“This thing becomes wife, lover, best friend, wise man, fool, idol, slave. It isn’t a bad life to have everyone in the universe at your beck and call! And you win all the arguments.”
It’s perplexing to me that “The Man Trap” would be chosen to premiere Star Trek. It may have been that the show required relatively fewer visual effects shots than the four episodes that preceded it in production, or that the story was at the core of welcoming viewers to the weekly adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise. “The Corbomite Maneuver” was the first episode in production and almost beautifully illustrates Gene Roddenberry’s central thesis, but there were many complicated visual effects shots, and that episode would not premiere until two months later.
Don’t get me wrong. “The Man Trap” is a stunning piece of science fiction, but the narrative does defy Roddenberry’s edict about “beasties,” horrible monsters from outer space, and there never seems to be a discussion about the crew’s regard for sentient life. In orbit around planet M-113, Kirk and McCoy beam down to conduct routine medical examinations of Professor Robert Crater, and his wife, Nancy (“… but everyone knew her as Nancy …”). Not five minutes pass and we’ve got our dead crewman, though to be fair, Darnell isn’t a “red-shirt.” He’s just a happy, horny guy!
The bodies start piling up in short order, but it takes a while for our heroes to figure out they have a creature capable of assuming any form. This is where we start to get Captain Kirk’s time-traveling logs, as though he were writing a book about the subject in past tense form rather than up-to-date information being processed in real-time. The autopsy of Darnell reveals complete salt depletion. There’s a creature out there who literally sucks the salt out of its prey, and it has the ability to shape-shift into any form.
I like Kirk in these early episodes. He’s no-nonsense, almost humorless (except for his suggestion to McCoy that he try taking one of those red pills to help him sleep). McCoy is having a bad week. Nancy is an ex-girlfriend, and he finds himself subtly manipulated by her charms. When he sees her for the first time, she doesn’t appear to have aged a day. She appears as what any person might expect, with sexy results! Kirk expects to see an older woman, and she doesn’t disappoint him. Darnell sees her as a hot blonde. Later, Uhura sees her as a good-looking Black man who speaks Swahili to her.
When the creature kills two more men, including Green (whose appearance the creature takes), the landing party beams back up to the ship. Green chases after Janice because she has a salt-shaker with a meal she’s bringing to Sulu. Do Yeomen do nothing all day but bring food to people? There is some uncomfortable (and dated) sexism at work here. Uhura would rather spend time flirting with Spock than doing her job. Two crewmen leer rather inappropriately at Janice as she walks by with her cute little mini-skirt. How do the ladies go about selecting wardrobe, or do they?
Kirk rebukes Crater for having what amounts to his own personal love slave in a creature that can assume any form, particularly a woman. Again, this is a strange episode choice to introduce a different kind of television science fiction, but there is a wonderful ’60s vibe to it all. Alexander Courage’s score is eerie, and the dialogue is ambiguous enough in evoking a “body snatchers” theme to what would’ve been standard science fiction/horror. George Clayton Johnson had previously written for Twilight Zone; the brilliant episodes, “A Game of Pool” and “Kick the Can,” among them.
Twice a week, Star Trek Rewind explores the Star Trek universe. From Archer to Janeway, Kirk to Picard, and Georgiou to Sisko — boldly read what no one has read before!