Written by George Clayton Johnson
Directed Marc Daniels
Original Air Date: 6th September 1966
While this was the first episode of Star Trek to debut on US television in 1966, it was not the first episode to be filmed and yet there is something pleasing in seeing the series arrive proper with an element of non-fussiness and getting right down to the business of exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life.
While The Man Trap would eventually see the crew of the Enterprise encounter a new life form, it begins not with that potential discovery, instead having Kirk, McCoy and an easily disposable crew member land on the planet M-1113 and McCoy being jovially jibed at by Kirk for his forthcoming encounter with an ex-girlfriend.
It’s an episode that begins with a literal male gaze, the sight of Nancy Crater (Jeanne Bal) from the point of view of Kirk, McCoy and crew member Darnell (not wearing a red shirt but you know he’s not going to be around for very long) bringing out different perceptions of Nancy from each man; Kirk sees a middle-aged woman with greying hair; McCoy only sees the young woman he fell in love with and lost so many years ago. Darnell, on the other hand, sees a blonde-haired woman similar to one he caught the eye of years ago and who looks nothing at all like Nancy.
It’s an intriguing conceit with which to centre an episode around and while this was the sixth episode in the production cycle, the paranoid-fuelled horror elements that come into play in the second half of the story meant that it was seen as a thrilling episode with which to introduce viewers to the series.
There is a naturalism to the chemistry of the cast here that would no doubt only be perfectly formed around six episodes in. Kirk and McCoy are on good terms and there is a believable sense of friendship between the two, although we are treated to some anger from Kirk towards the resident physician that feels somewhat shocking. Shatner being Shatner, it’s a moment delivered with genuine bombast that feels like it exists somewhere between over-the-top and yet weirdly natural at the same time. His delivery of the line ‘I’ve lost a man’ feels like perfect fodder with which to do an impression of the actor.
There’s a lovely moment early on involving Spock and Uhura, both sharing a cute moment of banter that one can see would be an inspiration for the romantic scenes between the characters in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film. It has the benefit of making the characters not just easily defined heroic types there to fight the good fight, doing their jobs at the various consoles dotted around the ship and easy to be present around while Kirk, Spock and McCoy deliver a moral message come the end of the episode (although there are always variations of that type of monologue with this show), but it all makes the world of Star Trek feel emotionally lived in.
It also has the benefit of making McCoy and Uhura’s susceptibility to the creature that more believable and less exploitative; after all these aren’t just archetypes of a space show, they have emotions and lives beyond the bridge or the sickbay.
The scene where Uhura encounters the creature having taken on the appearance of a very handsome man that captures her eye is so palpable with sexual chemistry and the hint of sex that it’s a reminder of just how sometimes television of the 60s could show their ability to become horny all too quickly, even if the act of sex itself is kept very much of screen. (Future episodes of the series would similarly display a level of sexual eagerness that could cross the lines into territory that approaches problematic from a modern point of view, most prominently The Enemy Within and Miri).
In some respects, it also plays to the horror vibe of the episode. Sex and death always have a knack of going together during stories of violent death at the hands of horror or science fictional means, where creatures from beyond the imagination can tap into sexual desire for their own ends. There is something of a vampire quality to ‘Nancy’, but where instead of blood being the component that she craves for her survival, the catalyst is salt. The concept might sound silly, but the weird legions on the faces of her victims has a surreal quality that makes it weirdly frightening rather than comedic, and the moment she goes to kill Kirk come the end of the episode and his scream of terror only hints at the bloodless violence that comes with her abilities.
The only one not susceptible to all of this is Spock of course. Being half-Vulcan means that he isn’t prone to the same emotional weaknesses as the rest of the crew, a brilliant notion with which to introduce to the audience the character’s logic-drive and less emotional nature, and one a million miles away from the youthful exuberance that was originally going to be a factor of the character as evidenced by The Cage.
In a moment of near comical horror, the Vulcan scientist proceeds to beat her as much as possible to convince McCoy she isn’t really Nancy to the increasingly horrified reaction of the doctor. The eventual reveal of the creature and the final confrontation plays into what some might view as the B-movie qualities of The Original Series, but there is also a sharply edged intelligence to proceedings. The use of salt and the final line regarding ‘the buffalo’ means that this all leans into very classical science fiction, the type which came in books with pulpy covers or movie posters that hinted at something grander than the B-movie that was you’d end up with, and yet The Man Trap is all very entertaining, wonderfully done and gets Star Trek off to a smashingly good start.