Aug 14, 2020
Star Trek (TAS) “The Ambergris Element”
We find the Enterprise in orbit around the planet Argo, which had once been a “land planet”, but is now almost completely covered in water.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this episode already.
But unlike that movie, where the cause of the planet being almost entirely covered in water was due to global warmingclimate change, the cause of Argo’s soggy state is “violent seismic disturbances”. Compared to “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”, where apparently sorcery is science, I’m willing to accept almost any half-brained scientific plot device at this point. In regards to the name, I’m wondering whether or not “Argo” is what the natives call it, or were the natives not even consulted and some imperialistic bastard at Starfleet Command with a penchant for Greek mythology ascribed a name to it because he was tired of using Greek letters? Argo, by the way, is in Greek mythology the ship that carried the heroic dream team of Jason and the Argonauts on their quest to find the golden fleece.
Now if you keep reading, I might just teach you what a bill is and help you multiply by twelve.
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The gang is here to study the planet’s conditions, because there’s a similar Federation world about to have the exact same thing happen to it, and while that sounds unlikely, remember the original series had a planet that was exactly like Earth, right down to the exact same continents, where the children were nigh-immortal.
And then there was that other planet exactly like Earth, with the Comms and Yangs.
And then there was that other planet exactly like Earth, where the Romans ruled in their equivalent of the 20th Century.
The ‘20s-era gangster and WWII-era Nazi worlds don’t count, because they were messed up by people violating the Prime Directive whose names weren’t Kirk. Sounds crazy, I know.
The gang heads down in a brand new, specially designed “aqua-shuttle”, and we actually get a pretty sweet animation sequence of it.
Inside we have Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and… Lieutenant Clayton.
Look at that expression. It’s obvious he hasn’t served on the Enterprise very long; he doesn’t know what happens to men in red not named Scotty. Okay, to be fair, I don’t think a single person died during the run of this series. Well, wait, one person did die: Spock’s pet sehlat, I-Chaya.
Dammit, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry…
Can you guess who’s doing the voice of Lt. Clayton? Can you? Let me give you a hint: his name rhymes with “Dames Joohan”.
The aqua-shuttle lands on the water’s surface. McCoy and Spock are about to collect some water and algae samples, when they’re suddenly under attack.
The shuttle gets tossed around, and Kirk orders Spock to unload with the phasers. This KOs the creature, and Kirk has Clayton pilot the shuttle down into the water so they can get a better look at the beast.
McCoy points out it’s got a dual respiratory system, and further elaborates it has lungs and gills, while Spock notes the skeletal structure is similar to that of a Denebian whale. Between the whales and slime devils, Deneb IV sounds like the last place I want to visit. But before they can give Kirk more info, the thing wakes up and attacks. Maybe Clayton shouldn’t have parked so close? Just sayin’.
Kirk orders the lieutenant to take them to the surface, and they tear away along the water with the creature in close pursuit. Spock reports the phasers are currently inoperable. If only the shuttle could fly away; then they could get to safety. Oh, wait…
The creature catches up, and before Scotty can beam the four to safety, the beast picks the shuttle up and smacks it around. Clayton and McCoy are tossed clear, while an unconscious Kirk and Spock are trapped inside. The beast then grabs the shuttle and draws them down like a dog finding a new chew toy. And that’s the last we ever see of Kirk and Spock. At least, that’s what would have happened if the characters weren’t named Kirk and Spock. And this wasn’t a cartoon made for six-year-olds.
We cut to five days later. Scotty, McCoy, and Clayton are searching for Kirk and Spock, while tooling around in a sweet Starfleet bass boat.
By this point, I think the gang would realize the first place to look for Spirk (I was thinking of calling the pair something else, but it sounded dirty) would be in the Lovecraftian horror’s small intestine by this point, but maybe they already have. Now that I think about it, if sea monsters like the one that crushed a shuttle like it was made of balsa wood are roaming around these oceans, is it really at all wise to be using that little boat?
Clayton spots the shuttle wreckage, and the trio head over to take a look, and they find Kirk and Spock in the shallows. McCoy checks them out and the two are alive, but while their bodies are mostly fine, their lungs aren’t working. And then we get the big reveal:
Yes, Kirk and Spock have been turned into mer-men. I wonder if the initial script had meant for this to happen to Uhura and Chapel? Actually, a Uhura/Chapel story would have rocked; the ladies so seldom got a chance to shine.
48 hours later, McCoy is delivering heavy exposition in the form of a medical log. It seems there’s something weird in Kirk and Spock’s blood that’s “changed their metabolism”, and it’s even given each of them second eyelids, like fish. (So does that mean Spock has three eyelids now? To see what I’m referring to, go back and watch the TOS episode “Operation: Ahnil… Annil… A…” Err, “The One With the Parasites that Look Like Fake Vomit”.)
McCoy explains to the pair that whatever happened to them isn’t something he can undo, and what’s been done to them is not natural. Translation: Someone down there mutated them. Spock figures that means there’s intelligent life on Argo, and since they didn’t pick up the big fishy from before, that suggests there’s a whole lot of stuff their sensors missed. McCoy says they can’t look around much, since they only brought one aqua-shuttle and it’s trashed, but Kirk points out he and Spock are now uniquely equipped to scout around. McCoy tries to talk Jim out of it, but Kirk’s mind is made up; he can’t command from a fish tank, and Spock agrees.
Soon, Kirk and Spock are cruising the waterways, and I have to wonder why the two aren’t in swimsuits? I mean, isn’t it hard to swim in those boots? I guess with the aqua-shuttle and bass boat, putting Kirk and Spock in speedos was not in the budget this week. Or maybe there was some controversy regarding whether or not to draw nipples on their bare chests.
It isn’t long (it being a half-hour show and all) before Kirk and Spock come across some of the local natives.
Kirk tries to talk to the aliens, but they treat the two like Jehovah’s Witnesses, telling the “air-breathers” to get off their metaphorical porch, and saying their kids saved them once already, before rapidly swimming off. Kirk and Spock decide to follow the group down a deep chasm and through a tunnel, where they find an underwater city.
The two attempt to sneak in, but naturally they’re captured, and taken before “the tribunal” and accused of being spies. Kirk and Spock try to defend themselves, so one of the aliens says the ancient records warn that air-breathers would eventually show up to ruin their day. A couple other aliens speak up, pointing out Kirk and Spock showed up unarmed, while another asks why they always gotta consult the ancient records, anyway? I used to say the same thing whenever my dad would break out that Dave Brubeck album he was so fond of.
The older tribunal members get all “get off my lawn” on the younger ones, and you can see this week’s episode has got itself two messages, which is quite a bit to pack into 22 minutes. One of the kids is all excited about how well turning the two air-breathers into “Aquans” went, and one of the older guys explains to Kirk how their memories of the procedure were “eradicated”. Am I the only one who thinks it’s creepy that a bunch of strangers conducted radical medical experiments on our heroes and then erased their memories? Or that it was done by what sounds like a bunch of teenagers?
The paranoid one goes on to suggest Kirk’s “records” must be as good as theirs, which would explain how they found their city. Because that makes so much more sense than Kirk and Spock just following some of them home. A female stands up for Kirk and Spock, and the two are finally able to tell their story, about how they’re not from the surface of this planet, but from another world entirely. The old ones don’t buy it, and I guess I can see their point. I mean, which sounds more plausible: these strangers coming from inland, or from the sky? Kirk and Spock don’t push the point, and say they’re only interested in getting de-aqua-fied. But the old guy presiding over things says it’s impossible; the “surgo-records” describe the procedure to turn someone into a fish person, not the other way around.
Meanwhile, McCoy calls down to Scotty in the bass boat to warn him about a massive sea-quake that’s about to rewrite the map. What, is McCoy in command up there now? Then again, McCoy being in command would be kinda cool.
Kirk or Spock is wearing a tracker, and Scotty uses it to see where they are. Aquans spot the bass boat heading towards the city and freak out some more. While Kirk is trying to tell everyone to check out the shuttle wreckage to show them the name of their ship (and how is this going to convince these primitives Kirk and Spock are from outer space?), an Aquan female shows up—you can tell because she’s wearing a dress.
She’s also speaking with a Russian accent. Which she completely drops on the next line. Points for trying, Majel. She tells everybody about the bass boat, and that’s enough for the older members of the tribunal: Kirk and Spock will be left stranded on a rock to die a slow, lingering death.
Our heroes are netted down just a few feet away from their wrecked shuttle to suffocate on the surface, but Rila, the young female Aquan who was sticking up for them, comes to their rescue. Or would have, if this wasn’t 1974: she can’t get the net off and has to go find a big, strong Scotsman to help. Scotty explains to the now-freed Kirk and Spock that there’s a massive sea-quake a-comin’. Rila exposits that the “ancient knowledge” talks about how quakes like this one caused surface places to sink into the sea.
Spock suggests the Aquans may have evolved from the surface dwellers, and Rila drops a bombshell: The surface dwellers were altered via “surgo-op” to become sea-breathers, and the people who stayed on the surface hunted them, mostly, I presume, because they were dicks. Kirk thinks it’s weird that such a highly developed race would be violent.
Yeah, total shock there, Jim.
Rila says it was forbidden to switch back, but she hints there are sealed records in the sunken ruins that might provide information on how to do it. A tremor shakes things up, reminding everyone that they’ve got about twelve minutes of episode left, and Kirk manages to convince Rila to at least give them directions. After a harrowing journey through some powerful currents, Kirk and Spock find themselves on the outskirts of the ruins. And what do the ruins of an ancient, alien civilization look like?
Mostly like ancient Greece. I don’t know if it’s laziness on the part of the artists, or if they were afraid kids needed some sort of frame of reference that made them decide to go this route. Maybe it’s a little of both. Spock talks about how an entire section of the continental shelf must have fallen into the sea in just a matter of minutes. This episode seems inspired by that common ‘70s dread that people had about California sliding into the Pacific, combined with their fascination with Atlantis. Now that I think about it, based on how these types of shows use whatever’s in the social consciousness at the time as plot devices for movies, I’m surprised Kirk and company never fought space Dobermans.
They explore the ruins, and Spock comes across some canisters that have a symbol on them that suspiciously resembles the ancient Greek caduceus, but then again, this is the universe where Kukulcan is tooling around in his giant serpent-themed spaceship, so I can’t say I’m at all surprised that he might have stopped by this planet and taught them a thing or two.
Spock points out how the fishy torso on the symbol suggests mutation, and Kirk gets all excited, saying that’s the “key to the survival of the race!” Um, I thought this was all about the two guys not being fishy anymore? Since when did this turn into some sort of quest to save the fish people from being fish people? Whatever. The pair grab a couple of canisters each and light out of there and figure they’re home free, when…
Back from a commercial break, Kirk ‘n Spock flee from the sea beast, and I have to say either it’s the slowest sea beast ever (seriously, how can it not catch up to a pair of guys swimming with boots on?), or it’s just toying with them like a, well, Denebian cat or something. Fortunately for our heroes, another sea-quake hits and the beast is killed and/or knocked out by a falling wall in the most anticlimactic resolution a person could dream up. I guess if this had been an hour episode, we could have seen Kirk and Spock rustle up some seaweed, coral, and a pufferfish to create an underwater cannon.
Later, McCoy is poring over the scrolls found in the canisters, and he says if the universal translator is right, the stuff used to change Kirk and Spock is a lot like the ambergris found in Earth whales. Ah, now the title of the episode makes sense. I guess. In order to be cured, the pair needs to be injected with an antitoxin found in the “sur-snake”. Kirk meets with the kids again to ask for their help, and while one is all “We’ll get in trouble!”, the others are all for helping Kirk and Spock out. Soon, the gang is on the hunt for the sur-snake, and I can’t wait to see what it looks like.
I shoulda known the budget couldn’t afford two kick-ass creatures this week.
Kirk, Spock, and their swimming sidekicks sneak up on the slumbering sur-snake, and the kids manage to ensnare it. And damn, alliteration is hard! Kirk and Spock are tasked with extracting its venom, and I’m wondering if they would’ve been better suited to doing the grunt work and holding the nets? Maybe Kirk convinced the kids that he has considerable experience shoving hard, long things into tight receptacles to get fluid to squirt out of them.
In a rare reversal of roles, the creature pulls away before Kirk is finished, and the captain is drawn away before the beast kills them all. And once again, shoddy Argoian craftsmanship lends a hand and the gang is saved by a collapsing wall. Damn, it’s like those architects never took into account a world-shattering earthquake and centuries of underwater erosion. The incompetence!
Kirk and Spock return to the Enterprise, and McCoy prepares an antitoxin using the venom. It turns out part of the records are missing (darn, if only the mutagen had given Kirk and Spock tentacles, then they could’ve grabbed all the canisters), so McCoy has to make what’s pretty much an educated guess as to the dosage. McCoys says he’s been experimenting on fish. Hmm, I wonder what the fish look like…
Yeah, Kirk and Spock are screwed.
Jim is up first, aaaannd….
Well, on the bright side…
You know what? There is no bright side. But wait! It was a false alarm, and McCoy’s guesswork, uh, worked. Later, Kirk invites Rila and one of the cranky old tribunal members up to the Enterprise.
Jim explains how they’re going to divert that super-quake with phaser fire, preventing it from wiping out their city. I’m wondering if this is all one big middle finger to the Prime Directive. Then again, I’m not sure if the Prime Directive was ever mentioned on TAS. I know it would be hard to explain to a bunch of preteens how it’s not right to help people, so I’m thinking the writers probably ignored it. Spock is a genius, of course, and his calculations mean the Argoians are saved, and one of the ancient cities has returned to the surface!
Rila says that some of the youngsters are interested in being de-fishified, and the old bastard admits that maybe it’s time the old ones wrote some new rules that the young ones might even obey. So the episode ends with smiles all around.
We went all-out in this episode, getting a new shuttle, aquatic aliens, and a sea monster! All of which would have been impossible on the Original Series due to budget, special effects, and the makeup of the time. And if that was all made possible by keeping Kirk and Spock in uniform throughout the episode, then I say it was a small price to pay. Seriously, isn’t it hard to swim wearing those boots? And in the entirety of this series, I have yet to see Kirk’s shirt get torn, or some contrived excuse to see him bare-chested. It’s bad enough no redshirts die, but we never get to see Kirk’s hairless pecs? There are traditions to maintain here, dammit!
Although, in retrospect, maybe it was best that tradition got shelved before we got to the movies. Last thing we needed to see was a shirtless 60-year-old Shatner.
Ultimately, I give this episode a middle grade. It doesn’t have the emotional impact or sharp writing of “Yesteryear”, but it’s head and shoulders above “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”, my personal White Whale.
“The Ambergis Element” was written by Margaret Armen, a veteran Star Trek writer who was responsible for three TOS screenplays: “The Cloud Minders”, “The Paradise Syndrome”, and “The Gamesters of Triskelion”. She also wrote the TAS episode “The Lorelei Signal” (and if you haven’t watched the Booth’s review of it, you should take the time to do so; seeing it was one of the inspirations behind me writing these recaps in the first place). During her 23 years in television, she wrote in a wide variety of genres, from sci-fi programs to westerns, and from kids’ shows to adult melodramas.