Original Air Date: September 29, 1966
Stardate: 1704.2 (2266)
Writer: John D.F. Black
Director: Marc Daniels
“Space still contains infinite unknowns.”
We find the USS Enterprise in orbit around the planet Psi 2000, an “ancient world, now a frozen wasteland” not unlike earth in the long distant past. Psi 2000 is a dying planet that will soon rip itself apart. The Enterprise is tasked with retrieving a scientific team which has been stationed on Psi 2000 in order to document the planet’s disintegration. However, the planet’s demise is now imminent and so any remaining researchers must be evacuated immediately.
Spock and crew member Joe Tormolen beam down to the planet’s surface where they make a shocking discovery: the whole scientific team at this remote federation outpost has died. The outpost is almost entirely frozen over and each body of personnel is frozen in an odd manner (i.e. one man died in the shower while fully clothed). While investigating the life systems, Spock steps into another room and Tormolen briefly opens his space-suit to scratch his face. He leaves is hand exposed for only a moment on a desk when he is unwittingly exposed to a strange blood-like chemical which apparently crawls toward him (we hear the trademark rattle noise to indicate the presence of the disease). However, Tormolen keeps this exposure secret, fearing rebuke from Spock. When Capt. Kirk radios down to Spock asking what happened to the laboratory, Spock responds: “Unknown, captain. It’s like nothing we’ve dealt with before.”
Next, as a result of Tormolen’s exposure, we witness the outbreak of a mysterious disease aboard the Enterprise. It is highly infectious, spreading merely by contact while simultaneously causing fits of madness or the appearance of uninhibited drunken revelry. Tormolen threatens several crewmen before stabbing himself, and even though his wounds are minor he soon dies as a result of the disease, and an infected Mr. Sulu sneaks away from his post on the bridge and begins prancing around the ship half-naked brandishing a fencing sword (an iconic scene in the history of Star Trek reminiscent of 18th century swashbucklers, as Spock notes), while an infected Lt. Riley wanders into the engine room and begins singing old Irish folk songs over the ship’s intercom system (apparently he fancies himself the descendent of Irish kings). Scotty eventually breaks into the engine room and reclaims it from Lt. Riley, but both Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock soon begin showing concerning symptoms as well. In addition, cryptic writing begins to appear on the ship’s walls, such as “love humanity” which is apparently written in blood. Luckily, Dr. McCoy is able to isolate the disease. He quickly develops a vaccine after learning the disease operates like “water” or alcohol in the bloodstream (this theory was later shown to be a form of pseudo-science post-1960s).
In the engine room Scotty discovers that Lt. Riley has sabotaged the Enterprise’s engines which will require thirty minutes to reboot, but by now Psi 2000 is now expected to break apart in a mere eight minutes. The Enterprise risks being sucked into the atmosphere of Psi 2000 while it self-destructs. With time running out, Kirk and crew decide to pursue a risky maneuver –implode the engines in a cold restart of controlled matter-antimatter alongside the planetary break-up of Psi 2000, but somehow this maneuver entraps the Enterprise inside a time warp. The ship begins traveling backward in time for three days, but Capt. Kirk decides to avoid repeating this debacle and so they do not to return to Psi 2000. In this fascinating twist, the Enterprise is saved by an accidental bout of time travel though since there were dual threats facing the ship in this episode, Dr. McCoy’s scientific inoculation should also be acknowledged as a significant salvation for the crew.
“Since the formula worked, we can go back in time, to any planet, any era.“
“We may risk it someday, Mister Spock.“
While the idea of accidental time travel is a bit of a convenient plot device, nevertheless “The Naked Time” is a truly wonderful episode in the series –an iconic George Takei episode. I thought the idea of a highly infectious disease spreading aboard the Enterprise was a fitting narrative especially in the age of COVID-19. It reveals the particularly susceptible nature of humanity to tiny enemies, one aspect of our sadly frail nature. Who knows what dangerous, rare microscopic diseases may be lurking out there in the far reaches of space? This particular disease on Psi 2000 removes social inhibitions, and therefore it is a threat to human civilization, an edifice which relies upon a certain degree of established order as well as curiously a level of publicly presented dishonesty. Like alcoholic intoxication, this unknown disease reveals deeper or wilder impulses, and perhaps Jungian archetypes. The dramatic irony in “The Naked Time” is that we in the audience are aware of and concerned about the rapidly spreading disease long before the crew of the Enterprise is even cognizant of its existence.
One other intriguing backdrop to this episode is the purpose behind the group of scientists documenting the natural disintegration of Psi 2000. Why are they observing this planet’s self-destruction? Because, as Spock notes, “We may be seeing Earth’s distant future.” The scientific project is not simply good for its own sake, but rather because of how it serves our own needs and knowledge of earth. Documenting the death of other planets may offer a brief glimpse into the death of our own.
Thus far in Star Trek we have seen how truly fragile the Enterprise is when faced with the smallest of crises –in “Charlie X” we saw a young boy with supernatural powers easily take command of the whole ship, and in “The Naked Time” one careless crew member briefly lifts his thermal suit to scratch his nose which very nearly causes the downfall of the entire ship. Humanity, with all its faith and optimism in the future, is nevertheless at the mercy of forces greater than it can possibly imagine, hence why Spock ominously notes the “infinite possibilities” of space in this episode.
Writer John D. F. Black (1932-2018) claimed this was his favorite Star Trek episode. He was a writer and producer for a number of television shows including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Charlie’s Angels, Hawaii Five-O, Mission Impossible, and others including Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Director Marc Daniels (1912-1989) was a World War II veteran and television actor who also directed a number of popular television shows like Mission Impossible, Gunsmoke, and I Love Lucy. He is perhaps best remembered for directing 15 episodes of Star Trek including “Mirror, Mirror,” “The Changeling” (in which he also has a brief cameo), and “The Menagerie” for which he won a Hugo award with Gene Roddenberry.
Star Trek Trivia:
- The “thermal suits” at the outset of this episode were fashioned from 1960s art deco shower curtains.
- The dead woman’s body on Psi 2000 was a mannequin (and it is quite obvious). Star Trek producer Robert H. Justman kept the mannequin around his office for years to come in order to scare people.
- Gene Roddenberry’s mistress and future wife, Majel Barrett, makes her first appearance in this episode (she also appeared as an officer in the original pilot which NBC declined called “The Cage”). Her role in this episode is as Nurse Chapel, a soon to be recurring character, and when she is infected with the disease she professes an unrequited love for Spock.
- This episode was a favorite of George Takei –Sulu can be seen running half-naked through the ship brandishing a sword. The staff originally asked Takei to act like a Samurai but Takei was unfamiliar with Samurai tropes. Instead he took some fencing lessons and acted much like a Robin Hood-esque character.
- Uhura’s response to Sulu calling her a “fair maiden” was “Sorry, neither.” This was an amusingly ad-libbed remark that was kept in the show.
- This is the first episode to feature the Vulcan nerve-pinch as well as a game of 3D Checkers.
- After Spock’s scene of weeping (a scene which was shot in a single take), NBC received a torrent of fan mail. Fans were obsessed with the idea that Spock actually might be hiding a concealed inner passion lurking beneath his cold and rational facade. This question engenders the fascinating conflict between his human and Vulcan halves.
- Writer John D.F. Black said in a 2001 interview this was his favorite episode. Gene Roddenberry also claimed this was one of his ten favorite episodes.
- This story has a sequel in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the episode entitled “The Naked Now.”
- “The Naked Time” was originally intended to be a two-part episode, with part one ending on a cliffhanger as the Enterprise heads backward in time. However, the ending was revised so it would become a standalone episode.
- In this episode Dr. McCoy suggests Spock has green blood.
- The poorly sung tune by Lt. Riley over the intercom is “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” –a 19th century Irish folksong.
- Interestingly enough, Lt. Joe Tormolen is the only Lieutenant “Junior Grade” rank shown in the original series (it is the only time in the original series this rank is even mentioned).