By any measure, “The Naked Time” is a strange episode of television. The crew of the Enterprise is infected with some sort of virus that causes their emotions to become completely unblocked and they give in to every impulse, no matter how inappropriate. Spock cries, Nurse Chapel confesses her love for the Vulcan, Kirk confesses his love for the ship and, most memorably at all, Sulu grabs a fencing foil, rips off his shirt and remakes himself into D’Artagnan. Such extreme behaviour from characters would be jarring at any point during the run of a TV series, but this episode occurs only four episodes into the first season (it was the sixth to be produced). That the show’s creators deemed it appropriate to strip their characters down to their emotional essence (the “naked” reference in the title is to emotional honesty) this early on, without having even fully explored the parameters of some of them, is a production move that’s either brave or desperate. One thing is certain: Star Trek was a very different kind of TV show, and this episode is one of its oddest.
Emotional repression, or burying one’s feelings under a mountain of stiff-upper-lip professionalism, was of course al hallmark of mid-century American culture. Watching Star Trek today, it’s important to remember that it was produced at the time of Mad Men, when people, men especially, were supposed to slug back a few scotches at the office and laugh off PTSD from the war. Opening up was something done at the Christmas party, or to a therapist with a large oak desk. Spock, of course, takes this tendency to its sci-fi extreme, with Vulcans building their entire society around burying their true feelings deep down inside for the sake of safety and harmony, although at this point during the run of the show the wider universe of 23rd century society was still being worked out, and it’s entirely possible that this aspect of Vulcan culture wasn’t quite settled. (If, for example, this episode came late in season 2, instead of early in season 1, Spock’s “breakdown” would probably be more dramatic and intense than portrayed here.) But the notion of stripping away a character’s emotional defenses was daring, even brave, for the time and represented a unique and interesting way to challenge the audience.
From a writer’s perspective, this episode presents a rich well of opportunity to delve into characters, and that might be one reason why it had a slightly tortuous path to production. Written by John D.F. Black, the script was heavily re-written by Gene Roddenberry himself, in an unusual and creatively aggressive mood. The standard working procedure in those days was that a writer handed in a script and was given “notes” on it by various producers. They would then go off and write another draft, which would be once again subject to notes, and the writer would produce further drafts until a) the producers were satisfied or b) they simply ran out of time and had to start shooting. Roddenberry, with this script, decided that he needed to take a more direct approach and simply started re-writing the script himself, right from the first draft. Black was, of course, offended by this but wasn’t in a position to protest, and by general consensus, Roddenberry’s changes were not improvements. Still, Roddenberry defended himself at the time and later by reminding everyone that it was indeed only a few episodes into the first season, the show was finding its feet, and he wanted to take a firm hand in how these characters were developed, especially in a character-centric episode such as this one. Black, for his part, took advice from some of the actors, who were already figuring out who their characters were in that intimate way only actors can. (Leonard Nimoy and George Takei were particularly vocal in this respect.)
The episode itself is not without flaws, and they’re mostly due to actors not knowing exactly how to pitch their performance, and some characters (such as Nurse Chapel) given more screen time than perhaps their characters merit. There are also some howlingly bad special effects, particularly the space suits worn in the “cold open”, which wouldn’t even protect against rain, let alone harsh environmental conditions on alien worlds. (It doesn’t help that the crewman in the cold open disobeys orders and makes a very stupid mistake, precipitating the events of the episode. If that guy graduated from Starfleet Academy, then Dr. Zaius is my uncle.) But there are also some powerful moments that resonate fifty years on. For example, Shatner’s performance is much more restrained than one would expect (he didn’t really go “full Kirk” until season 3) and of course everyone loves seeing Sulu with his sword, and the cultural cross-over is pure Trek.
At the end of the day, what we find out about the characters through this emotionally extreme outing doesn’t seem very profound — Spock has emotions, but represses them, Chapel has a crush on Spock (lots of people did), Kirk is devoted to his ship above all and Sulu has a playful, rascal side. Part of the reason why none of that seems revealing to us comes from fifty years of knowing these characters and watching them grow. “The Naked Time” basically “gooses” the character development of the series early on, and sets in motion a series of tensions that will run right through to the apex of Trek, at least with regards to its characters, namely the 1980s films, where Kirk’s commitment to his ship and his friends would be put to the ultimate test. (One problem with the new reboot series is that it tries to go for character moments that are unearned — the original series had the benefit of building slowly, over years, to those moments.)*
The next episode to be filmed — “Charlie X” — is another classic Star Trek outing, and was actually the second episode broadcast. But the audience would never forget what it learned about the characters during “The Naked Time”.
(*We should also note the Next Generation episode “The Naked Now”, which is basically exactly the same story with a different cast, plus the ability to include sexuality, albeit restrained. Data may have been trained in “multiple techniques”, but his show was at that point dipping into the same bag of tricks over and over.)