The Animated Series’ “The Ambergris Element” in Review
This episode’s writer, Margaret Armen, also wrote the TOS episodes “The Gamesters of Triskelion”, “The Paradise Syndrome” and “The Cloud Minders” as well as the TAS episode “The Lorelei Signal”. Does this episode make a splash comparable to those? Let’s dive into it…
While the USS Enterprise is investigating the water world Argo, a giant sur-snake attacks an aqua-shuttle carrying an away team. Despite stunning the creature, it violently returns, causing Lieutenant Clayton and Doctor McCoy to fall out of the shuttle. Kirk and Spock are unconscious as the sur-snake drags the shuttle underwater. After the pair have been missing for five days, a search party — including Scotty and McCoy — discovers Kirk and Spock, mysteriously mutated into water-breathers.
A method of reversing the mutation eludes the crew. Seeking the lifeforms that caused their transformation, Kirk and Spock dive into the planet’s depths.
The duo encounter Aquans, who fearfully mistake the newcomers as native air-breathers. A helpful Aquan woman, Rila — considering they might be aliens — directs them to submerged ruins of an ancient air-breather city, where they find records of reverse mutations. The sur-snake confronts the pair again.
Following a chase, the creature is buried under ruins. Back on the Enterprise, McCoy, viewing the ancient records, reads about an antidote involving sur-snake venom. To procure some, Kirk and Spock recruit help from a few of the Aquans. Quakes hamper the mission, killing the sur-snake, but McCoy subsequently manages to use the antidote to return Kirk and Spock to normalcy.
The Enterprise saves the Aquans by diverting the planet’s quakes, earning gratitude from the Aquans. They choose to become air-breathers while preserving their underwater heritage, which pleases Kirk.
As soon as I heard mention of the planet Argo — the same name as Jean-Luc Picard’s all-terrain ground vehicle from Star Trek Nemesis, one of my favourite Star Trek films — I knew I was bound to enjoy this episode. Referencing Argo, this is the second consecutive installment featuring an area named after a Greek mythological element, following Elysia in “The Time Trap”.
Precisely how seismic instability leads to widespread flooding is left unclear. Hypothetically, carbon dioxide from volcanoes — which are often linked to quakes — could heat the atmosphere and melt the polar ice caps, raising sea levels.
Clayton’s presence on the initial away team to Argo is a relief, as away teams in this show often lack redshirts. Scotty commanding in Kirk and Spock’s absence is reassuring, aligning with the pre-established rank structure. To enable underwater breathing, some Starfleet officers brilliantly wear life-support belts, which were established in “Beyond the Farthest Star”. However, it’s odd that the transformed Kirk and Spock lack gills and can’t simply be restored to normal biology via the transporter.
There’s ample opportunity to delve into exposition for Spock, such as mentioning his second eyelid or that the Vulcans underwent a similar philosophical transformation to the Aquans. Other than some arguably implied resonance for Spock, the episode doesn’t take advantage of this potential, which is slightly disappointing.
The advanced underwater species, the Aquans, seem conceptually similar to the Gungans from Star Wars. They have suitably alien-sounding names and look impressive. However, Rila is too recognisably voiced by Majel Barrett.
This episode deftly explores some very Trek themes, such as a generational divide and the idea that people often fear what they don’t understand. One episode that portrays a generational divide is Armen’s “The Cloud Minders”, which incorporates two geographically-divided social strata, another theme skillfully tackled here.
Kirk saying it’s odd that a highly advanced race would be violent is itself puzzling, especially given that he’s encountered many violent spacefaring races, such as the Romulans and Klingons. Then again, perhaps on average there are many more peaceful intelligent lifeforms.
The elaborate design of the ancient city ruins is stunning. Strangely including Roman and Greek architecture, it has resonances with Atlantis. Both sites were supposedly swallowed by the sea due to earthquakes. Puzzlingly, a particular medicinal symbol in the ruins of the air-breather city looks strikingly similar to a Caduceus, a symbol from Greek mythology which often appears in Human and Starfleet medical contexts.
A view of Kirk and Spock swimming past camera followed by the sur-snake is similar to a shot in the opening titles of Star Trek: Lower Decks. There, a space-dwelling organism clings onto the USS Cerritos’ port nacelle as both ship and critter fly past camera.
McCoy oddly mispronounces “ambergris” as “am-ber-gree” rather than “am-ber-grees”. Another oddity is that, although the sur-snake is said to be so deep that Humans can’t descend to its depth, it actually surfaces. The massive beast harkens back to ones in “Mudd’s Passion” while also similar to a gigantic red creature in the 2009 Star Trek film.
One of the most unbelievable aspects of this story is that Kirk and co flagrantly disregard the Prime Directive, which isn’t even cited in the episode. This disregard is clear when the Aquans are needlessly beamed aboard the Enterprise to witness their planet be saved. Additionally, the episode unfortunately leaves it unclear what ultimately happened to the native air-breathers, whether they left Argo or became extinct.
Although there’s a couple of underwater shots which linger for slightly too long on screen, the alien waters of an oceanic planet adeptly provide a strange new world that, at the time of the episode’s making, could only have been produced using animation. Overall, the adventure is enthralling, with Kirk and Spock fantastically vital. The visual effect used for the underwater footage is a good idea but, in execution, is inconsistent and potentially off-putting. Much of the worldbuilding and other art is excellent, though. Of Margaret Armen’s two contributions to The Animated Series, “The Lorelei Signal” features a more important moment than any scene in this installment— Uhura taking command of the Enterprise — but this episode is generally better. Despite omitting some exposition, it’s a generally “fin”-tastic outing.
Editor of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course taught at Glasgow Clyde College, and coordinates the SubSpace Chatter (formerly The Scotch Trekker) YouTube channel, which regularly features live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.