Star Trek TAS: Season 1, Episode Thirteen “The Ambergris Element”

Stardate: 5499.9 (2269)
Original Air Date: December 1, 1973
Writer: Margaret Armen
Director: Hal Sutherland       

“It is quite possible, captain, that they find us grotesque and ugly and many people fear beings different from themselves.”

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Enterprise is orbiting the planet Argo, which was once a land planet which is now almost entirely covered by water as a result of violent earthquakes. The mission is to study the effects of the planet’s quakes in the hopes that this knowledge may save millions of lives on a similar Federation planet. Upon transporting down in a shuttlecraft, the crew encounters an unknown water species, similar to a Danubian whale. Kirk and Spock fall into the water and their lung structure is transformed such that they must live in water. What has caused this change? Apparently, there is some sort of life form that has genetically altered Kirk’s and Spock’s physiology.

Kirk and Spock swim deep below the planet’s surface where they discover an underwater civilization, but they are captured by the city’s tribunal of the Aquans, led by Domar (James Doohan). They explain their scientists induced the physical, amphibious changes within Kirk and Spock, and that it is impossible to reverse the changes. Meanwhile, topography indicates a sea-bottom earthquake is imminent.

Kirk and Spock are expelled from the Aquans, and then rescued by an Aquan named Rila (Majel Barrett) who explains how their species was once air-breathers, but they mutated following a geologic disaster. She also describes ancient documents within the ruins of the planet which could help reverse the mutations. Kirk and Spock swim into the ruins where they locate the ancient documents in a library. Bones then uses the universal translator to identify the unique substance in their blood stream –the ambergris of whales, however in order to concoct the antitoxin, venom is required from the Argo Sur-Snake (the sea creature they met at the outset). For this, they elicit help from the Aquans to capture the Sur-Snake and steal the venom which saves Spock and Kirk. Next, the Enterprise fires phasers toward the planet in order to prevent damage to the Aquans’ city. By preventing the sea-quakes from causing harm, the Enterprise is now armed with knowledge it can bring to the other threatened Federation planet as described at the outset (this other planet remains unnamed).  

My Thoughts on “The Ambergris Element”

“The Amergis Element” provides a unique underwater story a la the Gungans or Mon Calamari in Star Wars that would have been entirely impossible in live action at the time. For that reason, this is an interesting little story. The tensions within the Aquan civilization expose a rift between the young, open-minded Aquans contra the older, traditional Aquans. However, the somewhat far-fetched plot filled with techno-babble ultimately detracts from the broader story in my view. It seems very much at home as a Saturday morning cartoon. Still, the addition of the “Aqua Shuttle” and the “Scouter-Gig” strike me as intriguing –does this ever appear again in future Star Trek?

By the end of “The Ambergis Element” there is simply too much packed into this 20+ minute episode –an older generation of hostile Aquans, Spock and Kirk in search of ancient documents, an underwater city, a giant Sur-Snake with venomous teeth, an impending earthquake which threatened to destroy the Aquans… and also, why did the Aquans initially genetically alter Spock and Kirk only to abandon them on dry land where they would surely suffocate and die? Also, why doesn’t the Enterprise crew simply run Spock and Kirk through the transporter which has already served as a saving mechanism in several prior TAS episodes?   


The idea for this episode came from DC Fontana but was written by Margaret Armen, who wrote three TOS episodes (“The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “The Paradise Syndrome,” and “The Cloud Minders”) as well as two TAS episodes. The other TAS episode was “The Lorelei Signal.”

Star Trek Trivia:

  • This episode features the appearance of a shuttlecraft can submerge itself (the “Aqua Shuttle”). It is uniquely an armed shuttlecraft. Also, the life support belts make another reappearance.
  • As a cost-cutting measure, James Doohan and Majel Barrett voiced most of the additional characters in this episode. Doohan voiced a total of six characters.
  • Director Hal Sutherland (1929-2014) directed all episodes of the first season of TAS. He gained early career recognition working on large Disney animation movies before switching to Filmation where he worked on TAS, as well as Flash Gordon, Batman, and Superman animated shows. Notably, pink is a recurring color in TAS. This is because Sutherland was colorblind and thought he was actually selecting the color grey.

Click here to return to my survey of the Star Trek series.

1 thought on “Star Trek TAS: Season 1, Episode Thirteen “The Ambergris Element”

  1. For Star Trek’s first underwater story, I was quite impressed by this one when I was a kid. Interesting premise to make us imagine what it would be like to suddenly have to breathe underwater like aquatic life. Thank you for your review and trivia.

    Liked by 2 people

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