This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
Casually, The Naked Time may come off as a much more jovial episode of Star Trek in which the actors are given the opportunities to display their acting ranges through excuses to act out of character. If we dig a little deeper though, this episode tackles some important themes and questions that examine the very core of the Enterprise’s mission and scientific advancement as a whole.
In The Naked Time, a dangerous infection spreads throughout the crew of the Enterprise that effectively curbs everyone’s inhibitions to the point of intoxication. While this does give way to a lot fun and amusing moments (i.e. a swashbuckling Sulu, and an introspectively sad Spock), the situation ultimately leads to a breakdown of order on the ship, leading to panic and mayhem.
Enterprise crew-member Lieutenant Joe Tormolen, one of the first to show signs of the infection, initially grew paranoid and anxious. His paranoia eventually kills him, but not before a soliloquy outburst in the recreation room that, in essence, sets the tone for some of the questions the episode hoped to address.
“If a man was supposed to fly, he’d have wings. If he was supposed to be out in space, he wouldn’t need air to breathe, wouldn’t need life-support systems to keep him from freezing to death. We don’t belong here. It’s not ours. Not ours. Destroying and watching. We don’t belong. I don’t belong. Six people died down there. Why do I deserve to live?”
Through this, Tormolen raises an important question when addressing scientific breakthroughs and advances: is the reasoning that we can achieve something, enough to give us the moral authority to carry it out? In the mid-1960s, scientific endeavors were seeing growing success rates – specifically in regards to the boiling space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. I believe that the themes presented in The Naked Time are not meant to specifically mirror humanity’s efforts at space travel – Star Trek always presented the venture into ‘the final frontier’ as cause for hope and wonder – but more as an allegorical message to humanity as a whole. It is not actively advocating against advancements in technology in science, but simply implying that we mustn’t forget to weigh the ethical and moral consequences as well.
About a year prior to this episode’s air date, the Soviet Union witnessed the dismissal of their director of the Institute of Genetics, Trofim Lysenko, at the Academy of Sciences, for reasons reflecting those addressed above. Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of hybridization theories that he ultimately crafted into a pseudo-scientific movement known as Lysenkoism. Lysenkoism, simply put, embraces the distortion and manipulation of the scientific method in order to reach a predetermined conclusion, often based on ideological biases or political motivations. Lysenko’s ideas were quickly shunned after Stalin’s death, and in 1964, physicist Andrei Sarkharov made this claim in regards to Lysenko:
“He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.”
Lysenko’s theories were truly known to be solely applied to crop genetics, however, many held that the USSR had hoped to apply Lysenkoistic principles in human development. The debate incited by Lysenkosim, and addressed in The Naked Time, arguably still continues today. Here in the U.S., we are currently witnessing hotly contested bio-ethical debates over abortion, human euthanasia, cloning, embryonic research, end of life care, etc…On the technological side, we are seeing increased surveillance techniques hoping to combat cyber-terrorism and advances is energy technology (i.e. fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline) at the potential expense of human life and the environment.
On a more subtle note, during the final act of The Naked Time, we see the infection reach a breaking point for both Kirk and Spock. The two of them are forced into the deepest reaches of their minds, places they never let see the light of day. Spock is reduced to tears in a powerful moment as he confesses his personal struggles between his human and Vulcan sides:
“I respected my father, our customs. I was ashamed of my Earth blood. Jim, when I feel friendship for you, I’m ashamed.”
Kirk, trying so desperately to keep it together, breaks down and admits to his internal conflict between love and duty:
“I’ve got it, the disease. Love. You’re better off without it, and I’m better off without mine. This vessel, I give, she takes. She won’t permit me my life. I’ve got to live hers.”
This dialogue is meant to tenuously parallel the themes of the episode. These thoughts are meant to be the internal conflicts that Kirk and Spock keep buried deep within their minds, never coming out but staying hidden for their own personal introspection. This scene shows us that the theme of this episode doesn’t just apply to science, but also to our own souls as well. Just because these feelings exist within us, does not mean we must let them define who we are. We are not created from our deepest thoughts and fears, but from what we decide to make from them.
At the end of the episode, the crew realizes they need to somehow get it together enough to move away from a planet, Psi 2000, which has begun to break up, and in turn, has begun pulling the Enterprise into its anomalous gravitational pull. The culminating plan is an idea that would mix matter with antimatter in a cold state within the ship’s warp core which would “balance the engines into a controlled implosion.” Spock explains this as an untested theory on the relationship between time and antimatter, with a slim chance of success.
As McCoy distributes the cure that he concocted (something McCoy is always able to do for these strange alien infections), the Enterprise attempts this theoretical formula and succeeds in propelling itself away from Psi 2000’s destruction. However, the speeds at which the implosion sent the ship accelerating through space and time, crossed the line into impossible. By end of it, the crew realizes that, not only did they travel a great distance, but they had also traveled back in time three days.
The final shot of the bridge of the Enterprise, after the realization that they have essentially discovered a formulaic method for time travel, evokes all of the ideas and messages addressed throughout the episode. We are left with a sense of wonder coupled with a solemn fear and uncertainty as we gaze into the unknown. Finally, as Spock points out that this formula allows for them to go back in time to any planet or any era, Kirk wraps up all of the wonder, the fear, the uncertainty and the unknown into one final, somber line of dialogue:
“We may risk it someday.”