Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Naked Time

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original air date: September 29, 1966

Crew death count: 1 (and the entire six-person science team on Psi 2000)

Bellybuttons: 1 (Two words: “Oh, myyyy!” We also get another torn uniform Kirk-tease.)

I always struggle with “The Naked Time,” an episode that could be called “Extreme Shore Leave: Enterprise Edition.” Some of the supporting cast get a chance to show off their underappreciated acting abilities (Did George Takei get a better TOS episode?), but the character development feels inconsistent. We do get a few TOS firsts: Nurse Chapel’s first appearance, a first (and subtle) use of the Vulcan neck pinch, and, I believe, our first view of 3D checkers.

Screenshot from Star Trek episode
3D checkers is available for those unable to master 3D chess.

Our crew has arrived at the planet Psi 2000 to observe the planet’s breakup-in-progress and evacuate a science research team. We are reminded that exploration is our overall objective, and all this knowledge gathering has practical long-term benefits, when Spock tells Kirk, “We may be seeing Earth’s distant future.” Yet all six members of the science team are dead (one of them was strangled and this grisly act is treated too casually, even as we learn of the strange disease that’s present). Our expendable landing party member, Tormolen, carelessly removes his uniform glove to scratch his nose and becomes infected with the same disease that drove the science team mad. Soon the disease is spreading through the Enterprise like a novel coronavirus.

Much has been made of Tormolen’s stupidity, so let’s address that. I believe the real credibility gap is the absence of communication with the science team before the Enterprise arrives. The reason for this is never addressed, but once we accept it, we must accept that the Enterprise had no reason to suspect harm had come to the researchers. That means Spock and Tormolen beamed down expecting only a cold (hence the protective uniforms) but inhabitable outpost, not a biohazard. Also, both men operate portable scanners and apparently detect nothing unusual. As someone who has worked in several clinical laboratories, I have sadly observed professionals with years of experience doing exactly what Tormolen does while handling all manner of specimens. I can also attest to the phenomenon of an itchy nose occurring immediately after suiting up with protective gear. So Tormolen’s gaff is not as outrageous as you might think. Later, Spock and Tormolen both go through decontamination in the transporter room and an exam from Dr. McCoy.

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
I have personally witnessed itchy-nose-syndrome

This early sickbay scene is worth noting for two reasons. One is the cool tilting exam beds. Why have I never seen this in any hospital room? Considering the outrageous fees charged by hospitals, the least they can do is provide this technology that doesn’t look very complicated. The second notable aspect of this scene is McCoy’s WTF comment to Spock, “Assuming you call that green stuff in your veins blood.” This would be offensive coming from anyone, much less a senior Starfleet physician, and it’s way too hurtful to be dismissed as friendly banter. In fact, we’ll see later that Spock is affected by this negative talk, which occurs throughout TOS. McCoy does redeem himself later, when he valiantly struggles to save the dying Tormolen.

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
“You’re lucky I’m lying down.”

Soon the virus reaches the bridge, and Sulu and Riley demonstrate the effects of the disease, going on diverging paths that highlight some of my struggle with “The Naked Time.” We’re told that Riley feels a connection with his Irish ancestors, whom he believes to have been kings. He easily takes over the ship and broadcasts his God-awful singing to the entire crew. If the Psi 2000 disease operates as Spock describes, “Hidden personality traits are being forced to the surface,” doesn’t this imply that Riley has some deep control issues that might have disqualified him from Starfleet service all along? Surely some psychiatric evaluation would have uncovered this. Riley’s behavior also leads to inconsistent behavior from Scott, when he and his entire engineering team are suckered into abandoning their posts under the pretext that Kirk wants them on the bridge. Throughout TOS and the original cast movies, Scott is shown to be a suspicious man, and there’s no way he would have fallen for something so outlandish, considering Kirk could have easily called from the bridge for anything important. And, as I wrote about “Charlie X,” this ship needs far more safety protocols. One person can stroll into engineering and hijack the entire ship?

Screenshot from Star Trek episode

Sulu’s behavior makes slightly more sense. Early in the episode, Sulu describes his interest in fencing to improve posture and hand-eye coordination. We’re told that “last week” Sulu was immersed in botany (a little continuity from “Charlie X,” where Sulu was in the ship’s arboretum). This makes sense; it tells us Sulu is an explorer with broad horizons. Later, however, when the ship’s orbit begins to decay, Sulu impulsively leaves his station, telling Riley he’s going for “a light workout” to “take the edge off.” Sulu may be an adventurer, but his immersive learning experiences imply dedication. This is not a guy who fantasizes about running off to be a swashbuckler; he’s already living an adventure by serving on the Enterprise.

“The Naked Time” also introduces us to Nurse Chapel. I don’t know if Majel Barrett wanted more screen time or not, but I’ve always wished Chapel’s character had been developed further, including in the movies. What an introduction, though. Soon, she’s infected by the disease and expressing her unrequited love for Spock. This is the real deal; Chapel loves Spock as he is, for both his human and Vulcan characteristics. More telling is Chapel’s acknowledgment of the crew’s bigotry toward Spock. She says, “Oh, how we must hurt you, torture you.” Unlike Riley and Sulu, Chapel is not indulging a whim while under the influence. She has clearly devoted a lot of thought to this.

Screenshot from Star Trek episode

Chapel’s words trigger a reaction from Spock, who, perhaps because of Vulcan physiology, is affected by the disease more rapidly than the others. Spock demonstrates genuine sadness, barely able to hold himself together, not because he has the hots for the nurse, but because there really is a cumulative impact from both the toxic comments made by his colleagues and the constant effort of separating his human and Vulcan halves. He admits the shame his friendship for Kirk causes him. One can certainly imagine Vulcans engaging in friendship, which is not an emotion but a mutually collaborative relationship, but the strong bond he feels for Kirk would be unseemly.

When Riley loses control on the bridge and Spock orders Uhuru to take over the helm, we get another example of TOS’ lopsided treatment of women. We’ve seen Uhuru at the helm before, in “The Man Trap,” and we’ll see professional women throughout the series. Yet Riley (who, in fairness, is under the spell of the disease at this point), makes the boneheaded remark, “Let the women work. Universal suffering.” Soon he calls Chapel “pretty lady.” Later, Riley, broadcasting to the entire ship from the engine room and still not fully himself, instructs women to wear their hair loosely and go easy on the makeup. It’s hard to imagine the writers giving a female cast member similar dialogue. (“Skip that second cup of coffee, men, you know it makes you trigger-happy with the phasers!”) The lowest moment occurs when Kirk begs Uhuru to find some way to cut off Riley’s broadcast. When she reports this is impossible, Spock actually goes to her station to confirm it, as if he doesn’t trust her. And poor Yeoman Rand. She’s harassed by a disease-influenced crew member, and Kirk discloses his lust for her. He confesses this to Spock, thankfully, and not to Rand herself, but at the end Kirk reaches out to Rand and moans about having “no beach to walk on.”

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
“It turns out she’s a competent professional.”

However, there are a couple of gender-redeeming moments. When Riley’s relentless singing causes Kirk to lose his cool and snap at Uhuru, Kirk apologizes. Because that’s what a leader (or, for that matter, a grown adult) does when he or she is wrong. When Sulu storms the bridge, topless and sword in hand, he grabs Uhuru and says, “I’ll protect you, fair maiden!” Uhuru’s response could easily have been written today: “Sorry, neither.” She doesn’t need his protection, and she’s much more than a fair maiden.

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
“Sorry, neither.”

While Tormolen is the first infected with the disease, I’ve saved his experience for later because it’s so interesting. When he loses control, his response is to fret over Starfleet’s colonial nature. “We bring pain and trouble with us…” he says, followed by, “What are we doing out here in space? … We’re polluting it, destroying it!” This is a valid argument that deserves serious attention, but “The Naked Time” stops short. Instead, Tormolen’s concerns are dismissed. Reviewing the junior officer’s personnel file, Spock reports, “His capacity for self-doubt has always been rather high.” How typically imperialist, to dismiss anyone who questions the status quo as mentally unstable. I wish this had been explored, if not in this episode, then later. It will be years, with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and TNG, before the subject is finally approached.

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
“I see your point.”

After all this, what is the episode’s overall message? Maybe it’s simply, “Drugs are bad.” Even though the Enterprise crew is afflicted involuntarily, the disease is likened to intoxication. As one with little experience with alcohol or other intoxicants, it’s hard for me to understand if our characters would be affected in such widespread ways. But the potentially deadly threat of abandoning one’s judgment to foreign substances is clear, just as it was clear in the 1960s. Gallup didn’t begin polling on drug concerns until 1969, about the time the U.S. war on drugs really took off, but by then 48% of Americans reported drug use as “a serious problem in their community.” (In the same poll, only 4% of Americans admitted having used marijuana.) The Merry Pranksters had started acid test parties using LSD in 1964. (LSD was declared illegal in the States in 1968.) The general public certainly associated the counterculture with mood-altering drugs, regardless of how much actual drug use took place. Even legal substances were a concern by this time. In 1962, partly in response to thalidomide, the Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendment was passed by Congress to require drug manufacturers to prove the effectiveness of drugs before they could be approved for sale. In 1966, the FDA and the National Academy of Sciences began measuring the effectiveness of 4,000 drugs that had previously been approved based solely on safety outcomes. It’s easy to see “The Naked Time” as a parable on the destructive aspects of drug use rather than an ensemble character study.

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
Just enough time to tweet #LoveMankind before the world ends

And what of Kirk, who is not infected until late in the episode? Pre-infection, we see Kirk’s traditional leadership style. He conducts a briefing with Spock, Scott, McCoy, and Rand to assess their level of preparedness for the planet’s pending destruction. When Riley shuts off the ship’s engines, we see Kirk helping in engineering, walking around with a clipboard, because of course this captain does whatever it takes. It’s hard to imagine many CEO’s of large companies engaging in this kind of hands-on work, preferring to let their companies fail before getting their hands dirty.

Only Kirk and Spock are able to gain control of themselves after becoming infected. Spock requires a little help, being slapped repeatedly by Kirk (a delightful, if unintentional, connection with the season two episode, “A Private Little War,” when Spock needs to be slapped as part of a healing process). But they both demonstrate a fortitude apparently lacking in the rest of the crew. Does this mean their personalities are subject to fewer extreme impulses? It makes sense that these two would have exceptional levels of self-awareness. It’s significant that Kirk’s response is not to run wild, but to complain about his inability to run wild. Specifically, he gives, and the Enterprise takes, and his position requires that he not notice his “beautiful yeoman.” Kirk’s resolution is to remain committed to his true love, telling his ship, “Never lose you. Never.” If another crew member had wanted a “beach to walk on,” the Psi 2000 disease might have driven them to whip off their clothes and commence strolling. Not Kirk; the Enterprise will always be his first choice. The others have time to engage in outside activities like fencing (Sulu) and genealogy (Riley). Kirk maintains a higher level of control because, as the captain, he’s on-duty 24/7, and that’s the path he chose. It’s true that we weren’t meant for paradise, but it’s hard to believe Kirk’s idea of paradise would ever be limited to walking on a beach with a scantily-clad yeoman. Maybe that’s the point: our ideas of paradise would be disappointing in real life (because having is not as pleasing a thing as wanting).

Screen shot from Star Trek episode
He ain’t heavy, he’s my Starfleet brother

What have we really learned about our characters? We have a better understanding of Kirk, Chapel, and Spock. But Sulu or Riley? I’m not so sure. We all have impulsive thoughts or emotions that are inconsistent with our general nature, and I believe this is what Sulu and Riley both demonstrated. It’s tempting to connect “The Naked Time” with Jungian archetypes. (Ironically, in the late 1950s Jung published Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, in which he considered the significance of the UFO phenomenon.) Jung’s persona (how we show ourselves to the world), shadow (our darker selves that conflict with cultural norms and expectations), and self (unified consciousness and unconsciousness) archetypes appear in conflict here. Sulu’s persona is the cool navigator but his self yearns for the next experience, which under normal circumstances he can fulfill between missions by learning new skills. Riley’s persona is the fun-loving but responsible officer, but, descended from kings, his shadow resents having to obey orders. Kirk and Spock each carry an emotional burden but have structured their lives with little distinction between public and private, therefore their persona and self are more aligned.

It gets pretty muddled, hence my frustration with the episode. Maybe it’s easier to simply sit back and be entertained by actors given a rare opportunity to cut loose. As Shatner reminded us in the eighties, “For crying out loud, it’s just a TV show.” Of course, if it were just a TV show, we wouldn’t be here. We’re on a mission of exploration, and, as Spock reminds us, “Space still contains infinite unknowns.”

Screen shot from Star Trek episode

We have to remember that the Enterprise crew is a variety of archteype, our future, idealized selves. In the 23rd century of TOS, the Enterprise is where the best and the brightest (and we really mean it, this time) come to achieve their best destiny. Still flawed, they may yearn to cut loose now and then, but ultimately they will rise to the occasion (as they will again, in similar circumstances, in the later season one episode “This Side of Paradise”). This is no gang of self-serving individuals. The crew operates as a team in the finest sense of the word, so if some are incapacitated, they can trust that the others will do what’s needed. Which is why we are not surprised when McCoy saves the day by determining the cause of the disease and developing a serum to cure the crew. We’re equally not surprised when Spock produces the necessary formula to restart the ship’s engines with an unproven technique, allowing the Enterprise to warp away from the planet at a velocity that is theoretically impossible.

In its dramatic escape, the ship achieves time warp, going back in time three days. It’s a Vegas-like trick that undermines the crew’s integrity. We don’t know that they’ll exorcise their wild behavior from the mission logs, but the possibility now exists. Spock points out early in the episode, as if we needed the confirmation, that the Psi 2000 disease is unlike anything they’ve encountered before. That’s exactly what they came into space to find. Erasing the previous three days and blandly setting course for their next assignment (the Psi 2000 destruction, about to repeat, apparently forgotten) misses the point. Spock’s instruction to “remember” in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) didn’t come out of nowhere. A reliable memory is part of gathering and passing on knowledge; it’s the only way we can correct the errors of our ways, hence the importance of the ship’s logs, where alternative facts have no place. Erasing embarrassing behavior might sound tempting, but this crew doesn’t need it. And neither should we.

Next: The Enemy Within