‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “The Man Trap”

This is the first in a series of reviews revisiting Star Trek: The Original Series. The goal is to go through the entire 79-episode series, in the order that they aired. So, we won’t be covering “The Cage”—unless there’s overwhelming demand I suppose.” I’ll be rating each too, because why not? So without further ado, let’s get started with season one, episode one: “The Man Trap!”

Star Trek is generally thought of as an optimistic, utopian series, inspired by creator Gene Rodenberry’s vision of a peaceful human race that has transcended human prejudice and violence. In fact, though, the original series was shot through with a brooding anxiety and a decidedly uneasy view of what awaits us out there where no man has gone before.

No episode illustrates that better than the series’ first.  “The Man Trap” is a weird, misogynist, xenophobic fever dream, drenched in horror tropes and Cold War paranoia. Written by George Clayton Johnson, who based it on part on a Twilight Zone episode he’d scripted, “The Man Trap” retains a sinister charge even some 55 years after it first aired on September 6, 1966.

The Enterprise is on a routine mission to provide a medical check-up to Professor Robert Crater (Alfred Ryder) and his wife Nancy (Jeanne Bell), who are doing research on a desolate planet. Nancy was an old flame of ship’s doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelly) and he’s shocked to discover she doesn’t seem to have aged a day in 10 years.

It turns out that’s because she’s not who she appears to be. A salt vampire, the last of its kind, murdered Nancy a year before the Enterprise arrived. Like just old regular blood-drinking vampires, it has hypnotic and psychic powers. Unlike those old regular blood-drinking vampires, the salt vampire can change its appearance based on others’ expectations and desires. “Nancy” uses its powers to start sucking salt out of various crewmembers, first on the surface and then on the ship.

The plot recalls Communist infiltration allegories like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Master, in which friends become enemies, and anyone can be the horrific alien other. It also leans on the tradition of femme fatale seductresses. “Nancy” becomes every man’s dream the better to (literally) suck the life out of them. Crewman Darnelle (Michael Zaslow) sees her as a curvaceous blonde (Francine Pyne) he met on a pleasure planet. She tosses her hair and struts off—and soon thereafter Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is puzzling over the guy’s mottled corpse.

The episode climaxes with the creature hypnotizing Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and preparing to feed. McCoy, looking on in horror, has to choose between his loyalty to his captain and his affection for his old flame. He finally realizes her iniquity, and chooses the uniform, ending the vampire’s feminine wiles in a phaser-blast of death.

The episode couldn’t be much more explicit in its equation of empathy with weakness. The mini-skirted Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) engages in some rather breathtaking flirting with an impassive Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). “Why don’t you tell me I’m an attractive young woman,” she husks. Spock, the unemotional Vulcan science officer, remains, well, unemotional, much to Uhura’s exasperation. The scene is gently mocking the Vulcan—but later on, Uhura’s romantic streak almost gets her eaten by the salt vampire, while Spock, thanks to his Vulcan blood (and implicitly thanks to his dour refusal to flirt) is immune. “You could learn something from Mr. Spock. Stop thinking with your glands!” an angry Kirk snaps at McCoy. Soft emotions like love have no place in this dog-eat-dog, salt-vampire-eat-human universe. Everyone needs to toughen up.

Similarly, Crater, who argues for compassion, is completely discredited. It turns out that he knows that his “Nancy” isn’t really Nancy; the monster killed his wife a year or two ago. Rather than embracing vengeance, though, he has lived with the creature companionably, feeding it salt from his stores. The creature is the last of its kind, like the buffalo, and Crater, along with the creature itself (in the form of Dr. McCoy) plead with Kirk to simply give it some salt and leave it alone. Kirk doesn’t seriously consider this path, though. Sure enough, the salt vampire callously kills Crater, justifying Kirk’s argument for no quarter.

The salt vampire isn’t the only alien on the ship. Sulu (George Takei) keeps a purple muppet semi-sentient plant as a pet. It is adorable—and completely domesticated to human purposes. So, you could argue, is Spock. Pluralism is fine when alien others are subordinated and working for humans. But if the aliens are competing for resources, or even if they just beg to be left alone—the only response is escalation.

Again, this (salt?) cocktail of imperialist fear and apocalyptic violence is not generally thought of as Star Trek’s brand. But the mix of hatred, fear, and xenophobia gives the episode a queasy power.  Director Marc Daniels’ climactic scene is a small masterpiece. Spock hammers away at the slight Nancy with those silly patented double-fisted Star Trek punches. Except, in this case, the stiffness of the choreography adds to the uncanny effect. Nancy, tiny and amused, doesn’t even flinch under the assault, and then waves a hand casually, knocking Spock across the room. She then seductively places her hands on the immobilized Kirk’s face—only to reveal her true form.

The costume, designed by Wah Chang, is a bulky monstrosity with a face like a gas mask and suckers on the ends of its fingers. William Shatner screams as if his soul is being sucked out of him. The woman and alien merge together into a single, predatory threat to the Enterprise’s integrity and bodily fluids. The only possible response to such a threat, the episode insists, is genocide.

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Star Trek: The Original Series ("The Man Trap")

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“The Man Trap” is a weird, misogynist, xenophobic fever dream, drenched in horror tropes and Cold War paranoia.

8.0/10
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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.