Teenage Evan knew he was supposed to want sex. Sometimes when I’d watch soap operas with my mom and people would kiss onscreen, I’d feel… tingling. This was probably significant, I thought, and warranted further investigation. I couldn’t ask my mom or teachers at school. Thankfully, I had Star Trek. And it was First Officer Spock who hipped me to the first big clue: “It has to do with biology...”
I grew up Catholic and raised by a single mom, a Haitian-born nurse working 12-hour shifts day and/or night to keep three kids fed and clothed. She wasn’t immune to laughter but was very often gruff and irritable, never suffering foolishness and uncertainty on the part of her children. That affectation didn’t do any favors to my introverted, so-many-feelings-having adolescent self. I don’t remember when I started being cognizant of my sexual attraction to others but, despite her occasional nudging about her friends’ daughters, I for damn sure knew I wasn’t going to ask my mom about what I was feeling. Despite my bashfulness and her awkwardness, my brother and I got The Talk About Sex early, around 14 or 15, if I’m remembering correctly. I say we got The Talk early because I would wind up being, comparatively speaking, a late bloomer who wasn’t part of any beast-with-two-backs projects until I was 22.
Part of my delayed assignation schedule was due to Catholic school. I’d been knotted up in the educational institutions of one archdiocese or another since elementary school and wound up at an all-boys high school in my teens. That meant I wasn’t seeing girls my age—or dealing with the hormonal responses to them—on a daily basis. I was a shy, socially maladroit nerd, and when friends took pity on me and invited me to parties, talking to other people seemed like a mystical art I had no training for. Talking to girls? I’d have better luck ascending to the astral plane. I’d wind up waiting a long time before kissing or holding hands with someone, and even longer before being part of the fumbly experimentation that other teenagers were engaging in. There was some vague yearning but I didn’t even know what I was yearning for. Before you ask: yeah, we had cable. But the glimpses of writhing bodies I saw while frantically switching between channels didn’t offer any enlightenment.
One time, my brother and I wound up at a friend’s house, where we wound up watching porn that the paterfamilas (or materfamilias?) had poorly secreted away. I can only remember flashes: lingerie being ripped, all sorts of howling, body parts I only vaguely knew the existence of rubbing and disappearing into one another. I had the classic Catholic guilt response upon seeing something naughty but, more than that, the madness happening on that VHS tape seemed alien as fuck. Not coincidentally, high school was when I first became intimate with the joy of Trek.
My ritual for watching original-recipe Star Trek was to catch late-night reruns on WPIX Channel 11 in the basement of our Long Island house. My mom would either be asleep or at work, my twin brother would be out hanging with his boys and dancing at clubs and my younger sister would probably be at someone’s house.
I could be alone with Star Trek and I needed to be. As a quiet kid who had intense emotions roiling inside of me and felt on the fringes of various social circles, I identified with Leonard Nimoy’s Spock intensely. Being half-human, Spock wasn’t completely devoid of emotion. For him, the struggle was in tamping down the impulses. It was the same for me during my teenage years but, unlike Spock, I hadn’t yet decoded my feelings to better grapple with them. I knew that saying or expressing the wrong thing at the wrong time would screw me up so I defaulted to not being very expressive at all.
Sexual impulses were harder, though. I was burning up on the inside and I had no real way of understanding it. I’m not talking the mechanics of sex; biology class had given me enough to go on there. It was more that making the connection between my mood swings and physical maturation felt impossible. And all that Catholic dogma had given me a healthy dose of shame and confusion. I was supposed to wait until marriage?! Is that even possible?
Written by Theodore Sturgeon, the first episode of season two of the original Star Trek TV show has a very simple question at its core: how do the icily aloof Vulcans propagate their species? In “Amok Time,” an uncharacteristically surly Spock asks to be granted shore leave back to his home planet of Vulcan. After halting, vague initial conversations with Kirk, the request is granted. But Starfleet re-directs the Enterprise back to Altair 6, where the ascendancy of a new president takes diplomatic precedence. Spock goes behind Kirk’s back and charts course to Vulcan again, forcing the captain to order a medical examination by Bones. During the tense conversation that follows between Kirk and Spock, the first officer is forced to admit that he’s in Pon Farr.
Basically, he’s in heat and needs to get back to a mate chosen for him during childhood. Once they get back to Vulcan, melodrama ensues as mate T’Pring invokes a ritual combat-to-the-death between Spock and Stonn, the dude she really wants to bone. The twist is that she names Kirk as a stand-in for not-Spock, forcing the two friends to dance around each other in the laughable fight choreography that TOS is beloved for. When Kirk seemingly dies, Spock’s mating madness lifts but he’s wracked with grief. (Spoiler: Kirk isn’t really dead.)
“Amok Time” is a product of its time and, as such, is sexist as hell. It’s got women still treated as property—in an advanced “logical” society that should arguably know better—and men fighting for the right to own them. That’s not even mentioning the stereotypical jezebel-style scheming that T’Pring hatches. Despite that, it still moves me. Leonard Nimoy’s acting is brilliant here, from the twitching hand and snapping tone in the first act to the bashful exasperation when explaining that he needed to go home and relieve his pressures. And the look on his face when he thinks he’s killed his best friend, followed by his exultation at seeing Kirk alive, makes me teary-eyed every time I watch it.
Thirty years gone, I can still remember how Spock’s feeling of shame and, later, anger resonated with my teenage self. I wasn’t ever going to fight over a woman like he and Kirk did in this episode but I recognized the fervor that the Vulcan was in thrall to. I knew there was a reason for the hair-trigger randiness I was dealing with and I knew what I was supposed to do with these urges. But release seemed light-years away and any effort to, um, divert my ship to Vulcan would expose my desperation to people that I didn’t want to know. What “Amok Time” communicated to me was the primal urgency of libido. Spock felt betrayed by his body’s core programming and so did I.
Ultimately, Spock’s blood fever lifted after the chicanery was all done. I wasn’t so lucky. But, like my favorite Vulcan’s grudging acceptance of his human side, I eventually figured out that being unrelentingly horny as a teenager didn’t have to mean that I had to be miserable or false to who I was trying to be. I wasn’t about to chuckle about it with my friends like Spock did but I knew I didn’t have to be ashamed of the various conflicting pieces that made me who I am, either.