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In simplest terms, pon farr is the Vulcan time of mating, first mentioned in the TOS episode "Amok Time", written by Theodore Sturgeon. During pon farr, adult Vulcans undergo a neurochemical imbalance that takes on a form of mental instability, culminating in madness (the plak tow or blood fever) along with a biological imperative to return home. A Vulcan could die within eight days if pon farr isn't satiated, either through taking a mate, or going through a kal-if-fee (a challenge fight: part of the Vulcan mating ritual known as koon-ut-kal-if-fee).
Theodore Sturgeon's original idea was that Vulcans mate only once every seven years of their adult life. Continuity editor D.C. Fontana amended this in memos which were reprinted in Stephen Whitfield's The Making of Star Trek: "The specific time interval between these occurrences varies from male to male and by other circumstances. The average is about once every seven Earth years when a Vulcan is separated from his people as is Spock, more often if living among his own kind.""
"Spockanalia" and Pon FarrThe very first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia, was published while the show was in its first run on the air. In issue one, there was an essay called "Thoughts on Vulcan Culture," written about six months before the episode "Amok Time" aired. Because of this timing, when that essay was reprinted in Vulcan Reflections, some of its speculations were jossed; the zine's editor wrote an addendum which addressed the subject of pon farr:
A number of profound revelations about the culture of Vulcan were made last September 15. Although certain observers were not happy about what was learned, few came to the obvious conclusion that Vulcan simply as not attained the easy, smoothly running, mechanically logical culture and it holds as an ideal. The people have deeply-felt biological needs, and, as with all cultures, this one must find a way to fulfill or sublimate these needs. Until they can be genetically eliminated (if ever), they must be controlled, and this is the part of culture.
[snipped]It seems clear that there are many complexities as yet undiscovered in the Vulcan culture. The culture which produced Mr. Spock must be good deal more varied and problem-filled than the rather dull stereotype we were led to infer from early information. We hope that future information will bear out our belief that the culture is as alien and interesting as it now seems to be.
In both heterosexual and slash TOS and reboot fan fiction, pon farr stories are very popular. They provide an easy way to get Spock and a man (usually Kirk, although McCoy is another common pairing), or Spock and a woman together -- just strand them on a planet at the wrong time, and poof, they're a couple. 
Pon farr also features in fan videos or vids, such as the well-known Closer, and in fanart, though perhaps less often than in fic. K'sal's essay A Logical Look At Amok Time argues that this episode subversively writes the Kirk/Spock sexual relationship into canon.
In her "Vulcan Love Song" (Spockanalia 2), Dorothy Jones Heydt writes of pon farr and koon ut kal-if-fee as experienced by a young woman in the pre-Reform era, when men had to kill to win their mates. The words are arranged in a traditional Vulcan stanza with pairs of eight-syllable lines ("The sky arched fire; my path was made. / I rose up to the sound of bells.").
In Kraith, Jacqueline Lichtenberg addressed the question of how Spock was allowed to go into Starfleet in the first place. In the Kraith novel Federation Centennial, a Starfleet congress convenes to discuss a huge overhaul of regulations to facilitate true accommodation and equality for all races in the Space Services. Here, an Andorian captain has Captain Kirk on the hot seat, and talks about why Starfleet should ensure that Vulcans' requests for home leave should immediately be granted.
- "Because Star Fleet regulations are oriented to the needs of humans, countless nonhuman members of the Service are daily put through personally agonizing experiences . . . which are totally senseless. Because of this deplorable situation, Captain Kirk had to risk his career . . . to save the life of his First Officer. I submit, Gentlebeings, that had there not been longstanding . . . friendship . . . between the human Captain and his Vulcan First Officer, that First Officer would be dead today . . . an incalculable loss to Star Fleet, to the Federation, and to Vulcan."
- "Now, I ask you to consider what would have happened had the Vulcan in question been an Ensign assigned to a research laboratory instead of the First Officer of the ship?"
- He paused eyeing each of the Committee in turn. "I submit that this is one reason so few Vulcans volunteer for Star Fleet. I have documented evidence that on twelve other occasions, Vulcan Star Fleet Officers have undergone even worse experiences. There have been two cases of unexplained deaths of Vulcans who were taken ill and hospitalized following denial of their requests for home leave. Yet Star Fleet regulations have not been changed in spite of the repeated requests of the Vulcan authorities."
Open questions About Pon Farr
How violent is the sex during pon farr? At the time that most early TOS fiction was written, fans didn't have much information on pon farr, and so each author could make choices about how violent or peaceful sexual intimacy during pon farr might be.
Lelamarie S. Kreidler's "Time Enough" (Spockanalia #4) proposed that pon farr sex was initially fairly rough, but became gentler over the next few days. This pattern was followed by many other fan authors. Some fans believed that a telepathic link between partners was necessary for pon farr sex to alleviate the male's stress.
M.L. Barnes in her article "The Vulcan Love Myth" (Eridani Triad #3) emphasized that the nature of pon farr precluded Spock's being any kind of gentle or considerate bedmate, that T'Pring's behavior indicates that the females feel nothing and are completely passive, and that "what we are talking about is simple rape". Dismissing the idea that the telepathic matrimonial bond could make a difference, and failing to distinguish between rape and ravishment of a willing partner, Barnes concludes that women who are fascinated by pon farr feel a "secret and deeply buried thrill" at the notion of rape.
In Karla Taylor's "All Vulcan In One Tightly Wrapped Package", she observes that "Amok Time" is a "sly, mordant comment on our own repressed, hedonistic culture". Like Barnes, Taylor argues that the culmination of pon farr is rape, with women as "dutiful, willing participants... pleasure would not be a consideration". She asks what would have happened had Kirk really died. She also explores the idea that pon farr is an allegory of rabies.
In a very early K/S story, Desert Heat by Gayle F, Spock can barely control his greater-than-human strength and frequent need; Kirk ends up in Sickbay. This story became a model for many other K/S stories. In contrast, het stories tended to show pon farr as little more than an energetic romp (perhaps best seen in the The Night of the Twin Moons series by Jean Lorrah). Fever was a K/S anthology zine for only pon farr stories.
What is the female's role? Spock's affianced bride appeared not to be experiencing high levels of stress or the plak-tow blood fever, leading to various speculations on the female's role in pon farr. Were they always that cool and calm, or was T'Pring's behavior the result of her being uninterested in Spock? If Vulcan women always behave calmly at pon farr, does it serve a purpose -- perhaps to guide and direct the male back to sanity? What happens to a woman in pon farr if she is separated from her husband?
In Dorothy Jones' "Vulcan Love Song" mentioned above, the girl feels a "great silence" in her heart, but clearly experiences passion and desire, as well as love for her mate.
In "Amok Time", T'Pau, an older woman played by Celia Lovsky, was in charge at koon-ut-kal-if-fee. While "Journey to Babel" indicated that a wife has to obey her husband, T'Pau's presence argues that Vulcan is at least partly a matriarchy, or that leaders are whoever is most qualified regardless of gender. What happens to them if they go into pon farr and go off their rockers? Jacqueline Lichtenberg's Kraith proposes that women like T'Pau are the Daughters of Tradition, sterile females who never experience the imbalances of pon farr.
A contributor to TrekBBS speculated on the origins of pon farr and the female's role:
If the purpose (one of) behind pon farr isn't just for a couple to engage in sex, but for that sex to result in a pregnancy, then it makes sense for the female to be experiencing pon farr too, not just the male. The way I see it, the female would begin her pon farr cycle when she entered the Vulcan equivalent of estrous, she would then "send" a signal to the bonded male triggering his pon farr to begin. It wouldn't make any sense to arrive prior to the bride being ready, or at all if she were deceased. In historic times the groom would simply walk across the village or come in from the fields. But in ancient times, before bonding, the bride might have broadcasted her "readiness" to every male for hundreds of kilometers. All of whom would have come running. Part of the idea behind the arranged marriage of children would be a form of "crowd control." Because T'Pring was sending a signal solely to Spock, the signal could cross considerable distances, similar to Spock feeling the deaths of the Vulcans aboard the starship Intrepid . It's possible that Spock and T'Pring, since being bonded as children, have had a constant low-level contact.
Vulcans mate normally any time they want to. However, every seven years you do the ritual, the ceremony, the whole thing. The biological urge. You must, but any other time is any other emotion - humanoid emotion - when you're in love. When you want to, you know, when the urge is there, you do it. This every-seven-years business was taken too literally by too many people who don't stop and understand. We didn't mean it only every seven years. I mean, every seven years would be a little bad, and it would not explain the Vulcans of many different ages which are not seven years apart.
In her novel Vulcan's Glory, Fontana wrote sex scenes for Spock and his friend T'Pris, establishing that the pon farr is only a fertility cycle but that Vulcans can have sex anytime. Although the novels are not supposed to be canon, many fans regard Fontana's writing as canon because of her exemplary work on shaping continuity for the original series.
Talking about Spock's quietly flirtatious behavior with Droxine in "The Cloud Minders" (apparently added because third season producer Fred Freiberger had been told that Star Trek needed to attract more female viewers), Gene L. Coon wrote:
Mr. Spock does not come into heat only when Saturn is in Cancer. We have done a complete show about Mr. Spock's breeding habits, which originally were those similar to the salmon on Earth. That is, he had to essentially swim upstream and spawn. But due to the experience he went through in "Amok Time," Mr. Spock’s human side won out and now he can screw like anyone else.
However, Spock does say in this episode that "the seven year cycle is biologically inherent in all Vulcans." Judith Wolper, in a 1979 letter to Trek magazine, questioned if this is consistent with the destructive passions of Ancient Vulcan history. Possibly the Reform-era Vulcans initiated the pon farr as a an emotional release (McCoy touches on this with his line "perhaps the price they pay for having no emotions the rest of the time"). She also debates the notion that pon farr is a female fertility cycle; if it were, Vulcan would be overpopulated. 
Kyle Holland, in "Why Spock Ran Amok" (Best of Trek 7), claims that what Spock went through was not a real pon farr but a complex reaction to the inner conflict of his Terran and Vulcan qualities. If the objective of pon farr is to reproduce -- ancient Vulcans killed "to win their mates" -- Spock would not have recovered as soon as he thought he killed Kirk. Holland also proposes that Vulcan women trigger the pon farr deliberately, initiating the release of hormones through the marital bond.
Holland's article was extremely controversial at the time and there were many responses. Katherine Wolterink responded two years later with "In Defense of Pon Farr" (Best of Trek 11) pointing out a number of implications in the idea that women deliberately set off pon farr in their mates. "If Vulcan women had such abilities, it would give them almost unlimited power over the men with whom they were bonded." Looking at it from the perspective of what is known about male and female estrus cycles in nature, plus the fact that Spock says both are drawn to the marriage venue at the proper time, Wolterink concludes that pon farr is two-way and that the act of killing can resolve the madness, as Sturgeon originally proposed. Holland rebuts some of this in "Pon Farr and the Search for Identity" (Best of Trek 13) reminding readers that Vulcan women are extremely powerful in canon -- T'Pau, T'Lar and the Kohlinar elder are referenced -- and reiterating that if the pon farr is about reproduction, then what Spock went through wasn't the genuine article.
And in "The Vulcan Heart, The Vulcan Soul" in Best of Trek 12, Nancy Hardenberg recalls Dr. McCoy's statement that it's the physical and emotional pressures of the extreme hormone imbalances in pon farr that can lead to death. Vulcans need an outlet for these pressures, but not necessarily sex; so this is why the challenge fight and the "death" of Kirk returned Spock to normal.
In the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a footnote by Admiral Kirk alludes to Spock only coming into "sexual heat" once every seven years. The meaning of this is open to interpretation: either he is incapable of any type of sexual response between pon farrs or, to use the estrus example in mammals, it would mean Spock's physiology is capable of procreation only every seven years. To address the latter point, there are many examples of animals who go through a rutting season, continuing sexual activity outside this time.  The ambiguous notation ultimately provides no definitive answer.
As a result, there is no fannish consensus: It has been written both ways, as well as stories where Spock (and other Vulcans) are basically brainwashed to believe that they can only have sex during pon farr, but their human mate (usually Kirk) figures out that sex is possible outside of the fever. According to Jean Lorrah, "In the early days of Trek fan writing, the vast majority of stories assumed that Vulcans were asexual when not in pon farr."
Does going through pon farr together permanently bond a couple together? In the episode Spock described how a couple are paired as children, one touching the other to feel each other's thoughts, their minds "locked together" in a ceremony which is "less than a marriage but more than a betrothal". This leaves it open as to whether a non-bonded couple have to connect in order for the pon farr to resolve properly. Lelamarie Kreidler's "Time Enough", the very first pon farr story to be published, had Spock and Lian making some telepathic connection, but parting amicably without bonding. However, other early TOS fan stories such as Judith Brownlee's "To Seek Thee Out" (Eridani Triad #1) usually included Spock establishing a matrimonial bond with his chosen mate. Many stories of Sarek and Amanda include some description of how they experience the marriage bond. Also, telepathic bonds are a perennially popular fannish story trope. Some stories flirted with the idea that the couple would remain bonded, but the bond could be undone afterwards if both agreed.
What is a normal Vulcan marriage ceremony like? Spock's marriage ceremony was interrupted by T'Pring's challenge. Fanfiction authors and artists have speculated less on this. However, Karla Taylor believes that a traditional Vulcan wedding ends with the bride and groom consummating right there in front of everybody. Dorothy Jones Heydt's poem had the couple simply leaving for a private place: Now I know where this day has led / to this hollow in the wind's arms.
In Later Trek Canon
Both Voyager and Enterprise had Vulcan characters who went through pon farr; in each instance, the canon of pon farr expanded, as characters had to find ways to survive pon farr without other Vulcans available. Eventually it was shown that partners for a pon farr did not end up bonded together, and in fact, simple intensive meditation might be enough to survive pon farr in the absence of a suitable mate. Not all fans appreciate these changes to the original canon.
ST Episodes That Have Given Information on Pon Farr
- TOS: Amok Time
- TOS: The Cloud Minders
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
- VOY: Blood Fever
- VOY: Ex Post Facto (trivial mention)
- VOY: Flashback (trivial mention)
- VOY: Body and Soul
- ENT: In a Mirror, Darkly
- ENT: Bounty
- ENT: Home
The concept of pon farr is so well known that it's been used as a base word to coin fannish phrases, usually about near-manic, focused fanac:
- Con Farr -- the overwhelming, almost physical need to get to a con for fannish interaction (and zines)
- Zine Farr -- the overwhelming need to put out a zine, often leading up to a con
- Vid Farr -- the overwhelming need to finish a vid
- pon farr article on the Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha
- Thoughts on the Vulcan Culture: Sexuality and pon farr -- from Canon Fodder: Fixing the Star Trek Discontinuity
- Natal homing
- Salmon run
- The Delicious tags for LJ's Kirk/Spock community show that one in five stories (totalling 68) posted to the comm. in the year after the reboot movie's release involved pon farr
- The LJ Spock/McCoy community lists over 500 members, and while only a fifth of the size of the Kirk/Spock community, still represents a significant number
- Fans writing from this perspective ignore the fact that Spock said the mating drive makes you return home to marry. He focused much more on that in the explanation to Kirk, comparing it to fish and birds that return to their birthplace. His ordering a course change to Vulcan while in a fugue state bears out the idea that it's an irresistible pull home, not just a drive to mate or kill.
- for example, pon farr by Jou with Vulcan original male characters. (accessed 29 Jul 2010)
- In Best of Trek 16, (Roc, 1991).
- Descriptions of Spock's experience in the episode employ many fire references. Perhaps in a normal wedding the female is cool like water.
- T'Girl, Pon Farr Research. TrekBBS Post dated Nov. 24, 2011.
- Edward Gross, Mark E. Altman, Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages (Little, Brown & Co, 1995), p. 53.
- Let's hope not. That would be more like every 28-30 years.
- Quoted in Marc Cushman, These Are the Voyages - TOS: Season Three (Jacobs Brown Press, 2015).
- "A Letter From Judith Wolper", Best of Trek 3 (Signet 1980), p. 82-83.
- Kyle Holland, "Why Spock Ran Amok", Best of Trek 7 (Signet, 1984).
- Katherine Wolterink, "In Defense of Pon Farr". Best of Trek 11 (Signet, 1984), p. 197.
- Kyle Holland, "Pon Farr and the Search for Identity". Best of Trek 13 (Signet, 1988), p. 48.
- Nancy Hardenberg, "The Vulcan Heart, The Vulcan Soul". Best of Trek 12 (Signet, 1986), p. 41.
- Selected text from the novelization of Star Trek:The Motion Picture
- Wikipedia entry on rutting animals
- Evolving Towards Forever a story by Elise Madrid, has Spock bonded to Kirk, but apparently incapable of responding sexually outside of pon farr.
- Introduction to Jean Lorrah's Sarek Collection, 1979.