by Lisa M. Lynch
It brings a madness which rips away our veneer of civilization. It is the pon farr… the time of mating. —Mr. Spock, “Amok Time”
Send the children into the other room for an episode of SpongeBob if you would, please. Actually, if any Vulcans are in the room, they may wish to join the children, as they may find SpongeBob preferable. Come to think of it, you might go too and make it a party. Just keep it down.
What is being written here today, no outworlder must know. Vulcans do not even discuss it amongst themselves!
Amok Time: Spock Really Needs Something
Fans of Star Trek’s original series are familiar with the episode “Amok Time,” written by science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon (who also wrote Season One’s “Shore Leave”). It is generally considered one of TOS’s finest episodes, and it finally truly delves into Mr. Spock’s background and his very alien nature. It also shows a never-before-seen Vulcan vulnerability. Not just an albatross for the half-human Spock, this is a burden for all Vulcans—even those pure of blood. In fact, Spock hoped he would be spared its ravages, uncharaceristically counting on his human ancestry to avoid a Vulcan trait.
The first inkling we get that Spock is having some trouble is when Dr. McCoy stops Captain Kirk in the hallway to ask if he’s noticed anything strange about Spock. Bones notes that Spock has been “increasingly restive” and hasn’t eaten or slept in days. Kirk says it just sounds like Spock in one of his contemplative moods.
Although Kirk is a busy man, Bones stops his leaving when he sees the hapless Nurse Chapel with a tray of Vulcan plomeek soup. She wants to give it to Spock since she noticed he hadn’t been eating. Bones gently chides her for her crush on Spock but tells her to go ahead. She goes into Spock’s quarters while Bones tells Kirk of Spock’s strange response to his request for a routine physical: “You shall cease to pry into my personal matters, Doctor, or I will certainly break your neck!”
Chapel is suddenly tossed out of Spock’s quarters screaming, the soup being thrown after her and splatting against the wall in the corridor. Of course, that gets everyone’s attention. Spock peers out of the door, simmering, and demands Kirk take him to Vulcan, and he refuses to give Kirk any more information than that.
“I have made my request Captain. All I require is that you answer it: Yes or No!”
After witnessing increasingly bizarre and dangerous behavior from Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk orders Spock to submit to an exam from Dr. McCoy. After the exam McCoy immediately informs the Captain that Spock must get to Vulcan, and quick. His adrenaline levels are through the roof. Chemicals are being pumped through his body and if he doesn’t get to Vulcan to do what he needs to do within the next few days he will die. Die! But McCoy still has no idea what is going on.
Kirk finally confronts Mr. Spock to find out what’s chafing his hide. Spock’s reluctant response? “It has to do with… biology.” He asks if Kirk has ever wondered how Vulcans choose a mate. Kirk responds that he assumed it must be done… logically. But Spock refutes that. Vulcans spend all their days thinking and acting logically, but every seven years their logic—their very civility—is stripped away from them by a thing call pon farr. Vulcans become emotional and… perhaps “feverish” might be a polite word for it. It is like the salmon that must return to the stream from which it was spawned to take a mate. The Vulcan must return to his home planet to take a mate in a ceremony, or die trying.
It is a deeply personal thing. It is a madness shielded with ritual and customs shrouded in antiquity, something no outworlder may know. Vulcans don’t even care to discuss it with each other.
What is it about love and sex that makes a Vulcan go mad every seven years? Why can’t they approach these things in a logical manner? Before the Time of Awakening and the teachings of Surak, Vulcans were a vicious warrior race. They nearly fought themselves into extinction with their inability to control themselves. At the time a mindless, violent call to mating made perfect sense. But 2,000 years ago, along came Surak, and over the eons Vulcans learned to suppress their intense emotions and run on logic. The one thing they could not lose, however, was their mating drive. You just can’t mess with the urge to reproduce.
There’s nothing civil about it, but it needs to be done and it will be done.
Spock and T’Pring
So Kirk orders Sulu and Chekov (in his debut episode) to set a course for Vulcan, where Mr. Spock will meet up with his “wife” T’Pring. As is the old Vulcan custom, Spock and T’Pring were telepathically pair-bonded at the age of seven. When the time of pon farr arrives, both mates are compelled to meet at the appointed time and place. They declare: “Parted from me and never parted.” At the meeting place they will go through the wedding, although it is different from the weddings humans are accustomed to. It is known as the koon-ut-kal-if-fee.
Spock brings his friends Kirk and Dr. McCoy down to Vulcan to witness the ceremony. He is quite ready to marry his intended T’Pring, but she seems to have other ideas. She halts the ceremony and calls for kal-if-fee! Spock, by now fully and dangerously immersed in plak-tow, must turn his attentions to fighting for T’Pring.
A Pause for Some Helpful Pon Farr Vocabulary!
Plak-tow—blood fever. When Vulcans are well within the influence of thepon farr they experience plak-tow. They are generally unable to think or speak clearly. At this point they must take a mate or fight for one. According to the Voyager episode “Blood Fever,” Vulcans can even initiate plak-tow in another being of any species with whom they are attempting to mate through a telepathic bond.
Koon-ut-kal-if-fee—marriage or challenge. If the intended consort does not agree to the marriage, she then stops the ceremony and issues:
Kal-if-fee—challenge. The betrothed who does not wish to marry calls for her intended to fight over her with a challenger of her chosing. Usually that challenger is the one she has chosen to be her consort instead. It is a fight to the death, though perhaps it can also be a fight until one surrenders. The winner is to take the wife. If the original intended wins, he usually chooses not to go ahead with the marriage since he was not wanted in the first place, and they divorce. The kal-if-fee is enough to break the blood fever without the act of mating.
Kroykah—“Stop!” T’Pring issued this order to Spock and demanded the kal-if-fee.
With T’Pring wishing to be the consort of another Vulcan by the name of Stonn, she chooses Captain Kirk to fight Spock, much to Stonn’s indignation. Her logic, later explained, was that she did not wish to be the consort of a legend (Mr. Spock). She wanted Stonn, and Stonn wanted her. If Spock fought Kirk and lost, Kirk would not choose her for a mate and she would have Stonn. If Spock won, he would not choose her since she chose the kal-if-fee, and she would have Stonn. Or if somehow Spock chose her anyway, he’d still go off on his starship adventures, leaving her with Stonn as well as Spock’s money and property.
Of course, Spock was delighted to leave her behind, with a little dig at Stonn. She’s yours, Stonn, but you may be sorry later.
The only way a Vulcan can be released from pon farr is to mate, participate in koon-ut-kal-if-fee, or engage in intense meditation. Each time throughout the various incarnations of Star Trek the attempts at meditation have failed. It takes a keen mind, even more so than a typical Vulcan posseses—and their minds are pretty keen. It’s hard stuff. Would that a civilized bout of meditation solve this illogical, sweaty process. But it’s usually bigger than that.
Sarek and Amanda
Some have wondered how Spock’s parents, Sarek and Amanda, got together since they likely wouldn’t have been bonded at the age of seven. Sarek was indeed bonded, but according to C.S. Crispin’s 1994 novel Sarek, he was bonded with the Vulcan princess T’Rea, and during his pon farr he unknowingly conceived with her the infamous Sybok, the smiling Vulcan of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The novel Sarek suggested that upon Amanda’s later bonding with Sarek she learned of this and felt extreme jealousy until Sarek told her of the concept of pon farr.
Voyager: Ensign Vorik (and B’Elanna and Tom Paris)
In Voyager’s “Blood Fever” Vorik makes all sorts of trouble with his high-gear mating drive. He approaches B’Elanna, the half-Klingon, half-human officer on Voyager and proposes marriage. She politely but confusedly declines. Vorik mindlessly and forcefully cups her face in his hands and transfers his plak-tow, or blood fever, to her. She doesn’t realize it at first, and angrily rejects him. She then travels down to a planet with Tom Paris, Commander Chakotay, and Neelix. B’Elanna becomes extremely agitated during the assignment and at one point bites Tom Paris on the neck! Her Klingon drive seems to be in full swing. As she and Paris are separated from the rest of the landing party, she becomes more and more crazed with lust, trying to seduce a very chivalrous Paris who just won’t take advantage of her.
Vorik, meanwhile, is back on Voyager and the Doctor is beginning to figure out, with the help of Vorik’s fellow Vulcan Tuvok, that Vorik is having his pon farr. Tuvok just won’t give out much information, as it is supposed to be a secret, really. But the Doctor figures out what needs to be done and creates a holodeck simulation for Vorik, complete with a lovely holo-lady Vulcan. Vorik pretends the Doctor’s cure did the trick, but he then travels down to the planet to look for B’Elanna, who is on the verge of taking Tom Paris right then and there at the urging of Tuvok. It’s to save her life, you know.
But Vorik, in full-on plak-tow, is ready to fight for B’Elanna. B’Elanna, as the reluctant intended, chooses herself as her own defender for this kal-if-fee and knocks Vorik to the ground, effectively curing them both of pon farr.
In the episode “Body and Soul,” Tuvok goes through his pon farr but tries to pass it off as Tarkalean flu. Meditation is not working and he’s sweating up a storm. Tom Paris knows what’s going on, and has a holodeck program for Tuvok with a holo-wife for him, since Tuvok could not be with his real wife T’Pel.
Tuvok finds the holodeck simulation adequate but he does complain that his real wife’s ears were 4mm shorter than the holodeck version.
Other episodes deal with Tuvok and his pon farr, explaining how he met his wife and concieved his son.
Enterprise: T’Pol (and Dr. Phlox and Anybody Else)
Do Vulcan females undergo pon farr? T’Pol does in the episode “Bounty,” although it is triggered and accelerated by a virus she and Dr. Phlox had picked up. The question is: Would T’Pol naturally go through pon farr cycles if she hadn’t caught the virus? “In a Mirror, Darkly” hints that Mirror T’Pol did indeed naturally endure the cycle and she enlisted Mirror Trip Tucker to help her through it.
Arguments can be made that this was merely an excuse to watch gorgeous sex-crazed T’Pol run around in sweaty undergarments looking for an, ahem, “union” with anyone who would take her, including Dr. Phlox. Although the Vulcans in the other Star Trekseries lost their marbles during plak-tow, none of them stripped down to their skivvies while dashing about the ship indiscriminately looking for love. But in defense of the episode, TOS’s “Amok Time” never stated out and out that pon farr was only a male Vulcan’s cross to bear. It was at best implied, since Spock said one undergoing pon farr must return home to “take a wife or die trying.”
Spock and Saavik
In the 1999 novel Vulcan’s Heart, Spock and Saavik agree to go through the bonding ceremony with a very ancient T’Pau officiating, a very ancient Dr. Leonard McCoy attending, and the nervous and awed young lieutenant Jean-Luc Picard attending as well. Although Spock and Saavik are bonded telepathically, it is not an official koon-ut-kal-if-fee, and they must immediately part ways on a mission involving Romulans. They are of course parted from each other but never parted, and pon farr begins to hit the both of them. They suffer its effects while trying to solve some Romulan-related problems.
It is implied that Saavik has undergone pon farr before having bonded with Spock, so there is more indication that female Vulcans (although Saavik is half-Vulcan half-Romulan) go through the mating drive as well. This contradicts the movie The Search for Spock in which Saavik mentions pon farr is a ritual Vulcan males must endure. However, being a novel, it is not canon. It does allow more room for T’Pol’s pon farr in Enterprise’s “Bounty” though.
In Vulcan’s Heart Spock ponders the pon farr cycle and the effect of warp travel on Vulcans.
“Not even Vulcans had been able to compensate for what warp speeds did to their systems. Not even a mathematician as accomplished as Spock could accurately calculate how much ‘real’ time had elapsed since he had last entered the Fires—particularly with the added complication of his human genes.”
So Perhaps Vulcans in space cannot count on seven years. After all, Spock didn’t experience his first cycle until he was in his 30s, but in the movie The Search for Spock his mindless cloned body underwent pon farr while an adolescent on the planet Genesis. At that time he would have died of course, except for Saavik who came to “help” him, perhaps leaving a smattering of fans slightly uncomfortable about the age discrepancy. But you have to do what you have to do.
And not to fear: In Vulcan’s Heart Spock and Saavik finally do get together and tear apart the bedroom.
Biology and Payback?
There is some argument about pon farr being the price Vulcans pay for their otherwise stoic natures, as if once every seven years the Vulcan body can no longer take it and sets a crash course for emotional turmoil. Or is pon farr simply a holdover from ancient times; a biological urge that cannot be held back? The biological argument wins out in The Search for Spock since the body of young Spock undergoes the event, having never experienced a civilized thought in his short accelerated life.
Spock and… Droxine?
Of course, Vulcans can be attracted to others and even mate more often than every seven years. Only the pon farr is a seven year event. In the third season TOS episode “The Cloud Minders” Mr. Spock is somewhat inexplicably drawn to the very beautiful and airheaded Droxine, and he swoons all over her throughout the episode, comparing her to a work of art and whatnot, despite being years away from his next cycle.
At one point Droxine mentions she heard Vulcan males only mate once every seven years—a true feat of knowledge since much earlier Spock informed Captain Kirk that the pon farr was something no outworlder could know. And yet when Droxine mentions it, Spock is all too happy to discuss a little of this deeply-guarded bit of Vulcan shame, indicating that even though Vulcans do it, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t be pursuaded out of pon farr with an extra-pretty lady. Like Droxine, for example.
Happily that’s as far as they go with that.
More on Pon Farr
StarTrek.com has a helpful video on the magical, awful, and perfectly natural biological function known as pon farr. The documentary is produced in a respectful, matter-of-fact way, and Mr. Spock would really rather you didn’t look.