Captain's Blog pt. 62: The Immunity Syndrome

We continue Sexual Perversity in Outer Space Week (TrekSexNado!) with:

Yes, I did previously indicate I wouldn't be covering this one. I ended up watching it again and realized I needed to include it. I've always liked it; that was never why it was left off my desert-island-TOS list. See, I figured if I was in that scenario - and I'm 100% serious about this - I'd be jonesing to see the episodes that I didn't have with me after so much time away from them, so I wanted to leave myself some fun ones to catch up on once I was rescued. Not just the Mudds, "Turnabout Intruder," etc.

If postponing Trek gratification to maximize entirely hypothetical pleasure strikes you as crazy, or really sad, I sympathize, but it's probably why my Trek Rail Pass is stamped "Unlimited Pass" (with License to Phaser stenciled in Trek-font underneath it) instead of "Good for One Use Only." I ain't complaining.

"I don't think you folks belong on this train."

Script / Story: (7 / 8.5 of 10/10). As Eugene Myers noted in his and Torie Atkinson's Tor re-watch of this: "one of the oddest things about this episode is its unusually high level of sexual innuendo." He goes on to reference Kirk’s aside to Bones: "I’m looking forward to a nice period of rest on some lovely... (gazes longingly at a passing yeoman) ...planet."

First at episode's beginning (above)
then recalled at episode's end.
Bookmarking (or framing) all in-between, if you will, with:

The Male Gaze. 

Oldie but goodie.

This is certainly notable. But neither he nor Torie elect to go much further. (The latter refers to it as reminding her of the "hilarious vaginal imagery from The Motion Picture," but that's about it. That seems unfairly dismissive, but hey, you say tomato.) Myself, all of the innuendo is a signpost pointing us to a different read on things altogether.

If we take this episode strictly literally, it's an interesting sci-fi story and a good characterization episode. Actually, not just good, a great characterization episode, particularly for McCoy and Bones -"Shut up, Spock, we're rescuing you!" "Why thank you... Captain McCoy." Kirk plays exceptionally well off them, as well. This is a go-to for the interpersonal dynamics of our TOS holy trinity. 

Images from Marvel's Negative Zone by Byrne and Kirby.

But what Myers and Atkinson allude to imbues the episode with something else altogether. It could just be an abundance of birth imagery, sure - if so, then I'm more negative on the script, as there's no excuse for it. Put it to you this way: if I'm watching a naval adventure movie where all the seamen are impotent and are always polishing the cannons and firing the water hose and they keep describing every situation they find themselves in with vaginal imagery, I'd better be assured the writers are aware of what they're putting across, metaphorically. If not, I get aggravated. A script can't be less self-aware than its audience, although it often is. (Probably more often, it's the other way around.)

Is that the case here? I don't think so. But I'm also not quite convinced the writers here (Robert Sabaroff, with revisions by the Genes and DC Fontana) are putting across what I'm about to get into. 

For what it's worth, here is my attempt to reconcile "The Immunity Syndrome"'s plot mechanics with its abundance of suggestive dialogue: This is either a story about men wrestling with the unknowability of the clitoris, or it's about conception-to-birth from the perspective of the sperm.

"Brace yourselves...

the area of penetration will no doubt be sensitive."

From the men figuring out the clitoris angle, it's mainly a matter of a few lines. To penetrate the "zone of darkness," the crew must overcome increased fatigue with endless stimulants. To escape it requires maintaining repeated and strenuous forward thrusts with excessive attention given to the penetration of an outer boundary layer. ("Its outer protective membrane, relatively insensitive to interior irritation.") 

A final thrust and the membrane is ruptured, and they are thrown clear. Whereupon, presumably, the Enterprise falls to one side, exhausted, and lights a cigarette. 

Do I think the Genes would put such tongue in cheek stuff in here? Absolutely. Am I convinced it's what they were doing? Not really. It'd be a silly thing to hang the episode on, to be sure, but I mention it because it's pretty amusing to watch this with that in mind.

But the Adventures in the Birth Canal read holds together a bit more compellingly. Consider the beginning as the overwhelming disorientation of initial orgasm.

"Orgasm is," after all, "a little death," as someone once said. (Sounds better in French.)

From this point on, the Enterprise, so "discharged," is racing into the "Zone of Darkness."

Massive thrust...
Here we go again!
Inside the Birth Canal

They survive the initial rush to the nucleus and fertilize it, whereupon the rest of the story (right down to the dynamics among the crew and especially Kirk, Spock and McCoy) is the saga of the Enterprise's gestation and ultimate birth, mirrored by the organism itself, which is set to reproduce and must be stopped at all costs. i.e. The Enterprise must triumph over all the other sperm and alone emerge from the zone of darkness.

When asked, McCoy recommends "Survival." Either the most useless recommendation ever given in the galactic history of recommendations or the mission statement of every sexually reproducing organism.

This take on things also makes the leering at the end and beginning more sensible: despite the near-death and trauma, Kirk can't wait to do it all over again. Such is humanity.

The human adventure-comedy proceeds apace.
Chekov is especially important to this reading, as he's Kirk, Jr. forced all at once to learn about the birds and the bees. In all its sticky, cosmic glory.
"It has found us!"

Now, (title (2 of 3) if this episode had been named "Space Seed," I'd say we were really onto something, here. But it isn't, and what it is named positions all the suggestive dialogue in a biological direction. The Enterprise is trapped inside an amoeba, a cosmic petri dish, and must break free; that's probably all that's going on. This is a much less satisfying explanation for all the thrust/ penetration/ sensitive membrane/ birth canal talk going on. Message confusion. But it fits the biology-quiz-run-amok theme quite well.

What can I say: I prefer my own take. It reconciles these elements better.

Guest: (4 of 5) I defy you to find a better performance from a gigantic single-cell organism.

Visual Design: (4 of 3) I have to hand it to both the original fx and the remastered fx crews. Both episodes look exceptionally cool, then or now.

The remastered editions really make the colors pop. This episode in particular heightens the pop-art sensibilities of the lighting and costumes.

Tic Tac Kirk.

Kirk and the Gang: (25 of 10). A good ensemble story, as well as one of Deforest Kelley's best arcs and performances.

Lt. Kyle subs in for Sulu (absent from this ep due to Takei's filming The Green Berets) but Kirk calls him "Cowell" throughout. Probably just a bit of welcome-to-the-bridge hazing.

Internal Logistics: (1.5 of 3) Considering that this episode begins with the traumatic shock of so many Vulcans dying, it ends on kind of a light note, doesn't it? This is common to many Season 2 episodes, not just this one.

Kirk must not have sent in his log for this adventure. When the Enterprise-D becomes trapped in its own zone of darkness in "Where Silence Has Lease," Picard asks Data to check the computer banks for similar occurrences, no matches are found.

This cracked me up: when Spock gets the shuttlecraft assignment over McCoy, the Doctor walks him to the shuttlebay, whereupon he stops the Vulcan from opening the door so he can snark at him a little bit. 

Only problem is...
was Spock really about to enter a room that wasn't pressurized?
I had help for this one. Thank you, Phil Farrand.

Memorability: 4.25 of 5. I give this one a "4" but am adding a quarter-point because of the Information Society song. The "Pure Energy" sample therein is actually from "Errand of Mercy," but I've heard from enough people that they think it's from "that one organism episode, the space amoeba" for me to be on the lookout for that now whenever that song comes up.

Total Points Awarded: 56.25


  1. I've been known to get a little grumpy when someone reads stuff like this into things...but I have to say, you make a solid case for it not being "reading into" at all, but instead just plain old reading.

    I'm not sure where I fall on the subject of the writers being at least semi-aware of what they doing. I suspect that it could go either way.

    (Side-note: that Torie Atkinson crack about TMP's "hilarious vaginal imagery" annoyed me. For one thing, even if that's what it is, does it invalidate anything about that movie? For another, there's plenty of vaginal imagery in nature that doesn't involve actual vaginas. Not everything "vaginal" is actually about vaginas or wombs or whatnot. Every time I "enter" my apartment, must I be aware that I'm re-entering the womb? No. Because, like, what's the option? For me to live on top of a phallic structure of some sort, outside rather than in? Ridiculous.)

    Sexual metaphor or otherwise, I like this episode a hell of a lot. I am an easy mark for stories of gigantic weird space monsters, and this one is near the top of the list.

    1. "Every time I "enter" my apartment, must I be aware that I'm re-entering the womb? No. Because, like, what's the option? For me to live on top of a phallic structure of some sort, outside rather than in? "

      ha! Exactly, exactly. I think there's a tendency to go too far with such things, and I'm definitely skirting the line in this and the last blog. Maybe all blogs, who knows. Happy to hear it stops short of your personal demarcation, though.

      That line ticked me off, as well. A large part of my motivation for doing this series is simple irritation with how far off the mark (at least my own personal mark) I find most of the re-watches/ analyses of TOS out there.

    2. Oh, I don't think you're skirting the line at all. You're not picking at a single detail; you're adding up a series of details, and they're plentiful. I doubt I'll ever see this particular episode the same way again.

      "A large part of my motivation for doing this series is simple irritation with how far off the mark (at least my own personal mark) I find most of the re-watches/ analyses of TOS out there."

      I can think of no better reason to be a blogger. Or to write critically in any way, really. I found myself at one point thinking, "You know, I keep trying to find reviews of things I care about that review them in terms of the things I care about, and there's not that much out there!" The natural solution: write it myself. I'm under no illusion that I'm doing anything that a gajillion other people couldn't do; but that's okay, and anyways, that's not what it's all about.

  2. Another one of my faves. Love the Spock-McCoy byplay. It was never better than here and in "The Tholian Web", although ST II comes close.

    One thing about this episode always bothered me. It was never explained within the episode and I'm pretty sure it's not mentioned in Farrand's Nitpicker's Guides. The Enterprise is being drawn closer and closer to the amoeba. The closer they get, the faster they die. This is pretty well established. Okay. But when they make their move to destroy the thing, suddenly they have the ability to reverse course and leave. If they could have done that at any time, why did they get so close to the amoeba in the first place? Before they even spotted it they knew they were in serious trouble. That struck me as very poor writing. I also didn't approve of Scotty telling Kirk their power levels were at "zero" but the ship's engines, lights and life support were all working just fine. Doesn't "zero" power mean you have no power?

    Aside from these errors, I enjoyed the episode a great deal.

    1. Any time that sort of technical inconsistency comes up, I do my best to just squint and keep walking until I'm past it. I find that if the character dynamics work, I'm capable of doing it; if they don't work, details like that will drive me crazy.

      What it comes down to, I guess, is whether I want to believe in what I'm seeing or not. I always start from a "want-to" standpoint; the trick is staying there.

    2. " I also didn't approve of Scotty telling Kirk their power levels were at "zero" but the ship's engines, lights and life support were all working just fine. Doesn't "zero" power mean you have no power? "

      One more push = push for the baby! "I can't.." "YOU HAVE TO," etc.

  3. Hilarious. The USS Intercourse. By nearly losing Spock but then retrieving him that might lend itself to a return to sanity afterward. I sometimes think you could do a Herman's Head take on it. The members of the bridge crew being like various aspects of one person.