Sunday, September 14, 2014

“It was only a kiss/It was only a kiss” The Naked Now

In space, no-one can hear you scream.
Bob Justman once said he felt the original “Naked Time” should have been the premier episode of Star Trek. Given Justman was on staff as a producer, perhaps that's why “The Naked Now” went out as the second, but first regular, episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This does not make that decision any less catastrophic.

It is not, I stress, simply that “The Naked Now” is a shitty remake. It unquestionably is a shitty remake, the shittiest, in fact, but there were underlying problems with the structure it inherits that the original still had in droves and this one merely doubles down on them. The absolute best you reading you could pull out of “The Naked Time” is that it was probably a bad idea to drive a starship while space drunk (although it's hilarious when it happens) and the worst is that confronting your emotions is distracting to the point of self-destructive and everyone should man up and bottle those emotions away somewhere because they interfere with duty. Let me address this as bluntly and succinctly as possible: I have witnessed firsthand what happens when people try to deny their feelings and hide their emotions from others because they're ashamed of them. That can be utterly devastating to a person's mind and mental health. Furthermore, this is Star Trek: The Next Generation. The entire point of the show is to demonstrate how humans can deal with their emotions in an idealistically healthy and fulfilling way. There is essentially no brief more contrary to the series' foundational thesis statement than this.

There's also the matter of leading off the series with an episode that is unabashedly a remake of an original Star Trek episode, complete with Picard and Data looking up Kirk's logs from the first episode to come up with a solution to their own problem. Gene Roddenberry wanted no overlap between the two Star Trek shows *whatsoever*, feeling, rightly, I might add, that Star Trek: The Next Generation needed to prove itself and stand on its own. Obviously, he was voted down in this case by his Star Trek fan producers who wanted to throw in continuity references to the Original Series whenever possible in lieu of actually telling a story. Perhaps the idea was that skeptical OG Trekkers would appreciate the nods to the old show, in much the same way the main viewscreen has running lights deliberately reminiscent of the ones on the set from the Original Series. But that's the fundamental mistake: The existence of “The Naked Now” is proof positive Paramount is misjudging and misunderstanding who its target demographic is, which isn't obsessive Star Trek nerds, but mainstream audiences for whom The Next Generation is their very first Star Trek who are being introduced to the franchise's concepts and ideals for the first time. And anyway, serious Trekkers would just look at something like this and use it as further evidence the new show is a pale imitation of the “real” Star Trek. Under absolutely no condition does this episode look like a good idea.

It's worth looking once more at the episode “The Naked Now” replaced, which apparently was the infamous “Blood and Fire”. Written by Dave Gerrold during preproduction, it was rejected by “certain unnamed studio executives” who allegedly reacted badly to its positive portrayal of homosexual characters, but (if the version Gerrold adapted for James Cawley's Star Trek Phase II is any indication) probably also because it was a ghastly piece of shit. What normally happened on Star Trek: The Next Generation is that production was so rushed and so down-to-the-wire every week, any given mediocre-to-poor episode can be, if not forgiven, at least explained, with the likely reality that the alternative was even worse. So, is “Blood and Fire” demonstrably worse than “The Naked Now”? Well, whatever its other vices (and there are many), “Blood and Fire” *did* feature two sympathetic gay male characters, despite being uncomfortably reminiscent of some white bread sitcom bringing in a token black character to reach the “urban” demographic. As for “The Naked Now”...Well...

In the book Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek, John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins lament Tasha Yar's sex scene with Data in this episode, arguing that the show took the two most androgynous and genderfluid characters on the Enterprise and “straightened them out” by forcing them into a heterosexual relationship. And, well, yeah, that's pretty much what happens. I recently came across a very interesting alternate reading of the scene in Troi's quarters on Tumblr as of this writing that posits Tasha as a nonbinary person struggling with femininity. The poster supposes that Tasha always wanted to wear dresses and act feminine, but didn't think she was “allowed to” because of her gender identity, but Troi showed her it was OK to like those things no matter how she identified. It's a sweet idea and I wish I could accept it as a redemptive reading...But that doesn't fit the character Tasha Yar was originally written as at all.

That's not how Vasquez would have acted: She was a very assertive character completely comfortable with the way she presented herself. To give Tasha this kind of scene is the show saying that it's in some sense “wrong” for her to act nontraditionally feminine and that she has some sort of hangup about it. Combine this with the fact the “Naked Time” brief supposedly exists to gives the audience a look at the main characters' innermost thoughts and desires, and, far from promoting a nonbinary or genderfluid reading of Tasha as a character, it seems disturbingly like the show is painting those very things as character flaws for Tasha to overcome. Then there's the sex scene itself, in addition to the numerous earlier scenes of Tasha flirting with other (exclusively male) crewmembers. This is possibly one of my least favourite moments in the entire series as it not only briefly turns Data into a glorified sexbot, it is literally the only thing apart from her death that Trekkers like to remember about Tasha Yar. In other words, this wonderfully groundbreaking and subversive character has finally been reduced down to “that redshirt broad Data slept with that one time”. *One episode in* and Star Trek: The Next Generation has both assassinated its most promising character and set feminism back thirty years in one fell swoop.

(Data fans were really happy though. Not only does he get laid, but Brent Spiner is this episode's highlight by far, getting every opportunity to show off the pratfalls and comic timing he's so good at. I'm sure Trekkers found that a more than acceptable trade for ruining Tasha Yar before the show even got started.)

Tasha Yar, or rather Denise Crosby, does get one good moment in this episode though, and, predictably, it goes consistently overlooked. It's the scene in the observation lounge where Tasha goes looking for Geordi, who's just been infected by the plot device. Crosby and LeVar Burton share a genuinely touching moment here where Geordi begs Tasha for a vague and unspecified sort of “help”, while she comforts him. It's out of character for both of them (for one thing Geordi is upset that he can't see like other humans, when just last episode he was telling Doctor Crusher he wouldn't give up his enhanced vision for anything), but the way LeVar delivers the lines it feels like Geordi is looking up to Tasha because he sees some inner strength in her he admires. It's a wonderful little bit that someone far more talented than the people who let “The Naked Now” go out could have done something with, and it does more to define Tasha Yar as a character than anything Denise Crosby actually gets to do on the show, or for that matter ever will. Crosby, for her part, frustratingly fails to pick up on this, or rather fails to pick up on it in the way *Tasha* would have. She plays her reaction very gentle, nurturing and reassuring...Which is precisely the sort of thing I would expect to see from *Troi*. This episode gives us the final, conclusive proof that Gene Roddenberry should never have switched Denise Crosby and Marina Siritis' roles.

Speaking of Marina Sirtis, she's every bit as hammy here as she gets accused of being in “Encounter at Farpoint”, in particular the absolutely and unintentionally hilarious scene where Troi professes to Riker "Wouldn't you rather be alone with me? With me in your mind?". It's bad. She's just completely checked out of everything, and I don't blame her given the material she had to work with. Jonathan Frakes was apparently seething with rage the entire week and says he was “totally ashamed” by what he did (though I will say I appreciate Riker using what is clearly a sonic screwdriver to open a sealed door on the Tsiolkovsky). Poor Gates McFadden, in the segment that won her the role of Doctor Crusher by being a “funny” bit, just ends up forced to awkwardly shuffle through the most spectacularly unsexy and unromantic ship tease imaginable with (the much, much older!) Patrick Stewart. And then there's Wil Wheaton, whose Wesley Crusher ends up having to fill the role Kevin Thomas Riley played in the original “Naked Time” and about whom I'd rather say as little as possible. Suffice to say Wesley is by this point well on his way towards earning the infamous reputation he'll accrue as of the end of the series.

So, is “The Naked Now” markedly better then “Blood and Fire”, or at least less awful? Purely in terms of gender roles, absolutely not. As bad as “Blood and Fire” was, it wasn't *deliberately* retrograde, homophobic, transphobic or triumphantly heteronormative, and “The Naked Now” is all of those things. It may have been the “safer” choice for the second episode purely due to what a spectacular mess “Blood and Fire” was, but “safer” usually equates to “reactionary” and “hegemonic”, and this is no exception. It's a betrayal of almost everything Star Trek: The Next Generation stands for right out of the gate, an insult to the intelligence of everyone who watched it and a complete waste of the time and talent of everyone who worked on it, not just Denise Crosby. But really, both episodes are indicative of the frustrating reality that, right now, Star Trek: The Next Generation doesn't seem to be passing Q's test. In a world where “Love is Everything. Risk Your Life to Elope!!” exists, both “Blood and Fire” and “The Naked Now” are completely unacceptable.

My memories of this episode are of darkness, coldness and isolation. I remember most vividly the blacked out, silent and frozen Tsiolkovsky: It was eery to see the bright, warm and inviting world that had just been created for the Enterprise (as both ships seem to share a design lineage) turned upside down like that. One the one hand it feels like the mood the episode establishes in the first act could have been used to help create a kind of Star Trek: The Next Generation version of the imposing claustrophobia and loneliness that defined the first Alien. But, given what “The Naked Now” represents everywhere else, it seems much more fitting to read it as a visual metaphor for the show's betrayal, rejection and inversion of its own ethical principles and promises. In the entire history of my experience with television, I can't think of a worse or more ill-advised second episode than this.


  1. What was Frakes angry about? The script?

    1. Himself, presumably. He was very embarrassed about what he had to do here, so I'm sure he was less than thrilled with the script.

  2. I agree 99% with this but...setting back feminism by 30 years? 1957? Really? That's more than a little over the line of reasonable hyperbole. It's downright ridiculous.

  3. It's interesting now to look at Crosby's portrayal of Tasha here, the tenderness with Geordi, not just in the context of her originally having supposed to have been Troi but also keeping in mind the parity between Troi and Riker that always existed. I won't say that Marina Sirtis never made the Troi/Riker history work, but that any time you see Crosby interacting with Frakes you get a real sense of how their take on it would have worked wonderfully well. I think they would have had a dynamite onscreen chemistry that might've strengthened both characters in the early run.

    To top it off I'll always see Naked Now as cowardly. Not just cowardly because it's playing it safe and riffing classic Trek - cowardly because if a space virus is giving a writer a chance to explore unbridled inhibitions being cast off, is this really the best they have to offer us in terms of exploration? Tame, tame, tame. You mean there's no kink in the future? (Retroactively we know there must be, as Riker/Troi nearly form a pair of psychic-linked swingers and open relationships are equated with empathy.) There's also serious flaws with effectively equating "drunkenness" with what is ostensibly not - this episode is a Love Potion Trope. DS9 does it far better with "Fascination" because it is honest with itself and its audience about being a silly, sexy, slightly buffoonish Love Potion episode. There's real danger to equating Love Potions, or unbuttoned sexual drives, or even madness and mania, with the effects of alcohol, to say nothing of the inverted chemistry of the situation. (Alcohol is a depressant, drunkenness often is a sex-drive killer, and on and on and on.)

    I'll say, though, I always laugh hard at the flirting between Stewart and McFadden. They play it very savvy. Strangely (especially for the "romantic lead"), I can't actually remember Frakes in this episode at all. It hasn't been long since I've watched it, but the only memory I get from his role might be ... stoicism and a high tolerance?

    1. Frankly, with a few exceptions like Riker, Dax and Bashir, the Starfleet types of the TNG era seem really uncomfortable with their own sexuality (and even those three aren't always portrayed very convincingly as sexual beings). I'm thinking of how, on Voyager, Seven of Nine basically says to Harry Kim "Oh, OK, let's have sex" and he practically leaves a dust cloud as he flees the room, even though there's absolutely no reason for him to do so unless he's dealing with some weird repression issues. (I *guess* you could argue that Seven, given her history, could be seen as having psychological issues that might make consent problematic, and Harry felt guilty about that, but I'm not sure I buy that. Seven seems fully in control of her faculties and her sexuality at that point, and the Borg aren't children--they even have sex, as far as we can tell--and she initiated it. The scene comes off more as Harry being terrified of women, especially aggressive Valkyrie-esque women.)

      This has always been one of the sticking points of the later Treks for me--there is a weird feeling that along with war, racism, and all the other bad stuff, the Federation seems to have given up the complexities that make people human. Which, hey, is a very Star Trek trope!

    2. It is generally the case that starfleet people in the trek verse, to different extents (greatest in TNG, least in DS9) are pretty square. I tend to think it harkens back to one of the original ideas that Roddenberry foisted on TOS, that Starfleet Officers are a breed apart from the common man (And embracing the ugly notion that "And therefore would not yield to base animal desires like sex" that our culture inherited from the Puritans).

      I like to read the first feature film as the justification for this -- the idea that space is such a scary place that just commuting to work monday morning could result in you being hideously tortured to death, so the only chance anyone has is through rigorous discipline and... pretty much being a square.

      "People in the future will be really square" is a common golden-age sci fi trope, thanks to so much of the history of philosophy being dominated by dualists (I suspect it may also have something to do with the fact that academia was often a haven for high-functioning aspies), so it's not really surprising that it finds its place in Trek.

      It's maybe even a bit more pronounced in Babylon 5, but more self-aware; there, the fact that humanity at large has become so square and repressed is frequently implied to be a symptom of a pathology underlying their society.

  4. I was never particularly immersed in Trek fandom at the time that the TNG-era shows were airing, and I don't want to generalize a diverse group such as this, but I always got the general impression that Trek fans were mostly disappointed with Yar's character in much the same way you were, Josh. A lot of them disliked her *as written*, but again, that would be for a number of reasons, many of which boil down to "she wasn't handled well by the writers". I don't think it's really fair to suggest that Trek fans considered her an "acceptable trade" for Data's comedic stuff (which, again in my limited experience, was no one's favourite part of the show...)

    1. No one but Burton, this early in the series, was playing their character the way we've come to remember. Stewart is barking his lines and being a dick, Spiner is strangely smirky and Dorn basically just snarls. So it's part of many fans' counter-history of the show, to wonder how Crosby might have grown into the role, had she felt more welcome and involved in that first year. Because I never got a strong sense of character from her performance.

      This era of the show is the one I've spent the least amount of time rewatching. It's reputation is pretty dire, and maybe that's a bit unfair, since stories like "Where No One Has Gone Before" and "Q Who" lend the show some vital elements of the weird. These episodes are also the only ones I've seen of the HD remasters, and it's looks like a completely different production from the brightly lit and cozy setting that I remember from twenty years of watching on little CRTs. There's a mood and a visual depth here that televised Trek would shed by the time Voyager had the airwaves to itself.

    2. I'll once again go out of my way to plug the HD restoration project. I'm basing my revisit of TNG on it, and anyone who hasn't seen it yet really, really needs to. It dispels any notion this was a visually sterile series the moment the credits roll. It restores a sense of wonder and grandeur to TNG that my memories of watching it late at night on a big-screen CRT with the lights off attribute to it.

      Funny you should mention Spiner being smirky, as I think early Data is one of the most misread characters in the franchise. We'll talk more about him later.

  5. If one wanted to be incredibly meta-textual about it, after a quite promising episode in which the new Enterprise in judged by the fans that matter, it must then suffer through the debilitating virus of the old show itself, all the racism and sexism and hackneyed garbage, purging itself of the old, to get to where its going and make itself anew. Why wouldn't a virus that bring out all the terrible things in us bring out such awful things as heteronormativity and and the reduction of a spectacular character to a one note joke?

    But that's perhaps a more redemptive reading than the episode deserves. Certainly there's no indication that anyone involved intended for the virus' effects to be taken at anything but face value, and the long term effects were bad indeed. They culminated in one of my favorite characters being killed by a pile of oil (more on Yar and confrontations with "Evil" personified when we get to that episode), and my dad having to explain that she wasn't really dead, it was just that the actress didn't want to be on the show anymore.

    The Naked Time is easily on the most fondly remembered classic episodes, and yet also one of the most mis-remembered. We recall shirtless fencing Sulu swashbuckling down the hallways, and that really difficult to watch (in a good way) scene where Nimoy just acts and Spock tries to keep it together, but tend to forget the comic Irishman and the weird "falling into the sun" plot that actually drive the motion. It's a stock episode with a few good scenes. I can see why they wanted to lead off with fond memories, but its easy to see why it wouldn't work a second time.

  6. Awful episode. Often found this one quite cringeworthy on re-watch.