Gender running Amok? Thoughts on classic Star Trek episode ‘Amok Time’ (1967)

This episode (the first episode of the second series) has several iconic aspects – first appearance of Chekov, first time out for the Vulcan salute and only trip to Vulcan in original Star Trek – but on rewatching it during my lockdown completist marathon, I was struck by two things. The first was the Legal-Historian-pleasing ‘trial by battle’ between Spock and Kirk with lirpa – weapons looking not a million miles away from medieval judicial duel weapons. Another time. It’s the second I went away thinking about, and will muse upon here – the portrayal of women. Not strictly Legal History, I suppose, but then again, both LH and Sci-Fi are about messing about with time, imagining other eras; and there are certainly some resonances with ideas about women in history, so I think I’m allowed.

The fabulous Lt Uhura on the bridge is not given much attention here – she is just doing her job. The three who are prominent are Nurse Christine Chapel, on the Enterprise, and, on Vulcan, T’Pau and T’Pring. These three all interact with Spock, who is in the grip of the pon farr mating urge, and, to cut a long story short, has to go to Vulcan to consummate his union with T’Pring, or, it is feared, he will die.

Chapel is the least inspiring of the trio. She is revealed to be hopelessly keen on Spock, fussing about after him and bringing him Vulcan soup. Very nurturing. Doesn’t go down well, though, Spock is quite nasty to her.

The best action is on Vulcan, where we have the powerful T’Pau – a diplomat, judge, and more, who presides over what was supposed to be a marriage and turned into a ritual battle – and the fascinating T’Pring. As Lt Uhura exclaims, she is beautiful.

The portrayals of T’Pau and T’Pring are very interesting. They are in some ways positive and forward-looking (in earthly terms – remember when this was written) but the writers could not quite let go of the assumptions of their own times. T’Pau, for example, is respected by all, but is portrayed as rigid and perhaps cruel. Powerful woman as ‘cold-hearted-bitch’ model? T’Pring is clever – even Spock praises her logic – but we are supposed to see her as a bit of a scheming minx and Vulcan ‘gold-digger’, arranging things so that she can get Spock’s property but be with the beefier Stonn instead. I wondered to myself, also, whether it was easier to give power to women who were ‘other’, rather than to the human women, who, on the Enterprise, were always subordinate to men. The Vulcans were portrayed as decidedly ‘Oriental’ (in an indefinite, pan-Asian manner). T’Pau on her litter, with her formality, was particularly reminiscent of an empress of China. Then again, she did remind me slightly of the statues of the BVM which are carried through Spanish streets on holy days. (That of course would make a nice contrast with T’Pring as an Eve-like temptress).

Vulcan law and customs as portrayed here include elements popularly regarded as ‘medieval’ – as well as trial by battle, we had marriages arranged by families at an early age, and the idea of a wife as the property of a man. I was particularly disappointed to hear T’Pau buying into the ‘wife as property’ thing: not much female solidarity with T’Pring there. I assume that there was no Mr T’Pau, otherwise, on this evidence, she would have been at home being a chattel. Even Spock entered into woman as property trope territory when he left Stonn with a little speech about ‘having’ not being as good as wanting (T’Pring, or women in general…) I must say, I came away from watching this as a grownup feeling admiration for T’Pring, for playing the system and getting out of what was clearly a most illogical arrangement. Live long and prosper, T’Pring! (And give Nurse Chapel some tips on not being an inter-galactic  doormat).

GS 27/6/2020

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