Sunday, August 4, 2013

“But what about sex?” Amok Time

"You know T'Pau, I'm starting to think you were right."

“Amok Time” is the price Star Trek pays for “Who Mourns for Adonais?”. This is the show's shamefully repressed sexuality finally catching up with it. Miraculously, or perhaps simply because it's impossible to spectacularly self-destruct in the same manner a second time, the show hits just about all the notes it needs to in this kind of scenario. “Amok Time” is without doubt another classic, perhaps not an unequivocal masterpiece, but definitely a landmark episode that sets the stage for a great deal of future great Star Trek.

The parallels here really couldn't be any more perfect. Spock, who so desires to be distant, calculating and logical, is driven into an uncontrollable madness because of the very instincts and emotions he's trying to bury and ignore. The Vulcans perceive their sexual drive as at once shameful taboo, but also as a deeply ancient and revered aspect of their cultural heritage, thus forcing them into a mating cycle which they can repress for awhile, but physiologically must acknowledge when the time comes, or else they will die. Given Spock is something of a central character and a microcosm for Star Trek and the numerous problems the series has in regards to gender roles, sexuality and women, even more overt and noticeable in the last few episodes, the analysis sort of writes itself here.

But to elaborate, and despite all the ancient and mysterious Vulcan ritualism of the koon-ut-kal-if-fee, the whole concept of Pon Farr is an extremely Western one. In my writeup of “Mudd's Women” I talked about how sexuality is perceived in these societies cribbing a bit from (and probably misinterpreting) Michel Foucault. In brief, Western sexuality is intrinsically linked with the idea of taboo, because while the rise of modernism led to a net increase in sexual discourse, it was carefully fielded through “official channels”, most notably the Counter-Reformation-era Catholic church. As a result, sex is taboo but the taboo is also now sexy leading to the oxymoronic catch-22 that is responsible for pretty much all the repressive sexual tension Westerners live with. While sex wasn't talked about as much in pre-modern societies, it was just a natural thing that happened. So, even though they weren't living in sexually liberated golden ages of free love (as with most golden ages, this was a myth thought up after the fact by people nostalgic for a past that never existed in an attempt to cope with a present they didn't know how to deal with), pre-modern people didn't have to deal with quite the same problems modern people do.

And Pon Farr is very much a commentary on this, if not exactly diegetically then definitely extradiegetically. Sexuality is something that's an integral part of what it means to be human(oid), and denying that is, if not actively suicidal, at the very least counterproductive and unhealthy. What's really charming about “Amok Time” is how Spock is seen as being obstinate and, honestly, a bit childish for fervently trying to hide from his sexuality. Kirk reacts with bemusement when finds out the reason for his friend's outbursts, saying it's something everyone thinks about sometimes and is nothing to be ashamed of and McCoy flat out states Pon Farr is “the price [the Vulcans] pay for all that logic”. But Spock, attempting to speak for all Vulcans but more probably revealing the most about himself, talks about how this is deeply shameful for a culture that takes so much pride in logic. What we have in this episode is a central tension the show's bee saddled with from the outset finally being resolved: Gene Roddenberry always seemed torn between the value of acting like an asexual automaton in crisis situations and the essential humanity of emotions, though apparently tending to prefer logic on the whole. “Amok Time” is the rebuttal to this argument, instead making the statement it's perfectly possible to have both and that to think otherwise is self-absorbed and defeatist.

The one troublesome factor in this reading for me seems to be T'Pring. Later Star Trek stories dealing with Pon Farr make it clear this is something that happens to all Vulcans equally, but here T'Pring seems unaffected by the mating cycle and her status as the female prize to be fought over, despite her cunning and subversive manipulation of the system, is problematic. Indeed the implication in “Amok Time” is that sexual urges, and according to the episode's internal logic and the reading we've been building, sexuality itself, is something unique to male Vulcans. This gets back to one of the oldest tricks in the patriarchy playboook, the idea all women are by definition passive and asexual, and when this gets written into the concept of breeding seasons, even in real world zoology, unfortunate things happen.

When I worked in Science and Technology Studies and Social Studies of Knowledge, there was a favourite story of mine I used to tell about Gelada Baboons and how this plays out in the scientific community. The society of this particular baboon is organised into reproductive groups, usually involving one male and several females. For a long time, the consensus was that the males held all the power in this structure, and the reproductive groups were described as “harems”. However, this was contested by later groups of scientists (and documented on Chris and Martin Kratt's National Geographic programme Be the Creature in 2003), who observed that what actually happened in these relationships was that the females together govern the group and collectively decide which males to support and allow into their units. Males can challenge other males for seats, but the ultimate decision lies with the females, who make their choices by presenting themselves to him rather than the other way around.

What this proves is that female Geladas are not trophies to be fought over and won by males (as is the language so commonly used in zoology), but rather the males are competing with each other essentially for the privilege of gaining access to an exclusive all-female club, and even then the females are clearly the dominant sexual partners in this arrangement. In other words, what happened in this case was the first group of scientists allowed their patriarchal positionalities to colour the way they describe the Gelada social units, thus missing the unique nuances by which they actually operated. I think a case could be made something similar happened with the creation of Vulcan culture and mating cycles in “Amok Time” and while, as I said, later Star Trek thankfully corrects this, it is something worth noting when we talk about this episode in particular.

As far as I'm concerned the rest of “Amok Time” is basically window dressing for this one elegant statement, but it's a pretty damn beautiful window. There's the wonderful friendship subplot about the lengths Kirk, Spock and McCoy will go for each other and the loyalty they all share that's central to every scene. We start with Kirk's concern about Spock's condition as a friend first, followed by his defiance of direct orders to transport him to Vulcan. Then there's Spock's request Kirk and McCoy accompany him to the ceremony, bringing off-worlders to the koon-ut-kal-if-fee for the first time in history. Then Spock, in the grips of the Blood Fever and supposedly incapable of rational thought, begging T'Pau to not force him to fight Kirk after T'Pring chooses him as the challenger she wishes Spock to fight in order to win her. And then, finally, McCoy's dosing of Kirk with the neural paralyzer to trick the Vulcans into thinking Kirk was dead, thus giving everyone a loophole out of their obligations. This is all rather obvious, though quite well done, and has been commented on by pretty much anyone who's reviewed “Amok Time”. What's not as commented on are George Takei's Sulu and Walter Koenig's Chekov, whose banter about their shared exasperation over continuously having to change course between Altair VII and Vulcan is absolutely delightful, the best example of a mundane character moment we've seen on the show this year and without question a highlight of the episode.

Then there's Vulcan itself. “Amok Time” features the heaviest emphasis on world-building we've seen in Star Trek yet, and the lavish planetary sets, matte paintings and the meticulous attention paid towards depicting the Vulcans as a distinctive and unique society goes above and beyond anything else the show has done, and frankly arguably will do. The Vulcans have their own language and customs that are treated as suitably alien, but also transfixing and evocative enough they leave a lasting impression Honestly, Star Trek portrays the Vulcans with more respect and dignity then it does most real-world human cultures. Topping it all off is the mythically good performance of Austrian actor Celia Lovsky as T'Pau, “the only person to ever refuse a seat on the Federation council”. Lovsky has a black hole level of gravity and utterly owns every single scene she's in. She, more than anyone else in the production, completely throws herself at the ancient, ritualistic pageantry of the setting and sells every iota of it. When William Shatner-as-Kirk expresses has awe at being in her presence, we believe it.

T'Pau became so iconic, in fact, she got her own 1980s electronica band and got to come back for three episodes on Enterprise in one of the better stories from that show's fourth season, this time played by Kara Zediker. It's safe to say that, other than Spock, T'Pau is the character who most embodies and defines the Vulcans as a species within Star Trek: Apart from her fourth season guest appearance, T'Pau's regal presence and reticence towards humans was used as the blueprint for the exploration of Vulcan society on Enterprise and indeed she was even intended to be a regular on Enterprise at first, though that character eventually became Subcommander T'Pol for legal reasons (although Jolene Blalock still cites Lovsky as her primary influence).

But of course, the most important element of these “Amok Time” contributes to Star Trek lore is the legendary Vulcan salute and greeting “Live Long and Prosper”. Once again, this is a frequently-told story, but it's one that bears repeating. Leonard Nimoy felt “Amok Time” was a good opportunity to create some sort of uniquely Vulcan signature. Approaching director Joseph Pevney with his idea and remembering his childhood visits to his grandfather's synagogue, Nimoy adapted a salute practised by several Jewish denominations and created an icon of pop culture. Although probably not part of the reason Nimoy chose this greeting, it is interesting to note that in Hebrew the Vulcan salute creates the letter “Shin” and stands for “Shaddai”, meaning “Almighty”.

As good as “Amok Time” is, however, and it is rightfully beloved, the horrors and scars left by the last few weeks still linger. I'm sorry, but you don't get to go from “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “Friday's Child” (and to a lesser extent bits of “Catspaw”) to this and expect us to conveniently ignore what just happened. Perhaps this is why “Amok Time” went out as the season premier instead of “Metamorphosis” (as the season began in September, it was never going to be “Catspaw” given that episode's roots as a holiday special meant it had to go out around Halloween): It certainly would have grabbed people's attention. What this ultimately, and frustratingly, reveals is Star Trek's irritating lack of any kind of consistent quality. It has admirable highs, sure, but it also has some truly craterous lows and far, far too many of them to justify slogging through each and every one to reach the aforementioned highs. My argument from last time still stands: Star Trek as a show is dead in the water. Flipping back and forth between aesthetic, symbolic wonders and disgustingly indefensible moral bankruptcy is simply not a sustainable way to operate. There are several good, even great, episodes still to come, including one unambiguous triumph of a masterwork. But it's only a matter of time before the show's luck runs out and its best, most progressive elements simply decide to stop playing along.


  1. Your comments about T'Pring's role in the story bring up a potentially fascinating idea that I'm sad wasn't explored in more detail in Star Trek. We can understand her activity as a female exercising her power to control who her mates are. And T'Pau is a figure of immense respect, charisma, and awe. It would have been wonderful if Vulcan culture had evolved with the franchise so that, as we learned more detail about it, Vulcans were depicted as explicitly matriarchal. That kind of path had a lot of potential that I don't think was ever followed through.

    1. On the one had I want to concur wholeheartedly with you, but on the other hand I remember the one time Star Trek actually did do a matriarchal society and it made something of an ugly mess of it. One would hope that wouldn't happen in this instance given as it's the Vulcans, but I remain deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Trek attempting to do anything especially intelligent and nuanced with women until the Michael Piller era.

  2. the implication in “Amok Time” is that sexual urges, and according to the episode's internal logic and the reading we've been building, sexuality itself, is something unique to male Vulcans. This gets back to one of the oldest tricks in the patriarchy playboook, the idea all women are by definition passive and asexual

    Enterprise will later try to correct this. The results are not good.

    1. I know. I still have nightmares about "Bounty".

      Not that this was at all necessary, of course. D.C. Fontana corrected this little oversight later on in the season.

  3. Sexuality is something that’s an integral part of what it means to be human(oid), and denying that is, if not actively suicidal, at the very least counterproductive and unhealthy.

    You might want to consider rewording that at some point.

    Asexual people are a thing.

    1. "Everyone has a sexual side, even if for some that sexual side is 'null and void'" is a thing I said at one point.