One of our goals at StarTrek.com is to revisit every facet of Star Trek, so that longtime fans can fondly look back and brand-new fans can learn more about Trek’s storied history and the people who helped transform Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars” into the timeless franchise it is today. And that brings us to today’s interview with Arlene Martel. The actress guest starred as T’Pring in the TOS episode “Amok Time,” an hour pivotal in so many ways: it marked Walter Koenig’s first appearance as Chekov, DeForest Kelley’s debut in the opening credits, and the first time Spock said “Live long and prosper.” It was the first and only episode set on Vulcan, with Spock in the throes of Pon farr and returning home to mate with his betrothed, T’Pring. Only she prefers another Vulcan, and Kirk finds himself lured into a fight to the death... against Spock. The episode ends happily, of course, with the stoic Spock even flashing a rare smile.
Martel is still working – acting and writing scripts – and continues to enjoy her Trek association. She occasionally attends conventions, interacting with fans, and even turned up (oh-so) briefly in the fan film, Star Trek: Of Gods and Man.
Let’s start with Trek. You originally auditioned for “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” right?
Martel: Yes, but I couldn’t do it because I would have had to have worn contact lenses. My eyes are very sensitive and I said, “I can’t do it.” They said, “Well, something else is coming up,” and that turned out to be the episode “Catspaw.” So I went up for “Catspaw.” I heard the buzzing and whispering and someone saying, “Well, let’s save her for that.” I didn’t know what they were talking about, and what I didn’t know was they were talking about “Amok Time.” So when that came up and I read for it, that was it. I think there were eight decision makers in the room – Gene Roddenberry and Herb Solow and Robert Justman and others. And I got the part.
T’Pring was this exotic, super-smart, supremely logical Vulcan. What do you remember of playing her, of finding the character?
Martel: One of the joys was that I knew I had an exotic in me, but I didn’t know I had a flawlessly logical exotic in me, because I’ve always run on my emotional center and have usually been cast as very emotional women. I’d played women with different accents and of different ethnicities, and this was a very cultured, sophisticated woman who insisted on specificity and got what she wanted, not because she was calculating and manipulative, but because she was smart. She knew what she wanted was not going to be provided to her by this seven-year mating call. So she took her future into her own hands. And I think she was one of the first really powerful feminists to emerge out of the sci-fi world and I was just utterly surprised that they didn’t bring her back. To just dispense with a character that was so iconic didn’t make any sense to me.
What do you recall of the shoot?
Martel: The shoot itself was a hoot and a howl. Given William Shatner’s proclivity for colorizing phrases with his own inimitable, risqué humor, I was in hysterics most of the time, to the chagrin of the director. Joseph Pevney would say, “Do I really have to come and separate you two? Take a break. Come back and stop laughing.” I have tremendous concentration, but in spite of that Bill Shatner just broke through my reserve and he just had me in hysterics. Especially when dear, dear T’Pau would try to say a Vulcan word, he would twist that word so that it was really very, very naughty. And that made it a lot of fun. Leonard Nimoy, on the other hand, was very isolated and very to himself, probably keeping in character. Leonard and I actually worked together twice more. Before we did Star Trek we were both in an episode of The Rebel (entitled “The Hunted”), where we played mountain people, and after Star Trek I did a Mission: Impossible (on which Nimoy was a regular). If you were to see us in The Rebel and in Star Trek, you’d never know it was the same two people.
Many fans consider “Amok Time” among the best and/or most important TOS episodes. How does it hold up, how does your performance hold up, and what’s it mean to you to be a part of such an important hour of TOS?
Martel: It does hold up. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t re-run it as much as they do. I just saw it a couple of weeks ago. It’s re-run almost more than any other episode, and it seems to be so popular because of the mating issue. To see a Vulcan in the heat of his sexuality is a very interesting thing. It’s interesting to see anyone in that situation, if the story is good, but to see someone who’s usually so repressed going through it, I think that captured people’s imaginations. I think that’s the fascination about it. And then to see how this woman deals with that, and the decisions and choices she makes. My performance, I think, holds up quite well, especially visually. I didn’t have that much to say, but I think you see me and my reactions, and my presence is felt. Looking at it, I can see why they cast me in that role. As I said, I’m only surprised that they didn’t re-cast me. I’m awfully nice to have around on a set, full of laughs and goodwill.
We’re not quite sure how to word this question, but over the years T’Pring helped a lot of young male fans through their own version of Pon farr. You’re aware of that, right? That T’Pring was quite the sex symbol?
Martel: I’ve had many men saying “Do you know how my erotic fantasies were stirred by seeing this kind of woman?” You were given such pap about the blond, blue-eyed, giggly girl, and T’Pring was a woman that would be a challenge, they said. Men say to me, “When I was in my teens, I used to really fantasize about you.” Well, that’s really nice to hear. I’m glad that they survived their fantasies and, more importantly, that I did.
You’ve been acting since the 1950s. Apart from Star Trek, which of your other 100-plus credits are you proudest of?
Martel: Nobody seemed to realize I played Consuelo in “Demon with a Glass Hand,” that Harlan Ellison wrote for the original Outer Limits. That won all kinds of awards. When people come to hear that I played Consuelo, they say, “Oh, that was you?” She was such an emotional woman, the total opposite of T’Pring. I’ve never had a publicist to connect my face with the name, so some of my work comes as a total surprise to people. I also did two episodes of the original Rod Serling The Twilight Zone. One of them was “Twenty-Two,” where I played the Angel of Death as the nurse in the morgue and then as the flight attendant who says, throughout, “Room for one more, honey.” Those are the three shows most people know – Star Trek, Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone – but if anyone looks at IMDB, they'll see that I did nearly 150 shows. I did Gunsmoke and several episodes (each) of Columbo, Bewitched and Hogan’s Heroes and other shows. But no one knew it was the same actress.
What are you working on these days?
Martel: I did a TV pilot in which I was cast as one of the leads. It’s called A Matter of Family. I play the mother of a mafia family and it was an excellent part. They probably would have cast Anjelica Huston if she’d been available. It had an excellent script and exciting new actors. I hope that gets picked up. I'd love to do a series and really develop a character. Recently, I did an episode of Brothers & Sisters and, just the opposite of my role in A Matter of Family, I played a very elegant Pasadena woman who was the grandmother of one of the children in a recital where all the scenery fell down. One of the writers was familiar with my work and recommended me to the producers for that, and hopefully they’ll bring me back. I’m completing a book now, and it’s a love story. I’m working with a wonderful co-writer, Jeff Minniti, and we’re doing it long-distance, which I’ve never really done before. I'm also working on a memoir. And I’ve completed a screenplay. I now have three Oscar winners who want to be a part of it, and they’re (Deep Space Nine recurring guest star) Louise Fletcher, Maximilian Schell and (cinematographer) Vittorio Storaro. I’m very honored that they all feel drawn to the material. I’m actively looking now for funding for that and I feel it will fall into place. So I haven’t exactly been idle.