“The Ambergris Element”
Written by Margaret Armen
Directed by Hal Sutherland
Animated Season 1, Episode 13
Production episode 22013
Original air date: December 1, 1973
Captain’s log. The Enterprise is in orbit of Argo, a planet that suffers seismic disturbances that have turned this planet from one covered in landmasses to one almost entirely covered in oceans. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Lieutenant Clayton go down in an aqua-shuttle, but before they can start collecting samples, they’re attacked by a giant sea-monster. Clayton submerges the shuttle after they stun the monster, but it recovers more quickly than anticipated and attacks the shuttle again.
The creature smashes the shuttle against a rock outcrop, which tosses McCoy and Clayton from the shuttle. Then the monster grabs the shuttle, with Kirk and Spock still inside it, and submerges.
Scotty initiates a search, but for five days, they find no sign of Kirk or Spock or the shuttle—until, finally, Clayton detects them and what’s left of the shuttle. But Kirk and Spock have been altered so that they’re water-breathers. A hormone has been injected into them that changed their biology.
This indicates intelligent life on Argo. Sensors have detected none such, but they didn’t detect the sea monster, either, so the sensors obviously aren’t picking up stuff below the waves, as it were. The only vehicle they have for exploring beneath the surface has been destroyed. However, Kirk and Spock can explore under the sea on their own, and the alternative is to live in a fish tank for the rest of their lives, which neither of them are thrilled about.
They beam down and swim below the surface, where they find several humanoids who tell them to leave, saying that their young saved their lives once, and they don’t want to do it again.
The people swim away, and Kirk and Spock follow, to find an extensive undersea city, where they’re captured and brought before the High Tribune of the Aquans. The Aquans fear air-breathers. The junior members of the Tribune used a surgo-op to change Kirk and Spock into water-breathers, then the Tribune erased their memory so they wouldn’t come back. Obviously, that didn’t work the way they wanted it to…
The Enterprise detects seismic activity that will result in a brutal quake in three hours.
The Tribune exiles Kirk and Spock to the same outcropping where McCoy, Scotty, and Clayton found them before. But Rila, the one member of the Tribune who wanted to give the landing party the benefit of the doubt, tries to free them—she can’t do it on her own, but she finds Scotty, who helps her get Kirk and Spock out of the netting they’re trapped in. Rila explains that there is knowledge in the ancient ruins that might help them, but she can’t take them all the way there—she’s breaking enough rules even telling them about it.
The ruins are of a different design, that obviously used to be on the surface and then sunk during a cataclysm. Kirk and Spock retrieve the knowledge needed and then fight off one of the sea monsters. Bringing the scrolls to the Enterprise, McCoy learns that the antitoxin that will cure them is derived from the sea-monster’s venom. Kirk and Spock talk Rila and the junior Tribunes into helping them capture one of the creatures, even though it’s forbidden by law.
McCoy figures out the right dosage and cures them both. They’re able to use the Enterprise‘s phasers to minimize the damage the quake does—but while the undersea city is safe, the continent that sunk rises again, along with the ruins. Some of the younger Aquans might try to live on the surface, and live happily ever after. Or something.
Can’t we just reverse the polarity? The Aquans have perfected a technique they call “surgo-op,” which allowed them to change from air-breathers to water-breathers, and also do the same for Kirk and Spock.
Fascinating. Spock theorizes, correctly, that many of the continents sunk from the seismic activity.
I’m a doctor not an escalator. McCoy is able to figure out how much of the sea monster venom to use to cure Kirk and Spock. Because he’s just that awesome.
I cannot change the laws of physics! Scotty searches for Kirk and Spock underwater, and also later meets with Rila, Kirk, and Spock underwater, while wearing a force field belt.
Go put on a red shirt. Clayton pilots the aqua-shuttle, and also is the one who actually finds Kirk, Spock, and the shuttle wreckage after they search for five days.
Channel open. “I can’t command a ship from inside an aquarium!”
Kirk, expressing his frustration with his lot in life.
Welcome aboard. This must have been a budget thing—just as Nichelle Nichols did all the female voices last time, Majel Barrett does all the female voices this time. Amusingly, Chapel is not one of them, as she’s seen, but has no dialogue, but she does voice Rila and the other female Aquans.
In addition to his regular roles as Scotty and Arex, James Doohan voices several of the Aquans, including the High Tribune. Filmation co-founder and producer Lou Scheimer does the voice of Lemus, while unknown others provide the additional voices, including Clayton.
Trivial matters: This is the only time we’ve seen an aqua-shuttle or a scouter-gig onscreen. Dialogue in the first draft that was cut had Scotty bitching about how non-sturdy the aqua-shuttle looked to him.
Aquans are never seen again onscreen, though we do see Aquans in various bits of tie-in fiction, among them Terri Osborne’s Starfleet Corps of Engineers eBook Remembrance of Things Past and your humble rewatcher’s A Singular Destiny, in both cases showing Aquans serving in Starfleet in the 24th century, one on the U.S.S. O’Keefe during the Dominion War, one on the U.S.S. Musgrave some time after that. Both characters had used the surgo-op to make themselves amphibious so they could also live on the landmasses created in this episode, as well as underwater.
To boldly go. “We can go wherever we want in that ocean.” This is definitely the strongest of Margaret Armen’s five scripts for Star Trek. However, that’s less a word of praise for this episode as it is a statement on how truly dreadful “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “The Paradise Syndrome,” “The Cloud Minders,” and “The Lorelei Signal” are.
In particular, “The Ambergris Element” has very interesting world building. The Aquans have a fascinating culture and one that would be fun to explore.
But we don’t really explore it much. As with “The Magicks of Megas-Tu,” we learn about the culture by having its occupants talk about it a lot while standing around.
Which is too bad, as this is an episode that truly could not have been done on the live-action series, and even today would be incredibly difficult and expensive to pull off. The aqua-shuttle is a nifty little vehicle (though it would’ve been nice to see it in action more), and I like the fact that Kirk and Spock were saved by, basically, a bunch of bored twenty-somethings who thought it would be cool to play with the surgo-op.
For whatever reason, George Takei and Nichelle Nichols do no voice work for this episode, and it’s another way it suffers. The original plan was for only James Doohan and Majel Barrett to provide additional voices beyond the big three stars, until Leonard Nimoy insisted that they not have all the characters be voiced by white people. While Doohan has a better facility for letting his voice do the acting work (Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley in particular are still pretty stilted in their line readings), his repertoire is still limited, and Barrett’s even more so.
Finally, the episode’s climax is stultifying. The will-it-work suspense with whether or not Kirk will be cured is tiresome, and the heel-turn by the Aquans from antagonistic to friendly is too quick and unconvincing.
Doing a story on an underwater planet is perfect for the animated series. But this episode fails to live up to the challenge.
Warp factor rating: 5
Next week: “The Slaver Weapon”
Keith R.A. DeCandido recently announced one of his niftiest new projects, which will be out this summer: Orphan Black: Classified Clone Report—From the Files of Dr. Delphine Cormier. This reference work is the ultimate companion to the BBC America TV series, and will be released alongside the airing of the show’s fifth and final season. More information on Keith’s blog.