Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Man Trap" (September 8, 1966)

Stardate: 1513.1

The U.S.S. Enterprise visits planet M-113 to check in on archaeologist Dr. Robert Crater (Alfred Ryder) and his wife, Nancy (Jeanne Bal). Together, they have been studying the ruins of a long-dead alien civilization.

Nancy also happens to be Dr. McCoy’s (De Forest Kelley) old love, and Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) teases the physician about her nickname for him: “Plum.”

Soon, however the light-hearted visit turns deadly serious. An Enterprise officer accompanying the others in the landing party, Darnell (Michael Zaslow) is found dead, with strange markings on his face.  

Another officer, Green (Bruce Watson) meets the same grim fate.

The crew soon learns that Nancy is actually a shape-shifting alien, the last of her kind on this far-flung world. To sustain herself, this alien draws all the salt from living human beings.  

When Nancy is brought aboard the Enterprise for her own safety, however, she changes form again, becoming Green, a Swahili officer, and even, finally, Dr. McCoy himself. She eventually kills Crater, even though he has been her protector over the years.

Although the Enterprise crew expresses reservations about killing a being that is the last of its kind, it is given no choice when the salt vampire attempts to feed on Captain Kirk.

The very first episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) that aired on NBC -- “The Man Trap” by George Clayton Johnson -- remains an involving story that today draws its primary interest from the focus on the “lower deck” characters in the ensemble: Mr. Sulu (George Takei), Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney).

The episode’s central threat -- a salt-sucking vampire -- is memorably depicted, but in the end the story does not quite go far enough in pursuing Star Trek’s peaceful philosophies. 

For example, Kirk and Spock both express regret about the death of the alien (by phaser fire).  They make mournful comparisons to the buffalo of North America. They clearly don’t want to kill the alien they encounter here.  

And yet, that’s exactly what happens.

At its best, Star Trek employs the philosophy that, to paraphrase Kirk in "A Taste of Armageddon" -- suggests man does not need to kill…today.  

Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the others often find ways NOT to kill the alien or enemy of the week, and instead hammer out some sense of understanding with it.  

In a way, “The Devil in the Dark,” a story about a silicon-based life form, the Horta, is a superior or perfected remake of “The Man Trap” story.  There, a monster scorches and kills human beings, but Kirk and Spock don’t merely speak regretfully about killing it, they find an alternative to doing so.  

They reach out, communication is forged, and humanity makes -- if not a new friend, at least not a new enemy -- to quote Captain Picard in “Darmok.”

In “The Man Trap,” it is never quite clear why the salt vampire feels it must continue to kill, instead of simply asking for the salt it needs to survive.  Captain Kirk could easily make a ship-wide announcement noting that no action will be taken against the alien if it reveals itself now. That though crewman have died because of it, no more need to do so.  

Again, Kirk loses crewmen in other episodes (like the aforementioned “Devil in the Dark,” or the personnel of Cestus III in "Arena,") but if peace can be forged with the perpetrator, he nonetheless makes the attempt to forge that peace.  I know it's early -- the first Star Trek episode, essentially -- but no real olive branch is extended to the alien.

What seems more genuinely intriguing about “The Man Trap” today is the upper deck/lower deck kind of character/narrative structure.  

On the bridge, we have Kirk, Spock and McCoy contending with the mystery or threat of the creature.  

But the supporting characters are also given a lot of fun stuff to do.  As a consequence, we begin to get to know them.  

For instance, we see Sulu in his botanical garden, caring for his plants (including Beauregard). 

We follow Janice on her rounds, as she brings Sulu dinner, and is stalked by the unreal Green (really the monster).

But perhaps Uhura fares best among the supporting cast. Early in the episode, we see her upbraid Spock about his failure to respond emotionally when he learns that someone in the landing party has died.  She notes that Captain Kirk is the closest thing he has to a “friend.”  This tells us not only about Uhura's courage and forthrightness, about about the Spock/Kirk friendship.

The moment in which Uhura talks with Spock about Vulcan’s lack of moon is also flirtatious and delightful. 

The only drawback, of course, is the sixties sexism inherent in that moment. Uhura complains, for example, that she is sick of the word “frequencies” and just wants Spock to compliment her looks. 

I don’t often hold it against Star Trek for being sexist in a sexist time period or context, especially because it looks ahead, to the future, so often. But on the other hand, the series' evolved view of humanity is so well-enunciated over time that its accomplishments in that regard makes moments such as this stand-out all the more for their egregious backwardness. This hour feels a genuine, sincere and serious-minded trip to the future, but the sexism of this moment drags us right back to a mid-1960s mind-set.

Imagine, for instance, if Mr. Chekov were to approach Spock and informally note that he is tired of the navigation panel, and he would just like to be seen as a carefree young man.  

It would be ridiculous, right?  

Uhura is an accomplished communications officer, in the upper hierarchy of command on a state-of-the-art starship. There is no way she would voice distaste for her own chosen field (communications) with her supervising, or superior officer.  She is on the Enterprise because she wants to be there. Because she deserves to be there. And I can tell you, as a teacher of communications, that her subject of study is fascinating, even if opening hailing frequencies (like setting a course, activating the warp speed, or conducting crew physical exams..) can be a bit of a bore at times.

I do love the interaction between Uhura and Spock on a more general basis, and I believe that the interaction we see in “The Man Trap” validates the relationship we see between the characters in the J.J. Abrams alternate universe.  

It’s clear, in other words, that there is a bond and attraction between the two characters.  We also see it played out in next week’s story, “Charlie X,” wherein Uhura sings a kind of naughty song about Spock in the rec room; teasing him to his face.  I just wish that in "The Man Trap," Uhura’s malaise with her profession wasn’t about, specifically, wanting to be seen by her co-workers and fellow officers “as a woman.” 

A far more intriguing moment for this character involves “Uhura’s Crewman,” who speaks Swahili to her, and reminds her of her home-sickness for her own country.  

This seems far more realistic a problem, to me, than being tied to a console, doing the job you love.  It seems like Uhura, Sulu, Kirk and the others would feel lonesome and isolated at times, but that they would keep such feelings close to the vest.  

Here, only the alien (apparently reading Uhura’s thoughts...) is able to sense her connection to her home-land, and her sense of mourning over its absence in her life.  This scene tells us that Uhura has layers and characteristics we don't know; and that she keeps to herself.

“The Man Trap” works as well it does because it delves into these “lower deck” characters and makes them seem relatable. We see Sulu’s obsessions and curiosities (which he revisits, in other forms, in “The Naked Time” and “Shore Leave,”), we get a sense of Uhura’s sense of humor and loneliness, as I’ve noted, and we even get some notation about the ship’s gossip mill. Rand, for instance, wants to know what happened on the planet surface.

There’s a feeling of family here too. When a transporter officer is instructed to beam up the dead body of a comrade, he notes, “We’ll bring him home.” That’s a surprisingly informal and touching way of affirming an order, or fulfilling a duty.

In terms of the main characters, "The Man Trap" establishes Kirk and McCoy's banter and occasionally argumentative relationship well.  Kirk is all jokes and smiles with McCoy until his crew is jeopardized.  Then he becomes hard-headed and demanding.


In my primer last week, I noted that Star Trek is often two things: funny and kinky.  

Season One is probably the least humorous of all the seasons, but the kinkiness is already in place.

The opening act of “The Man Trap” -- in addition to being effectively filmed -- fits the bill. Here, Kirk, Bones and Darnell beam down to the planet an meet Nancy.  

They each see her differently.  Kirk sees her as she should be, a “handsome,” age-appropriate gray-haired woman.  Perhaps he sees her in this fashion because the creature knows that Kirk is the captain, and she can't kill him.  Or perhaps because Kirk is not looking to feel attracted to McCoy's old love.

Then McCoy sees Nancy how he remembers her from their love affair, as a very attractive younger woman.  His memory comes back to life perfectly.

And finally, Darnell sees Nancy -- wildly -- as a bombshell, a fantasy woman he met on “Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet.”  

I love and admire the editing of this opening sequence. We go from a character’s line of sight (Kirk, McCoy, Darnell) right to the different woman they are gazing at, with no explanation for the fact that there are three women where there should only be one. It’s direct and well-done, and captures the strangeness and intellectual nature of Star Trek right off the bat.

But in terms of kinkiness, we also have a mention of a planet devoted to pleasure, and later, a notation about Crater’s private paradise on M-113. On the latter front, Kirk suggests that Crater has lived a life of sexual fantasy, which is why his research has largely stopped. The alien monster is apparently his sex slave, turning into any partner he desires…all for the necessary salt tablets in payment.  

It’s crazy to think that this suggestion makes it into the episode, and aired on network TV in 1966.

In Star Trek lore, “The Man Trap” is remembered as being a kind of “monster” show, and a poor choice for a premiere episode. 

And yet, having spent much time watching Lost in Space (1965-1968) of late, it is nice to see a space, sci-fi series that approaches its subject matter with seriousness and intelligence. More so one that attempts to craft a consistent universe; one in which something that happens one week is remembered (at least by the writers) the next week.  And if Lost in Space often veered towards the childish and fantastical, it is clear from the kinky aspects of "The Man Trap" that this is a series that adults can enjoy

So, yes, it is disappointing that “The Man Trap” doesn’t offer fully realized Trek philosophy. It is disappointing that it is not about actually saving a creature that is the last of its kind instead of giving the act of murder a note of contrition.

And yet one can still see the series inching already towards its full potential.

Next week: “Charlie X.”


  1. Excellent review and probably one of the most memorable episodes combining sci-fi and horror...a vampire in space!! Looking forward to your next reviews!!

    1. Thank you, Jimmy. "The Man Trap" has a great eerie vibe to it, and that makes it a strong episode. Also affecting, especially in the ending...

  2. John,
    Not trying to play devil's advocate here, but I wanted to counter-balance some of your points.
    Regarding the creature itself, this story is clearly a tragedy in that we don't know what happened to its species. We're told they once roamed the planet in massive numbers, akin to Earth's buffalo herds, but the implication is that they were hunted to extinction by the planet's original inhabitants, who left the ruins behind (also ambiguous), or they preyed upon each other to the point that few were left. The creature itself has a mournful, almost pitiable face. In a way, this is its story, its final chapter, and the nature of "kill or be killed" seems to define the humans as well as the salt vampires. Try as we might, we are imperfect beings, and McCoy is left with no choice. The alien brought about its own end. It always would.
    I also admired the lower deck activity, which would return in the first season and then dissipate as the series continued and NBC demanded more planet-bound stories.
    Nichelle Nichols is wonderful here, and having seen her in person at San Diego Comic Con, I can attest that she exudes charm and, (at the time) in her 70's, is still sexy as hell. It's no wonder that, as has been documented in the book Inside Star Trek, the show runners noticed and took full advantage of her stunning beauty and flirtatious nature. Having witnessed Ms. Nichols, my feeling is that Roddenberry was not trying to be sexist, but advancing his notion that we would be more comfortable with our sexuality in his version of the future.
    The one line in "The Man Trap" that takes me out of the drama is Kirk's assertation "I don't like mysteries. They give me a bellyache, and I've got a beauty right now." This feels like it's been lifted from Jack Webb and Dragnet, and is more 60's to me than Uhura's advances towards Spock.
    One more point: the episode "The Corbomite Maneuver" was first to be filmed and was scheduled to be the first episode aired, but the extensive special effects were late, so NBC put "The Man Trap" in its place.

    1. Steve,

      You never have to apologize, my friend, for presenting an alternate viewpoint or perspective. I love that. And indeed, you suggest something I hadn't considered, fully, in regards to this episode the idea that, on some occasions, the differences between beings is simply too great to breach. I still feel the episode would have worked better if they had saved the creature. But what if the creature couldn't allow itself to be saved? What if its aggressive nature dictated, eventually, its self destruction? Good point, my friend.

      All my best,

  3. Nice point about the Ohura/Spock moments and how it is precursor for their relationship in the J.J. Abrams movies. As you said, a great "lower decks" episode.

    I agree, this really is "Devil in the Dark" with a bad resolution. Besides being out of sync with what would become the philosophy of the show, killing the salt creature seemed not only morally dubious, but unnecessary. Even the first time I saw this episode at age 11 I remember thinking "with all this future 23rd century technology can't they just figure out a way to feed the poor creature some damn salt?"

    1. James,

      You do a good job of voicing my feelings about this episode. I wanted to see a resolution of a more positive nature, and I feel that this is something Star Trek worked to in future episodes.

    2. Agree. Salt(NaCl)is so easy to provide. It wasn't like it actually wanted blood. As a boy I felt the same way. "The Man Trap" is a brilliant and haunting episode that should be remade in a J.J. Abrams Star Trek film.


  4. A fine review. This is one episode that I've actually seen in the last couple of decades: Upon a rewatch a few years ago I was impressed with the overall filmmaking polish -- one of the things that attracts me to this series, and something I would have noticed as a child, even if I wouldn't have been able to put my little pinky on it at the time.