“You keep wondering if man was meant to be out here!” moans Lt. Joe Tormolen (Stewart Moss). That’s been a central theme of the first few horror-tinged Star Trek episodes. In this case, though, Tormolen is just over-carbonated. And, in fact, the over-carbonation is the answer to his concerns. Why are we out in space? This is the first Star Trek script that really knows the answer, and that answer is: we’re out in space to see our protagonists overact, damn it.
The story does at first look like another spooky Twilight Zone-in-space episode like “The Man-Trap” or “Charlie X.” Tormolen and First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) beam down to a space station to collect a science team to help with the observation of an imploding planet. When they arrive, though, life support has been shut off, and all the scientists are dead, some in bizarre ways. Much is made of a guy who died in a shower fully clothed.
Spock and Tormolen did wear hazmat-style suits to protect themselves. But in a shocking display of carelessness, Tormolen takes off his glove to scratch his nose, and gets infected with an odd fluid. It makes his hand itch and is accompanied by a nifty rattlesnake sound effect to let you know something is wrong.
When they beam back up to the ship, they’re run through decontamination and given a medical exam, but not quarantined for any length of time. Because, apparently, Star Fleet is run by a bunch of slackers who learned nothing from the Covid epidemic of the 2020s.
Of course, the inadequate quarantine measures are inadequate, and the unnamed disease starts to spread through the ship. If “The Naked Time” were like earlier aired episodes, the epidemic would leave people dead in grotesque and terrifying ways—lesions, faces melted off, gasping strangulation. But this time around we’re trying something different. The infection affects people somewhat like alcohol. Which is to say, it makes everyone grab chunks of scenery and stuff them in their mouths.
Tormolen gets more and more agitated and despairing and tries to kill himself with a knife. But that’s the least flamboyant reaction. Helmsman Lt. Kevin Thomas Riley (Bruce Hyde) channels the (stereotypical) drunken irresponsibility of his Irish ancestors, locks himself in the engine room, and seizes control of the ship so he can serenade the entire crew with repeated off-tune renditions of “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” Navigator Sulu (George Takei) strips off his shirt to reveal impressive musculature, and menaces the crew with his fencing sword, living out his buccaneer fantasies. “I’ll rescue you fair maiden!” he declares to an unaffected and unimpressed Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols). She parries with an ad-lib that is one of the best verbal riposte’s in all of Star Trek: “Sorry, neither.” (They should have just made her captain at that point, but alas.)
Ostensibly, this is a suspense plot; the Enterprise is taking readings of a planet that is self-destructing. They need the crew at peak efficiency in order to keep from plunging into the atmosphere and burning up amidst the gravity and magnetic fluctuations. So the disease puts everyone in peril.
But really the pleasure here is in the round-robin over-acting. Initially, the infection, passed on by perspiration, takes a while to manifest. But as we hurtle towards the end of the run time, onset speeds up.
Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett) gets all dreamy and declares her love for Spock. She grasps his hand, and logical Spock suddenly starts to behave like he’s in a hothouse soap opera melodrama, all tragic mooniness and stifled sobs. He bursts into tears repeatedly while muttering “I am in control of my emotions!”
Then Captain Kirk (William Shatner) finds Spock in his quarters, and Spock grasps him. At which point Kirk too throws himself into the tragic love, revealing that he is consumed by passion for the Enterprise, and also that Shatner is ready and willing to go more bombastic than any three other bombastic actors you can line up for any given scene. He starts casting haunted glances at bulkheads and occasional nostalgic looks at comely yeomen while muttering “No beach to walk on.”
“The Naked Time” was used as a blueprint for the Next Generation episode “The Naked Now.” It’s not a surprise a later series picked it up, since it plots the course for the direction the franchise would eventually take, as characters became more important than plot.
More, the mode of revealing character—through highly contrived space magic which allows portrayals to go as broad as possible—became a Star Trek staple, from the very next episode, “The Enemy Within” to Mirror Universe to holodeck to innumerable AU crack fics. This is the fourth episode that aired, but in a lot of ways it’s the first really Trekkie Star Trek—the moment when the franchise looked into Spock’s quivering eyebrows, inhaled shakily along with him, and declared, “Eureka! (sob!)”
There’s a pleasurable jolt of recognition when you find yourself. There can also be downsides though, as other more intriguing selves get left on the cutting room floor. Weird horror Star Trek was in a lot of ways more coherent, adventurous, and powerful than we-love-our-crew Star Trek, entertaining as the latter can be. “The Naked Time” doesn’t have the focus or dreamlike logic of its predecessors, and so the plot holes and contrivances stand out more jarringly.
The ridiculously poor quarantine protocols are only the start. We’re supposed to believe that security is so lax on a major starship that one lone half-soused goofball can commandeer the entire ship while only half-trying? What does Spock even mean when he says, with Vulcan seriousness, that Sulu is a swashbuckler at heart?
And then there’s the last-minute salvation via antimatter technobabble, which turns into the discovery of time travel. Initially, this was supposed to segue into a second part which became the stand-alone episode “Tomorrow Is Yesterday.” As it is, though, The Enterprise attains the most significant scientific breakthrough probably in the history of humanity entirely by accident, and Kirk shrugs. Roll credits.
The unintentional silliness can be grating. But it’s also part of the charm for Star Trek lovers. “The Naked Time” is the initial, tentative, joyful shout-out to the fandom. There would be many more, but this, Sulu’s pecs and all, remains one of the best.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.