Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Naked Time

There's an episode of Blake's 7 called Ultraworld where the spaceship Liberator is trapped by the Core, a living planet. Servants of the Core, the Ultras, want the technology of the Liberator and the crew will be added to Core's collection of brain prints. After Cally and Avon have their minds drained Tarrent and Dayna must prevent their crewmate’s bodies being fed to Core, restore the correct mind to the correct body, and then escape.

It's not difficult to imagine this as Star Trek. Substitute the Enterprise for the Liberator; Scotty and Yeoman Rand for Avon and Cally; Kirk and Uhura for Tarrant and Dayna (the Ultras want knowledge of “human bonding” added to Core's databank so there's even a “so tell me about this Earth thing called love” scene when they try to get Tarrant and Dayna tupping). Judged on its' own as a piece of television it's not bad. The story is exciting, there are some good jokes, some nice effects, and Cally nearly gets fed to a giant brain; an image guaranteed to grip the imagination of any seven year old watching. But it's poor Blake's 7 because it fails to engage with the characters, or use the elements which make Blake's 7 unique.

Likewise Star Trek has episodes which, while enjoyable, could easily belong to another series. In The Gamesters of Triskelion Kirk, Uhura and Chekov are kidnapped and forced to fight aliens for the entertainment of three multicoloured brains. Again not a bad story but not one to use as an example of Star Trek firing on all cylinders. Swap Kirk for Commander Koenig, Uhura for Doctor Helena Russell, and Chekov for Nick Tate and you've got a perfectly serviceable episode of Space 1999.

The ease with which you can visualise transferring an episode of one series to another isn't a foolproof way of spotting poor scripts -both of the examples above are at least good fun- but it is a starting point. If a writer is just going to squash established characters into his own plot, and fit the characters to his ideas rather than vice versa then even in the hands of a skilful writer an episode will struggle to be better than average, at most. And of course, generally speaking it's not going to be the skilful writers that cram Kirk, or Blake, or Commander Koenig, into their story, because they wouldn't be skilful writers if that was how they wrote scripts.

The Naked Time is the one glorious exception to this rule. It's the ultimate plug and play story. You have a concept, weird alien water causing space-drunkeness, and you fit the characters in around it. This could be an episode of any science-fiction series; Blake's 7, Doctor Who, Star Cops, Space 1999, Babylon 5, Star Trek: Voyager. Make the water demon blood and it's an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It doesn't matter because the emphasis stays firmly on the characters, and how they react, and what we learn about them. What do we learn about Kirk in The Gamesters of Triskelion? That he thinks it's bad to be kidnapped and forced to fight aliens for the entertainment of multicoloured brains. Well gosh! What do we learn about Kirk in The Naked Time? Loads.

We get to see him fret, and snap at Uhura when she is unable to switch off Lieutenant Riley's endless intercom performances of I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen. He is a man struggling to remain composed even as his command falls apart in bizarre circumstances. Kirk, and Shatner's, best moment comes when he gets increasingly angry and hysterical before realising he too has also been infected by the alien water. We also get some insight into his character with a speech about how as Captain he is only allowed one love, the ship, but the impact of this scene is undercut by following too quickly on the heels of a similar speech from Spock about his mother. Leonard Nimoy also gets a very good scene where Spock has a private breakdown in the briefing room. In an unusual editing flourish the scene runs as an uninterrupted single shot for almost 90 seconds; a long time without a cut for Star Trek

If Spock is, metaphorically, the person who goes to a party and ends up sitting alone on the stairs at 3am crying then Sulu is the one who gets all hyperactive and overexcited. Sulu has the most memorable scene in The Naked Time. D'Artagnan in space, sword fighting down the Enterprise corridors. George Takei's enthusiasm and energy sell the scene and also provide cover for a nifty bit of character redirection. Up to this point Sulu has been Head of Astroscience (Where No Man Has Gone Before) and seen working in the botany section of the Life Science Department (The Man Trap). Here, suddenly, he's helmsman with this change of career covered by a single line from Lieutenant Riley “last week it was botany he was trying to get me interested in...” as if what we've seen Sulu doing previously is him flitting from hobby to hobby rather than another job. Someone on the production team has rightly realised it will be easier to get Sulu involved in plots if he is always on the bridge. Sulu's bout of space madness also leads to a brilliant joke in the next episode preview. Kirk's line,”question, could what happened down there to those people create any danger to this vessel or crew?” is followed by a jump cut to Sulu, half-naked and sweating, leaping forwards holding a sword. Kudos to Associate Producer Robert Justman and Assistant Film Editor Don Rode who were in charge of these previews.

The ending is the one part of the episode that disappoints. The build-up to the antimatter implosion necessary to break orbit is tense but the resolution, that the Enterprise has somehow also travelled back in time three days, feels like it has wandered in from another episode. It seems to be there to prime the audience to the idea of doing time travel stories but the audience has already accepted four episodes of other concepts without similar prompting. It's an unusual lack of faith in the audience from the production team.

Enterprise crew deaths: 1, Lieutenant Junior Grade Joe Tormolen.
Running total: 17

The camera pushes forward as Scotty finishes cutting open the door to Engineering and as it does there is a nasty judder, and an audible thump. The camera's obviously rolled over something, or got caught, but the shot must have been deemed acceptable. It may have been the only take as it involves a pyrotechnic which would eat up time being reset. I guess the producers hoped it would be mistaken for turbulence from the collapsing planet or not spotted at all.

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