Star Trek: TOS - Looking Back At THE MAN TRAP - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Star Trek: TOS - Looking Back At THE MAN TRAP

Tony falls for the trap.
“It’s a mystery. And I don’t like mysteries. They give me a bellyache, and I got a beauty right now.”
James T Kirk, in The Man Trap

1966 was, in so many ways, a very different time in TV to the 21st century.

Nowadays, if you were preparing to launch a new science-fiction space adventure show, especially on a leading US network, you’d begin with some kind of origin story, that let people at home get a handle on their chief players, showed them in action, with some individual characterization and some definition of their overall reason for doing the things they did.

It’s a thing most subsequent versions and strands of Star Trek have done. At the start of The Next Generation, we see Captain Picard, newly appointed to his ship, getting to grips with his new Galaxy class starship, giving his Number 1 the task of image maintenance with children, having the very mission of the Enterprise challenged by an alien god, and showing what the crew and the ship can do, both technically and ethically, before being allowed to go on their way. In Deep Space 9, we see the trauma that makes Commander Sisko the man he is, and there’s a direct link with Picard and his crew. In Voyager, we see the events that lead up to Voyager being stranded in the Delta Quadrant… and so on.

The beginning of it all, though, the launch of Star Trek (The Original Series, as it has subsequently become known), was The Man Trap.
Here’s the thing. The Man Trap wasn’t written or filmed with the purpose of being a ‘second pilot’ in mind. In fact, it was the sixth episode of the series to be filmed, and William Shatner, who played Captain James T Kirk of the Enterprise, actually felt it was the weakest episode in the run.

The episode that WAS filmed with the intention of being the ‘second pilot’ – the one which would set up the premise for anyone who missed the actual pilot, and launch us into the show – was Where No Man Has Gone Before, but NBC executives felt it had too much exposition, and so would bore viewers who were just tuning in. Gene Roddenberry, the man whose idea Star Trek was, also disagreed initially that The Man Trap should be the first episode shown, but he was won around.

Before that, though, a handful of potential first episodes were mooted – Mudd’s Women could have launched the show, but was felt to be a little prurient to kick off the series. The Naked Time too was a contender, but overall, it was felt there was more straightforward mystery, drama and character revealed in The Man Trap, so by a process of elimination, rather than with any coherent storytelling strategy in place, it was The Man Trap that became most people’s first experience of the strange new space show from NBC.

The thing is, watched again 55 years on, both realities are present, bold as brass. On the one hand, there’s a lot about The Man Trap to recommend it – it has more or less the same essential plot as Carmilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu, a vampire using not physical power but love and affection to keep its victims alive so they could be regularly drained. But it adds a little Greek myth into its mix, with the vampire being able to shape-shift to show the victim the object of their desire (or simply to pass unnoticed, as many of the Greek gods did from time to time). And then of course, it blasts it into space, so it’s not strictly blood the vampire needs, but salt.
On a seemingly routine supply mission to planet M-113, where Professor Crater (Alfred Ryder) and his wife Nancy (Jeanne Bal) live in isolation, a simple restocking of salt – vital for life out in space – turns fatal when one of the ship’s crew is found with his body completely drained of the life-giving substance.

We know something strange is up very early on, because out of nowhere, we’re introduced to the joy that is Star Fleet’s grumpiest medic, Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and told that he and Nancy Crater used to be quite the item, but that they haven’t seen each other for years.

There follows what has become such a classic reveal that it’s been re-used time and again in science-fiction history – a multiple point-of-view shift, with the viewpoint shifting to the character who spoke last. Crater, McCoy, Kirk, and Crewman Darnell (he who ends up getting salt-sucked in the unconvincing wilderness) each look at Nancy Crater and see a different woman, or the same woman at different ages.

In a sense, that’s both an unavoidable and a fabulous trick to play on the audience at this point – if it hadn’t been made clear, people would have gone “But hang on, why didn’t…?” But at the same time, it blows the fundamental mystery of the story out of the water early in the episode.

What follows is not so much a vampire murder mystery in space as a pacy, involving game of hunt the killer, when the killer can be anyone you know.
That in itself has a great deal of value as a way of introducing us to several key members of the Enterprise crew. Spock has no introduction, he’s just an alien on the bridge, yep, deal with it – to some extent the point of the inter-species ethos of the Federation, but for viewers in 1966, undoubtedly a little odd. We meet Uhura – wait, hang on, a black woman in a position of authority in a spaceship?! (Never, ever underestimate the power of having Nichelle Nichols on that ship and that show), and we meet Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett). We pop in to visit Sulu, and get a sense of his hobbies as he tends some rare plants. And above all, with Kirk acting as the hard-bitten detective in the case, we learn of his aversion to mysteries, which translates itself into a rough-edged determination to solve them – rather than, as it could have done, into a close-minded dismissal of the mystery. He was both pulp fiction detective enough to appeal to fathers and mothers, and open-minded enough to appeal to sci-fi Sixties kids, looking for a universe that spoke to them.

There’s a good crisis point in the episode, as, having killed several more people, including Professor Crater, who could see the creature in its true form and still didn’t give it up to Kirk’s authority, the creature is about to kill Spock, the alien for whom in this episode we’re not driven to have any emotional reaction beyond curiosity. Bones McCoy is faced with the same dilemma, seeing the creature, knowing it’s killed his crewmates and that it’s about to kill Spock too. Will he choose the ship and the crew, or the killer he knows is not the woman he once loved, despite appearance - but the thing that killed her too.
We won’t spoil it for you (it’s only been 55 years, after all), but it’s a reasonably powerful piece of character drama for a bewildering space show that appeared out of nowhere, and The Man Trap got some favourable Nielsen ratings when it aired. In fact, it won its timeslot for that week – bizarre as many people probably found it.

The point really is that while there’s no outright origin material in The Man Trap, and there’s no sense in which it feels like the beginning of anything, it works well enough as a science-fiction mystery thriller. You might not know enough about the ship, the crew, or its mission by the end of the first episode (despite the now-legendary expositional summary at the start of every episode – “These are the voyages…”), but you know enough to understand it’s a space show and things happen, and you know there’s an alien on the bridge, so you want to know more about that, and that captain’s quite the guy, and…

If you were setting out to make Star Trek The Original Series today, there’s absolutely no way you’d choose to write The Man Trap as your first episode (any more than they CHOSE to write it as a first episode back in 1966).

But watched 55 years on, and trying to block out all the hindsight of a show eventually cancelled and reborn later by movies and other versions, it’s still a pretty watchable chunk of television that would make you come back the following week for the equally emotionally complex Charlie X.

It stands up well to 55 of time passing, albeit there’s an almost theatrical slowness to some parts of it, and back in the day, it turned casual TV watchers into Star Trek fans. Fans who would continue to want more of the adventures of the starship Enterprise and her crew for years, and then decades to come.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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