Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 13 – The Ambergris Element By Gail Gerard

Well hello cats and kittens, freaks and friends, odds and ends. Welcome back to another episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series. This week, we’ll visit an alien planet and take a dip in the briny with episode 13, “The Ambergris Element”.

Now, the good old World Wide Web tells me that ambergris is a blackish-gray waxy substance pooped out by sperm whales, which is commonly found floating in chunks in the ocean. Also, apparently, back in the old days it was used in perfume to make the scent last longer… though why you’d want to spritz yourself with whale poo I have no idea. If people will buy perfume made from cat musk (which I’m told is an ingredient in Chanel #5… think about that, ladies, when you put some on next time). I have no idea what whale poop ambergris has to do with this episode, but I suppose I’m about to find out.

Captain Kirk records in his opening log that they are orbiting a planet called Argo (I’m guessing they like Greco-Roman names in Starfleet… this one is named after a Greek ship captained by a dude named Jason, as I recall). We’re told that Argo used to be a planet with large landmasses, but those have since fallen into the ocean and the surface is now almost totally covered by water. We see Scotty opening the shuttle bay doors and a small, rectangular craft with twin nacelles shoots out into space. The small shuttle is taking a crew down to study the earthquakes which caused the land masses to fall into the sea, since the information has the potential to save millions of lives on another planet undergoing similar changes.

Down on the planet, the captain asks Spock if they’ve managed to land on the largest land mass available. “Duh.” says Spock. “The other stuff is merely outcroppings which merely SUGGEST peaks and mountains.”

“Yeah, well I SUGGEST we take samples of the water and algae.” shoots back Bones in his typically acerbic manner. Spock, for once, agrees with him since he wants to get collecting the boring stuff over with and get to the more interesting stuff on the sea bed. Just as a redshirt gets ready to open the hatch so they can get on with their work, the ship is attacked by something closely resembling a Kraken. The sea monster tosses the ship about like a toy in a bathtub, causing Kirk to look alarmed, and he tells Spock to stun the thing. After a blast from the phasers, the creature disappears under the water. Spock sighs and admits it was too bad that previous planet surveys didn’t indicate anything like this.

theambergriselement_014Kirk wants to get a closer look at it, however, so they submerge the ship and go after it. Bones makes some comments about the thing’s anatomy, while Spock tells him it’s very similar to a Denebian whale (we’re always hearing about Denebian life forms on TAS… slime devils, whales… weird). Suddenly the creature wakes up and throws the ship around some more. Kirk tells the redshirt to get them back to the surface, pronto. Too bad the sea creature comes after them, and it’s

mad as a hornet! Spock tries to blast it again, but the phasers aren’t responding (the sound effect when Spock presses the firing mechanism sounds quite like a blender on high speed, actually. Vrrt! Vrrt vrrt!). Just as Kirk radios Scotty to get them out of there, the creature grabs their tiny vessel and shakes it like a dog with a rat, tossing it aside and flinging Bones and the redshirt out. Kirk and Spock are trapped inside, unconscious, while Scotty has a bit of a freakout on the bridge because he’s lost contact with the away party.

Meanwhile down on the surface, the sea creature spots the discarded survey craft and seizes it. “Mine! My own precioussss… yesss… we wantses it for our very own,don’t we preciooussss?”

Or at least that’s what he would say if he could speak.

Scotty, who is now in command of the Enterprise, makes a log entry to the effect that Kirk and Spock have been missing for nearly a week. Search parties can’t seem to find hide nor hair of them or the survey craft (an aqua-shuttle, we’re told it is called). He and McCoy are going to keep looking though, with a redshirt in tow. Bones is complaining that there is nothing to see… no trace of The Kirk or Spock anywhere. The redshirt, however, spots the remains of the aqua-shuttle pushed up against some rocks in the distance. So they go to investigate and find Spock and Kirk lying face down in the water nearby. Bones pulls them out of the water to examine them… and they’re alive! But only just. Kirk begins to waken, gasping out that he can’t breathe. That’s when Bones discovers that both he and Spock now possess gill-slits like those on a fish. Their hands (and presumably their feet, which are still wearing their uniform boots… though I find this highly unlikely) are webbed like a duck’s feet. But how on Earth did they get into this condition? Curiouser and curiouser.

We cut to a scene of the Enterprise hanging gently in space like an ornament on a Christmas tree, while Bones makes a medical log entry where he expresses his frustration about not being able to figure out what’s caused the Captain and Spock to turn into mer-men. We see Kirk and Spock floating in a tank (in uniform no less… that’s devotion for ya!) while Bones and Scotty discuss their problem. Bones is completely stumped… he doesn’t know why they’re water-breathers instead of air-breathers now, but by gum, he’s going to keep working on it!

theambergriselement_043Kirk is equally frustrated… you can’t command a starship from inside an aquarium, dammit. I love how their voices, coming from inside the tank while they’re completely underwater, aren’t even the slightest bit distorted. I know from experience that when you talk to somebody underwater, their voice is distorted to the point where you really can’t understand them. Maybe in the 24th century however, they’ve fixed this problem. I also love how they’re just hanging there…like they’re suspended in the water as opposed to actually swimming in it.

Spock, ever the logical one, seems just resigned to his fate as a fish-man. He does suggest that there is intelligent life on Argo, which may not have been detected by the sensors because of the water pressure or something like that. Bones reminds them they can’t do much underwater exploration since the aqua-shuttle’s been destroyed. Maybe THEY can’t…but Kirk and Spock CAN. Aha. Now there’s a brainwave. Bones is afraid they might get hurt and they’d be out of communications range, but Kirk is insistent. He doesn’t want to live in that tank the rest of his life, and I don’t blame him. It’s sterile and gray… no gravel, no artifical plants, not even a bubble-spouting deep sea diver statue to make it more attractive and homey.

Scotty, Kirk and Spock (now spouting clear, dome-like helmets which make me go “Why didn’t they just put those on in the first place so they didn’t have to stay in the tank?”) go back down to the planet. Kirk and Spock shed their gear (but not their clothes, which you’d think they would… at least down to their skivvies anyway) and take off into the deep blue sea. They swim a bit and then are spotted by some green-skinned aliens who look like they could be part fish. The aliens tell them to go away, because otherwise they’re gonna get it.

Kirk tries to explain that they’re only there to find out what happened to them, and see if these fish-people might have a cure for what ails them. A female fish-person asks them, “Isn’t it enough our young people saved your pathetic lives once? If you keep on pestering us, nothing will save your scale-less hides the next time!” Kirk begs them to wait and listen, but the fish-people flee. Kirk is perplexed by this. The only solution is to follow them into a crack in the ground, so off they swim.

When they reach the underwater city, Spock calls it “Fascinating..and beautiful.” Kirk says to him if they are capable of such architectural beauty and medical triumphs unheard of by man before, why should they be so scared of them… two puny humans? Spock postulates that the fish-people find them to be REALLY ugly, which makes sense because people tend to fear things different from themselves. Kirk is adamant they find a way in, and Spock goes “Well we could try over that way… not much activity over there.” So off they go.

theambergriselement_065Before they can get too far, they are caught in a net by two fish people who drag them off unceremoniously (is there ever really a ceremonious way to drag somebody off by the hair though? Really?) to be dealt with. They are taken to a meeting room where they stand before a group called “The Tribune”, who accuse them of being spies, and we learn the fish people have a name: The Aquans. Domar, the High Tribune, introduces himself while Kirk and Spock do likewise. Domar accuses them of being spies but Spock insists they aren’t, they only want to be turned back the way they were.

The Aquan seated next to Domar is offended by this because DUDE! The ancient records tell them that Air Breathers NEVER come in peace. Duh! There is a female Aquan who says they came unarmed, and another male Aquan says “Man… can’t we do ANYTHING without consulting the ancient records?” like he’s annoyed or something. Another male Aquan grumbles that those darn youngsters are always wanting to change things. Darn you youngsters, get off my lawn! Er… seabed!

Domar orders them to be freed, but for the others to keep an eye on them in case they try anything funny. As they’re released, another member of the tribune starts getting all excited because the surgery they performed to save Kirk and Spock worked perfectly. Domar explains they don’t like to kill things, so it was better to turn the humans into Aquans than to let them just die. Kirk and Spock are again accused of being spies by one of the male Aquans (whose name we learn is Cadmar) and the female (who seems to be the only one in the group) says “Dude! Give them a chance to, like, defend themselves and stuff.”

Kirk says they don’t even live there, they come from someplace else, and the female Aquan (whose name is revealed to be Rila) seems astonished at this. Cadmar doesn’t believe this and calls them liars, saying that the air-breathers are coming to destroy the Aquans… again. Spock protests this isn’t true, all they want is to find a way to reverse their mutations. Domar insists this is

impossible. Kirk and Spock give each other a look like, “Uh huh, yeah, right. Pull the other one, buster.”

theambergriselement_073Scotty and a redshirt are waiting topside for Kirk and Spock to return, when McCoy radios down there’s going to be an earth – er – sea quake pretty soon, and it’s gonna be a whopper. Too bad Kirk and Spock are due to check in around the same time as the quake is supposed to happen. Using a GPS, Scotty follows where he believes the captain and Spock went, in an attempt to try and get ahold of them to let them know what’s about to happen. Two female Aquans see them, however, and freak out.

Meanwhile back in the chamber of the tribunes, Kirk is insisting that if the Aquans want proof of their story then they should find the aqua shuttle. It’s got the name of the Enterprise written on it, and Rila is insistent that they do what he says. Unfortunately, before they can do that, the two female Aquans who spotted Scotty’s boat make a report to Domar and the rest. Domar gives Rila a look. Clearly he doesn’t believe that the air-breathers come in peace, they want to destroy everything, just as Cadmar has said. Rila says she doesn’t know what to believe. Domar commands that Kirk and Spock be taken to the surface and left there to die, like they should have been in the first place.

After Kirk and Spock have been left, tied up in a net on a small island and the others have gone, Rila surfaces and attempts to free them. Clearly, she doesn’t think they’re as big a threat as Domar (egged on by Cadmar) believes them to be. Unfortunately for her, she can’t budge the net so Kirk tells her to go to the big island and find help. She comes upon Scotty (bathed in a golden glow that I suppose acts in place of an environmental suit) and bids them to put their rears in gear. Kirk and Spock may not survive much longer if they don’t. Scotty cuts them free and Kirk explains what the hell has happened since they were last in contact with him.

Scotty says they don’t have much time for pleasantries as there is a massive quake due soon. Rila says, sounding mournful, that there are legends of such things happening before. That’s what caused the surface places to sink into the sea in the first place, and the surface dwellers had no choice but to undergo surgery so they could survive underwater. As the centuries passed, however, the surgeries were no longer necessary as the gills, fins, etc became a natural mutation. The few who were able to remain on the surface became savage and violent, hunting and killing those who had become the Aquans. It eventually became forbidden to turn an Aquan into a land-dweller, for fear they’d be contaminated with the violence. So even though reversal is possible, Rila doesn’t want to share the knowledge for fear of reprisals from Domar and the others.

Kirk, using that charm of his, insists that she show him where the surgical records are kept because it’s not important just to get them changed back, but also that this knowledge could help save millions of lives on a distant planet which is undergoing changes similar to what their planet went through before. Rila relents and leads them to where the scrolls bearing the information are kept. Kirk and Spock swim in, buffeted about by strong tides (there is actually a bit where they’re shown floating by, sideways and upside down, which I find particularly amusing). Spock is fascinated by the ruins and the fact that an entire city sank within only a few minutes.

theambergriselement_090Kirk and Spock swim inside a building and come upon the Aquan version of a physician’s caduceus (that’s the twin snakes wrapped around a winged pole to you and me, kiddos) as well as

medical instruments, charts, etc all over the walls which means this had to have been a doctor’s office of some sort. Maybe they’ll find the answer to their problem here… and they do. They grab two canisters bearing the likeness of the Aquan caduceus and take off. How they knew those canisters and not some other ones were the right ones, I have no idea.

As they head back to the surface, they’re confronted by the sea serpent again, who of course tries to kill them. Naturally they flee, but the serpent is right on their tail. Looks like that’s not all they have to contend with… the ocean is rocking… and not in a good way either. Fortunately for them, a rock hits the sea serpent and knocks it out of commission long enough for Spock and Kirk to stand there and laugh at it.

Back on the Enterprise, McCoy is feeding the scrolls found inside the canisters that Spock and Kirk stole from the Aquan city into the universal translator. He says that the substance in their blood stream is similar to the ambergris of Terran whales. So wait… they’ve been walking around with fish poop in their blood all this time? Eeew. And the only way to reverse the mutation is to shoot them up with an antitoxin, and loads of it. Unfortunately, the antitoxin is made from the venom of the Argo sur-snake (the sea serpent from earlier). Well isn’t that just swell?

Kirk and Spock go back down to the Aquans and beg them for help. Nephro, one of the young Aquans, says they can’t help – Domar’s gonna exile them to the open sea if they help. Spock tries to tell them that they can’t reverse the mutation on their own, and they can’t benefit from ancient Aquan knowledge if they don’t help. Nephro says he doesn’t want to break the rules. A second Aquan says that all these rules are useless in times like these, only knowledge will help them, and Rila agrees. They MUST break the rules this one time. It’s for a good reason, after all.

Spock, Kirk and the Aquans swim in with a net to capture the sur-snake which had been previously knocked out by a rock, while Rila holds a tube-shaped container to catch the venom. They throw the net over the sur-snake, who is none too happy about any of this and kicks up a fuss. Kirk, with Spock’s help, milks the venom from the sur-snake and they beat it out of there before the damn thing can fight its way free of the net.

theambergriselement_095Back on the Enterprise, McCoy has prepared the antitoxin from the sea snake venom, but he’s not entirely sure what the correct dosage is, or if this is even going to work at all. Nurse Chapel stands by, wearing the same sort of energy protection field that Scotty wore earlier, as Bones injects Kirk with the antitoxin. She looks like she’s vaguely worried for Spock, the poor dear. McCoy isn’t sure this is going to work, but he shoots up Kirk anyway. Kirk goes from pale to bright orange back to his normal color, and the gills disappear as does the webbing on his hands (and presumably his feet). I love how these changes are almost instantaneous… I guess for the sake of the fact that the episode is only 22 minutes long, they have to be that quick.

Kirk, now that he’s back to normal, decides to bombard the area with phaser beams so they can change the epicenter of the sea quake, sparing the Aquans from destruction. Domar and Rila (wearing dome helmets like Kirk wore earlier in the episode) watch from the bridge, clearly amazed because they didn’t know such things were possible. Hey, I thought the Prime Directive prevented this kind of thing, but then again… well, Kirk isn’t exactly known for upholding the Prime Directive terribly well. He tends to throw it out the window when it suits him to do so.

A few hours later, after everything has settled down again, Kirk, Domar and Rila beam back down to the surface. Domar does everything but punch the captain on the shoulder and say “You’re alright kid.” Also, the sea quake has caused one of the ancient cities to be reborn and lifted up to the surface. Rila rhapsodizes about the night air, and how she’s going to be glad that the ancient knowledge will once again be available to her people. This part… this is the part I love. Kirk gives Rila a look, like “Heeey baby… wanna come over to my place later and play doctor?” You can almost hear the ‘bow chicka wow wow’ music, and you know that there is a good chance Kirk’s gonna be getting some tail… some fish tail, that is.

Overall, I actually enjoyed this episode. It had some really good parts to it, and the storyline, for a change, wasn’t terribly absurd. If they had made more episodes like this, and less of the kind they made like “Megus-tu”, the show might have stayed on the air longer than it did. I get the feeling the animated series was supposed to appeal to kids, but surely adult fans tuned in too, and I can only imagine how insulted they were to have such garbage pitched at them. Like they were so desperate for new Trek they’d take any sop given to them. I don’t blame them one bit for turning the TV off in disgust over some of these episodes. The problem is, when you see two or three episodes that are crap, you assume the entire series is crap and so you don’t watch, which means you miss the halfway decent episodes like this one.

Next time, I’ll be watching the episode “The Slaver Weapon” which gives Sulu and Uhura some love for a change, as well as introduces a new alien race known as the Kzinti…

Marc Stamper

Author: Marc Stamper

Trek geek extrordinaire and the TrekMate tech wizard. Always liked Trek but when TNG started here in the UK I fell in love and have not looked back since. Podcaster since January 2012

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