We might need a gong. I think I have a gong.”) and Ethan Peck joins in on the fun with the desperate banter (“I know how a door works.”) when Pike arrives, necessitating their now-famous hijinks.
Not to be left out in the fun here, Anson Mount is also a riot expressing his disbelief in what has happened, and his comic timing is perfect. His facial expressions throughout, his delivery of “…yeah, totally…” and in an exchange with Ethan Peck that I find absolutely hilarious but rarely hear anyone else discuss:
Pike: “Get out of town.
T’Pring (in Spock’s body): “We are not in a town.”
Relationships, Understanding, and Radical Empathy
The other reason that this scenario works so well for me is that, aside from the sequence in Spock’s quarters and despite the fact that it’s the main problem of the episode, it’s not what the episode is about. The actual solution to their problem is accomplished in a very Star Trek pseudo-sciencey way. But before then, we see Spock and T’Pring essentially accomplish what Chapel was advising from the start: (literally) walking in each other’s shoes.
Pike is coming to see Spock is because the R’ongovians have apparently decided that they only want to continue dialogue with the Vulcan. Or at least the Vulcan who looks like Spock. To her credit, T’Pring immediately suggests she attempt the negotiations as Spock while the real Spock attempts to find a solution to their problem.
These efforts are cut short, because of course T’Pring is now needed in her role as a member of the El-Keshtanktil, essentially the Vulcan equivalent of a marshal service charged with bringing in fugitives who have disavowed logic. One such fugitive is Barjan T’Or (Alden Adair), a member of the V’tosh ka’tur (a nice call-back to Star Trek: Enterprise), who has offered to turn himself in, but only to T’Pring.
I do appreciate the disparity with which T’Pring and Spock approach their dual problems: T’Pring immediately offers to help, while Spock tries to wiggle out of his situation and ultimately enlists Chapel’s help in dealing with the Barjan T’Or situation.
T’Or, even for those of us who remember most of the Vulcans from Star Trek: Enterprise, turns out to be a real jerk. So much so that his insults at “T’Pring” both for keeping the company of humans (Chapel) and for being engaged to Spock cause him to knock him out with a sudden punch. While more in keeping with the Zachary Quinto version of Spock than the Leonard Nimoy one, I’m ok with this decision. T’Or had it coming.
At the same time, T’Pring has been thrust into a meeting with the suddenly Vulcan-sounding R’ongovians and is caught a bit off guard when they question the benefits that the Vulcans (and by extension Spock) gain from being a part of the Federation. Her answer immediately becomes a personal one about (indirectly) how his Starfleet career is keeping Spock away from her. Recognizing this, Pike intervenes with a short speech that serves both as a clarifier to the R’ongovians and a means to put T’Pring at ease.
It’s a great, short moment that again shows Pike at his best while allowing the show to demonstrate that he needn’t be the constant center of attention to still be effective. I appreciate that the show is able at times to truly be an ensemble show that shifts focus around the main cast.
Speaking of which, I’ve said next to nothing so far about the side plot involving Una and La’an, who have stumbled across “Enterprise Bingo”—a game played by the ship’s lower decks. Despite claiming to be unaffected by their mutual “Where Fun Goes to Die” nickname, they decide to try the game out themselves in an attempt to better understand the mentality of the crew.
What follows is a delightful montage of increasingly silly activities: using the transporter to restore the flavor to gum; a quick-draw game in the turbolift; another quick-draw game this time with phasers set to stun. This last activity though seems to take the fun out of the game until they realize the point isn’t what they are doing, but why: the game is meant as a way of pushing back against authority. Since they are the authority, performing the tasks as written don’t have the same challenge.
They decide to get around this by “Signing the Scorch” in a novel way: forget the EV suits and create a forcefield passage across the hull. Daring? Yes. A bit silly in keeping with the episode’s tone? Absolutely. But the imagery fits in gorgeously with the finale of the rest of the story as well, as the R’ongovians, having been swayed by Pike to join the Federation after all, sail by in their solar ship (conjuring up memories of the Deep Space Nine episode “Explorers”).
Pike’s final speech to the R’ongovians, where he lays out exactly why they shouldn’t join the Federation, serves as a perfect sequel to his earlier conversation defending Spock. All the R’ongovians are really after is someone who can see things from their point of view, which of course is exactly the situation Spock and T’Pring found themselves in as well. But thanks to some eel paste, crystals, and medical mumbo jumbo, their katras are back where they belong.
Another thing that I absolutely love is the coda for the episode, set against the Riaan Vosloo/Benedic Lamdin arrangement of “Looking for Love,” as we catch up with Chapel and Ortegas. Chapel has finally gotten rid of Dever by telling him what she honestly thinks about him. When Ortegas suggests she bring honesty into her next relationship, Chapel says it would have to “be the right guy” and (via more wonderful acting by Jess Bush) almost says more, but stops herself. But we know who she means…
Moment of Melumad
I already gave away what this would be, but when we start off on Vulcan with the wedding ceremony that turns into a kal-if-fee and Melumad lets a bit of the Gerald Fried “Amok Time” music waft in as the lirpas are brought in, I started to get the dorkiest smile on my face. And when the music full on started quoting that (in)famous fight music…so good. The cue also begins with a nice reprise of a motif that plays throughout many of the Spock/T’Pring scenes, including their first scene on Vulcan in episode one.
- For the most part, I find non-American actors’ attempts at American accents to be extremely cringeworthy. If I didn’t already know Jess Bush was Australian, I never would have guessed.
- Chapel: “They’re gonna nerve pinch us for this aren’t they?” M’Benga: “(laughter)…probably”
- I cannot tell you how much I geeked out at the sight of Pike in a green wrap-around tunic. I hope this look comes back for season two (though I quibble slightly with the superfluous delta on his chest).