Let’s talk about Spock, but more importantly, let’s talk about breakout characters of any kind. There’s little doubt that Spock rapidly became the breakout character of Star Trek. He’s the unknown made familiar. He’s maddeningly alien, but grounded in a way that allows viewers to connect and feel a common similarity. There’s something fans want in a character that doesn’t deliberately offer an opposing view but does it because he has to, it’s the way that he is. More or less, barring Shatner at his scenery chewing best, Spock ends up being the main character of the show. We watch him and want to see what he’ll do in any given situation.
This is the way of the breakout character. Their initial alieness ultimately gives way to becoming the driving force of the show. The most recent character to soar to these kind of heights is Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory. Initially little more than a straight man whose neurosis occasionally drives the plot, Sheldon has become the face of one of Thursday night’s most popular shows. In the more beloved but less publicly adored Community, Abed rose from a nostalgic movie quoting machine to the most interesting character simply because he surprises us.
What makes breakout characters appealing is also what makes them dangerous. Because viewers want to see more of them and writers want to put them in new and different situations, fans can be burnt out, or the characters can become overused and derivative. Probably the best two examples of the form would be Urkel from Family Matters and Fez from That ’70s Show.
Both outsiders from the traditional structure of the show’s primary characters, they end up seeming bizarrely alien. What they don’t understand or how their perspective influences their interaction ultimately draws viewers in, only to encourage the writers to put them in worse and worse situation. By Family Matters’ end, Urkel had cloned himself and gone into space. By That ’70s Show’s finale, Fez had bizarrely ended up with the show’s only real star, Jackie. Viewers remember these characters because they began iconic but ended wrong. By then end, the whole show would revolve around them to the detriment of everyone else.
There’s a danger with this happening to Spock and by today’s “Amok Time,” they had already dodged it once. Season 1’s “The Galileo Seven” has its share of flaws but it manages to create an episode putting everyone’s favorite Vulcan at the forefront without doing damage to the rest of the show’s dynamic. However, “Amok Time” has more in common with episodes like “What are Little Girls Made of?” and “Dagger of the Mind”; it’s essentially all Spock all the time.
Without getting a head of myself, I’ll declare “Amok Time” one of the best episodes of the series and it does so by making a few incredibly bold moves, namely creating Spock as something damn close to the antagonist of the episode and presenting Vulcan culture as something alienating and strange. It’s weird, frightening but just familiar enough that we all have to hoe that Spock makes it through in the end.
As the episode begins, Spock is on edge. He’s not eating and people begin to notice. He’s loaded up on adrenaline, putting the ship on a course to Vulcan despite Starfleet orders and is openly admitting his insubordination. The problem is that he’s not revealing what the problem is. McCoy has an inkling of what’s happening after seeing his adrenaline readings, but both the crew and we as an audience are watching as a friend definitely needs help, but can’t or won’t ask for it. Kirk has had enough and confronts his first lieutenant who after a fair share of embarrassment admits that it is time for pon farr, a Vulcan ritual of mating that must be completed by traveling home every 7 years.
In a true shock to the established character we know and love, Kirk totally doesn’t follow Starfleet’s orders and brings his friend to Vulcan. Beaming down with Spock and McCoy, Kirk intends to see the ritual through. It’s a little creepy when you think about it, but it’s all too the episode’s benefit. When you explore the unknown in any creative medium you almost always have to have an audience surrogate in the mix to help the viewers out. One of the chief complaints with the Star Wars prequels was that this never happened. Everyone sits and talks about complicated laws, pacts and treaties and viewers sit, bored and wanting to have some idea of what’s happening. Compare this to A New Hope, where Luke, who has no knowledge of the Force, is slowly educated in the system, first by Obi Wan and then by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. We learn about the Force as he does and we’re never thrown in over our heads.
Having Kirk and McCoy on the planet gives us this working base and it also helps to reinforce how odd Vulcan is, both in its rituals as well as its society. The planet is hot, with very thin air that its residents have to get used to. It’s nice to have characters noting the alieness all around them and its not long until things get stranger when T’Pau shows up. A matronly apparently very important Vulcan, she shows off the first appearance of the Vulcan salute before Spock’s mate T’Pring appears. The whole thing has a sense of bizarre mystique and even considering that, canny viewers will note that something’s wrong and it only gets wronger when T’Pring states that she has chosen “the challenge,” in which two people will fight for her hand. Naturally, Spock decides to fight for his bride and T’Pring decides for him to battle Kirk.
So, things aren’t looking good and the Vulcans are appearing stranger and more threatening all the time. Kirk doesn’t want to fight his friend and knows he’s at a disadvantage on the harsh planet. The adrenaline junky Spock isn’t letting down either, as the rite has become a biological imperative. McCoy and Spock know that this is a ploy on T’Pring’s part, as her doltish looking guardian seems to be her actual choice for a mate. Kirk doesn’t think Spock can take him so he agrees to enter battle, of course he doesn’t realize that the fight is to the death.
Spock quickly takes the upper hand in the battle and McCoy knows that both of his friends are in danger. He asks T’Pau if he can administer a neuro-shot to Kirk in order to help him deal with the thin air and heat on the planet. She agrees and Kirk is injected before Spock really goes medieval on the Captain, ultimately appearing to choke him to death. His lust sated, Spock returns to T’Pring only for her to reveal her ploy, which could lead to her staying with the guardian instead of being wed to Spock, who has become something of a legend to their people. Spock leaves the planet with McCoy and the apparently dead Kirk to face his fate in front of Starfleet.
Of couse, Kirk is alright, having been injected by McCoy with a sort of only-in-Shakespeare toxin that made him appear dead and allowed him to cede the fight. Spock’s spirits return to normal and everyone is able to head off on more space adventures.
I’m sick to death of writing about expanding a universe in a episodic show, but “Amok Time” ultimately is the episode to show how to do it masterfully. The unknown is alien and strange and it manages to cast our hero Spock into a strange light, even if he’s still the star of the show. This is an episode that boldly goes where we haven’t been, while showing the effects of this lingering strangeness on the characters that we care so much about.
Spock is a pretty huge dick at the beginning of the episode, particularly to Nurse Chapel. Nobody’s still making fun of Sulu for running around shirtless and almost stabbing everyone.
This is the first appearance of Chekov and in a show full of characters with bad wigs, he might be the worst.
Next Up: “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and let’s face it, it’ll probably be me.