>“The Man Trap”
After spending last summer enjoying the re-discovery of classic Star Trek‘s third season on DVD, I’d intended to circle back to where it all began and look at seasons one and two of one of my favorite shows of all time this coming summer. But then, a friend showed me the new Blu-Ray transfers of the episodes and I knew my life wouldn’t be complete until I, once again, threw down a large sum of cash to own the original series (yet again). Thanks to the generosity of family, I have upgraded my viewing experience with a new HD set, a Blu-Ray player and the first two seasons of classic Trek on Blu-Ray.
But while I’d skimmed through the discs, changing between original effects and the remastered effects, I still hadn’t necessarily intended to jump back into the Retro TV Round-Ups just yet. But then a stomach bug attacked me over the weekend and instead of checking out the multitude of new shows I had saved on the DVR, I decided to go for my comfort show. And so, I decided I’d start my look back at classic Trek, starting with the first season and the very first episode to ever air, “The Man Trap.”
After going through the third season of the show last summer, I have to admit part of me was really looking forward to getting back into the show when it’s humming along and clicking on all cylinders. And while classic Trek is pretty good out of the gate, it’s still not until about the sixth or seventh episode produced that things really get kicked up a notch and start humming. It’s about the time that Gene Coon shows up and really takes things to another level.
Before that, there are a half dozen or so good stories. One of those is “The Man Trap.”
Now, I’ll admit that when it comes to classic Trek, I’ve tended to watch the episodes in syndication order. For those of you who don’t spend your life following these things, that was the production order of the stories and not the original air order. So this is the first time I’ve cycled back from “Turnabout Intruder” to “The Man Trap” in watching the original series. And watching the episodes in that order this time around something struck me–in many ways “The Man Trap” feels a bit more like it would be at home in season three than it does in season one.
It’s an interesting choice for a first episode to air. As I said back in my review of “Spock’s Brain” I often wonder how audiences greeted the start of season three. With “The Man Trap” I often wonder if I’d tuned in for the first time in September of 1966 how I might have reacted. Would I have been hooked right away? Would the series become appointment TV for me? Looking at “The Man Trap” again, I can’t necessarily say whether I would or not. It’s not a bad episode, but it’s just very different from much of the original series canon.
As an introductory episode, I suppose it works well. There’s not a lot of heavy backstory and we meet just about all of the main characters. It’s not like a modern Trek pilot where we throw in a scene or two for every main character and give them a moment to shine. This one clearly focuses on Kirk and Spock with McCoy thrown in to a lesser extent.
The Enterprise arrives at planet M-113 so McCoy can give yearly physicals to Professor Robert Crater and his wife Nancy. Nancy is the woman who got away in McCoy’s past and he’s a bit nervous about seeing her again. Rushing the landing party down ten minutes early, Kirk, McCoy and crewman (aka red-shirt) Darnell, all see a different woman. For Kirk and McCoy it’s different versions of Nancy and for Darnell it’s a woman he met on Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet.
Turns out that they’re all right–they’re all seeing a different person. They just don’t know it yet. Darnell is killed, allegedly by ingesting a poisoned plant. However, medical tests say otherwise and show that all the salt has been removed from the dead crewman (who if you watch closely you can see breathing under the sheet at certain points). Nancy and Crater both made overtures about needing more salt and Kirk becomes suspicious.
He heads back down with a new landing party and two more crewmen are killed by the creature. But the creature quickly changes into one of them and is beamed on board the ship. Crater goes off searching for the creature and Kirk decides to beam back to the ship and use the sensors to find Nancy and Crater and demand some answers.
On the ship, the creature wanders the ship, interacting with various crew members as it searches for salt. It eventually finds McCoy’s quarters and after drugging him with a sleeping pill, takes on his identity and begins to stalk the ship. Kirk and Spock find Crater as the only human life form in the radius and beam down for answer. After stunning Crater, they learn that the creature killed Nancy a year ago and is the last of its kind. It needs salt to survive and feeds off the memories and thoughts of those around it. The stronger the memories and thoughts you feel, the more likely you’ll see the creature as that person. It uses this and a bit of hypnosis to lure in its prey and feed.
Beamed back to the ship, Crater reveals he can recognize the creature (with the fake McCoy in the room) but refuses to do so. Kirk recommends truth serum and sends McCoy off to administer it. The creature kills Crater, attacks Spock and then heads back to McCoy’s quarters. Appearing again as Nancy, the creature tries to get McCoy to protect it as Kirk comes in with a phaser. Kirk is attacked and McCoy eventually forced to shoot and kill the creature to save Kirk.
There’s a lot to enjoy about the episode and you can see the building blocks for what will eventually become Star Trek all in play here. The interaction of Kirk, Spock and McCoy works well, with a lot of jabbing and verbal barring between Kirk and McCoy. We see very early the concern Kirk has for the safety of his ship and crew and how he won’t let anything else come before that. We also get mention of Spock’s alien nature and his planet of Vulcan (in a scene I’m pretty sure set up all of the Spock/Uhura romance in the latest Trek film). We also get some of the philosophical questions that make Trek unique, including whether the creature is really evil or just trying to survive. It’s being the last of its kind also add a bit to the final decision of whether or not it has to be killed in order to stop its killing rampage.
The concept of a creature that feeds on salt isn’t nearly as intriguing as the concept that it needs love and memories to sustain itself. Whether this is a defensive mechanism or something deeper isn’t delved into as much as it could be and the question of just why it let Crater live for so long (even as it seems to be hungry from lack of salt due to a lower stock of it) isn’t really addressed. The concept of creating a fantasy for yourself while in isolation on a seemingly deserted world is one that Trek will come back to an examine again a couple of times in season one (most notably “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”).
But for all that, the episode still feels different from a lot of other Trek. For one thing, there are long stretches that seem to be little more than looking at life on the Enterprise. There’s the old question of just where does Captain Kirk go to the bathroom and while it’s not answered here, we do spend a lot of time examining various characters going about daily routines as part of their shipboard duties. Janice Rand is seen wandering the halls with her dinner tray and we see Kirk eating dinner at one point while on bridge duty. McCoy is advised to take sleeping pills by Kirk in order to rest and we hear how McCoy gave them to Kirk last week. (The fact that McCoy has a full bottle of them in his quarters is only a bit eyebrow raising). We see Sulu working in the botany section and we’ve got a conversation between Spock and Uhura about the moon on Vulcan and Kirk possibly being the closest thing Spock has to a friend. The last scene feels like one jammed in for the first episode of a new show, really.
And yet there’s a slower pace to things as they develop on screen. Once the audience is tipped into the creature and that it can change shapes, the tension comes more from seeing the regular crew in peril at it stalks the halls. Interestingly, the creature gets a large chunk of screen time in the second and third acts as it stalks the ships. Again, it all leads to the questions in the end and the somber note on which this one ends.
It’s not a terrible episode. It’s not a great one. It’s a solid enough one. It just feels different from a lot of other Trek episodes.