Sunday, January 5, 2014

“Well, I'll be damned. It's the gentleman guppy.”: The Ambergris Element
"...part of your wooooooooooooooorld..."
Some episodes I have a really hard time building a post around. It's not that they're especially terrible, it's just there's not a lot of content there for me to really grab hold of or find new and interesting things to say about them. Thankfully, Margaret Armen wrote this one so that won't be the case here.

And I really wanted to like this one too. When I was planning this project I did a cursory scan of all the episodes I hadn't seen or didn't remember all that well, and this one looked fascinating. The Enterprise is conducting research on a planet that's almost entirely ocean due to persistent underground tremors causing the continents to fall into the sea. The crew hope they information they gain will be helpful in providing aid to other planets with similar geological activity. One of the things I love most about science fiction is its ability to depict wondrous and fantastic spectacles of worlds that exist far out in the deepest realms of outer space. It goes back to things like Georges Méliès, the hauntingly evocative spacescapes dreamed up by the Golden Age science fiction artists and the fist glimpses we saw of the Lunar surface from the Apollo missions. Few things stir my imagination quite like a well-done bit of space art. Indeed one reason, if not *the* primary reason, I don't despise Star Trek is how fantastic Star Trek: The Next Generation and early Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were at evoking this kind of imagery: The visual design alone is enough to get our minds racing to imagine what life in the sort of world those shows depicts must be like. And animation is a medium essentially custom-tailored for precisely this.

One of my greatest loves, obviously, given the way I've structured this project, is the ocean. When I was young one of the things I thought I might grow up to be was some kind of oceanographer or ocean explorer. I developed my love of the ocean and my love of outer space roughly at the same time, I suppose because both seemed like universes unto themselves and we knew next to nothing about either. In hindsight, this makes a lot of sense given the Polynesian belief in the intertwined world, with the realms of the Earth, Sea and Sky all interconnected. Many variations of the Polynesian creation myth even claim that the world was created out of the sea, and often that the world exists within a giant clam shell in the middle of an even larger cosmic ocean.

At one point, I naively fancied myself some kind of professional astronomer and was involved in a project to detect extrasolar planets. It was my unspoken hope that at some point I'd be able to see a planet like the one described in this episode: One comprised almost entirely of ocean. I've also long had a fascination with Neptune in our own solar system: Although it's named after a Western sea god, Neptune is in fact a gas giant and even though it's thus more properly described as a planet made entirely out of sky, I still think it would be an incredible sight to visit a place like that.

But I'm not going to go too far down the road of autobiography and self-contemplation here when there's Margaret Armen to talk about. For her final Star Trek hat trick, Armen somehow manages to outdo herself and turn out yet another new low for the series. Astoundingly, this one is even worse than “The Lorelei Signal” and a contender for her worst effort of all. Only “The Paradise Syndrome” really gives it competition for the title. This episode is garbage on burnt toast.

While Armen's previous efforts have showed off her well-documented problems with representation, “The Ambergris Element” returns to the other thing that was notably bad about “The Paradise Syndrome” by being constructed entirely out of narrative Swiss Cheese. There are so many serious, egregious plot holes in this story I honestly lost count. Literally nothing about this episode makes sense, and I'm not saying the script is dealing with heady concepts that are difficult to wrap your mind around, I am saying it is so shoddily put together it is actively, physically incoherent. Furthermore, Armen doesn't have anything remotely like the combined diegetic and extradiegetic narrative collapse of something like “The Alternative Factor” to bail her out here, helpfully reminding us that in addition to being a racist and an internalized misogynist she was also just a terrible, terrible writer on principle.

Two of my favourite moments from “The Ambergris Element” (and by “favourite” I mean memorably godawful) involve the civilization of merpeople Kirk and Spock find living in the planet's world-ocean (So I guess Armen really did have a thing for mermaids/sirens/Rhine maidens after all) called the Aquans. See, long ago there was a dispute between the ancestors of the Aquans and a society of land-dwellers who existed when the planet had continents. Eventually a massive war broke out and the Aquans became territorial and isolationist and developed a xenophobic hatred of anyone who breaths air. So, when Kirk and Spock are attacked by a giant Kraken-Lizard and flung into the sea, they infuse their blood with a special mutagen that causes them to turn into merpeople too, because when you're a xenophobic society terrified of invasion the first thing you do is allow your suspected enemy agents to adapt to your environment and force them to live in intimate, close proximity with your populace.

So naturally Kirk and Spock are less then thrilled about turning into Ariel's step-siblings, so they go back to the Aquans to ask their council for help in changing them back. And here's where it becomes clear how paper-thin the world building in this episode is: The Aquans are a generic race of codgy traditionalists who only act in accordance with a set of ancient dicta laid down before the grandparents of anyone who's now alive to read them were even roe. They can't reverse the mutation even though the technology exists to do so because it's not allowed and they can't go find the technology they need to make the antidote because that's not allowed either. Precisely why it's not allowed is never explained. As for why the Aquans hate the surface dwellers, that's not ever made clear either and I guess I'm not allowed to ask about that. Eventually one of the younger council members, Rila, offers to help Kirk and Spock as she believes their story about coming from another world and needing to know about their planet to help other worlds in need.

Then it gets really good, and by good I of course mean bad. At one point Kirk and Spock are captured by some particularly conservative Aquans and marooned on a rock, where they will suffocate because they have gills instead of lungs now. Scotty and McCoy come to their rescue with Rila's help, who can of course breathe air like it ain't no thing. Then Rila tells them they need to travel to the lost ruins of the ancient civilization to find the medical records they need to make the antidote (because all underwater cities have lost ruins of ancient civilizations, it's like a law). On their way they get attacked by another Kraken-Lizard thing, but conveniently an earthquake happens at that exact moment and crushes it under a collapsing pillar (and meanwhile Scotty, who was with them, has now mysteriously disappeared). Then it turns out the venom from Kraken-Lizards is a key ingredient in the antidote: Amazingly instead of going back to harvest it from the one that was already killed by the earthquake, Kirk, Spock and Rila elect to hunt down a totally different one *with their bare hands*. The Kraken-Lizards are, in case you couldn't guess, roughly the size of a smallish kaiju.

(It is also worth mentioning at this point that the time elapsed between the Aquans first capturing Kirk and Spock and the Enterprise finding them stranded and suffocating to death is supposed to be five days.)

“The Ambergris Element” might be the first episode I've seen, or at least the first in a while, that has absolutely nothing for me to recommend in it. The plot is a disaster and wouldn't even be terribly interesting if it wasn't, the dialog is amateurish and flat, the acting is predictably phoned in and even the beautiful ocean planet I had hoped to see is in truth the antithesis of beautiful: The whole planet looks flat and featureless to the point of feeling unfinished and the ocean itself is an unappealing pale yellow for no good reason. It looks like an ocean of stale orange dry. And I hate to say it, I really do, but the only positive thing I can find to say about this one is that it is in fact Margaret Armen's last Star Trek script. She submitted a pitch to Star Trek: Phase II called “Savage Syndrome”, which she co-wrote with a writer named Alfred Harris and which we were thankfully spared by that show getting canceled in pre-production.

I wish I had something kinder to say about Armen's stint in her final aired episode, but I really don't. I'm honestly just thankful to see the back of it. And, while I may be jumping ahead here, if memory serves me, I don't think any future Star Trek writers ever hit quite the same lows as she did. I only hope I'm right.

And next time everything changes. Again.


  1. A summary of "Savage Syndrome" is available here. Two pull quotes:

    "Uhura and Rand take up submissive positions on either side of Kirk, gesturing threateningly to one another."

    "Using her Deltan powers of seduction she tells Scott that she will be very pleased with him if he shuts down the antimatter converters."

    So yeah, we dodged a bullet there.

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