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The Trek Nation - The Naked Time

The Naked Time

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at June 10, 2005 - 10:16 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Naked Time' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise has been sent to witness the final hours of a planet and to evacuate scientists who have been studying its death throes, but when a landing party beams down, they find that the scientists have killed one another. Crewman Tormolen comes into contact with a mysterious pathogen that makes him itch, carrying it back to the ship. The virus makes him despondent, and during a suicide attempt, Sulu and Riley come into contact with it as well. Soon much of the crew is affected, with dormant personality traits coming to the fore. Riley takes over engineering and shuts down the engines, requiring a dangerous cold start to prevent the ship from breaking up in the planet's atmosphere, but Spock has been affected as well and must regain control to help Scotty restart the ship. The ship is thrown back in time as its velocity goes off the scale. McCoy synthesizes an antidote to the virus, and Spock says that now they know they can travel back to any era on any planet.


Analysis: "The Naked Time" is one of the most oft-imitated episodes of Star Trek. Because it's so close to being an Alien Sex Disease of the Week story, it often gets lumped in with those...you know the sort, where everyone catches a virus or stands under a brain cloud that gives everyone a reason to flirt. Every long-running fantasy show from Farscape to Xena has done some version of this. The Next Generation offered a direct homage, "The Naked Now", while Deep Space Nine did slight variations with "Dramatis Personae" and "Fascination." Even Galaxy Quest worked in a parody, mentioning the inevitable episode where senior officers found themselves thinking naughty thoughts to one another.

Because The Next Generation's version is so sex-specific - Yar pursues Data, Troi pursues Riker, Crusher pursues Picard - I tend to remember "The Naked Time" as "the one where someone showers with his clothes on, Riley sings 'Kathleen', Chapel tells Spock she loves him and Kirk admits he has the hots for Rand." But there's a lot more going on than that, from one of the more interesting ship-in-peril plots to a great deal of pivotal character development particularly where Spock is concerned. It's striking how many crewmembers' lowered inhibitions don't spur erotic misbehavior despite the skankiness to which Rand is exposed: Sulu acts out his D'Artagnan fantasies, Tormolen wallows in homesickness, and although Riley has requests for the ship's women concerning hairstyles and appearance, his primary interest is in making everyone pay attention to him.

Let me talk about Spock first because his character is so clearly defined in this episode. We see him at the start as the same character who showed up in the previous stories: the scientist who's most concerned about the details of the impending planetary breakup and the conditions of the personnel deaths, though he is also the alien who jokes with McCoy about being glad his anatomy is not like that of humans. He is calm and logical informing Scotty that the engineer might as well risk destroying the circuits in a panel because otherwise the ship will be destroyed before his task is complete. Then Spock encounters Chapel in sickbay. "You're part human, too," she says, confessing her love, to which he responds with an apology before fleeing. He locks himself in the briefing room to cry, and when Kirk finds him, he tearfully informs the captain that he never told his human mother that he loved her.

This is an extraordinarily dramatic moment from a character standpoint in that we finally hear Spock respond to various accusations that he's as unfeeling as a computer; now we see how much guilt he carries. It's also an extraordinary moment in understanding Vulcans and their values, with the evidence that control of feeling does not mean absence of feeling, and on top of it the Oedipal drama of Spock having walked away from Chapel's passion with an apology only to fret over his mother's emotional deprivation. Over the course of the series we will see Spock make a number of decisions that ultimately save the ship or crewmembers based not on logic but on hunches, reactions or gut instincts. He is often described as being torn between logic and emotion, but it's not really that black and white here or in "Amok Time" or "Journey To Babel" or any of the other episodes that give us glimpses of Vulcans and their interactions.

Emotion is an untimely distraction, but given a straightforward scientific question - how to start the ship's engines cold - Spock is able to pull himself together and perform his duty before he's been given the antidote. The real issue seems to be not whether he feels emotions but when and how he can express them. He has chosen to live among humans, yet on the Enterprise he believes he must maintain such a standard of Vulcan behavior that when he feels friendship, he also feels shame.

Enter Kirk, whose command style has already been defined as stemming from insight rather than intellect. He's not a logical chess player yet he frequently wins, and he often takes unreasonable risks to protect his ship and crew which win him loyalty beyond even what can be expected from officers trained to duty. Kirk slaps Spock, trying to snap him out of it...not one of the more rational decisions we've seen Kirk make, though on some level it appears to work. But it also puts Kirk in contact with Spock's sweat, and right away, he gets the virus. Immediately he begins to soliloquize about his love for and resentment of his ship, as if these emotions have been so close to the surface that the virus has just given him an excuse to express them. He's not allowed to notice the pretty yeoman on the bridge, he tells Spock. There's no beach to walk on. He's alone.

It's an odd moment of melancholy coming from Kirk, who more often seems exhilarated dealing with adversity. On the one hand, Kirk has a lot of support. He's on a first-name basis with both Spock and McCoy, something which took all the other captains much longer with crewmembers, and Scotty completes the team during the crisis, working the necessary engineering miracles. His excellent relationships with his senior staff are apparent in this early episode. On the other hand, he's lost a crewman for what he considers no good reason - he seems to take Tormolen's death harder than McCoy. His ship is in danger, he can't get Uhura to shut off Riley's singing, and the science officer he counts on to be a rock is sobbing on the conference table.

It's an anomalous moment and yet it is not: the things we learn about the other characters, such as Sulu's taste for swashbuckling and Chapel's love for Spock, will remain true if subdued in later episodes. So too will the captain's sense of isolation be an ongoing theme, not only for Kirk but for the other Star Trek captains as well. In fact, it is an issue which seems to trouble Kirk less than the others most of the time, so it's interesting to see it brought out here as foremost among his hidden emotions. Picard starts out primarily as a loner - it takes him longer to forge the same depth of relationships with his crew - while Janeway is fairly vocal about the isolation of her position and Sisko, a family man, rejects such isolation to build a group of intimates from a wide array of backgrounds. In the shallowest sense, Kirk will compensate for being denied pretty yeomen by dating an array of alien women, but as Spock will say in a later episode, the Enterprise is itself the thing that cures Kirk's lovesickness as well as its cause. This is where he wants to be, with sacrifices he has chosen.

I've probably seen "The Naked Time" 20 times and it's never been clear to me why Starfleet waited so close to the last minute to evacuate the scientists on Psi 2000, nor why Kirk kept his ship in such a close orbit even after Tormolen began to show signs of being affected by what the crew found on the surface, let alone why McCoy didn't start quarantining crewmembers acting suspiciously. I suppose it's because the effect of the virus spreads inconsistently: Tormolen, Sulu and Riley all take awhile before they begin to show symptoms, whereas Spock and Kirk are afflicted almost immediately and Chapel seems strangely affected before Riley ever touches her. The casual, friendly trust among crewmembers that's been so appealing in previous episodes becomes deadly here: no one stops Riley from entering and taking over engineering, no one calls out Sulu for leaving his post in the middle of a crisis and no one calls security the moment it becomes obvious that Tormolen may be a threat to himself and others. There are a great many places where officers do not behave in an exemplary fashion and where scientific investigation seems sloppy; somehow this doesn't ruin anything.

The ending has some scientifically outrageous aspects like ticking chronometers that actually run backwards to demonstrate a distortion in space-time. Nonetheless, it's a fantastic, chilling sequence, and as Spock says it opens the door for the plots of "Assignment: Earth", Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and numerous fictional uses of the slingshot time warp. The use of music here is effective as well, jarringly disorienting, all of which makes a nice contrast with the crew, now cured, working together so efficiently to bring the ship around and to safety. Here, in the fourth episode aired, we already have Sulu firmly established as a helmsman, a botanist, a fencer and someone who gets along well with other officers; we see Scotty working wonders to rescue his engines and by extension the ship; we get some of the legendary repartee between McCoy and Spock about Vulcan versus human character traits; we see that if Uhura can't fix her console to shut Riley up, Spock can't either; and we discover how well these people click in a crisis, even when some of them have been compromised.

It would be both remiss and disingenuous of me not to note that this episode launched at least a thousand pieces of slash fan fiction (and, by extension, the genre of slash, which is named for the / in Kirk/Spock, or K/S as it was known in less tolerant times). Apart from regret that he must push aside her love the way he pushed aside his mother's, Spock doesn't seem to feel any strong feeling toward Christine. The strong emotions of which he is ashamed are for Kirk. Seeing Kirk suffer is the thing that snaps him out of his moping and makes him go work with Scotty. Yeah, you have to read a lot into the episode to see the connection between Kirk and Spock as erotic, but the cumulative effect of a whole lot of scenes like this is that it can start to look...well, logical. I was too young when I first saw the original series to be looking for anything of the sort, and it's the expressive and intellectual spark between Spock and Kirk that I look for first and foremost, but once one has watched the series looking for subtext, it's hard to overlook...and how can one not at some point, after Gene Roddenberry's disclaimer-that-is-not-a-disclaimer in the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture that Kirk doesn't mind if people think he and Spock were lovers?


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.