The Man TrapBy Michelle Erica Green
Posted at May 20, 2005 - 6:44 PM GMT
See Also: 'The Man Trap' Episode Guide
Plot Summary: When the Enterprise takes McCoy to perform routine physicals on Robert and Nancy crater, two archaeologists working on a remote planet, Captain Kirk is surprised by Dr. Crater's resistance to the crew's presence and to their demands for additional salt. One crewman is found dead, then another, with mysterious facial scarring. McCoy discovers that all salt has been drained from the bodies. While Kirk and Spock try to discover why Dr. Crater will resort to violence to make Enterprise leave, his wife - who is really a shapeshifter that sucks salt from the bodies of other beings - infiltrates the ship disguised as a crewmember and begins to prey on the crew.
Analysis: First, a note about these reviews: I'm not going to bother to write up detailed plot summaries since so many are widely available already, in The Star Trek Compendium and on numerous web sites from StarTrek.com to Star Trek Sickbay's transcripts. The original series also uses the captain's logs to create its own summaries, as in this first episode where Kirk keeps the audience apprised of what the crew knows by reporting when his crewmembers die and his ship is infiltrated. I'm also not going to try to pretend that I've never seen these episodes before and that the behavior of these characters is new or surprising. "The Man Trap" was the first episode of Star Trek shown on NBC in 1966, though it was not the first written or filmed, and I am following the original broadcast schedule, which means there will be anachronisms in the first several weeks as developments in shooting were aired out of order.
"The Man Trap" is a fine place to start, anyway, as it contains nearly everything I love about Star Trek as well as a couple of things that were ongoing issues in the original series. We learn almost immediately that the captain and doctor are friends as well as colleagues, that Kirk prefers taking charge of situations to sitting back and watching them unfold, and that music on this series will be used to cue changes in tone or impending disaster. The scene is set very quickly, with Kirk calling Nancy Crater "that one woman from Dr. McCoy's past" and McCoy teasing Kirk about getting girls to like him by bribing them with flowers -- obviously these two have chatted about the women in their pasts before, and McCoy calls the captain "Jim."
Then, less than ten minutes into our first original series episode, we get our first example of a crewmember being led by his gonads and throwing his Starfleet training out the window. Nancy - who appears to Kirk as a woman in her 50s and to McCoy as a woman in her late 20s, looks to Darnell - the show's first "red-shirted ensign" despite his blue uniform - like a girl he met on Wrigley's Pleasure Planet, and when she beckons him, he follows. Minutes later, he's dead, and Nancy Crater officially becomes the series' first femme fatale, tearfully explaining that the boy swallowed a poisonous plant while McCoy shakes his head and tries to figure out how she aged so much in his eyes so quickly. McCoy, who will be consistently portrayed as a chivalrous Southern gentleman throughout the series where women are concerned, allows himself to be taken in, though as a doctor he should be the first to suspect his old flame. Meanwhile, back on Enterprise, Uhura is flirting rather fruitlessly with Spock on the bridge, telling him that she will cry if she hears the word "frequency" one more time and asking why he doesn't tell her that she's an attractive young lady.
It's apparent that the producers want to make clear from the outset that this won't be dry science fiction; the sexual innuendo continues throughout the episode, with two ensigns ogling Yeoman Rand as she brings Sulu his dinner and Uhura nearly being seduced by an unknown crewman who is really the salt vampire in disguise. It's also hard not to notice the stereotyped behavior of the women. Nancy is alternately nurturing and needy, which arguably is what the men expect, since we never see the "real" Nancy Crater; though she is seemingly her husband's equal partner and may even hold the same degree as he does, she is always "Nancy" while he is "Dr. Crater." Rand is feisty, pleased to have her figure ogled while on duty, content to be serving the officers; Uhura is described as lonely and portrayed as looking for love, though she clearly has a significant role on the ship, since she's the one Kirk orders to keep a protective lock on himself and McCoy when they return to the planet's surface. This is all much easier for me to dismiss on a 1966 television series than it is when it occurs in 1995 Enterprise episodes, so while I can't not-mention it, it doesn't particularly diminish the episode for me, although I certainly understand why women who grew up watching The Next Generation and Voyager find the treatment of women on the original series quite frustrating. Besides, McCoy's thinking with his emotions gets the ship in far more trouble than Uhura's thinking with hers does; Kirk even tells him to take a lesson from Mr. Spock.
And although we're told straight out by Uhura that Spock is an unemotional Vulcan, we begin to get inklings from the very beginning that this is not entirely the case. The moment there is a report of a death among the landing party, Spock appears to grow tense, though he would probably say he is quite logically focusing on his duties. Uhura, who is upset to hear that someone has died, accuses him of heartlessness, calling the Captain the closest thing to a friend that Spock has on the ship. Though it would be hard for anyone new to the series to notice, Spock is worried; this is as terse as he becomes when he's worried about Jim in "Bread and Circuses" and other later episodes. He also raises his voice when the creature attacks Kirk, and resorts to an uncharacteristic display of violence to prove to McCoy that the creature is not Nancy despite the fact that there are probably more logical means of doing so. We see more of Kirk and Spock's professional relationship in this episode than their friendship, in their work together to trap Crater and later their attempts to force him to cooperate in the briefing room, where it's also obvious that we're not seeing the real McCoy, for his gestures and responses seem awkward and hesitant.
We learn a surprising number of details in this first episode that remain significant throughout the series: that Uhura speaks Swahili, that Sulu has an interest in botany, that Kirk gets a bellyache from mysteries that threaten his mission and takes personal responsibility for the safety of each of his officers. I know that laughing at William Shatner is a popular hobby in modern culture, so I am struck by just how good he is in this role, the subtlety he brings to Kirk's concern for McCoy - the smiles they exchange when McCoy calls him "Sir" and apologizes for having made so many errors, the physical proximity he maintains, the small smiles again at the end when it's understood that they are regretting different things about the outcome of the mission. And we learn that there may be a high body count for space exploration: three red-shirts in a single episode! We also witness our first red alert, though here it's identified as a security level rather than by that name, and Sulu says, "May the Great Bird of the Galaxy bless your planet" when Rand brings him the jello-and-leaf-looking things that pass for food on this Enterprise.
The science isn't great, but it's plausible enough, with nice touches like Spock explaining that the creature could not take salt from his body because his ancestors "spawned in different oceans" than those of full humans. "The Man Trap" has aged surprisingly well, though the orange-painted sky and rocks look rather more artificial on high-resolution DVD than they did on fuzzy broadcast television and the collapsing archway looks rather styrofoamish. As introductions go, the crew and its mission comes across likeable, exciting and intelligent. I'd certainly have wanted to tune in the next week if this was my first hour ever of Star Trek.
Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.