|Genies and Ladlemen, presenting the Kevin Thomas Riley Revue…|
An argument could be made that “The Naked Time” is the first “proper” Star Trek episode, at least to a certain number of fans. It’s definitely the first truly memetic one: Everyone remembers Sulu fencing, Uhura’s “sorry, neither” line (which is, admittedly, brilliant) Nurse Chapel professing her love for Spock and Spock’s subsequent meltdown and Kirk’s “I’ll never lose you! Never!”. I’ve even read reports of Trekkers going full Rocky Horror Picture Show on this episode when it’s screened at conventions, hissing along with the PSI 2000 virus and cheering at appropriate intervals, although being a lonely shut-in who spends their time marathoning Star Trek and flailing desperately at a keyboard into the wee hours of the morning I wouldn’t have any hands-on experience with that.
This episode was also Bob Justman’s choice for the premier on the grounds that the reduced inhibitions brought upon by the disease would be a good introduction to the characters and their personalities. Justman has a point and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the thinking that went into making an unapologetic remake of “The Naked Time” the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation twenty years later. There are issues with Justman’s argument here I’ll look at a little later, but I do agree with him in the broader sense that the strength of “The Naked Time” is in the fact it’s an Actor Showcase Episode, which is a good thing to put near the beginning of a TV series. Before I get into that though, I want to square the plot away because, well, it has all the same problems every other Roddenberry-produced Star Trek episode does. It’s not as bad in this regard as something like “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “Charlie X” or “The Enemy Within” so I don’t need to go into the same level of detail as I did with those episodes, but it is worth mentioning if for no other reason then to point out how systemic a problem this has become for the show.
The PSI 2000 virus works by producing an effect similar to serious intoxication and strips the victim of all inhibitions. “The Naked Time” thinks this is absolutely disastrous. The Enterprise quite literally spirals out of control because the bridge crew can’t keep their heads about them (a plot point telegraphed in the bluntest, most obvious manner known to mankind by Scott in the briefing room in the first act). It’s clear the episode is treating this as another reiteration of the logic vs. emotions conflict, and given how upfront it’s being about its symbolism we should take this as the definitive statement of Star Trek‘s position on the matter, or at least that of Star Trek under Gene Roddenberry. While there was some room for debate when Spock touts the superiority of logic in something like “Where No Man Has Gone Before” or “The Corbomite Maneuver” because it’s Spock and we’re always meant to be at least a little suspicious of him, there’s really no other way to read the Enterprise screaming towards a fiery death because the crew can’t control their emotional desires. Also, just for fun, count the number of times the word “irrational” is used in this episode, and keep in mind that there is a very strong Western patriarchal tradition of associating rationality and logic with men and irrationality and emotion with women and see where that leaves you.
In the “Mudd’s Women” post I looked at the notion of sexuality as taboo and the subsequent fetishization of it in Western culture. “The Naked Time” has this in droves as well, most clearly observable in its really strange conception of romantic love. Kirk’s attraction to Janice Rand, already broken beyond repair thanks to the appalling rape culture mess of “The Enemy Within”, is once again framed in terms of a forbidden fruit because of his responsibilities to the Enterprise (which, taken on its own, is of course only problematic if you’re thinking purely in military terms) and now we have the added metaphor of Spock’s inner turmoil over his human desire to express his emotions conflicting with his Vulcan desire to repress them. Now it seems we have Star Trek equating romantic love with blunt sexual drive, which is not only laughably puritanical but also really confusing: If the show is trying to make a point other than that we need to suppress each and every one of our emotions and strive to be unfeeling automaton taskmasters I can’t find it.
But the plot and ethics of “The Naked Time”, eyeroll-inducing as they may be, are par for the course at this point. This episode also adds the troubling wrinkle of Joe Tormolen, whose “irrational” thoughts seem to be concern that humanity’s unchecked expansion into space will damage or pollute it, which is a self-evidently valid and laudable thing to be worried about that the episode once again completely glosses over and disregards, but even that is still run of the mill Roddenberry Ethics. That said, this also ties into the other big thing to note about “The Naked Time”, which is that it’s an Actor Showcase, and it’s a good one to boot. It’s easy to see how this could become an instant fan favourite: It’s an absolute riot watching the actors freed from any kind of constraints just allowed to completely run wild with their characters in ways they’d never typically be allowed to.
As much fun as it is seeing George Takei run around the hallways shirtless brandishing a rapier, the immediate standout has got to be Bruce Hyde as Kevin Thomas Riley. Hyde’s performance is completely at odds with something that’s supposed to reduce inhibitions: Far from “giving in to baser instincts” as the script tells us the PSI 2000 virus makes people do, Hyde has Riley put on a one man musical comedy act, hijacking the Enterprise through engineering, declaring himself captain, belting out “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” throughout the entirety of the last two acts over the loudspeaker and giving everyone ice cream. It is absolutely glorious. Spock gets some tossed-off line how Riley’s actions are the result of his “longstanding belief” that he’s “descended from Irish kings”, but this of course does not take at all: Riley’s role in the story is to do nothing more or less than singlehandedly turn Star Trek, for a few beautiful, fleeting moments, into a Vaudeville routine and that alone makes this possibly the best episode in the series so far.
Though Hyde is amazing, this also segues into the episode’s biggest problem (aside from its ethics, of course): A lot of people, Bob Justman included, praise “The Naked Time” for using its Actor Showcase structure to convey intimate details about the main characters (hence Justman’s claim it would have made a good premier) and this isn’t entirely true I feel. While it’s fun to watch the cast act against type, “The Naked Time” is actually rather thin on character development. Let’s look at what we learn about each main character through how they act under the influence of the virus: Sulu is apparently “at heart a swashbuckler”, and while the episode was kind enough to telegraph this early on through his conversation with Riley about fencing, this is never actually brought up again in any subsequent episode (although his interest in small arms is briefly mentioned in “Shore Leave” and the Animated Series episode “The Slaver Weapon”). Even if it were, though, “enjoying fencing” is hardly a significant, intimate reveal about Sulu’s personality.
Similarly, Riley’s fascination with Irish royalty is only mentioned in an offhand comment by Spock to handwave away the aforementioned impromptu musical theatre performance: Riley never mentioned Ireland before or after and when next we see him it isn’t even brought up at all (that Star Trek doesn’t turn him into an excruciatingly awful and bigoted comedy stereotype like the last time an Irishman showed up is something of a miracle, however). Tormolen has his environmental concerns which were again mentioned at the outset, which was good, but he’s dead so it doesn’t matter. Kirk gets some painfully generic speech about the burdens and responsibilities of command which was stale and boring when Pike gave Doctor Price the exact same story in “The Cage”. Everyone else just defaults to “act silly”.
Really the only genuine moments of character drama we get here come from Spock, who I’ll touch on in a minute, and Nurse Chapel, played by Majel Barrett, who makes her first appearance in this episode. Even though she didn’t get the lead role originally written for her, of course Majel Barrett was going to show up on Star Trek once it went to series: She’s just as inexorably linked to it as Gene Roddenberry is, and it makes sense for her to reappear in a Roddenberry-penned episode (once again, the name on the credits says John D.F. Black, who was also working as the show’s story editor at the time, but apparently the script was completely rewritten by Roddenberry before going to air, who didn’t even bother to consult or inform Black).
Chapel is the first character we see who actually does seem to be affected on a personal, emotional level as we learn she’s in love with Spock and, shockingly, the show actually plays it like a serious, proper love scene: Chapel isn’t lusting after or fantasizing about Spock like how every single other relationship on the show to date has been framed, she genuinely seems to love and care for him as a person. And, to her credit, Barrett sells it like an absolute pro, delivering a very sweet, caring, mature and affectionate performance that’s probably her best bit of acting in the entire Original Series. Of course, the show does her no favours given that this is Chapel’s first appearance and thus we’ve had absolutely no opportunities to see this side of her character meaningfully develop to the point where this scene could serve as an effective dramatic climax, but I’ll take what I can get.
Leonard Nimoy is no slouch here either, and plays off of Barrett’s tender confessions to absolutely brilliant effect, portraying Spock as at first recalcitrant and taciturn, then confused, and finally heartfelt, vulnerable and apologetic as he tries to express to Chapel his fear that he’ll never be able to reciprocate and care for her the way she does him. And Barrett is once again magnificent, showing Chapel to be overwhelmingly compassionate and unwaveringly loyal. It’s little wonder this scene is so well remembered and why there is such a strong contingent to pair up these characters. Actually, having seen both “The Naked Time” and its Star Trek: The Next Generation remake quite recently as of this writing, I have to wonder if Denise Crosby and LeVar Burton echoed and inverted this scene for their own private moment on the latter show. As great and iconic as this scene is however, I do leave it up to you all to draw your own conclusions about the significance behind Gene Roddenberry making all the female crewemembers (save Janice Rand) swoon over Spock and then giving him a love scene with his own loverXmuse.
Of course Nimoy’s best performance comes immediately after this as he breaks down in tears alone in the briefing room lamenting his inability to love others. It’s by far the defining moment of the episode, sold even better by the absolutely brutal camerawork: We slowly follow Spock as he staggers out of sickbay into the briefing room, passing graffiti that says “Love Mankind”. Then, once he sits down, the camera creeps around him, just wallowing in his breakdown. It’s pure cinematic voyeurism, but it’s effective. What’s the most astounding thing about this scene is that none of it was scripted: The original plan for this scene was to have a *really* dumb comedy bit where someone draws a mustache on Spock. Nimoy felt he needed something more emotional (how ironic) and ad-libbed this entire sequence starting from where he leaves Chapel and ending when Kirk storms in and screams about antimatter implosions. Shatner’s reaction here is a bit changeable; he doesn’t seem sure of how he should respond to Nimoy’s raw emotion. In the end he decides to have Kirk just flip the hell out and start whaling away at Spock to get him to snap out of it before Nimoy has Spock throw him backwards over the table.Shatner’s performance is suitably histrionic and he rightfully devours half of the conference room in the process, but he really could have played off of Nimoy here a lot better: This exchange doesn’t hold a candle to the one with Barrett.
But even so it was enough: This is Shatner and Nimoy’s first real hyper-emotional scene together of the type they’ll soon become famous for (the exchange in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” having clearly been written for Jeffrey Hunter’s Pike and Barrett’s Number One), and, pairing it with Barrett’s show-stealing scene in sickbay it’s easy to see how “The Naked Time” got a reputation for being a strong character drama even if they’re in truth the only two real character moments in the episode. They’re iconic, memorable moments that stick with people, and that’s really all something like this needs to go down in history. That’s the real strength of “The Naked Time” I feel: reconceptualise it as a collection of fun and giddy setpieces and these moments of tender character drama fit right in alongside Bruce Hyde’s grandstanding and George Takei’s rapier. I wouldn’t call it the episode where we get to know the characters better, but I would call it the episode where Star Trek proves it can have fun once in awhile and stumbles onto the path towards becoming an evergreen pop phenomenon.