Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Star Trek at 50: The Man Trap

Season 1
Episode 5: The Man Trap
Filmed: June 1966
First Air Date: September 8, 1966 (1st episode aired)

Karen: Ah, "The Man Trap". The first experience the viewing public would ever have with Star Trek came through this rather uneven episode. As discussed in previous posts, this episode wound up being broadcast first over a handful of other filmed episodes due to a combination of issues with getting special effects produced and the network's desire to focus on certain things, such as showing the characters on planets and not just on the Enterprise. Unfortunately, this episode was rather atypical in featuring a monster-like creature as the focus, and many people, especially reviewers, came away with the impression that Trek was going to be another show for the kiddies, like Lost in Space or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It would take a few more episodes to turn this idea around.

Karen: However, "The Man Trap" does have a  number of strong points in its favor. As with all Trek shows, the creature is not a one-dimensional villain; indeed, it is shown as the last of its kind, desperately trying to survive, and this need unfortunately causes it to attack the Enterprise crew. When the creature is killed at the end of the episode, Kirk's regret is tangible and shows us that this man has many layers. It also tells the audience something about the world these characters live in.

Karen: McCoy has some of the spotlight here, as the creature emulates a past love of the doctor's, Nancy Crater. But while McCoy sees Nancy as the same age as when he last knew her, Kirk sees a more mature woman. The creature's illusion powers are never fully explained but allow for it to pull images from its victim's minds.It even appears as McCoy at one point.  

Karen: There are a few terrific interactions for the characters. At a slow point on the bridge, Uhura teasingly says to Spock, "Tell me how your planet Vulcan looks on a lazy evening when the moon is full, Mr. Spock." The unflappable Spock responds, "Vulcan has no moon, Miss Uhura." With an annoyed look, Uhura responds, "I'm not surprised, Mr. Spock."

Karen: It was moments like this which helped to flesh out the characters and get across the feeling of a crew that really knew each other and spent time together. Unfortunately, as the series went on, the supporting cast would have fewer and fewer such scenes.

Karen: Some of the mis-steps of the episode include some strange bits in the botany lab, with what is obviously a hand puppet that is supposed to be some sort of moving, sentient plant. No, just no. There is also some very clunky dialog, including Sulu saying, "May the Great Bird of the Galaxy bless your planet." Uh yeah... The creature itself (the 'salt vampire') is not a terrible design, even with its strange, long grey hair, and circular mouth full of teeth. Interestingly, Marc Cushman in These are the Voyages states that the costume was designed for a small person, and in fact Sandra Gimpel, a dancer turned stunt performer who was of short stature, was hired to play the creature. Between Gimpel's performance and the look of the outfit, at the end of the episode, the salt vampire was clearly a figure of pity more than fear.

Karen: Despite what we have been told for decades about Trek, the Nielsen ratings were actually pretty good. Cushman has gone back and found Nielsen ratings for all of the original showings, and "The Man Trap", the first episode of Trek aired, won its time slot. It was a good beginning for the show, but with its second season, it would lose its primo Tuesday 8:30 slot and get moved to Friday -the kiss of death for a show whose biggest fans were young people.


J.A. Morris said...

I always liked this episode, even if I wouldn't call it one of the best. For a long time, I thought it really was the "first" episode (after 'The Cage'), since we didn't have access to the "production order." And it was one that I heard about for years before I actually watched it. It's funny how the creature became known as "the salt vampire," I'm guessing some magazine like Starlog must have come up with that name. It rolls off the tongue a lot better than "M-113 Creature."

dbutler16 said...

I think this is an OK episode. It definitely has its moment, but I'd call it run-of-the-mill as far as Star Trek goes, which means it's only awesome instead of totally awesome. It's interesting the differences in how to approach the "monster" in this episode versus The Devil in the Dark, where there was a bit more understanding and sympathy, I think.

Since you mention Cushman, Karen I am reading the These Are the Voyages books, and they are tremendous. They should be required reading for any Star Trek fan.

david_b said...

I'll be investing in those books shortly. I found this to be a pretty competent and effective episode to establish the planet-side visits ala 'Wagon train to the stars'. Remember this was all new and shiny, nothing character-wise was quite defined as of yet by this early production entry. Within a few short episodes, there'll be more of a Naval feel to the show, the ship pulling into port, transporting personnel (Conscience of the King, The Menagerie, etc..).

One interesting note was that this was televised prior to another runner-up, 'The Naked Time'; alternatively, Gene selected a sequel-of-sorts 'The Naked Now' to premiere his Next Generation series (airing before the 'Encounter at Farpoint' 2-parter in most affiliates) to reveal the characters' motivations to the new audience right from the start.

I recall George Takei telling a convention of Trekkers back in 1978 here in Milwaukee that he watched this episode as it premiered while visiting here back in '66. Kinda cool.

Edo Bosnar said...

Don't have many thoughts on this episode. I like it well enough, and I really like that scene between Spock and Uhura that you mentioned.
I have to say, though, that I'm enjoying the hell out of these Star Trek posts - I just like reading the reviews of the episodes and everyone's comments and reminiscences.

Anonymous said...

I like this episode; the character moments make it, there's a monster in it (or rather, a "monster").

Mike Wilson

Karen said...

It doesn't look like 'The Man Trap' is high on anybody's list of episodes! But I appreciate everyone's comments.

I will note that this episodes' story was by George Clayton Johnson, who had written for the Twilight Zone and would go on to write Logan's Run. Of course, it was heavily rewritten by Roddenberry, as most of the first season episodes were. And Johnson was not happy about it.

Dbutler, agreed on the Cushman books. They are an absolute pleasure to read and anyone who enjoys the original show should pick them up. I thought I had heard it all about Trek, after 40+ years of reading books and magazines on Trek, going to conventions, and watching documentaries, etc. But was I wrong! Sure, there are stories in the books I have heard before. But there are so many details about how the shows were put together -I found it utterly -fascinating, as Spock might say.

Pat Henry said...

Have to disagree with comments that this episode was mediocre. Getting into the series as it was aired at the time, this episode *clearly* delineated and described the characters. Running parallel to ST at the time was the Outer Limits, which was doing similar genre-bending exercises with its depiction of monsters—or "bears," as that series described them. Sympathy for the monsters--big theme coming off years of Universal monster flicks.

A plausible alien life form is presented, its ecology described. And, ultimately, it is presented less as a monster than an incredibly pitiable creature, its fate tragic, and its killers in the end rather humbled by its demise. Potent.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy all come fully into their own in this episode, with all of its mature themes. We know them now, as we haven't in earlier episodes.

I love these old, old episodes, where the series is trying to get on its feet and the tech is not fully fleshed. There's a powerful sense of alienation—the authorizing agency is not even fully described or understood at this point. Federation of Planets and Starfleet are many episodes away, and there's talk of a United Space Probe Agency, or USPA, whatever that is. The combined effect creates a powerful sense of isolation and remoteness--no radio with admirals on the standby here. The effect is eerie.

What I love most about this episode is when they "stun" Prof. Crater. His words are slurred, his mind fuzzy, as if he really has been stunned or drugged. It's an effect they'll never use again, but I love it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I had no idea that this was the first episode aired, having seen it as a rerun as a kid. Truth be told, I found it quite enjoyable, puppet plant and all, but hey I must have been about 8 years old when I saw it!

The salt vampire was a great design; this along with the Horta from the classic Devil in the Dark episode are two creatures which engender sympathy because they were not killing humans out of spite but rather in order to survive. I prefer to see these types of antagonists rather than the stereotypical 'monster of the week'.

- Mike 'beam me up Scotty' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Humanbelly said...

I'm loving these reviews, Karen-- no kidding. They provide a great outlet for non-comic-centric discussion and nostalgia around a topic that is (likely) still very dear to a sizable chunk of our BABpopulation. Am I speakin' the truth, there, teammates?

So, the Star Trek:TOS DVD set that I have is the one where each season comes in a plastic box that looks sort of like a tricorder, I think? And it can be darned hard to ultimately get the interior packaging opened, in order to get to the disks? I believe. . . that set has them in broadcast order, but on the menu page it gives the "film order" number. . . which is honestly pointless, 'cause they did skip around SO MUCH.

Pat Henry, your comparison to Outer Limits is a very apt one. About half the "monsters" on that program were surprisingly sympathetic characters, and this reminded me very much of that convention. The 50's sci-fi flick "It Came From Outer Space" also did a commendable job of exploring exactly why appearances should never define who/what is a "monster". What always hit me with this episode was the crushing loneliness and sense of aching loss that this creature had to have been experiencing. . . along with, surely, a sense of remorse for its actions. . .since it clearly had feelings and recognizable emotional needs.

Hunh. Remember how Morbius used to agonize over the fact that he had to drink peoples' blood to stay alive?


R. Lloyd said...

Was not one of my favorite episodes. However it did give us a glimpse into the world of the Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Are those "These are the Voyages" books really a good investment? I just got the 50 dollar Kindle Fire and was interested if they would be just as good in Kindle format. Some of those reference books don't translate well over the Kindle Format with pictures and text that you have to enlarge to see the pictures.

But I digress, back to this first episode. I did like some of the Monster of the Week, Outer Limits elements of this episode. It just wasn't a thoughtless monster. It could have easily an episode of the Outer Limits with that format with a generic space crew instead of our favorites aboard the Enterprise.

I used to watch the re-runs when I was a kid on Channel 56 in Boston. When I got cable TV in 1976 I'd watch it on weekdays, at 10 O'clock each night. It used to be fun to watch Star Trek an hour before the 11 O'clock News. My parents used to late me stay up late to watch it because it was something they liked too.

This was way before the era of video cassettes. When it came out on video I had an entire book shelf dedicated to Star Trek. Now I have it on DVD. I don't know about many of our readers but I prefer the new special effects in CGI to the old ones. A lot of them improved and enhanced the quality of the episodes and got younger viewers who might never ever watch a chance to see what us older fans likes so much about original Star Trek.

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