With Episode 5 of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a classic franchise episode gets a reboot in body-swapping "Spock Amok", and we learn about empathy, fun, and friendship along the way.

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One of the most important facets of Star Trek: The Original Series was its spirit of play. In some ways, this was necessary. The series would often be filmed haphazardly, scripts written and handed off to actors last-minute, the late-60s wing-and-a-prayer production flying by the seat of its pants to make it all work on time and on budget. We forget, too, that TV was still very much inventing itself, so long before today’s notions of canon, long before nuanced academic analyses of the medium and its distinctions, it was just… a show. And supposed to be fun!

Carrying forward that spirit of play isn’t always easy, though. The TOS episode “Amok Time” (Season 2, Episode 1) was a goofy approach to giving a highly logical species a plausible way to be passionate, too. In it, we learn that Vulcans go into heat, called pon farr. Not often, but… intensely. Intensely enough that all the usual displays of logic can go right out the window when mating is on the line. Spock is cruel to Nurse Chapel, and unilaterally changes the ship’s course for Vulcan. There, T’Pring, his betrothed, plays a cruel trick in turn, demanding her right to have Spock fight for her, and choosing Kirk as her champion. Spock thinks he’s killed Kirk, and learns that T’Pring did all this because she desired another and wanted to be free of their betrothal. Spock returns to the ship with his mating urges overcome, and to the happy news that Kirk isn’t dead after all.

So goofy. And so memorable (especially the epic music!). But also… not exactly in keeping with how much Star Trek has grown with respect to its romantic relationships.

As noted in the last two reviews, Strange New Worlds has given Nurse Chapel a considerable upgrade from the simplistic fawning character she played around Spock in TOS. It’s no surprise that SNW, which from Episode 1 reminded us that a highly logical Vulcan courtship (no life-or-death pon farr involved!) can still crackle with sexual energy, would also upgrade its approach to Vulcan romance in general.

What is surprising, and pleasantly so, is that it would do so while inviting viewers to reflect on a far wider range of relationships. And so, we have an episode that reflects on pleasure, as the idea differs for the crew, as well as the importance (and perils!) of radical empathy.

Read: Strange New Worlds: A return to humanist form

Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)

We start with an explicit homage to “Amok Time”, in the form of a dream where Spock returns to Vulcan for the marriage rite, and there finds T’Pring accusing him of being too human. She calls for the ancestral challenge, and has him fight… himself! A more Vulcan version, at least. (Nurse Chapel will later point out that Vulcans don’t exactly do subtlety, and she’s not wrong.) He wakes haunted by this dream, because T’Pring is meeting him at Starbase 1, where the crew will be on much-needed shore leave while the Enterprise is repaired following its encounter with the Gorn.

Clearly, Spock wants to make a good impression. While Nurse Chapel and Ortegas are simply looking to have a good time on the station, and teasing Doctor M’Benga something fierce for his interest in fly-fishing, and while Una (Number One) and Security Chief La’an are content to stay shipside, Spock just wants to prove to T’Pring that she’s a priority for him.

There’s just one problem. Pike’s team has also been tasked to take over negotiations with a difficult but also key species for Federation expansion. The R’ongovians own a critical territory for Federation passage, but are also receiving bids from the Klingons and Romulans. Why should they accept an alliance with the Federation? When the R’ongovians force an early start to negotiations, Spock breaks a critical promise to his betrothed, and tries to make up for it by engaging in a soul-sharing ceremony to deepen their bond.

But good gravy, Vulcans never do anything by half-measures, do they? And so their soul-sharing becomes a literal body-swapping. By accident! But with serious implications, as Spock(‘s body) is called upon to take lead in the negotiatons, and T’Pring(‘s body) is needed for her work as a Vulcan negotiator, bringing criminals back to the path of logic.

Can either of them wear the ears of the other well?

Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)

When Pike and the rest of the negotiations team (including Cadet Uhura, and Admiral April) first meet with the R’ongovians, all they know is that the R’ongovian liaison has been rude to the Tellarite first tasked with negotiations. Pike isn’t surprised (Tellarites are here established as a rather brusque species themselves), but thinks things are going swimmingly when the R’Ongovian chats amiably with him instead. The R’ongovian then explains that theirs is a species that values empathy, though most fail to realize this.

The pair’s camaraderie doesn’t last long, though. After, the R’ongovians insist on only talking to Spock. It’s a precarious meeting, though, because “Spock” is actually T’Pring in his body, carrying all her frustrations that Spock would choose Starfleet over Vulcan. Pike intervenes to defend Spock’s choice, threading the needle delicately between convincing T’Pring that Spock’s sacrifice of a fuller life on Vulcan is a noble affair that makes him the best of Starfleet, while not giving anything deeper away to the R’ongovians.

The R’ongovians, impressed by Pike’s defense of a crewmate, offer the Federation one last chance at summarizing their position. The species has been doubtful about the value of allying themselves with an organization that allows itself to be “diluted” by a multiplicity of voices sharing in decision-making for the whole. In summation, when asked why the R’ongovians should join the Federation, Pike almost gives Admiral April a heart attack by answering that they shouldn’t, and outlining point by point that he understands their every doubt and misgiving. The R’ongovians thank him and leave, and Pike explains that his hunch is based on R’ongovian behavior throughout the negotiations: not just echoing but radically empathizing with the attitude of everyone they spoke to. Perhaps, Pike has guessed, they want to see someone show a willingness to empathize radically with them as well?

The R’ongovian vessel is an older solar number, and soon flies the flag of its new ally: the Federation. Success! And when it sets sail, it’s seen by two of the B-plot crew, Una and La’an, nicely tying up their concurrent adventure. Just as Una was overseeing the transport of crewmates for shore leave, she overheard (thanks to M’Benga) that she has a nickname, “Where Fun Goes To Die”. She’s a bit baffled by this, especially since being alone aboard the Enterprise, in peace while carrying out certain duties, is fun… right? But when she and La’an discover two ensigns breaking the rules, they also have “fun” playing good-cop/bad-cop, before deciding to have a go at “Enterprise Bingo”, a rite of passage among the lower-ranked crew. This is what leads them, ultimately, to walk the outer disc of the Enterprise to sign its oldest unrepaired element, and witness the beautiful solar ship sailing by.

Meanwhile, Nurse Chapel runs into a bit of a problem with what’s supposed to be an easy fling. Alack, the dude wants to get more serious (and he’s got the poetry to prove it!), but it’s clear that Chapel only wants something deeper with the “right” man. There’s an allusion to her also having flings with women, but we know full well that the “right” person is Spock, especially since it’s TOS canon that his relationship with T’Pring is doomed.

However, Chapel’s clear love for Spock doesn’t stop her from being a good friend. She gives him excellent counsel when he’s hurt T’Pring’s… uh… “logic”… by missing their scheduled dinner, then stands by his side when he’s in T’Pring’s body, trying to carry out her rehabilitation work with a criminal Vulcan named Barjan T’or. It doesn’t go… great? (Barjan T’or really hates humans. Spock, in T’Pring’s body, clocks him in the end.) But the effort suffices to get him in Vulcan custody for further rehabilitation. Chapel also has an excellent friend in Ortegas, even though she’s still not ready to tell her where her heart truly lies.

M’Benga, meanwhile, leaves all this relationship nonsense behind, and has a great time fly-fishing. Good for him! Love the hat.

Read: ‘Memento Mori’: To live with the prospect of death (Strange New Worlds)

Humanist narrative structure?

The episode does a solid job of showing range through multiple storylines, though all the plots are, ironically, a bit “diluted” from sharing space with each other. (Ironic, for the non-spoiler-zone folks, because the R’ongovians were concerned that a multiplicity of voices in the Federation would dilute the culture and distinction of each one.)

“Spock Amok” also deftly avoids many tedious stereotypes. Una may well have a nickname among the crew that suggests she’s no fun, but the show very quickly illustrates that different ideas of fun absolutely exist, and that it’s more than possible for her to be fun to be around for the right people. Likewise, Spock and T’Pring are having difficulty understanding each other, but none of this is ever gendered reductively. (Specie’d, maybe, but that’s another matter altogether.) Both are excellent in their respective fields, but may simply be incompatible because their priorities differ too much.

It was also a mark in the episode’s favor that the writers didn’t make Spock or T’Pring excel at each other’s labors, when forced to make a go of it in their partners’ bodies. They both got by, but neither could replicate the other’s talents. This builds well on Uhura’s treatment in the previous episode, where she didn’t magically become a master engineer just because Hemmer needed her help in a crisis. The show is very careful to allow its crew their respective fields of expertise, and to allow gradual growth into new roles.

And yet, I found the conversation between Spock (in T’Pring’s body) and Barjan T’or (the criminal Vulcan) to be a missed opportunity, and at worst, a devolution into slapstick for its own sake, at cost to Spock’s character. I would have liked to have seen a more “human” solution to the problem that didn’t involve clocking the other Vulcan for being rude.

‘Spock Amok’: the thematic payoff

Ultimately, this episode opened a few lines of thoughtfully humanist commentary, not least of which involving Pike’s demonstrated commitment to radical empathy and his pride in a Federation that involves a multiplicity of voices working in chaotically democratic harmony. It will be interesting to see how that commitment plays out in future episodes.

But it was definitely the superb acting by Spock, T’Pring, and Chapel that carried most of “Spock Amok”. The issue wasn’t the range of storylines, exactly, so much as the variation in their thematic goals. For Una and La’an, a rekindled friendship was performed through a distinct brand of fun. For Chapel and Ortegas, a different kind of camaraderie showed up in goofy relationship talk. For Chapel and Spock, a deeper friendship emerged through Chapel’s care for Spock even from the sidelines of his life.

And all of this was happening alongside Pike’s negotiations with the R’ongovians, and Spock and T’Pring’s body swaps. So what was the episode “about”, really? Radical empathy? Different forms of fun? Different kinds of bonding? All interesting themes to explore humanistically. Just, a bit of a jumble in this episode, which is why I give it three happy humans, for laying a lot of good groundwork even if it wasn’t always in sync.

Quotes of note, and Easter eggs

  • Admiral April (here played by Adrian Holmes) is a sly allusion to Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-74), where he shows up in “The Counter-Clock Episode” (S2E06) as a previous Enterprise captain. There, he was played by James Doohan, a.k.a. “Scotty” in TOS: a wonderful man we can only hope is still in a transporter buffer somewhere.
  • Ortegas plays wing-person more than anything in this episode, but still manages some great lines hinting at a far more expansive backstory. “Are you serious?” she tells Chapel, when learning that Chapel gave Spock relationship advice. “Never get involved in a Vulcan relationship. They will hit you with a lirpa. Trust me. Have you ever fought with a lirpa? I have actual scars.”
  • Spock makes a joke! Despite how little T’Pring enjoys “hijinks”, when Chapel asks him “What are friends for?” he pretends to take the question seriously, then points out that humans are just as easy to tease as Vulcans, earning a lovely smile from our dear nurse.
  • What’s on Enterprise Bingo? Some of the highlights include: transporting yourself with used gum such that the flavor returns on re-materialization, the “turbolift two deck shout” (going into a lift with a friend and shouting two different destinations at the same time to see which one the ship’s computer will recognize), sitting in the captain’s chair, setting the Universal Translator to Andorian, and signing the Scorch, the name for the oldest panel on the Enterprise’s hull.
  • Best deadpan humor? Possibly the scene where T’Pring and Spock tell Pike about the body swap. Pike: “Get outta town.” T’Pring-in-Spock: “We are not in a town.” And soon after, Spock-in-T’Pring: “I am Spock.” T’Pring-in-Spock: “And I am T’Pring. Now that you know, you can likely tell the very clear differences in our mannerisms.” Pike, staring at two very-difficult-to-read Vulcans: “Yeah, totally.”
  • We only get an offhand reference to Chapel’s not-so-casual fling with a woman on Argelius II that ended badly, but that’s not surprising if you know Argelius II. Sure, the women there were adored by the crew in TOS for their sexually permissive natures (“Wolf in the Fold”, S2E07), but that didn’t go so well for Scotty, a grump when it came to female-kind, who got entangled in a run of local murders recalling Jack the Ripper’s sordid crimes. (Oh yeah, Star Trek has definitely improved its approach to women over time.)
  • Dr. M’Benga’s love of fly fishing isn’t entirely out of the blue, as we learn when he uses a ground-up Nivallan sea urchin paste to heal Spock and T’Pring’s body swap. His love of nature has clearly gone hand-in-hand with an interest in exploring unusual new remedies. This one, he has high hopes will one day become Federation standard! Ah, geek goals.
  • The two ensigns caught playing Enterprise Bingo are crushed by their eventual punishment, of extra duties with Transporter Chief Kyle. “He’s so mean!” they say of our fairly sweet-faced and innocuous crewmate. What’s going on there?

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Season 1, Episode 5: “Spock Amok”

Episode 4 | Episode 6: TBA

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.