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Posts Tagged ‘The Naked Time’

One of the first things you notice about watching very early Star Trek is that new life and new civilisations are a bit thin on the ground – strange new worlds pop up occasionally, but even they’re mentioned more than seen. I’m no expert on the creative history of Star Trek and so I don’t know if there’s a particular reason for the early episodes to be quite so humanocentric. It may be down to reticence on the part of the producers and a desire to avoid using the bug-eyed alien monsters of kiddie and B-movie SF, or possibly they doubted their capability to produce convincing aliens week in, week out. Less likely, though still possible, this may have been a deliberate creative choice to depict a fictional universe in which intelligent alien civilisations are thin on the ground. Finally, it may be that the intention was to open with a run of episodes focussing on the characters of the main cast and thus bring them to life, before moving on to less introspective fare.

This line of thought started after I watched The Naked Time, The Enemy Within, and Mudd’s Women, the first two of which are certainly character pieces centred on the regular cast. Mudd’s Women is a different kettle of fish, but still has enough in common with the others for them to make a nice triptych of sorts.

The first thing to say is that all three of these episodes are competently made adventure narratives: in each one there’s a serious threat, either to the ship itself or to key crew members, and the resolution of this threat is central to the story. The plot also revolves around a reasonably solid SF idea in all three, too – the central concept of Mudd’s Women is sub-par compared to the others, but we’ll come back to that. You could watch any of these stories as a straightforward piece of entertainment and not feel short-changed.

However, in these episodes you can also see a key Trek trait in virtually its purest form – the ability to take an SF adventure yarn and use it to explore surprisingly deep questions of philosophy, psychology and metaphysics, without compromising the entertainment value of the former or the integrity of the latter. If, as a consequence, you never get an absolute blitz of a thriller, and the series never quite attains the levels of profundity it’s clearly aspiring to – well, it’s a compromise I’m happy to live with.

Of course, you can also characterise Star Trek as a series of stock plots deployed in heavy rotation, and in The Naked Time we are treated to an early instance of Stock Plot #1: strange influence causes the crew to wildly overact. In this case it’s an alien pseudo-virus that causes everyone’s suppressed character traits to rise to the surface, and them to act irrationally. What’s interesting is that a lot of the character development this allows is actually given to very minor members of the cast – George Takei gets to take his shirt off and chase people around with a sword (oh my), but before the closing stages of the episode arrive the main beneficiaries are Nurse Chapel and Kevin Riley. (Bones and Scotty manage to dodge the bug entirely.) Shatner and Nimoy emote at each other earnestly but it’s all just a bit histrionic, and the whole thing is almost fatally undermined from the start – the Enterprise‘s biohazard suits are clearly made of bubble-wrap, and not even fully sealed at that. The demands of the plot prove greater than the writer’s ingenuity on this occasion. Nevertheless, as a vehicle for character development it has a certain potential, and you can see why this particular set-up got revisited many years later in an early episode of Next Generation. ‘The Naked Time: so mediocre they made it twice.’

Rather better in every department is The Enemy Within, in which Stock Plot #2 makes its debut: transporter undergoes bizarre metaphysical breakdown with peculiar consequences for transportee. In this case Captain Kirk finds himself physically divided into two entirely separate men, composed of his positive and negative character traits respectively. This is bad news for everyone else wanting to use the transporter, particularly Mr Sulu and his team who are trapped on a planet where it’s getting very, very cold.

The signs were always there.

The signs were always there.

The obvious response from the seasoned viewer is ‘why don’t they just send a shuttlecraft to collect them?’ – hush. Demands of the plot and all that. Less obviously required is a subplot about negative-Kirk slowly dying as a result of being separated from positive-Kirk (positive-Kirk seems physically unharmed, oddly enough).

This functions quite well as an example of the evil-twin narrative, but what makes it noteworthy is the degree to which it goes beyond this into slightly more sophisticated territory (as one might expect, given it’s from the pen of Richard Matheson, much of whose best work is on some level an exploration of the male psyche). The two Kirks are only described as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in passing, and the story avoids the suggestion that the accident has created a new, evil version of the Captain – rather the existing man has been divided in two. The savage, appetite-driven negative-Kirk is a nasty piece of work, but the rational, sensitive positive-Kirk is increasingly useless as commanding officer of the Enterprise. The message is clear: for a man to be whole, and healthy, he must comprise elements both good and evil. That the two Kirks are initially reluctant to be reconstituted neatly suggests the conflict at the heart of modern masculinity between civilised sensitivity and traditional machismo – can’t live together, can’t survive apart. A good one.

If The Enemy Within is, in part, a meditation on the plight of the modern male, the gender politics of Mudd’s Women are considerably less enlightened and in places rather embarrassing. The Enterprise intercepts and takes on board the dubious figure of Harry Mudd, space trader (played, and not underplayed, by Roger C Carmel), in the process severely damaging its power systems. Fixing the ship should be everyone’s top priority, but they find themselves distracted by the three beautiful women Mudd was transporting, essentially as cargo (one of them is played by Hammer glamour girl Susan Denberg, from Frankenstein Created Woman). Mudd’s line is providing wives for lonely space colonists, and I think you can already see why this episode feels horribly dated.

The plot about Mudd trying to use his girls as leverage with the miners with whom Kirk urgently needs to do a deal for new power crystals is efficiently done, but what sticks in the memory from this episode – other than Carmel chewing the scenery – are the repeated shots of the Enterprise’s red-blooded male crew rubbernecking and standing slack-jawed as the eponymous ladies sashay past in their hugely impractical gowns. The musical score and direction are complicit in this – the soundtrack resembles something from a slightly naughty Vegas cocktail lounge, while at one point we’re treated to a close-up of three tightly-choreographed backsides wiggling past the lens.

Even beyond this, the psychological core of the story turns out to revolve around the women’s own life expectations. Not that they have any ambitions beyond cooking and cleaning for their future husbands, of course, but they want to be appreciated as real people rather than glamorous dolly-birds. The SF angle on all this is that Mudd has been dosing the women with a drug which transforms them from frumpy homebodies to interstellar superbabes, and the closing twist – or, if you prefer, the final nail in the story’s coffin – is that it turns out to be a complete placebo anyway. That’s right ladies – you can be a real person and a glamorous dolly-bird, all you need to do is believe in yourself!

Even Spock describes this as ‘an annoying, emotional episode’ and as usual he is on the money. You can, I suppose, credit the series with at least attempting to deal with questions relating to women’s role in society, but the fact they reduce this to a simple dichotomy between slattern and superbabe is – certainly by modern standards – unforgiveably simplistic. Comparing The Enemy Within with Mudd’s Women is revealing – one is surprisingly thoughtful and sophisticated, the other crass and embarrassing. Cheerleaders for Star Trek make a big deal about the programme depicting a ground-breaking, egalitarian vision of the future, with an underlying philosophy of liberal tolerance that’s welcoming to everyone, but at this point in time it is still a series that very strongly gives the impression of having been made almost exclusively by and for men.

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