Show Name: Star Trek: The Original Series
Episode Title: “The Man Trap”
Episode No.: 1
Air Date: September 8, 1966
Written By: George Clayton Johnson
While resupplying the science outpost on planet M-113, Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) must deal with old feelings brought about by reuniting with an old flame, Nancy Crater (Jeanne Bal). At the same time, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must figure out just who or what is slowly killing the Enterprise crew.
Let’s dig deeper into Star Trek: The Original Series
Gene Roddenberry planned Star Trek as an anthology series. This would enable the writers to tell a wider variety of stories, meaning that “[t]here was no limit to what we could do,” in terms of story; “[a]ll you had were these people on a spaceship who could go to any damned planet they felt like. It was a genius concept because it literally left them open to do anything at all” (Norman Spirad qtd. in Gross & Altman 118). This leads to a fair amount of criticism concerning continuity. Particularly because they weren’t concerned about continuity. It was the characters and the messages that the writers were concerned about.
They found themselves able to tackle hard issues, and as long as “it happens in outer space…the censors let us go” (John D.F. Black qtd. in Gross & Altman 118). Stories about touchy topics were allowed because they didn’t happen on Earth, which allowed Roddenberry to tell some deep stories.
Partially because of the anthology format, and partially because it was presented out of the original writing and filming order, this episode suffers from not actually being a pilot. I totally understand that TV shows didn’t work the same way in the 60s as they do now. Serialization was just not a thing, but it’s so ingrained in me that I’ve got a hard time looking back on these early episodes without wondering why they didn’t take the time developing these characters’ backstories or motivations (yes, I know, we get McCoy’s old girlfriend, sort of, but then she’s never referred to again), when Roddenberry took quite a lot of time with Pike. I suppose that, because they’d gotten the series order, they figured character development could be spread out.
While we don’t get any introduction to the crew, we do see the relationship between the trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy right off the bat. From the moment Kirk and McCoy beam down to M-113, Kirk offers some persistent, gentle ribbing, and I love it, telling Bones he should pick her flowers, then picking up some straw sticking out of the ground and handing it over. Then, when Nancy mentions McCoy’s nickname, “Plumb,” Kirk keeps bringing it up. It’s really demonstrative of how quickly this show worked out some of these relationships. Yet, when it comes time to face hard truths: a dead crewman and an autopsy to do, Kirk is all business, pushing Bones to do what needs to be done. He tells McCoy to “learn something from Mr. Spock…stop thinking with your glands.”
Their working and personal relationships are well-developed from the get-go. Spock isn’t as well-defined here, which is strange seeing as it’s his third outing, and Kirk and McCoy’s first (aired) one. Yet, Kirk and Bones can rib one another, with Spock being their touchstone for reality. The final look that the trio shares is a silent one, knowing that they’ve all been through something together and saved one another’s lives once again. As this series moves forward, I know that I’ll explore this dynamic from myriad angles. But the beats here are momentous.
“The Man Trap” boasts the first instance of a trope which will become a staple of Star Trek: the terrifying, yet misunderstood creature. We’ll see this in “The Devil in the Dark,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” and others. The last remnant of a once prolific race, Nancy the salt vampire just wants to live, and it uses whatever it has at its disposal to do just that. It can camouflage itself as anything it wishes.
The first time we see Nancy, each shot is cut together quite well. Seamlessly transitioning to the three men’s different perceptions of the same creature. We don’t know what this means at first, but it’s effective and strange. Eventually, this leads to a particularly eerie series of sequences of the creature stalking Yeoman Rand and then Uhura throughout the ship. Leaving body after body in her wake. Even eerier is Nancy’s final attack on Kirk. Before she even transforms into the terrifyingly tragic creature, she begins to look truly inhuman.
The message behind this trope is clear: we so often vilify the people and creatures which we don’t understand. Now, that doesn’t mean the creature isn’t dangerous; on the contrary, it’s deadly – but it’s just trying to survive. “It has that right,” Dr. Crater (Alfred Ryder) says, “it uses its ability just as we would use our muscles and teeth in order to stay alive.” The creature, disguised as McCoy for this conversation and speaking for itself in ways that the buffalo or other endangered species cannot, chimes in, “And like us, it’s an intelligent animal. There’s no need to hunt it down.” This is no mere killing machine, but an intelligent life form that must go on living: “It needs love as much as it needs salt. When it killed Nancy I almost destroyed it but, it isn’t just a beast. It is intelligent, the last of its kind.”
What’s interesting here is how Kirk reacts in a way that Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation) never would.This is no criticism of either Captain, just an observation of their differences. Following Crater’s assessment that this creature who has murdered half a dozen of Kirk’s crew actually needs love, Kirk says, “You bleed too much, Crater. You’re too pure and noble. Are you saving the last of its kind or has this become Crater’s private heaven, here on this planet? This thing becomes wife, lover, best friend, wise man, fool, idol, slave. It isn’t a bad life to have everyone in the universe at your beck and call, and you win all the arguments.” Picard would likely have bent over backwards to help this creature. To save it. While Kirk only sees the dead men it has left behind.
The rub comes when Kirk asks Crater point blank if he can recognize the creature, despite its different forms. Crater is sitting next to the creature at that moment, looking like McCoy, and Crater refuses to out it. Moments later, Crater is dead on the floor of the sickbay. Yes, this creature is intelligent, but Kirk was right. Crater still sees his wife in the creature. Which is all well and good, but in the end, it is a cornered creature who kills. Bearing no loyalty for the man she calls husband. Kirk must save his crew, for “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
I think that J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and the other producers of the Abramsverse Star Trek films watched “The Man Trap” and took the idea of Spock and Uhura’s relationship from their first scene together. I really hadn’t thought about it before, because it seemed that relationship had come out of left field. I’m not saying it’s not ridiculous, but I think at least this is where it came from. It’s also highly unprofessional on Uhura’s part – she just fawns all over him, telling Spock he should tell her she’s pretty and to ask her about being in love. On one hand, it tells us so much about Uhura (who often gets short-changed in the series). She’s romantic and passionate, and maybe doesn’t know where the line is. And maybe she’s got a thing for Vulcans – it also tells us a lot about Spock: he’s just cold.
Uhura: “Tell me how your planet Vulcan looks on a lazy evening when the moon is full.”
Spock: “Vulcan has no moon, Miss Uhura.”
Uhura: “I’m not surprised, Mister Spock.”
It doesn’t have a moon; it has sister planets though:
Finally, multiple crewmen die here. One in the first five minutes, and none of them have red shirts, which I find interesting! I may do a redshirt count from this point on, just because.
Memorable Quotes from Man Trap
“But it’s a mystery. And I don’t like mysteries. They give me a bellyache. And I’ve got a beauty right now.”
– Kirk, being all noir-detective-y.
Keep Watching Star Trek: The Original Series?
Look, my answer is going to be the same for each entry. Yes, keep watching! However, I promise when we get to some shaky (OK, really really shaky) episodes in the future, I’ll be honest. Even still, I won’t tell you not to watch. I might just urge you to watch with one eye sort of squinted shut.
Score for Man Trap
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