Monday, September 02, 2019
Star Trek Week 2019: "The Man Trap"
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.