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Star Trek – The Man Trap (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

It really is amazing how busy the Star Trek universe is. Or, well, how busy it was at one point. Although there are plenty of alien civilisations scattered across the vast gulf space, numerous empires vying for power and glory, the first season of Star Trek seems fixated on the notion that the universe is packed with the relics and ruins of long-dead civilisations. The Man Trap is just one example, as Kirk and his crew investigate an archaeological dig on the planet M-113, decorated with “the ruins of an ancient and long-dead civilisation.” Of course, the civilisation isn’t quite dead, but there’s a definite funereal atmosphere about The Man Trap.

That somewhat grim atmosphere makes the show’s fixation on long-dead worlds somewhat fascinating, given how the series is primarily about mankind’s optimistic future. However, it creates a sense – palpable throughout the first year of Star Trek – that the human race is a relatively new arrival on the scene, but emerging following the collapse and decay of countless ancient civilisations. It’s an old universe, but it’s a new dawn.



Star Trek is know for its aliens. Almost anybody with any connection to popular culture can identify a Klingon or a Vulcan. Even the green Orion slave girl from The Cage made quite an impression. However, so far the first season of Star Trek has given the impression that space is somewhat cold and empty. In The Cage, the hyper-advanced Talosians were revealed to be sheltering underground, waiting to die.

In The Corbomite Manoeuvre, the crew seems to randomly (and unexpectedly) stumble across a single alien. Kirk might remind the crew that they’ve met aliens before, but Bailey’s reaction suggests that it isn’t necessarily a frequent occurrence on the ship. Balok even seems quite lonely, flying through space and patrolling the border by himself. He has no crew, and only a dummy for companionship.

"Dammit, I specifically avoided bringing any redshirts along to avoid this!"

“Dammit, I specifically avoided bringing any redshirts along to avoid this!”

Mudd’s Women and Where No Man Has Gone Before suggests that the human race has expanded relatively far into space, but suggests that such a life is isolated and lonely. The Enterprise is at serious risk of getting stranded in both, and visitors don’t seem to be expected at either the fuel dump in Where No Man Has Gone Before or the mining colony in Mudd’s Women. The Enemy Within features an alien puppy. It would be Balance of Terror before the Enterprise encounters another space-faring empire, and the Klingons wouldn’t be established until the end of the season.

“It’s lonely out in space,” Elton John once noted, and the first season of Star Trek seems to confirm that. It’s interesting that the show would develop a reputation for featuring countless alien races and cultures, because (even counting The Cage) only half the episodes so far have featured any intelligent alien life aside from Mister Spock. And, even then, the aliens encountered in the first half of the season (with the exception of the Romulans in Balance of Terror) are presented as distinctly alien and unknowable.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

God-like beings pop up in Charlie X and The Cage. Monsters stalk The Galileo Seven. The villains in The Conscience of the King and Dagger of the Mind are both humans living off-world, who did unspeakable things. And here, in The Man Trap, we have the last survivor of an ancient race that seems intelligent enough to camouflage itself among the Enterprise crew, but which never seems to communicate directly on its own behalf. It is distinctly alien, a creature which is so foreign as to be quite disturbing.

There is, of course, a likely reason for this. Pop culture has always been fascinated with aliens, but the form of that fascination is often dictated by popular culture and scientific discovery. For example, the discovery of “canals” on Mars had a massive influence on science-fiction that could be felt as late as The Martian Chronicles in 1950. Pop culture’s depiction of alien life has generally been influenced by the prevalent theories concerning the red planet.

It's dead, Jim...

It’s dead, Jim…

So it’s notable that the probe Mariner 4 had the opportunity to make a close examination of the Martian surface in 1965, the year before Where No Man Has Gone Before would air. The survey dismissed, once and for all, the notion of canals crossing the surface of Mars. The implications of the survey were profound, as Bill Momsen noted in his account of the mission:

And then the real wonder came – picture after picture showing that the surface was dotted with craters! It appeared uncannily like that of our own Moon, deeply cratered, and unchanged over time. No water, no canals, no life. Right at the limit of vision, apparently those early observers had barely seen little dots, and arranged them into straight lines. Although at first great elation gripped the crew at realizing we had really done it, that was tempered by what had been revealed.

So there we were – a barren, cratered moon-like world devoid of life.

The findings would be qualified, following the survey. It would be argued that the survey only covered a small percentage of the surface, or that the possibility of micrscopic life. In fact, later research would reveal that Mars apparently still has reserves of water underground.

Botany bay...

Botany bay…

Still, it’s hard to argue that this finding didn’t have a massive impact on popular culture, and its depiction of life in outer space. The wonderful Philip Sandifer over at TARDIS Eruditorum suggests that you can see the impact of the finding on the British science-fiction show Doctor Who, as the show’s outlook concerning life in outer space changed suddenly and radically in the late sixties.

Star Trek seems to start in that sort of frame of mind. Although the presence of nearby desert undoubtedly made it easier to shoot “location work” for episodes set on arid planets, even the studio sets for Star Trek seem to suggest the universe is populated with dead and dying planets. There’s nothing as exotic as the studio-set jungle planet that Star Trek: The Next Generation would showcase in Arsenal of Freedom. When Gary Mitchell wants life on other worlds in Where No Man Has Gone Before, he has to create it. In Shore Leave, it is made clear that a world so idyllic is relatively rare.

Through the ruins...

Through the ruins…

So that, I think, offers some indication of why Star Trek was so fond of dead and dying worlds in its early adventures. However, there’s also a fixation on the idea of ancient aliens and cultures long extinct. This can be traced back to another influential idea in sixties science-fiction – the concept of ancient astronauts, the notion that humanity was relatively young and the universe was populated with older and wiser aliens.

The most influential text on the matter would be written in 1968. Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken proposed the idea that Earth had been visited by aliens in the distant past and that these ancient astronauts had helped us build wonders like the pyramid, or carve the sculptures on Easter Island. It was very much a New Age philosophy, one suggesting that religion had been left behind by these visitors, hinting that most spiritual beliefs were really just a variation on the “cargo cults” that had developed in remote parts of Earth in the 19th and 20th century.

"I swear, that's exactly the way Spock does it!"

“I swear, that’s exactly the way Spock does it!”

It is worth noting, of course, that Gene Roddenberry objected to this hypothesis. Speaking in 1988, Roddenberry stated that Star Trek was really the antithesis of this idea:

Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them, because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.

This makes sense. After all, Roddenberry was a secular humanist. The notion of aliens arriving like gods to help humans deal with their mess was an idea that Roddenberry probably found quite objectionable. This is why, of course, we get a bunch of episodes in the first season of The Next Generation (like The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us) that are about humans lording it over other alien species.

Crouching Vulcan, hidden badass...

Crouching Vulcan, hidden badass…

Of course, after Roddenberry departed, the franchise would dabble with the idea. Star Trek: First Contact established that the Vulcans pretty much arrived in humanity’s darkest hour to help us reach the stars. One episode of The Next Generation, after Roddenberry’s passing, endorsed its own variation on the “ancient astronaut” idea, with The Chase revealing that life on Earth was seeded by a race of progenitors.

Still, these concessions to the notion of humanity needing alien assistance came after Roddenberry died. Here, it’s quite clear that those old and ancient aliens wondering the universe are either decayed or corrupted. One of the strangest aspects of The Man Trap, but one which becomes easy to understand in light of the above, is the fact that pretty much everybody wants to kill the alien. Sure, Professor Crater wants to save it, but he is out of his mind.

"Somebody get this man some concealler!"

“Somebody get this man some concealer!”

He makes a convincing conservationist argument. Comparing the creature to the buffalo, he comments, “Once there were millions of them prairies black with them. One herd covered three whole states, and when they moved they were like thunder.” While the buffalo actually recovered from the brink of extinction, he makes a salient point. “Like the creatures here. Once there were millions of them. Now there’s one left.”

Crater is portrayed as unstable and insane for protecting the creature. After all, it has killed several people. However, it’s hard to disagree entirely with his point. It is, evidently, possible to keep the creature alive on a diet of only salt. After it killed Nancy, it was able to exist on the salt stockpiles, without the need to kill again. Salt isn’t so precious a resource that one can fathom an objection to allocating some portion to keep the creature alive. It has killed for food, repeatedly, and it would kill to feed again if given the chance. But, then again, so would a lion of a leopard. And isn’t it deserving of protection?

Oh, Kirk, you are so thoughtful...

Oh, Kirk, you are so thoughtful…

And Kirk won’t have it. He dismisses the idea out of hand. There can be no peaceful coexistence with this relic of the old universe. “You bleed too much, Crater,” Kirk mockingly suggests. “You’re too pure and noble. Are you saving the last of its kind or has this become Crater’s private heaven, here on this planet? This thing becomes wife, lover, best friend, wise man, fool, idol, slave. It isn’t a bad life to have everyone in the universe at your beck and call, and you win all the arguments.” That’s a bit of an ad hominem attack.

The salt vampire has to die. The old order has to give way to the new. The buffalo metaphor is apt, as Star Trek is arguably a futuristic version of manifest destiny. It has been argued that Star Trek is ultimately an optimistic reimagining of the American frontier myth:

In this respect, the producers of the show cast the crew of the Enterprise not as a space-bound cavalry led by an analogue of General Custer, but as a Lewis and Clark of the galaxy. Exploration, not conquest, was the name of the game and, in that sense, the show’s producers presented their audience with a redeemed frontier. Star Trek did not idealise the frontier as it was, it idealised the frontier as it could have been: in Star Trek’s recasting of the frontier, aboriginal peoples were protected from the mighty and technologically advanced, not by force of arms but through force of ideology.

So we get expansion and exploration, but without the genocide and exploitation that marred the true story of the American West.

Vamping it up...

Vamping it up…

Still, Star Trek is only able to romanticise so much about that chapter of American history. The frontier represents a changing of the guard, a new order to things. The Man Trap seems to point out that – even if human expansion can exist without oppression or tyranny or brutality – the universe must be tamed. It’s perhaps the most colonial implication in the classic Star Trek series, the notion that the Federation has to “tame” the wider universe and the creatures that reside within it.

That said, you could mount a convincing argument that these old civilisations wandering around in the wider universe aren’t an allusion to the “ancient astronaut” theory. After all, the idea was most famously proposed in Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, two years after Star Trek was first broadcast. You could argue that von Däniken’s work was merely the ultimate expression of an idea bubbling away in popular consciousness. The idea had been first proposed in English in The Morning of the Magician in 1963.

Spock it to him!

Spock it to him!

However, there’s a very strong case that von Däniken was heavily influenced by another much older author, and that Chariots of the Gods? owes a significant debt to American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is undoubtedly one of the most influential American horror writers ever. Robert Bloch is counted among one of Lovecraft’s closest contemporaries, and he wrote two episodes for Star Trek. Indeed, Bloch’s Catspaw explicitly references Lovecraft’s “Old Ones.”

Catspaw is a delightfully gonzo adventure. The Complete H.P. Lovecraft Filmography describes it as the show’s “single entry with Lovecraftian significance”, which I’m not entirely convinced is fair. After all, the always insightful Zack Handlen makes a convincing case that The Immunity Syndrome is pretty Lovecraftian:

The monster is a single celled organism that’s 11, 000 miles long, and the field it emits saps the Enterprise’s energy sources and is lethal to life as we know it. There’s no communication possible, and no goofy little person at the controls. It’s just this alien thing, and it has to be destroyed or else the whole universe is at risk. (Although even that might not be enough; Kirk and McCoy talk about what’ll happen if there’s more of the things floating around–humans could wind up as the viruses inside a giant host body.) The whole thing is very creepy. There’s that Lovecraftian vibe of huge empty spaces and monsters so vast that even their size becomes malevolent.

There’s a sense, in Star Trek, that the universe is populated with cranky old lifeforms that are inherently hostile to our way of living. They aren’t necessarily evil, it’s just that their existence is so downright bizarre and alien that it is impossible to co-exist. After all, The Squire of Gothos is the story of how a spoilt brat almost destroys the Enterprise while his parents aren’t looking. Those omnipotent lifeforms didn’t mean humanity harm – in fact, they probably never thought of humanity at all – but they can cause such massive damage.

Don't worry, he's only slightly phased!

Don’t worry, he’s only slightly phased!

Of course, this notion that something can be so alien that it is inherently hostile to humanity is an idea that is hard to reconcile with the optimistic utopia of Star Trek. After all, Roddenberry wanted to present an idealistic future where peace was something that was second nature. I suspect that’s why The Next Generation was generally more sympathetic towards its more alien aliens, like in Silicon Avatar or Galaxy’s Child or even Tin Man. In contrast, the classic Star Trek is a bit less idealistic and a bit more gung-ho.

Picard would have tried to find a way to reason with the creature here. If it had proven impossible, he would have lamented the creature’s passing, acknowledging that the universe is cruel in the way that it changes. Kirk, on the other hand, shows no compassion or consideration for the creature. McCoy mourns Nancy, but doesn’t think too much about the monster. In fact, the brief glimpse of its true form makes it easier for him to shoot. Even the logical Spock urges the creature’s destruction. There’s a sense that nobody except crazy old Crater (who didn’t even mind that it ate his wife) is sorry that the last salt vampire is dead.

I wish I was on the M-113...

I wish I was on the M-113…

The Man Trap was the first episode of Star Trek broadcast. Although it was apparently chosen through a process of elimination, there’s a lot to like here. It features a whole host of Star Trek staples. There’s ancient ruins on a dead planet, an obstructive scientist, a healthy death toll of anonymous officers (no actual redshirts, though!), a monster, a nice demonstration of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic. I actually think there’s quite a lot to recommend The Man Trap as the first Star Trek episode broadcast. From a purely structural point of view, it’s a great example of how to put together a Star Trek episode and what viewers can expect in terms of production and storytelling.

As an aside, I do like the fact that The Man Trap makes it a plot point that the Enterprise routinely checks in on scientists around the Federation to make sure that they aren’t going crazy or anything. When Crater objects to their presence, Kirk explains, “All research personnel on alien planets are required to have their health certified by a starship surgeon at one year intervals.” That is a surprisingly sensible policy, given how frequently those working on the frontier seem to go a little nuts. For all the show occasionally relies on that convenient narrative device, it’s nice that its first appearance actually makes it point to imply that this trend hasn’t gone unnoticed.

A knockout dame...

A knockout dame…

That said, there is the fact that none of the production here really concedes that viewers might need to be “eased” into the whole Star Trek thing. Episodes like Where No Man Has Gone Before, The Corbomite Manoeuvre and even The Naked Time are somewhat explicit in the way they deal with the show’s themes of human exploration. Characters express concerns and doubts about the nature of their work in a way that allows the series to offer its own philosophy of human development and the importance of knowledge. In contrast, The Man Trap is about the Enterprise killing the last of a particular species.

It’s a little funny that the first episode to air opens with the casual rapport between Kirk and McCoy, given that McCoy didn’t appear in the first episode filmed. I can be quite harsh on the show’s character development, in that I’m not convinced that any member of the cast truly changed over the course of the show. I will concede the movies did much better work allowing the cast to grow and evolve. Still, I think the series did an excellent job establishing its ensemble. We know who each character is and what they bring to the table within moments of seeing them on screen.

Crater reacted so badly to their presence that Kirk had to flip him off...

Crater reacted so badly to their presence that Kirk had to flip him off…

So we get nice moments, like Kirk gently mocking McCoy. “Shall we pick some flowers, Doctor? When a man visits an old girlfriend she usually expects something like that.” McCoy shoots back, “Is that how you get girls to like you, by bribing them?” DeForrest Kelly and Shatner work perfectly together. I honestly don’t think any of the spin-offs defined its cast as efficiently or as effectively as Star Trek. In this, the first episode to air, you know all that you’ll ever need to know about Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

In fact, we even get a nice interaction between Uhura and Spock, setting up the weird quasi-romance thing that runs through the early episodes, and was picked up for the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Again, we know as much as we ever know about Uhura from that scene, and Spock defines himself quite quickly too. When Uhura chastises him for his lack of emotion of the announcement that a member of the team is dead, he explains, “Lieutenant, my demonstration of concern will not change what happened. The transporter room is very well-manned and they will call if they need my assistance.”

Uhuru also speaks the language of love...

Uhura also speaks the language of love…

There’s an unpleasant continuation of the trend to treat Janice Rand as nothing but a sex object. It’s weird that the show goes out of its way to demonstrate that racial and other social prejudices are a thing of the past, but the show so casually indulges in sexism. “How about that?” one male crew member asks another as she passes. His colleague replies, “Yeah, how’d you like to have her as your personal yeoman?” Classy fellows, those two. It seems ill-advised coming just one slot in the production order after an attempted rape.

Rand herself seems sadly aware of her status. In Sulu’s makeshift arboretum, she discusses how she feels about his exotic collection of alien plant life. “He is not an inanimate object. He’s so animate he makes me nervous. In fact, I keep expecting one of these plants of yours to grab me.” Even the plant life on the Enterprise seems to threaten to sexually harass Janice Rand. This whole approach to her character would be uncomfortable under the best of circumstances, but behind-the-scenes stories make them truly awkward to sit through.

Take a chill pill...

Take a chill pill…

As another aside, I can’t help but wonder about “Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet”, alluded to by one of the not!redshirts here. Given that he seems to recall a beautiful woman from that planet, and given how McCoy pretty much tells him to shut the hell up immediately, and given the fact that Star Trek is a western… in space, I can’t help but read the worst into that line. After all, Mudd’s Women was a story about frontier prostitution, which might suggest that this “Pleasure Planet” wasn’t exactly family friendly.

On the upside, Uhura gets to be pretty dynamic for a female lead on Star Trek. One of the best parts of re-watching Star Trek is seeing all the little awesome moments that Uhura gets while the show refuses to ever give her too much of the spotlight. “You were just thinking of someone like me,” the vampire comments, seducing her. “I’m guessing of course, but you do look a little lonely.” Uhura somewhat sarcastically replies, “I see. So naturally, when I’m lonely I think of you.” Of course, she can’t quite resist, and is saved by the bell. But she still gets a nice quip. Even Kirk doesn’t get a nice one-liner before it tries to feed on him.

The Vulcans of command...

The Vulcans of command…

Also notable is the fact that the Captain’s Log here repeats a trick from The Enemy Within, with Kirk’s monologue providing information that the characters can’t be aware of at the time in question. “Since our mission was routine, we had beamed down to the planet without suspicion,” he explains. “We were unaware each member of the landing party was seeing a different woman, a different Nancy Crater.” He made a similar comment when evil!Kirk arrived on the Enterprise in The Enemy Within, something he concedes the crew didn’t know at the time.

This is interesting because it suggests a bit more flexibility with the narrative device in the early scripts of the show. It hints, for example, that Kirk is recording this logs after the fact, allowing him to embellish or to point out plot points concealed from him. It isn’t just setting up the status quo or providing set-up, it allows for running commentary that doesn’t compromise the suspense. Kirk can apparently tell us that there is something wrong with Nancy Crater before he realises that there is something wrong with Nancy Crater.

Oh, don't be (Mc)Coy about it...

Oh, don’t be (Mc)Coy about it…

It’s interesting to see the tool used in this sort of way, and later stories would settle on a more restrictive approach to the logs of Kirk (and his successors). Most subsequent adventures would confine the Captain’s Log to items of which the character was aware at the time. I can understand that application of the storytelling device. it keeps things a bit more internally consistent and does a better job maintaining suspense. More than that, though, it doesn’t treat the audience like idiots who need everything spelt out to them. Instead, they provide the necessary set-up for the episode in question and perhaps a sliver of insight into Kirk’s mind.

I actually quite like The Man Trap, if only because it’s somewhat difficult to reconcile with the rest of Star Trek. It’s a story in which the audience is asked to applaud the death of the last member of a species, and where Kirk and Spock show no hesitation in killing a relic from an ancient era. And yet, despite the fact that this approach seems contrary to the idealistic Star Trek universe, it still feels very much like Star Trek. It’s a weird dynamic, but one that makes The Man Trap quite compelling and fascinating.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

2 Responses

  1. Might wanna go back and edit these posts to fix “Uhuru” to the correct Uhura.

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