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Star Trek The Naked Time 1
Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 1.1.4: Booze-Ups And Breakdowns
12/01/2017 Features

The Naked Time

Star Trek The Naked Time 1

In later years, Spock would admit attempting to save a woman frozen solid by defrosting her with a hair-dryer was illogical.

It feels like it’s too early for this. Mostly, anyway.

Is It That Time Already?

“The Naked Time”, quite obviously, is mostly happy to be no more than a fun runaround. Equally obviously, that’s just fine. Pretty much the entire cast is clearly having a ball here. This is most obvious in Takei’s gurning sword lunges and Riley’s serenade of crew and audience alike for what feels like hours, but pretty much everyone gets a good moment or two. Scotty demonstrates an impressive ability to basically cut out jigsaw pieces from bomb cases, Uhura gets to respond to being called a “fair maiden” with the delicious reply of “Sorry, neither!”, and Yeoman Rand gets to fly the Enterprise. Meanwhile, the giggly hijinks are given weight by Spock and Tormolen’s individual struggles to maintain a stiff upper space-lip. There’s even a wonderful moment of jet-black comedy when we see a man laughing hysterically at the very idea of being able to love mankind.

Star Trek The Naked Time 2

Discussing this episode without including this image is objectively wrong.

So with all these undoubted high points, what could be my problem? In truth it involves what could have been, rather than what’s actually here. Watching this episode always makes me wonder how much better still it could have been had it arrived later in the season. If a better handle had been possible regarding who these characters are under normal circumstances, before we saw them three sheets to the solar wind.

The problem with “The Naked Time” being aired as the fourth episode is that the audience doesn’t yet understand the interiority of anyone involved. That means there’s no obvious continuity between the characters when sober and when drunk. When Spock tells us that those infected by the Psi 2000 virus (or water molecules, or whatever) are behaving in a manner consistent with their fundamental natures, we have to take him at his word. We simply don’t know these people well enough to do otherwise.

Take Sulu, for instance. This is only the third episode in which he appears on-screen, and only the second where they bothered to give him a name. In his brief time on screen, he’s been a botany enthusiast and an astrophysicist.  The idea he secretly wants to be a Musketeer as well comes utterly from nowhere. And things are even worse regarding Nurse Chapel, Riley and Tormolen. None of them have been seen at all before, giving us practically no time to figure them out under normal circumstances before everyone gets squiffy. Even the revelation that Kirk is in love with Yeoman Rand but feels bound by his position to ignore that fact is a bow to cliche rather than an actual character beat. As a result the opportunity to use this as a character piece – as opposed to being a chance for the actors to goof around – is almost entirely lost.

All of that strikes me as a fairly standard take, however. Not much point wandering down so well-trafficked a road. Instead, I want to talk about the two ways in which “The Naked Time” manages, probably completely by accident, to turn its limitations into something more worthy.

“…Between The Rope And The Bottle”

It probably counts as irony that I picked up on something here only because I’d already covered “The Naked Now”. Much of that episode is just lifted straight from this one (I didn’t realise at the time just how much pilfering had gone on), and much of what was new proved utterly wretched. One useful thing the TNG take did provide though was the link between the virus’ effects and alcohol. In practice this idea was implemented catastrophically badly, but the basic concept can still be helpfully employed. Once you think of this Enterprise crew as being victims of the Transmissible Skinful Virus, the disconnect between the sober and the steaming iterations of our characters actually becomes useful. Spock may well be right that the infected are revealing deep truths about themselves without all that pesky self-control getting in the way. Since we don’t know what those deep truths are, though, what we see seems more a comment on drunkenness in general, rather than how these specific characters would act when plastered.

And there’s value to that approach, I think. Maybe not too much, if all you’re doing is listing the broad categories of drunken behaviour. You can do that here, should you wish to: Tormolen is the sad drunk, Riley the happy, and Kirk the angry. Chapel gets amorous when she’s been drinking, and Sulu is the excitable lush who ends up taking a joke too far.  Spock I’ll save for later as a special case, but you get the point. It’s a fun box-ticking exercise, but that’s about it.

But there is more going on here. Tormolen is clearly utterly devastated by what he saw on the planet, but he’s expressing that profound, unbeatable sadness as pissy irritation at Sulu and Riley. Kirk only yells at people for no good reason because he’s acutely aware of his growing inability to set aside his feelings for Rand.  Sulu looks like he’d be really fun to go for a drink with until all of a sudden he’s assaulting a female coworker. With these touches the episode injects itself with some useful nuance on what inebriation is and how it works. Spock’s summary of his crew-mates erratic behaviour might basically be summed up as “in vino veritas“, but the narrative suggests something more complicated is going on.

Which is just as well, because that’s an idea I’ve always taken exception to. The concept of “in wine, the truth” suggests that humanity wears self-restraint and self discipline like masks, to be torn off whenever our urges grow too strong. That civilised behaviour is a thin veneer, which can be dissolved by alcohol to reveal the naked creature lurking beneath. And that’s a terrible position. Mankind is not a brute animal that just so happened to invent shoes. The ability to reason and to consider – and in particular consider others – is our greatest strength, not a cheap disguise. Thinking otherwise is what gives us the people who respond to horrible cases of harassment and assault with “Well what do you expect?” rather than “How can we work to stop this?”

Fortunately, the view of drunkenness put forward by the episode seems to recognise this. Those afflicted by the virus don’t drop their masks, they change them. Kirk hides his loneliness and love beneath petulant yelling (oddly always at Uhura, though maybe has some interest in that direction too). Tormolen shields his existential crisis similarly. In fact, he’s clearly so distraught at what he’s witnessed his later infection maybe shouldn’t be read as a man miserable because he’s drunk. What I see instead is a desperately unhappy man who’s turned to drink for self-medication. And sure, getting drunk because you’re miserable often leads to getting more miserable because you’re drunk (or have been drunk), because alcohol excels at setting up destructive cycles.  But the starting point of that cycle matters. There’s a horrible sense here that Tormolen knows he needs out, and he’s simply gone for the exit that will kill him less quickly.

But what alternative does he have, really? His physician doesn’t seem remotely concerned about his mindset, and his captain is just cracking jokes about the whole thing. Where else is Tormolen supposed to turn but the bottle?

“Would It Not Be Logical To Pull Yourself Together?”

This link between the drunk and the desperate at last brings us back to Spock. There’s never been a time when I’ve watched his breakdown scene here and not found it effective. It wasn’t until this time I fully understood what I was seeing, though: someone hit full-force by a depressive episode in the middle of the work day.

It isn’t only Spock who’s engaged in a constant struggle to master his emotions. It’s not just the Enterprise’s First Officer who can find himself too overwhelmed by sadness to be able to keep it under wraps. For some people this is a daily battle. For some people every day spent at work without completely unravelling counts as a major victory. Whether deliberately or not, Nimoy completely nails this struggle, as he sits alone in an office desperately trying to talk himself out of an infinitely deep and dark hole. As a scene showing what Spock might be like if he suffered from clinical depression, then, it’s already the best moment the show has managed so far, and one of the unquestionable highlights of the entire franchise.

But we can go further. Because maybe there is no “if”. Perhaps Spock really is depressed. Maybe the problem isn’t just how miserable he is here, but how numb he is the rest of the time.

Since depression is an umbrella term for a wide array of unique individual battles, anything I say about it here will necessarily not be universally true. For many, though, the Black Dog is a greedy mutt, eating away at every emotion it can sniff out until the only feeling you have left is misery. Everything else is just gone; replaced by void. And when your only options are feeling nothing or feeling terrible, all your effort goes into maintaining the former state. You don’t always succeed. You can’t. There are days when you’re in the middle of doing something terribly important and everything comes to a total stop, because you’ve been smashed in the side of the head with a brick baked from total crushing misery. At that point controlling your emotions becomes both critically important and utterly impossible. There’s no room for anything else, no way to continue with what you were working on just minutes earlier. It’s not that you stop realising how important what you’re supposed to be doing is. It’s that importance stops being a factor when just breathing in becomes an almost insurmountable challenge.

And that’s exactly what Spock is going through here.

Reading Spock as chronically depressed helps make sense of not just this episode, but much of his original five-year mission. Of course he’s miserable. Firstly, the culture he grew up in is incredibly hostile to his human heritage, which would doubtless lead to psychological issues later in life. Then, feeding into that, you have that the teachings of Surak will presumably be equally hostile to depression as a concept. Vulcan wobbly-heads must have an absolute nightmare attempting to get access to decent treatment. Hell, it’s hard enough to get medical help for an unbearable surfeit of misery in our own society, which at least accepts sadness exists. How is a ShiKahr GP going to respond when a patient asks for help controlling their sadness? I can’t imagine Vulcan pharmacies offer the 24th century equivalent of citalopram.

So combine the despicable racism we saw in “Yesteryear” with the refusal to accept the validity of emotions, and you end up with another vicious cycle.  Vulcan society conspired to make Spock feel wretched, and then told him that feeling wretched was a weakness. It’s a miracle that it took an alien virus transmitted through mutated water molecules to make him crack, quite frankly. He must already have been close to boiling over.

This theory also helps explain his unconvincing diagnoses of Tormolen and Riley and Sulu. He’s convinced himself they allowed what was buried to come to the surface because he wants nothing more than to be able to do that himself and for that to be OK. As with Spock himself, there is a great sadness here, running just beneath the surface. That feels important to note. It feels important to think about.

All of which seems to totally contradict my initial claim that we’re not far enough into the series for this episode to stick its landing. How could it possibly be too soon for Spock to reveal what he is suffering from?

Well, it can’t be, obviously. That’s not actually a contradiction, though. It just means that Spock is outpacing everything and everyone else here. Which is fine. There’s still time for the others to catch up. We have plenty of time, after all. Spock is the franchise’s first obvious triumph, but there will be more.

Unfortunately, where we’re heading next absolutely isn’t one of them.

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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