“The Man Trap” first aired fifty years ago tonight, and what a strange episode it is to launch what has become one of popular culture’s signposts: Star Trek. Viewed as part of our Star Trek re-watch, this is one strange piece of television, playing on the sexual insecurities of mid-century professional men and suggesting that alien creatures have already figured out that the easiest way to fool (and, indeed consume) human men is to assume a pleasing shape. That deeply Protestant sense of devilry, the sense that the forces of evil are constantly lurking in the things we fear and desire, reflects a time quite different from our own. And besides that, “The Man Trap” lacks much of the positivity of Star Trek, with its supposed focus on understanding and cooperation rather than base conflict. Still, this strange, dark little tale is the one that started it all, and we’re giving it a look tonight on the 50th anniversary.
One of the strengths of “The Man Trap” as a debut episode is the way it begins, with Kirk mentioning in his Captain’s Log that one of the scientists the Enterprise is visiting on a desolate planet is Nancy Crater – “‘That woman’ from McCoy’s past”. With remarkable storytelling economy, therefore, we are told that (at least some of) the characters on this show know each other, and have histories that stretch well beyond the episodic parameters of this series. It also reinforces, as was the case with many early Trek episodes, that this was a show for adults, not children. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are all well over 30 in this series (Kirk only slightly) and they have the experience and wisdom to match. Although Kirk can get dragged into some petty and childish disputes, for the most part the main characters act as competent professional adults. That’s emphasized clearly in this first instalment.
The actual mission of the Enterprise this week isn’t to explore strange new worlds, etc, but simply to resupply an archaeological expedition. By choosing a relatively unglamorous yet realistic mission (navy ships still do resupply scientific and technical installations in far away places), the message is driven home that this isn’t some sort of “strap on the jet pack and go” science fiction/fantasy story, but instead a relatable series about adults who live and work in space.
It’s Professor Robert Crater who greets the command crew when they arrive at his makeshift base, and he submits willingly enough to Dr. McCoy’s medical examination, which is all part of the routine. When his wife shows up, looking to McCoy the same as she did 20 years before (and appearing as a vivacious middle-aged woman to everyone else), notice how Crater (played by Alfred Ryder) tenses up, viewing his own wife with a wariness that really should have rung some alarm bells for the Enterprise crew. From here until almost the end of the episode, Crater hides a secret that the rest of the crew will discover at their own peril. It’s in fact only after Enterprise crewmembers are killed and Kirk is literally screaming in the Professor’s face that he admits the truth, namely that his wife has been dead for years, replaced by a shapeshifting “salt vampire”, a creature that seduces men into its trust and then drains their bodies of salt. (This explains Crater’s initial request for more salt tablets.) The conventional science fiction-adventure story would have Crater hating the salt vampire for killing his wife and engaging in a years-long quest for revenge. In that case he would welcome the Enterprise crew and ask for their help in hunting down and destroying the alien that took his family. But just here the writers of the episode (nominally George Clayton Johnson, with extensive re-writes by Gene Roddenberry) opt for a more realistic and tragic emotional arc. Crater’s only companion on tis desolate planet is the salt vampire and, in an interesting twist, the reverse is also true. The vampire is the last of its kind, on the verge of extinction, so Crater can’t justify destroying it, based on his honour as a scientist. Moreover, the vampire can’t just drain Crater, because then it will itself be alone. These two animals are trapped together forever in a dance of dependency and resentment. The vampire itself is eventually killed (because it attacks Kirk), but the scene is played as a tragedy, not triumph.
Besides the strange plot twists, the whole atmosphere of this episode is creepy and eerie, no doubt enhanced by the strange, dissonant music and sets that recall the wild deserts of the American west. This was the first Star Trek episode directed by Marc Daniels (he would direct 13 more of the Original Series), a longtime collaborator of Lucille Ball going back to just after World War II. This early on in Star Trek, some elements like episode tone and photographic conventions were still in play. We get, for example, an interesting effect when Crater is shot by a phaser, of him being pushed back with sudden force (rather than sliced through as if by a laser beam). (The stunt was achieved by strapping Ryder into a harness and yanking him back at the right moment.) We would never see that level of practical effects again in Trek. We also get a little tour of the ship itself, spending time on the lower decks where Sulu is practicing his gardening (there’s a hilarious “star” intelligent plant that’s obviously just a person’s hand inside an elaborate glove, but audiences of the day bought it) and getting a sense of the collegiality between the various second-and-third tier crewmembers. This habit of fleshing out the lower-decks relationships would also be something that Trek would toy with in the early episodes and then largely abandon, returning to it briefly in some of the later films.
Contemporary reviews from fifty years ago called the show “adult” and “odd”, which are apt terms for this first episode. In modern television, which is almost always serialized, we would never have gotten “The Man Trap” as a debut episode of a show like Star Trek. The obvious choice is “The Corbomite Maneuver”, which was already shot when this episode was in production, but the special photographic effects required for it were taking too long to complete. As was often the case in the first season of Star Trek, episodes were aired as they were finished, not necessarily as they were shot. On September 8, 1966, the one completed episode (other than “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) in the hopper was “The Man Trap”, and that, more than anything else, explains why it of all episodes was how the world met Star Trek.
Ratings were good that first night – in a three-channel TV universe, the competition wasn’t all that fierce. (For the record, on that night Trek was up against The Tammy Grimes Show on ABC and My Three Sons on CBS for the first half hour, and Bewitched on ABC and the Thursday Night Movie on CBS for the second half hour. It beat all comers handily, capturing upwards of 40% of the viewing audience.) The commercial success of the early episodes probably owed more to curiosity than anything else, and there’s no doubt that there was nothing quite like Star Trek on TV at the time. (The Twilight Zone had been off the air for some time in 1966.) In the end, Trek would be a first-run ratings disappointment, but fifty years ago tonight, the future seemed very bright indeed for this new and daring TV show.