Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Man Trap

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: September 6, 1966

Crew death count: 4

Bellybuttons: 0 (This will make sense later, trust me.)

The Man Trap” was the sixth TOS episode produced but was broadcast first because it had something of a horror-story vibe and, for me, is very reminiscent of The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964). Part of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision with Star Trek was “Wagon Train to the stars,” and that format is well demonstrated in “The Man Trap.” Wagon Train (1957 – 1965) often involved the wagoneers arriving at a remote outpost, and most episodes featured one or more guest stars who enjoyed more screen time than cast regulars. This would be a common approach throughout TOS.

Images of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek episode The Man Trap showing original version on left and remastered version on right
Original and remastered versions of the USS Enterprise from The Man Trap

The first shot of “The Man Trap,” reminded me that I’m watching the remastered versions – while I appreciate the more creative angles and compositions in the remastered shows, I still prefer the look of the original episodes. The visual effects may look cheap now, but they were ahead of the curve for 1960s television, and I prefer to retain the originals for historic purposes. There’s nothing wrong with a TV show or movie reflecting the time in which it was created (I’m looking at you, George Lucas). On the other hand, this episode immediately establishes the iconic Star Trek opening shot: the Enterprise in orbit around a planet with a captain’s log voice-over from Kirk.

Image from Star Trek episode The Man Trap showing (left to right) Uhuru, Spock, and unknown officer on bridge

Right in the prologue, IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) is present without explanation, implying that diversity is normal in this world. That will always be one of TOS’ great legacies. While the first voice we hear is Kirk’s, our first visual of the Enterprise crew is an interior bridge shot. Mr. Spock, “temporarily in command,” sits in the captain’s chair and Uhuru is at the helm console. Later in the episode we see Asian (specifically, Mr. Sulu, pursuing botany here) and Black crew members.

We soon find Kirk and McCoy on the surface of planet M-113, former home of an “ancient and long dead civilization” being cataloged by Professor Robert Crater (Alfred Ryder) and his wife Nancy Crater (Jeanne Bal), who are due for routine medical examinations. Here we have Starfleet remaining consistent in its mission, as exploration certainly requires a study of the past. (Oddly, the ruins that represent this lost civilization include what appears to be a statue of a lion.) The prologue also sets up the camaraderie that is essential to Trek, with Kirk ribbing McCoy over the fact that Nancy Crater is McCoy’s lost love. (This calls to mind a similar scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), when McCoy teases Kirk about his own lost love.) It’s a bit troubling that, throughout the episode, McCoy seems willing to contemplate breaking up the Craters’ marriage because of his own unrequited love.

The salt vampire’s initial appearance to McCoy, Kirk, and Darnell

Our villain, which turns out to be a creature that requires salt to survive, initially appears differently to each member of the landing party: a young woman to McCoy, a middle-aged woman to Kirk, and a young, slinky blond to crewman Darnell (Michael Zaslow). Because the creature appears differently to three individuals in the same room, we assume it is projecting a telepathic image of what each person wants to see, rather than undergoing a physical transformation. The phenomenon is inconsistent later in the episode, however, when the crew deduces the creature’s ability and treats it as a shape-shifter, and when the creature appears as plain old crewman Green to several crew members, instead of whatever fantasy they might have been entertaining.

Image from Star Trek episode The Man Trap showing, left to right, McCoy, Professor Crater, and Kirk
Professor Crater runs interference for the creature with McCoy and Kirk

I’ve always interpreted the episode’s title as a sexist implication that the creature’s female victim (Nancy Crater, in the backstory) and intended victims (Rand and Uhuru on board the Enterprise) are less important than male victims. On further reflection, I wonder if the “trap” refers not to the creature’s seduction of its victims, but rather its parasitic recruitment of a male figure to care for it. It has done this with Prof. Crater, after killing his wife and assuming her form. It attempts the same with Dr. McCoy near the end of the episode. This pattern still falls back on an archaic gender stereotype of the hunter-gatherer male and the needy, resource-consuming female.

This brings us to a discussion of the creature itself, which appears to have no direct connection with the ancient civilization being documented. The creature’s intelligence is never clarified. It is apparently literate, as it reads McCoy’s name on the entrance to his quarters. It has telepathic (presumably) ability to sense what others desire and can convincingly mimic individuals it has never previously encountered. Kirk predicts the killer (not identified at that point) to have “some hypnotic or paralyzing power.” Its true appearance, only made visible at the end, is homely by human standards. The creature even describes itself, while in the form of McCoy, as an “intelligent animal.” I kept thinking of the dogs that live among the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza; we often regard dogs as able to intuit their owners’ moods and even mirror those moods back to humans. During the conference late in the episode, when the creature’s nature and intent are broached, both Kirk and Spock show little compassion for the salt vampire. A life first philosophy becomes a gray area at times of self defense, when crewmen are rapidly dying. This will not be the last time that Spock’s regard for other life gives way to the practicality of survival.

Pay attention to me!

Also on display in this episode is one of TOS’ weakest qualities, consistent inequality toward women. Young women can be beautiful, but older women, if they’re lucky, are only “handsome,” as Kirk describes Nancy Crater early on. As refreshing as it is to see a Black woman among the bridge crew (and Nichelle Nichols gets almost as much screen time in “The Man Trap” as any other episode), Uhuru is largely diminished to girly talk, complaining about that pesky word “frequency,” practically begging Spock to notice her beauty, and gushing about how Vulcan’s moon must look in the evenings. (On the other hand, when Uhuru describes herself as an “illogical woman,” it comes across as sarcasm rather than an admission of inferiority.) Prof. Crater tells Kirk early in the episode that he prefers to work in solitude, but his wife needs to socialize because that’s just how these women-folk are. We see male crewmembers openly lusting over poor Yeoman Rand (“How’d you like to have her as your own personal yeoman?”). And, of course, those micro-miniskirts.

I’m also frustrated by the way our male crew members lose their minds in the presence of an attractive female. This happens throughout TOS. When the creature, as Nancy Crater, goes missing and later shows up in McCoy’s cabin, the doctor is so caught up in lustful confusion that it doesn’t even occur to him to notify anyone. This is a world where women exist largely to be pursued, or protected, by men. Let’s consider that Gene Roddenberry was born in 1921. This episode’s writer George Clayton Johnson (though it’s believed that Roddenberry edited Johnson’s script heavily) was born in 1929. As much as they might have appreciated the social progress of the 1960s, they were of an older generation. Women also weren’t allowed to serve in military combat positions at the time. Although second-wave feminism really took off in 1963 with the publication of Betty Friedan‘s The Feminine Mystique, many Americans of the 1960s still believed women belonged in a supporting role to men.

Another troubling point, for me, is Star Trek‘s sometimes heavy reliance on present-day culture. A reference to the Enterprise delivering Mexican chili peppers to a Starfleet base commander (identified as Jose Dominguez, no less) is cringe-worthy. Even more distracting is Prof. Crater’s comparing the creature to the “earth” buffalo and the passenger pigeon. He describes the salt vampire as the last of its kind; we have no concept of its life span, but presumably the species will be extinct within a relatively short time no matter what happens. I can’t imagine the buffalo and passenger pigeon references would be common knowledge in the 23rd century. Crater tells us that herds of buffalo covered “several states,” which would surely be gibberish to anyone but 20th (or early 21st ) century U.S. audiences. This kind of dialogue takes me out of the story.

Conversely, it makes more sense that Uhuru is fluent in Swahili, as we learn when the creature tries to seduce her in the form of an unidentified crewman. That a communications officer would be a student of languages makes sense, and Swahili today is spoken by anywhere from 100 million to 150 million people.

Another Star Trek tradition established in “The Man Trap” is a determination to negotiate before resorting to violence (life first). When Kirk and Spock confront an armed Prof. Crater on the planet, they could easily beam down more officers and overwhelm Crater with brute force. Instead, Kirk tries to negotiate with Crater and, when that fails, Spock and Kirk carefully subdue Crater with no lasting effects.

Image from Star Trek episode The Man Trap showing Spock striking salt vampire in form of Nancy Crater
Vulcan fists of fury

Many other Star Trek trademarks are introduced in this episode:

  • When Kirk orders “General quarters, security condition three” (whatever that is), we hear the familiar red alert sound effect.
  • Later, Spock employs the famous Trek two-fisted punch used so effectively by Kirk in later episodes.
  • That Spock has green blood is also established.
  • We don’t see Mr. Scott, but we clearly hear his voice, when Kirk and McCoy beam up after Darnell’s death
  • And, because power corrupts, Kirk doesn’t make decisions in a vacuum. We get an example of Star Trek’s collaborative decision-making philosophy with the aforementioned conference involving Kirk, Spock, Crater, McCoy (really the creature), Uhuru, and Rand. (Surely this and similar scenes throughout TOS inspired the many fine briefing room scenes in The Next Generation and Voyager).

There’s also a beautiful moment of rapport between Kirk and Spock: when Kirk is summoned from the bridge to sickbay (identified here as “the dispensary”), one look tells Spock that he should follow, no words necessary.

Image from Star Trek episode The Man Trap showing Kirk on Enterprise bridge
Kirk’s silent come-hither message to Spock

Ultimately, I see the “The Man Trap” as a “We weren’t meant for paradise” episode. McCoy’s infatuation with a love from his past is almost literally consumed by the relentlessness of time. And we learn that Crater has been living with the creature-as-Nancy for at least a year, a situation Kirk likens to “Crater’s private heaven,” with a single life form that can serve as “wife, lover, best friend, wise man, fool, idle slave.” Paradise, indeed. But none of this is real and our heroes insist on remaining firmly grounded in their reality.

“The Man Trap” also calls to mind a later Season One episode, “The Devil in the Dark,” except here Kirk is equivalent to the mining foreman who only wants to kill the “invading” creature so his crew can get on with their work. I like to think Kirk takes the lessons of “The Man Trap” with him to that later adventure. Our principals certainly appear a bit chastened at the end, Spock with a bandaged forehead, McCoy mourning his inability to go home again, and Kirk “thinking about the buffalo” (which I hope is captain-speak for recalling the four beloved crewmembers killed on this mission).

This is one episode where I would love a backstory that clarifies the ancient civilization and where the creature fits into M-113’s history. Did they coexist in some symbiotic, or parasitic, relationship? Did the creature’s species cause that past civilization’s destruction? Or did the arrival of Prof. Crater and others from the Federation disrupt M-113’s balance of life? Crater claims the creature is the last survivor from a population of millions. I suspect there’s a Prime Directive lesson in there somewhere: even planets that don’t have an obviously “intelligent” civilization by human standards should be approached with caution.

Left to right: Image of salt vampire from Star Trek episode The Man Trap, image of flukeman from The X-Files, image of the soul eater from The X-Files
The Man Trap’s salt vampire and its X-Files progeny: flukeman and the soul eater

Finally, it’s worth noting the salt-eating creature’s influence on later culture. Certainly Flukeman and the soul eater from The X-Files are reminiscent of this nightmarish life form.

Next: Charlie X