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Retro Review: The Ambergris Element

Posted by Michelle - 08/07/11 at 02:07 pm


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Star Trek: The Animated Series

Season: 01 Episode: 13 (s01e13)

Original US airdate: 12/01/1973

On a planet covered almost completely by oceans, Kirk and Spock are turned into water-breathing creatures from a species distrustful of air-breathers.

Plot Summary: The Enterprise visits the planet Argo to study how quakes have left most of the planet’s surface underwater. A specially designed shuttle takes an away team to the largest land mass, but a huge red sur-snake attacks the shuttle, dropping Kirk and Spock into the water. When a search party finds them face-down in puddles, McCoy is shocked to see that they have mutated to breathe water. Since the doctor is unable to reverse the hormonal process that caused the changes, Kirk and Spock return to Argo, convinced that an intelligent life form must have altered them. They discover a sentient race living underwater, but the Aquans were attacked by air-breathers in the past and fear that Kirk and Spock have returned to harm them. With the help of a young Aquan woman, the humans escape a death sentence, only to learn from Scotty that a large quake is expected to destroy the Aquan city. The young woman tells them that there are hidden records in the ancient ruins that might help reverse their mutations, so Kirk and Spock track down the records, learning that they need sur-snake venom to breathe air again. With help from sympathetic Aquans, they obtain the venom and McCoy changes them back just in time for the Enterprise to save the Aquan city by using phasers to disrupt the massive quakes. The Aquans are grateful to the air-breathers and agree to allow their children to explore the ancient city, now raised above sea level from the seismic activity.

Analysis: “The Ambergris Element” provides a good argument for animating Star Trek: it would have been cost-prohibitive, not to mention cheesy, to try to create an underwater city and put webbed feet and hands on William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. It’s not one of the animated series’ more inspired storylines – like so many Star Trek episodes, it involves stuck-in-their-ways elders, rebellious youth, a distant Federation crisis acting as a catalyst for the action, and an abrupt turnaround by the suspicious aliens when the crew saves them from an approaching cataclysm. But it’s typical Trek in its attitudes: the Enterprise is on a crucial scientific charity mission to help the inhabitants of a planet suffering similar quakes to Argo’s, the senior officers all leave the ship with the first away team with only one security officer and no real knowledge of the dangers, Kirk and Spock react to major physical violations not with anger but a calm desire to figure out why they were so altered, a death sentence is dismissed as a simple misunderstanding and the Enterprise saves the civilization that issued it. It works perfectly for what it is, a short story set on an exotic world with beings that would have been either impossible or ridiculous on live action television.

Which is not to say that the opening battle with the sur-snake (which my family keeps calling the Fail Whale) is not hilariously goofy. One minute everyone’s sitting in the shuttle discussing whether and where to submerge, and the next, the shuttle is being crushed in the teeth of a gigantic red Godzilla-looking thing that waves it around, tosses it against rocks, crushes and shatters it, yet manages to plop Kirk and Spock into just the right place in the shallow water while McCoy and a red-shirt somehow emerge unscathed. The Aquan civilization, too, seems surprisingly uncreative. Why would people who live underwater hold themselves upright in chairs at council meetings, rather than hanging suspended in the still chamber? How come the Aquans seem to prefer standing underwater instead of swimming, treading, floating, and all the rest of the things I imagine I’d do if I had gills and webbed fingers? I’m sure the animators didn’t have time to work up a full underwater city, so I can forgive the spare cave-like backgrounds and the obviously human Greek influences on the sunken city, but I wish more thought had been put into the Aquans themselves and how their physiology would work. (I will not even think about the women’s miraculously un-floaty dress material.)

We get to see the magic life support belts that take the place of environmental suits on the animated series again here – instead of bulky contraptions that obscure the characters’ faces, we see them with only a glowing force field that apparently allows them to breathe and keeps them from getting the bends underwater. We get to see a couple of nifty new ships, not just the modified water shuttle but a motorboat-type vessel that can presumably be fit inside a larger shuttle for transport to the planet. I find it a little disappointing that the crew goes swimming in uniform – if the water was cold, I’d expect them to be wearing thermal suits, and if it was warm, I’d expect a classic shirtless Kirk moment – I hope their skin mutated along with their fingers and lungs and eyelids or they’re going to have some terrible rashes. To think I thought ambergris was only desirable as a perfume fixative. At least they can get the venom from the sur-snake with considerably less violence than a whale hunt. Some sort of environmental message would have made a nice addition to the episode – if the air-breathers had done something that caused the seas to rise and the quakes to start – but it’s an amusing enough story as is, if not all that inspiring.

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