Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Man Trap”

The Man Trap
Written by George Clayton Johnson
Directed by Marc Daniels

Season 1, Episode 1
Production Episode: 1×05
Original air date: September 8, 1966
Star date: 1531.1

Mission summary
The Enterprise is in orbit around M-113, a planet so boring they didn’t bother naming it. Dr. McCoy is making a house call on his old flame Nancy Crater and her husband, who have been studying ruins on the surface for five years. Captain Kirk joins McCoy, seemingly for no reason, along with “Crewman Darnell.” Three beam down, two will beam up—you know the drill.

It turns out that Nancy is not what she seems, and she seems to be a lot of things: McCoy sees the woman he loved, exactly the way she appeared twelve years before; Kirk sees a woman of advancing years (which is why he doesn’t immediately call dibs); and the crewman sees a blond and busty woman from Rigley’s Pleasure Planet (truthfully, she seems more to Kirk’s taste). The blond lures the crewman away, and the next thing we know, the guy is dead with some mysterious splotches on his face, almost like…suction cups. The sucker has been sucked—of salt!

Kirk hates mysteries—they give him a bellyache and his important delivery of chili peppers is being delayed—but things don’t add up. They beam down with two more crewmembers, Sturgeon and Green. Neither of those guys make it, but the creature assumes Green’s shape and returns to the Enterprise. It bumbles around the ship, attacking innocent salt shakers and crewmembers alike, while assuming pleasing forms with soft lighting. Meanwhile, the Professor comes clean and reveals that his wife, Nancy, died one or two years before. He’s been living with the creature ever since, protecting and feeding it a steady supply of salt tablets. Surprisingly, Kirk is disgusted by the man’s defense of his perfect life—or perhaps he’s jealous and wondering why the creature only appears to him as an old woman. Eventually they corner the creature in McCoy’s quarters and the doctor has to kill something that looks like the woman he loved, the last of its kind.

This episode isn’t a bad choice for the first of the series, except that it drops viewers into the middle of things. Who’s the guy with the pointy ears sitting in the captain’s chair? What’s this “beaming” thing? Space, thing, what? “The Man Trap,” featuring what fans call “the salt vampire,” was actually the sixth episode to be produced. The network, in its infinite wisdom, decided to go with an action-oriented episode for the premiere rather than the more contemplative (dare I say “cerebral”?) pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

It still does a fair job of introducing the characters, particularly Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who is the focus of this one even though DeForest Kelley won’t be added to the opening credits until Season 2. I was surprised by how many of the Star Trek cliches were firmly in place this early: Kirk calling McCoy “Bones” (a holdover from the rejected pilot “The Cage,” used for an entirely different doctor), flipping open the communicator, the first variation on “He’s dead, Jim,” setting a phaser to stun, Saurian brandy, those weird-colored food cubes, and of course random expendable crewmembers dying on the away mission.

But some things are noticeably different—the dead crewmembers wear blue and gold (denoting science and command), while the hapless red shirts are safe on board the ship! Spock is unusually emotionless even for a Vulcan. In fact, he’s kind of a jerk, and we don’t see his “special relationship” with Kirk even though Uhura mentions it. She chides him, “He’s the closest thing you have to a friend,” immediately after uncharacteristically fishing for a compliment. We also learn some details about Spock and his background: Vulcan has no moons (later on, it does), and we even see some green bloodlike stuff coming out of his forehead (which kind of looks like Palmolive). Kirk calls for a “General Quarter 3” intruder alert and the more serious “General Quarter 4” alert, which later evolve into the less clunky yellow and red alerts.

Yet, even while watching this episode in 2009, it’s obvious that Star Trek is something special. The special effects must have been eye-opening at the time, and the salt vampire’s costume was simple but effective—much more convincing than some aliens given more screen time later in the series (such as the Gorn and the apelike Mugatu). For everything that would be frowned upon today, such as sexual harassment of the female crewmembers (hard to avoid in those miniskirts), there’s something else that immediately sets it above a mere science fiction adventure series. I was surprised and pleased that Uhura speaks Swahili to the salt vampire when it takes the form of a hunky black man to seduce her. And Sulu isn’t the only Asian on board—I saw some other guy running around in the corridors. It’s unfortunate that a show from 1966 is still more culturally diverse than much of television today.

This episode also succeeds in showing us the three main characters and how they interact and support each other: McCoy, the doctor who feels too much; Spock, the half-Vulcan who hides his feelings, favoring logic over emotion; and Kirk, a balance of the two who knows when to let passion and instinct influence his decisions. Here we see his dedication to the ship and its crew; the only time Kirk loses his temper is when his people start dying. And though it’s a small notion, not explored as deeply as it would in other episodes, Kirk and McCoy show genuine regret that they killed the salt vampire (despite the fact that they did nothing to avoid it). The case is made that it’s simply following its nature, and surely it’s meant to be shown as sympathetic; the professor says it needs love to survive as much as it needs salt, and when we finally see its true form, its face is frozen in sadness and loneliness. This episode doesn’t end with a joke and a laugh on the bridge as so many do, but with a quiet reflection on Earth’s extinct buffalo, and the realization that this time at least, Enterprise has failed in its mission “to seek out new life.”

Even though I think this episode is pretty solid, I groaned when Kirk called for McCoy to use a truth serum to get the professor to talk—fortunately they didn’t resort to this weak solution. And I don’t know how to confirm this, but I assume this is the first show in which someone withholds vital information for dramatic effect: when McCoy calls up to the bridge, “Found something. I’d rather not put it on the speaker.” What, you can’t trust the rest of the crew?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 4 (on a possible scale of 1 to 6)

Torie Atkinson: I wasn’t expecting to have so much to say, but as it’s the pilot first episode to air, I’m going to go a little long here in my response. Like Eugene said, this is a fairly unusual choice for a pilot, with no setup or context. You don’t even see the inside of the Enterprise for ten minutes! But right off the bat, from the first minute, I was struck by the strong friendship between Kirk and McCoy (and to a lesser extent in this particular episode, Spock). Their banter, their actions, and their knowing looks speak volumes about their intimacy as friends right from the start. Before entering the research center on the planet Kirk asks McCoy if he wants to bring some flowers for his old flame, and McCoy responds: “Is that how you got girls to like you? By bribing them?” We know immediately that these people aren’t just colleagues. When Nancy refers to McCoy as “Plum” (required pause for snicker), Kirk goes right on and teases him about it. It’s also significant that the moment in which Kirk and McCoy realize something is wrong (or at least, the music cue seems to think so) is when Kirk tells Bones ever so gently that there is no way that woman looked twenty-five. They exchange a meaningful, puzzled look, and that’s all it takes for us to know that they both know something is very wrong. The trust is unmistakeable and unshakeable, and felt entirely natural.

That said, I was really disappointed by the treatment of women in this episode. It’s hard to miss the overt images and motifs (it is called “The Man Trap” after all, and it is about a salt-vampire who only seems to attack men), but it characterizes a whole host of undesirable traits as innately feminine. Here, women are lonely, swooning, clingy, well—vampires. Vampires who need love and companionship, no less. When Kirk is speaking to Mr. Crater in the opening scene, the professor says of his life on the desolate planet: “It’s different for me, I enjoy solitude. Bot for a woman…you understand, of course.” Um, no, I don’t, sorry.

The next scene features an unusually pathetic Uhura, trying to start up a conversation with Spock because she’s feeling lonely over at communications. When Spock doesn’t take the bait and claims not to have an answer regarding her behavior, she replies: “I’m an illogical woman who’s beginning to feel too much a part of that communications console. Why don’t you tell me I’m an attractive young lady, or ask me if I’ve ever been in love? Tell me how your planet Vulcan looks on a lazy evening when the moon is full.” What the hell? No! Stop that! She’s clearly being set up as a foil to Spock, who is quite comfortable alone in the captain’s chair, without conversation or companionship. This scene and the previous, where Professor Carter discusses his relationship with his wife, have obvious parallels—clingy, lonely women, who try to attach themselves to strong, solitary, confident men.

It doesn’t help that aside from her the only other woman I saw was Janice, Kirk’s yeoman (whose role seems restricted to serving food), and some other young blonde woman in a miniskirt—who serves food, too. Additionally, this episode earned the unseemly distinction of actually portraying sexual harassment! Two crewmembers flirt with Yeoman Rand (who’s never even referred to by title—she’s just “Janice”), and after she’s out of earshot the one says: “How about that…” to which his friend says, “ How would you like to have her as your own personal yeoman?” Ew. She tells Sulu later that she keeps expecting one of the plants to grab her; I’d be more worried about one of the crewmembers!

Lastly, the final confrontation between the salt vampire and the Kirk/Spock/McCoy trio was much harsher than I expected. McCoy, trying to save Kirk, wounds the creature. She then begs him to live, and Bones says “Lord forgive me” before shooting the final phaser burst. His invocation of god was a clear sign to me that he knew what he was doing was wrong—that it was a sin, even. The creature was wounded, and they may have been able to capture or save it somehow, right? Was that final blow necessary? Or perhaps he knew that she would always and forever be that last buffalo, alone on the plain—and which is really the worse fate?

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 4 (on a possible scale of 1 to 6)

Trivia: Apparently during production this episode was going to be titled “The Unreal McCoy,” a title that James Blish used for the novelization. I kind of love that.

Syndication Edits: The Nitpicker’s Guide doesn’t list any, so chime in if you’re aware of anything.

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 2 – “Charlie X.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.