by N. A. Halkides 4/11/14
When I got my first VHS recorder in 1985, one of the things I did with it was start a project to record all the episodes from the first season of Star Trek and examine them critically. I remembered the first season was when the series had been at its height artistically, and although the episodes had been in continual syndication since the show’s cancellation in 1969, I hadn’t seen them recently and was only then beginning to give serious consideration to the problems of the dramatic craft. It was, to use a favorite adjective of Mr. Spock, “fascinating” after almost twenty years to revisit episodes such as This Side of Paradise, which dealt with the need of human beings for continual striving, The Return of the Archons, creator/producer Gene Roddenberry’s rather obscure attack on Christianity, and the subject of this review, John D. F. Black’s The Naked Time which was the series’ seventh episode, first airing on September 29, 1966.
In any work of literature, plot consists of people in trouble, and the more serious the trouble, the greater the potential for artistic achievement. Science fiction, as a sub-category of fantasy, is distinguished by having some fact of reality or natural law suspended for the duration. Putting these two ideas together, we can see that in the best science fiction, this suspension must tie directly into a significant human problem. (Obviously I am condensing matters here since this is a review and not a critical essay, but the essentials are exactly as I have stated them). Many times writers forget these facts, or perhaps never fully grasped them, as in the weaker episodes of The Twilight Zone where some fact of reality was suspended and then the writer simply laid back as if to say “Well, my job is done” when no great human problem was presented, or in much science fiction where, say, an alien race with some sort of peculiarity takes center stage, but again nothing really human is in play or at stake (this was a persistent failing of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for instance).
Fortunately, Black in The Naked Time seems to have understood this, despite not having begun his career specifically as a science-fiction writer. The “fact of reality” being suspended is the existence of an altered molecule of water, which when introduced into the human body causes hidden desires and personality traits to come to the surface. The human problem is the need to keep certain inner desires hidden from our fellow human beings even if that secrecy results in those desires being unmet. This was significant enough, and Black’s handling of it deft enough, to produce one of the best Star Trek episodes (say in the top five) and, since Star Trek was one of the best series the medium produced, one of the best hours of episodic television.
Sent to monitor the impending break-up of a planet, the Enterprise crew investigates a research station located there only to find all the scientists dead, having shut down their own life support systems while doing crazy things like showering with their clothes on. The altered water molecules, which are of course not yet known to be the cause, are absorbed through the skin of crewman Joe Tormolen (Stewart Moss) when he momentarily removes his protective glove. After he and the rest of the landing party return from the station, the water is passed by casual contact from man to man through the perspiration film on their skin until a large part of the crew is affected, jeopardizing the ship.
While everyone keeps some desires to himself, those of three of the Enterprise crew are unusually interesting: Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is attracted to his blonde Yeoman, Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), but cannot express this to her because of his devotion to duty as the ship’s commander, Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett) is actually in love with Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) but out of feminine shyness or perhaps a sense of hopelessness has left that love unexpressed, and Mr. Spock himself has an entire human half to keep hidden lest he express emotion and disgrace himself by Vulcan standards. (The revelation of Turmolen’s capacity for self-doubt is less interesting, and serves mainly to help us understand the effects of the altered water). It is the secret desires of these three characters plus two more that propel the story, as Turmolen passes the chemical to Lt. Sulu, who starts running around with a fencing foil like a character out of The Three Musketeers, and Lt. Riley (Bruce Hyde), who takes Nurse Chapel’s hand in sick bay, thus passing the “disease” on to her.
She begins to speak in a softer, more feminine tone but Dr. McCoy barely notices as he’s got bigger problems on his hands: the “disease” (as they call it) has now been discovered and he can’t get any sensible answers from the biopsy lab whose personnel are affected, while Riley, fancying himself the descendent of Irish royalty, has taken over the engineering section and thus control of the ship, putting them all in danger since they can’t compensate for the planet’s shrinking radius. The physics are a little questionable at this point, since a decrease in the planet’s radius would affect its surface gravity but shouldn’t cause any trouble to a starship orbiting at a sufficient distance from the planet’s center. Still, Black’s dramatic construction is good since the physical danger is a direct result of the incapacitation of the crew by the uncontrolled liberation of their inner selves.
Then Spock arrives in sick bay searching for McCoy. Christine confesses her love to him in the episode’s most poignant scene:
CHRISTINE: I’m in love with you. You, the human Mr. Spock, the Vulcan Mr. Spock.
SPOCK: Nurse, you shouldn’t –
CHRISTINE: Christine, please. I see things – how honest you are. I know how you feel. You hide it, but you do have feelings. Oh, how we must hurt you, torture you…
SPOCK: I’m in control of my emotions.
CHRISTINE: The others believe that – I don’t. I love you – I don’t know why, but I love you. Just as you are.
SPOCK: I’m sorry. I am sorry.
To show how much just having Spock use her first name means to Christine took far greater sensitivity than you would ever see on television drama (or what passes for it) today – more’s the pity. Anyway, now Spock is infected too, and at a critical time: he’s needed on the bridge, for Kirk has gone down to Engineering to see how Cmd. Scott (James Doohan) is doing cutting through the wall to reach Riley. When they finally get through the wall, Scott examines the controls, realizes that Riley has shut the engines down and that it will take a half hour to restart them – more time than they have before hitting the planet’s atmosphere. Scott then delivers one of Trek’s classic lines: “I can’t change the laws of physics! I’ve got to have thirty minutes!”
Kirk decides to pay no attention to the laws of physics, hatching a wild plan to do a cold restart of the ship’s engines, but he needs Spock to do some calculations. When he finds him in the deserted briefing room, he’s an emotional wreck, sobbing as the human half he has buried so long emerges all at once in an unusual (for television) soliloquy. This again is something you wouldn’t see today, well-acted by Nimoy. As for Shatner, he’s about to get his chance to chew the scenery as for some reason Kirk doesn’t seem to recognize that Spock has been “infected” and gets into a brief scuffle with him, thus becoming infected himself. He then delivers his own monologue:
KIRK: Love! You’re better off without it and I’m better off without mine. This vessel – I give, she takes. She won’t permit me my life – I’ve got to live hers. I’ve a beautiful yeoman – have you noticed her, Mr. Spock? The captain’s not permitted…
The monologue continues as Spock comes to his senses enough to start thinking about the matter/anti-matter intermix formula they’re going to need. This again is very unusual writing for television, where most of the dialogue is, frankly, incredibly dull (think The Next Generation). And although it’s become safe and fashionable to make fun of Shatner for overacting, he had a very considerable talent and was able to bring off his role extremely well, even when his acting choices were a little on the large side. That is certainly the case here, and he movingly conveys the loneliness of the commanding officer although Christine’s hopeless love for Mr. Spock, who can never feel as she does, remains more poignant.
Everything finally comes together as Spock does his calculations, Scotty prepares to fire the engines, McCoy finds the antidote, and Kirk clears his head long enough to haul his backside back to the Bridge, which has been without a commanding officer for about the past half hour! I don’t think I need to issue a spoiler alert before revealing that they do manage to save the ship, but in doing so the unnecessary element of a time warp was introduced which weakens the episode’s closing scene and its overall unity. I can only think that someone (maybe Roddenberry) wanted the crew to have the ability to travel through time if needed, and I remember this device was actually used twice in later episodes (Tomorrow is Yesterday and Assignment: Earth). But despite this distraction, the character studies of Kirk, Spock, and Christine come through plainly, and they are the chief interest here since there is no strong theme. At the risk of belaboring the point, what makes this episode so good as science-fiction is that the fantasy element facilitated the achievement of one of literature’s central aims, namely effective characterization, as we get fairly deeply into what makes these three people tick.
Note should be made of the music (no pun intended). Music can add a great deal to drama, as was recognized even in the days of ancient Greek theatre. I don’t remember there being much music during the Golden Age of live television, probably because it would have been very hard to coordinate with the action. When pre-recorded episodic television began, it became possible to fully score each show the way you would a film, although more often rather generic themes were employed, cut in to fit by the music editor and re-used in many episodes – I have even heard the same music used in different series!
Star Trek generally took the more difficult but more satisfying route of full scoring. A number of composers were brought in; for this episode it was Alexander Courage (who also did the opening theme). The score lent good support to the drama, especially the aforementioned scene between Spock and Christine. There are only a handful of shows, such as I, Spy, that can compete with Trek in this regard.
Trek’s cinematography under Jerry Finnerman was also excellent. That was characteristic of the Paramount-produced shows of this period, although the expense soon earned the ire of Paramount executives and was probably wasted on Mannix, but Star Trek deserved the extra care and these old shows are a pleasure to look at even today with their exceptionally sharp, clean look and vivid colors.
Marc Daniels directed the episode with his usual simple effectiveness. He seemed able to get good performances from his actors, as noted. I don’t mean to understate his contribution here, but the preposterous auteur theory of the French is even less supportable in television than it is in cinema, for time constraints are such (each episode must be filmed in six days) that it is the writer, not the director, who describes each camera shot, although directors can and do depart from this plan. The primary author of any dramatic work is the writer, not the director, and that brings us back to John D. F. Black.
Black disliked Gene Roddenberry, and for good reason: Roddenberry had the habit of rewriting Trek’s scripts, even those by writers as good as Richard Matheson and Harlan Ellison, men whose stature and ability far exceeded his own. Black had too much respect for these men and their craft not to object to their being rewritten. And when Roddenberry rewrote parts of The Naked Time without even telling Black, he soured on the show and soon left the series entirely (in addition to writing this episode he had served as Executive Story Consultant and Associate Producer).
Black never wrote another episode of Trek, although writer’s guild rules required that he be given a story credit for The Next Generation’s The Naked Now, in which Roddenberry basically stole Black’s script and reused it to make a “bottle” episode (one that could use mainly standing sets to cut costs). This was only the third episode from TNG’s first season so it did not exactly augur well for the show that Roddenberry was already swiping from the original, but TNG’s many problems are a different subject altogether.
The Naked Time represents Star Trek at its best, along with a handful of other episodes, perhaps This Side of Paradise, Space Seed, Matheson’s The Enemy Within, and of course Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever. It is well worth watching for anyone interested in science-fiction or television drama during its early, better days.