Kirk Your Enthusiasm (11)
August 13, 2012
Eleventh in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.
Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | “Amok Time” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 2, Episode 1 | September 1967
“Amok Time” is the canonical TOS episode of great slashiness, the place where a million fanfics about Spock’s green-spined penis were born — but “Amok Time” isn’t really about Spock (that’s “Journey to Babel”). It’s about Kirk, especially the wedding-slash-fight scene at the end.
Well — not at first. Kirk is remarkably passive when he first gets to Vulcan. Following the Prime Directive? No. Kirk’s not an anthropologist (xenologist?), he’s an adventurer, and he’s not so dedicated to the rules that he wouldn’t break them if he were given a reason. He’s pleased to meet famous T’Pau, impressed by her, but — like an American meeting a foreign head of state — maybe not impressed enough. He’s not quite ready to try and mack on T’Pring, not just because she’s his buddy’s sort-of wife, but also because she’s not in the category of real person to him. She’s part of the show. Come to Vulcan, see a koon-ut-kal-if-fee!
You can see from the line of Kirk’s spine the moment he changes from spectator to actor. It’s when he becomes implicated in what’s going on, when he has to face the fact that whether he wants to or not, he’s taking part in Spock’s culture’s weird traditions. Suddenly he’s scared and defensive, even though he doesn’t yet know that his fight will be to the death. (“That’s T’Pau of Vulcan — all of Vulcan in one package. How can I back out in front of her?”) He knows that Spock has chosen to identify with his Vulcan heritage, knows further that Spock’s own biology is forcing him to do it. How can he betray his friend by refusing to take part? But how can he take part successfully without knowing the culture — or what to do? And how can he agree to take part in a fight which seems ridiculous or even morally reprehensible under his own system of values?
Kirk acquits himself well enough in the end — when he finally fights Spock, he flops and flails and makes sure that his nipples are bled across with maximum artistry. You can almost see the hamster wheel in his head turning — if I act like I’m getting really beaten up, will this stop? He manages to cue Bones to use a neuroparalyzer to get him out of his impossible dilemma and snap Spock back to Federation-approved reality.
It’s kind of miraculous. But it doesn’t actually make Kirk learn anything. The brief flash of fear we see in him when he’s forced to confront a truly foreign culture with foreign values is just that: a brief flash. He’s an adventurer, not an anthropologist, and he’s on to the next planet with his little posse of fellow humans, with Mr. Spock in tow.
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
ALSO ON HILOBROW Peggy Nelson on William Shatner as HiLo Hero | Greg Rowland on Leonard Nimoy as HiLo Hero | Peggy Nelson on William Shatner in Incubus | Matthew Battles on enlarging the Trek fanfic canon | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker
What do you think?
“He’s pleased to meet famous T’Pau, impressed by her, but — like an American meeting a foreign head of state — maybe not impressed enough.”
Perfect. Nice post, Flourish.
I did always wonder at the circumstances under which this actually somewhat sexist and colonial show could portray a formidable female head-of-state (or of-planet) and a foreign/alien culture worthy of respect (if not comprehension), and you nailed it with a pointy hatchet-spear — the Enterprise’s mission is to seek out new civilizations but the distance they cross to make contact is moderated by the distance they keep as allies. Picking up souvenirs of cultural-exchange recruits along the way. They took a trip to Vulcan and all they brought us was this stuffy Science Officer.
How strange you should say that Adam….my earliest memory of watching TOS dates from 1972, when I was five years-old. I convinced myself that there had to be an episode “where they find Spock” but it never got shown.
Thanks for the fine bowl of Plomeek Soup, Flourish! Kirk does look genuinely scared and a little lost for a moment. I’d not registered how much until you focused on it.
Greg, we know from the end of Star Trek: First Contact that the Vulcans followed us home. Yes, Flourish is an inspired observer — I never looked deeper at Kirk’s quandary of personal loyalty to see his crisis of cultural comfort.
Kirk is always interfering in Spock’s love-life!
As you point out, not for the first time is the Prime Directive shown to encapsulate the main conflict between states (or nation-states) (or planets) and the union (or the UN) (or the United Federation of Planets): non-interference works best when everything‘s fine. When everything isn’t, the choice is between interference, or a weakening and thus eventual break-up of the larger governing entity. Over and over, the Trek franchise argues for the Federation, interfering, banning, or withholding group resources from members, or potential members, who thwart its principles. That this conflict plays out here in the body of Kirk was perhaps a way of adding emotional purchase to what can seem abstract rules of governance.
Or… at least just upping the emotional investment for the viewers, who could probably risk any of the crew if they had to, from redshirts on up to Spock – but not our Captain. The episode’s placement at the very beginning of season two might have prevented viewer attrition and helped make sure there was a season three.
You’re right Peggy, benevolent strongarming, like the guy who (notwithstanding my own JFK-centric post) really *was* president while the show was on (LBJ) — though ironically the Federation’s tough-love foreign policy allegorizes Lyndon getting Civil Rights passed in his recalcitrant Congress domestically, while his photon-torpedoes-blazing approach in Vietnam probably lowered his ratings among the average TOS viewer for all time…
I always felt real sorrow for Spock, never fully at home anywhere (outside of the Enterprise). It was an interesting conceit, having Spock, the half-human, being a prime example of an alien being. There were a few ham-handed “half-breed” swipes at Spock over the course of the series, but the internal dissonance within Spock made for more interesting drama than would have pedantic lectures on the evils of racism.
In the set up of the “Amok Time” conflict, it might be expected that some latent Vulcan prejudice against Spock for his being less than purely Vulcan, would drive the plot. There was some discussion of his heritage (Spock had hoped to spared the blood-ordeal, and at one point T’Pau questions him on his bloodlines). But Spock is a revered figure on Vulcan, which spoke well of the enlightened state of that culture.
Poor Spock! It’s not enough that he cannot escape the ancient Vulcan, biological imperative. He doesn’t even get the “mate or die” payoff! Why couldn’t the series have gone on it’s way with Spock back aboardships, and a little, quarter-Vulcan Spock left behind with T,Pring? Or, failing that, why couldn’t Spock die a noble, idealized death, instead of turning himself in and facing court-martial and murder charges?
No, Spock, who will neither live long nor prosper, instead must bow to his basest, primordial urges and strangle “my captain and my friend” with his own hands. Loyalty and friendship are overwhelmed by the same Vulcan source that powered Spock’s logic and ordered his life. But there are greater forces at work, and these ancient Vulcan drives, the somber, dignified rituals, the trappings of Vulcan state, racial memory, biological evolution, all are brushed aside by another of Kirk’s clever subterfuges.
Back on board the Enterprise, Spock’s revealing joyous reaction that he has been snookered is as much a moment of his being totally compromised and won over by Kirk’s flexible ethos, as it is Spock’s human side showing through. The show must go on, so Spock and Kirk must live, which we are only too glad to see. But doesn’t Spock pay a price? He has neither mated or died, nor has he renounced his Vulcan identity, nor his rejection of the human way of thinking. So what is he but a man without a people (apart from his crew)? The way I thought about this episode, if it had been a matter of Spock’s humanity sparing him when it came time to kill Kirk, Spock would have staid his own hand and Kirk would have “lived”. But the Vulcan triumphed over the human and Spock acted to kill Kirk. It was then, when Spock begins to regain his mind, that it’s Spock’s personal relationship with and loyalty to Kirk, that emerges and stronger still, than his predominate Vulcan nature. The price for Spock to fully embrace his human nature is too high. He renounces T’Pring, abandons this hard-fought opportunity to claim his birthright and instead returns home to the Enterprise to meet his fate. Vulcan over human, Kirk over all.
I never felt the need to supplement my enjoyment of TOS by seeking out and investing in backstory or subsequent stories not actually appearing within the episodes themselves.
You’re right, Esoth, it never struck me that Spock is re-enacting the Vulcan odyssey from brute emotion to self-sacrificing coolness by winning the battle and then denying his “reward” — a smarter scriptwriter might have then had T’Pau congratulate him on this and tell him the joyous news that he has to stay on Vulcan. Or maybe she realized what was best for him and knew what scam was being played all along…
There’s a great moment, maybe it only lives in my memory, but it’s how I remember it. When Spock says “I see no logic in preferring Stonn over me” no one says anything. The camera just flits from character to character. All politely silent.
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