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Star Trek – The Naked Time (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

Star Trek is, by its nature, an inherently optimistic television show. I seem to keep mentioning that in these reviews, as the first season of the show subverts and plays with the notion of an idealised future. However, despite the suggestion that evil is necessary in The Enemy Within or the death of the last of a species in The Man Trap or the suggestion that man’s next evolutionary phase would be truly horrifying in Where No Man Has Gone Before, Star Trek is still a hopeful vision of a possible future. It’s a story about a world where mankind hasn’t wiped each other out and where we can go (relatively) peacefully among the stars. It’s a world without racism or classism. There is sexism in Star Trek, but I’ll give the producers the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s not intentional.

So The Naked Time feels a little weird, being – as it is – a story about the collapse of civilisation at the end of a world. Not our world, mind you, but there’s a very clear sense of social collapse mirrored in the literal collapse of planet Psi-2000.

How logical...

How logical…

Star Trek is very much a product of the sixties. And I don’t just mean when the space!hippies pop by in The Way to Eden. The show positions itself as something of a spiritual successor to Kennedy’s “Camelot”, extrapolating a future where the ideals of the Kennedy era have helped mankind to reach the stars. Indeed, part of the charm of revisiting the show is a sense of nostalgia for the sixties, with the show looking and feeling like the perfect embodiment of late sixties Americana.

This meant embracing the styles and attitudes of the sixties. The show might be set in the distant future, but it is a very sixties version of the distant future, complete with miniskirts and primary colours. (Much like, for example, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is set in a very eighties version of the distant future, with unisex outfits and stylish pastel colour schemes.)

Sulu takes a stab at fencing...

Sulu takes a stab at fencing…

In Where No Man Has Gone Before, the classic Star Trek embraced the sixties fascination with pseudo-science quite readily – with the concept of “ESPer” humans never really touched on again. Indeed, the show seemed quite rational and fairly logical from that point out. However, The Naked Time engages more directly with a more social form of sixties counter-culture. “LOVE MANKIND,” Spock reads on a bulkhead at one point. You’d be hard-pressed to find another image better expressing the flirtation between Star Trek and counter-culture.

It’s worth noting some of the misapprehensions about The Naked Time. It seems readily accepted that the virus seen here acts like an intoxicant. In fact, that’s explicitly acknowledged by the sort-of sequel produced for The Next Generation, The Naked Now. To be fair, McCoy does explicitly compare the effect of the infection to that of alcohol. “Once in the bloodstream,” he explains, “it acts like alcohol, depresses the centres of judgment, self-control.”

Talk about a chilly reception...

Talk about a chilly reception…

However, the impact of the crew doesn’t seem quite like alcohol here. While everybody’s inhibitions go out the window, nobody slurs their speech or stumbles or loses coordination. They do silly things, of course. Sulu swings his sword around. Riley hijacks Engineering and crowns himself King of the Enterprise, while singing Irish ditties. However, compare this behaviour to the way that the crew reacts in The Naked Now. There, Data can barely stand after he is infected, the engineering staff are amused and distracted by the simplest of pleasures.

Here, Riley is the only character who seems like he might be drunk. Instead, everybody else seems to simply have their inhibitions lowered. They do things that they would never do under normal circumstances. Sulu dodges work, first to go to the gym and then to play swordsman. (“Light workout will take the edge off,” he explains, as if his actions are in response to some external pressure.) Nurse Chapel tells Spock that she loves him, despite the fact that we’d discover she has a fiancée in What Are Little Girls Made Of? Spock announces that he loves his mother, something no self-respecting Vulcan would do under normal circumstances.

Infectious fun...

Infectious fun…

Under normal circumstances. That seems to be the key here. Because The Naked Time is not normal circumstances. It’s about the end of the world. Literally. Psi-2000 is, much like M-113 from The Man Trap and so many other worlds from the first season, dead. Indeed, the planet is deader than most. As Kirk introduces the episode, “Our position, orbiting Psi-2000, an ancient world, now a frozen wasteland, about to rip apart in its death throes.” It’s just another sign in these early episodes of the old order giving way. Mankind may be new to this, but the universe is – Star Trek observes – impossibly old.

It’s worth considering the name of the planet that is in its “death throes”, Psi-2000. That’s a pretty apocalyptic name, right there. Remember all the stories and the claims about the end of world at the turn of the last century? The Y2K bug was just the most high-profile, but there was a palpable sense of fin de siècle anxiety approaching the new millennium. On top of that, the “psi” referenced in the planet’s name is the twenty-third letter of the Greek alphabet, and is itself a symbol for psychology and parapsychology. Indeed, the word “psi” has an association with the New Age parasciences that were quite popular in the 1960s. (Apparently the word is related to the Greek for “mind” or “soul.”)

It's not the end of the world...

It’s not the end of the world…

So The Naked Time sees the crew of the Enterprise dealing with the literal end of the world. The collapse of the planet Psi-2000 is mirrored in the social collapse on the Enterprise. indeed, it is suggested that the infection itself isn’t necessarily fatal of itself. Discussing the first victim of the plague, Tormolen, McCoy notes, “That man should still be alive. The only reason he died, Jim, is he didn’t want to live. He gave up.” Tormolen doesn’t die because the disease attacked his cells or because his immune system could respond. He died because he gave up. He died due to apathy.

The Naked Time is about the breakdown of order. Kirk spots “SINNER REPENT” scrawled on a turbolift door, a fairly common doomsday proclamation. Apparently, the infection itself is as a result of water breaking down, of the molecules collapsing and reforming in some strange manner that seems contrary to the natural order of things. “It’s water,” McCoy explains. “Somehow on this planet, water’s changed to a complex chain of molecules.” It doesn’t make any scientific sense, but it’s rife with symbolism. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. That applies to molecules as much to Spock’s sanity as much to the Enterprise itself.

Get to the Chapel on time...

Get to the Chapel on time…

It’s worth remarking that the sixties counter-culture movement was heavily linked to fear of the apocalypse. “What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world,” counter-cultural icon Ken Kesey commented on the Merry Pranksters. The sixties lived in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, and you could argue that the social movements stemmed from that sort of threat.

According to Hippies from A to Z by Skip Stone, the hippie movement itself was formed by the first generation of children to grow up in a world with the capacity to completely destroy itself:

Hippies were part of the first generation to face the real threat of nuclear annihilation as children. We were supposed to be reassured by the fallout shelters popping up everywhere and the drills we had in school where we hid under our desks. Nobody wanted to face the reality of nuclear war. We had to discover that reality ourselves, and bring it to the attention of our elders. Our parents’ denial of the consequences turned to anger in our generation as we learned the truth.

So the social collapse on the Enterprise could be seen as an expression of that sort of counter-culture mentality when facing the breakdown of everything.

"THIS is a knife!"

“THIS is a knife!”

Perhaps most telling is how the Enterprise escapes the collapse of Psi-2000 at the end of the episode. It features the first use of time-travel on Star Trek, barring the trip into Christopher Pike’s memories in The Cage. Of course, it has been argued that The Naked Time was originally intended to lead into Tomorrow is Yesterday, and the use of time travel supports that. However, divorced from that later episode, the ending of The Naked Time feels quite surreal.

“This does open some intriguing prospects, Captain,” Spock explains. “Since the formula worked, we can go back in time, to any planet, any era.” It is definitely an intriguing prospect, Spock. However, only one subsequent episode would take advantage of that fact, Assignment: Earth. And, even then, it seemed like the Enterprise was travelling back in time to earn Gene Roddenberry a spin-off rather than to satisfy other intriguing possibilities.

I am totally Spock...

I am totally Spock…

The notion that the Federation (and Star Trek as a franchise) has such easy access to time travel belies the fact that the cast and crew wind up going back in time more accidentally than with any sense of purpose. You’d imagine that this technique would come in handy in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, but the crew opts to use the technique from Tomorrow is Yesterday instead. While the ending to The Naked Time sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of the series’ continuity and its general narrative rules, it makes a certain thematic amount of sense.

After all, how do you escape the inevitable end of everything? You move backwards in time. You step away from that collapse. As long as we remember that we have a past, we have something to anchor us. “We’ve regressed in time seventy-one hours,” Spock explains. “It is now three days ago, Captain. We have three days to live over again.” Kirk hopes, “Not those last three days.” The genie is put back in the bottle, with the Enterprise having survived a cautionary tale.

A nice storytelling engine...

A nice storytelling engine…

After all, this is Star Trek. You can’t do a story about the end of everything as your fourth episode to air and carry it through to its logical conclusion. It’s very hard to pick up next week if your episode ends on “… and everyone died.” That’s not to say that the ending to The Naked Time isn’t a cop-out. It’s a massive cop-out. But it works reasonably well in context. It’s very difficult to give a show about the apocalypse a happy ending, even a show about an apocalypse aboard a space ship. Time travel is at least a logic deus ex machina, since as the apocalypse is the end, and the only way to avoid it is to move the opposite direction.

Outside of all that apocalyptic anxiety, The Naked Time is interesting because it marks one of the relatively rare times in Star Trek were space itself is portrayed as inherently threatening and terrifying. Before he passes away, having botched a suicide attempt with a butter knife, Tormolen actually questions what mankind is doing out here. “You keep wondering if man was meant to be out here,” Kirk reflects, and it’s rare to see the issue raised so directly. After all, Star Trek generally takes the fact that space is awesome and cool for granted, even when it’s populated with monsters and horrors.

Out of the blue...

Out of the blue…

Tormolen states his uncertainties about the mission of the Enterprise in quite visceral terms, rambling almost incoherently:

We’re all a bunch of hypocrites. Sticking our noses into something that we’ve got no business. What are we doing out here, anyway?

Take it easy, Joe.

We bring pain and trouble with us, leave men and women stuck out on freezing planets until they die. What are we doing out here in space? Good? What good? We’re polluting it, destroying it. We’ve got no business being out here. No business.

It’s a healthy dose of cynicism, and this is one of the rare times that a crew member actually seems uneasy about the Enterprise’s stated purpose. The last time it happened, Bailey was freaking out over alien life forms. Although, to be fair, The Corbomite Manoeuvre ended with Joe conquering his fear and going off to live with a strange-child-like alien. In contrast, The Naked Time is much more cynical. Tormolen dies. And he doesn’t even die for a reason – he dies because he can’t continue living.

Nursing a broken heart...

Nursing a broken heart…

The Naked Time acknowledges that space is full of the unknown and the unknown is inherently scary. Returning from the mission, Spock states, matter-of-factly, “It could be some form of space madness we’ve never heard of, but it would have to be caused by something. Our spectro-readings showed no contamination, no unusual elements present.” Scott astutely responds, “Or at least none your tricorders could register.” Spock concedes the point. “Instruments register only those things they’re designed to register. Space still contains infinite unknowns.” And the unknown is inherently scary, a reflexive response to the threats that stalked our ancestors in the darkness.

If we accept this, then Tormolen’s concerns are legitimate. Given all the risks involved, the dangers the crew faces week-in and week-out, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask why the Enterprise does this sort of thing. It is especially reasonable to ask that question in a future where everybody has their needs attended to, where mankind isn’t driven onwards by dependency on minerals or a need for space.

If you were on the fence, this might convince you...

If you were on the fence, this might convince you…

Spock offers an answer in exploring the collapse of Psi-2000. “A valuable study,” he explains. “We may be seeing Earth’s distant future. Before its sun went dark, this planet was remarkably similar to yours.” We travel the cosmos to learn more about ourselves. Understanding the universe is important. It has its own merits, but it’s also fundamentally important because through understanding the way the universe operates, we can understand our own existence. Psi-2000 offers a preview of things to come, much as The Naked Time offers a glimpse of social collapse at the end of the world.

The Naked Time also works relatively well as a character study. To be fair, a lot of the stuff brought to the surface could have been implied. We know from The Corbomite Manoeuvre that Kirk loves (no, really loves) the Enterprise. However, Spock is so closely guarded and closed-off from the rest of the crew that The Naked Time provides a rare glimpse into the Vulcan’s psyche. It also gives Nimoy a chance to demonstrate that he is more than just the perfect straight man. Nimoy is a tremendous actor and – while I believe the leading trio on Star Trek all handle themselves very well – I think that Nimoy is the strongest member of the ensemble.

He's got a lot of heart...

He’s got a lot of heart…

With the virus eating away at Spock’s inhibition and emotional control, Nimoy is superb. We get a sense of what has only been implied up to this point. In particular, the notion that Spock loves his mother – but could never admit it under any other circumstance – is especially heartbreaking:

My mother. I could never tell her I loved her.

We’ve got four minutes, maybe five.

An Earth woman, living on a planet where love, emotion, is bad taste.

We’ve got to risk a full-power start. The engines were shut off. No time to regenerate them. Do you hear me? We’ve got to risk a full-power start!

I respected my father, our customs. I was ashamed of my Earth blood. Jim, when I feel friendship for you, I’m ashamed.

It really gives a sense of just how restrained Spock is that simply calling Kirk “Jim” constitutes a major emotional weakness.

Taking the tube...

Taking the tube…

The rest of the cast do okay. Star Trek never really bothered too much with the supporting ensemble, at least not until the films. William Shatner occasionally “borrowing” lines from his co-stars probably didn’t help, but most of the supporting cast were hardly used to begin with. Indeed, The Naked Time explicitly acknowledges that Sulu is suddenly into fencing despite the fact that we’ve never seen him express an interest in it before. Indeed, the last time we got a glimpse into Sulu’s personal life – in The Man Trap – he was running the ship’s arboretum.

When Sulu offers to get Riley interested in fencing, Riley acknowledges how slightly surreal this is. “Last week it was botany he was trying to get me interested in. I was supposed to be collecting leaves, plant specimens.” The reference to “last week” is especially telling. Despite the fact that they were aired a few weeks apart (and, as a result, Sulu’s shift is not as noticeable), they were shot back-to-back. From the point of view of the cast and crew, it really was “last week” that Sulu was into botany. But, then again, the image of a half-naked Sulu with a watering can isn’t nearly as iconic as George Takei waving his sword around the ship.

Everything's a little bit sideways...

Everything’s a little bit sideways…

It’s worth noting that Sulu’s sword-related hobby is fencing. One of the small complaints I had with the reimagined 2009 Star Trek movie was the fact that the film gave Sulu a samurai sword. Having the Asian cast member using a samurai sword seems a bit cliché, and it’s a shame that The Naked Time actually seems more progressive than a film released four decades later. Indeed, in his introduction to the VHS edition of the episode, Takei notes that the choice of weapon is small, but significant:

Writer John D.F. Black came to see me and explained that he wanted a scene where Sulu went berserk. He could not decide whether Sulu’s weapon should be a samurai sword or a fencing foil. I suggested the fencing foil because – by the 23rd century – a man’s cultural heritage should greater than just his ethnicity. John agreed and wrote me some fantastic scenes in a powerful dramatic story.

I agree entirely, and I’ll concede that – while some of the supporting cast members of Star Trek were never really well defined on the show – little touches like this went a long way towards developing them as more than mere cardboard cut-outs.

Getting to the point...

Getting to the point…

And, like The Man Trap, we get another tiny morsel of Uhuru-related goodness. “I’ll protect you, fair maiden!” Sulu declares, grabbing Uhuru and swinging his sword. Uhuru calmly responds with, “Sorry, neither.” It’s weird to see that explicitly acknowledged on sixties television, and I’m quite surprised that it got past the network censors. It really is a shame that the show never did more with Nichelle Nichols. Whenever the scripts gave her anything to do, she was superb. Sadly, it wasn’t nearly often enough.

That said, despite all this interesting stuff going on, The Naked Time does feel a bit shoddily constructed. I love those goofy environmental suits that the cast of the original Star Trek wear, and I don’t mind too much that it’s clear that the helmets aren’t air-tight. After all, while Star Trek might have had an impressive production budget when compared to, say Doctor Who, it was still limited.

"This bubblewrap should protect us..."

“This bubblewrap should protect us…”

However, the fact that story requires Tormolen to do something incredibly stupid in order to get infected feels a bit trite. I did wonder about removing his gloves in the first place. Tormolen confirms that the life support systems “were” off, but everything is still frozen solid. Surely removing your glove would be intensely uncomfortable in those temperatures, assuming that a non-toxic atmosphere existed? And then he touches stuff. It feels like a lazy way to get the plot going.

It would almost be better to begin like The Naked Now did on The Next Generation, with the team not wearing any protection – rather than drawing attention to how stupid it would be to be wearing protection and then remove it. This clumsy start, coupled with the weird time travel ending, suggests that The Naked Time is hardly the most skilfully plotted adventure in the Star Trek mythology, even if the ideas and the atmosphere are very compelling.

I can safely say that Kirk's training never prepared him for this...

I can safely say that Kirk’s training never prepared him for this…

Still, The Naked Time is interesting, even if the story mechanics aren’t necessarily the smoothest ever to appear in the franchise. It’s easy to see why the show became a favourite at conventions, and even why the production team decided to revisit it with the second episode of The Next Generation. I appreciate the imagery and the ideas more than I respond to the story, but it’s the perfect example of Star Trek playing with sixties counterculture, and surviving as a pop culture artifact of that period.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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