Star Trek: The Original Series: “The Man Trap” Review5 min read

“The Man Trap”
Original airdate: 8th September 1966

Written by: George Clayton Johnson
Directed by: Marc Daniels

In a nutshell: A serviceable, but unspectacular way to kick off the series.

But it’s a mystery. And I don’t like mysteries. They give me a bellyache. And I’ve got a beauty right now.

A routine mission on planet M-113 turns into a deadly battle for survival when the USS Enterprise is infiltrated by a mysterious, shape-shifting creature whose ravenous hunger for salt threatens the safety of the crew.

First warping onto screens on September 8th 1966, “The Man Trap” is a serviceable, albeit unremarkable introduction to the colourful world of Star Trek. NBC’s decision to debut the series with this episode was, and remains a bit of a headscratcher. Its plot, a murder mystery with a smattering of action and a big monster reveal at the end was probably a major factor, with its familiar (and therefore relatively safe) content likely banked on by the studio as the best way to showcase their new sci-fi show to potential future advertisers.

In hindsight, this decision seems questionable considering the existence of the show’s second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, a vastly superior show to immerse the viewer in the universe and provide that all-important fist-pumping gung-ho action.

As it is “The Man Trap”, despite being broadcast out of position, still works fine as a jumping-on point. The exposition surrounding a show’s first episode’s key questions – “where”, “when” and “why” – are pretty much non-existent. It’s hard to say today, as most of us know this universe so well, but I do wonder what audiences sitting down to watch this for the first time must’ve felt about it.

What is established quite well however is the main ensemble, the key members of the crew of the Enterprise. Our new weekly heroes. Series lead, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) isn’t the show’s main focal point – another strange symptom of broadcasting out of sequence – but is quickly established as an effective leader: warm, quick-witted, intuitive, and an adept man manager. He’ll do well I reckon.

Not so good with flowers, through.

Other characters are introduced just as well. Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan Science Officer, Mister Spock ably demonstrates the alien character’s cold and dispassionate nature in an early scene with Nichele Nichols’ flirtatious Lieutenant Uhura, the ship’s Comms Officer. Beyond the first couple of episodes, this relationship would seemingly cool off, although it would ultimately end up serving as a major plot thread in JJ Abrams’ series of alternate universe movies. You know, the movies that forgot all about Vulcan’s lack of moon.

But the episode’s primary focal point is the ship’s Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Deforest Kelly). Again, another potential explanation for the show’s early airing, Kelly was the show’s most tenured actor and arguably its most recognisable face owing to an extensive pre-Star Trek career working on several westerns.

Kelly is tasked with handling the show’s main source of drama, reuniting with Nancy (Jeanne Bal), an old flame who, according to the good doctor, doesn’t appear to have aged a day since their last encounter over a decade ago. In actuality Nancy is long dead, replaced by the episode’s “monster-of-the-week”, a shape-shifting creature with an insatiable need for salt. Awkward.

The creature, whatever you want to call it – salt vampire, vampire of planet M-113, or just simply Nancy – is easily the episode’s standout feature, even if the characterisation is a little off. Depending on who is playing it at the time the creature is depicted as alternately calm, desperate, calculated, or just on an unhinged salt binge. The episode’s late attempt at allegory, likening the creature to Earth’s buffalo (extinct in Star Trek’s future) works well as a tragedy if you believe the creature was a simple animal desperately seeking to stay alive. But I don’t think this works completely, as the creature is shown on numerous occasions to be smart, resourceful, opportunistic, and a dangerous predator.

A draining first contact…

Regardless the show climaxes with the monster’s big final reveal, a fantastic bit of creature design by Wah Chang, an early over-the-top Trek Fight Scene between Spock and the creature, and a gut-wrenching, life-or-death dilemma from McCoy, struggling to come to terms with the illusion of the woman he loves and the creature’s true nature.

It’s a strong finish, perfectly sold by Kelly’s horrified eyes.

“The Man Trap” won’t top many “best of” lists. It’s a middle-of-the-road mystery episode that lulls in the middle act before coming good at the end. But it is a start; the first step in a long, colourful and exciting adventure through the cosmos.

We all bought in, and so did the advertisers.


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