Attention on heck! Don’t try to adjust your viewscreens, person-hell and boo-tenants! What you’re seeing isn’t a creepy clone, a hellish hologram, or a strangely specific alternate universe! For the month of October, we’ll be taking a spine-chilling stroll through Trek’s most horror-iffic outings and spooky adventures! Now why don’t you sit back and try not to let that green blood of yours run cold! If things get a little too intense, don’t hesitate to ask Scotty to SCREAM you up! Hehehehehehehehehe!
“The Man Trap” (Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 1, Episode 2)
I love monsters.
I have ever since I was a kid. Most children like them, but it’s not something I ever grew out of. I think it’s a significant part of why I like Star Trek so much (and science fiction in general, as well as some related genres). Strange creatures resonate with me on some basic level and have always seemed way more interesting than regular ol’ human characters. I could sit down with a therapist and really delve into why, but suffice it to say, monsters are my jam.
I especially love the goofier, more unintentionally (but also intentionally) funny monsters that featured in the mid-20th century B-movies you’d find in Mystery Science Theater 3000 (as well as The Munsters or The Addams Family). They’re more endearing and appealing to me as characters and as relics of a bygone era rather than terrors to be frightened of. It’s easy for me to sympathize with these sad and misshapen creatures that run amok and are often destroyed in the climax of these pulpy movies (hello, yes Therapy? I’ll hold). Despite whatever destruction they’ve caused, there’s still a tragic element to the life and death of these solitary and pitiable beings.
“The Man Trap” is a pretty succinct distillation of these personal pathologies, as well as pop culture’s flirtation with monster horror in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s structured as more of a suspenseful mystery than an acute horror feature, but it still contains all the elements and beats you’d find in those lovably campy monster B-movies.
As the first regular episode of The Original Series aired, it presents the premise, characters, and themes of the show in an impressively solidified state. I didn’t remember this one being so early on in the series, and it doesn’t smack of that creaky “finding its footing” period you often see at this point in a TV show. The characters and their relationships to one another are as well established as they ever were (except for the lack of bickering between Spock and McCoy).
The empty desert setting of planet M-113 is a familiar sight in the context of monster B-movies (soooo many deserts), and it sets an appropriate thematic tone of spookiness and tragic desolation. The Enterprise is checking up on a lonely outpost of two scientists (sooo many scientists) studying the ruins of a long dead civilization. One of them just happens to be an old flame of McCoy, and hilarity ensues. By which I mean multiple murders.
(The first murder is driven by lust, as a telepathically bamboozled not-redshirt follows the monster off camera. It’s a trope of horror that persisted through to more modern slasher movies – a weird fixation of sexual urges being punished by grisly death. Therapy? Yes, still holding.)
From the get-go we realize that ol’ Nancy isn’t what she appears to be, which is a good story choice. It creates a tension that persists throughout the episode as she/it appears in different guises to various crew members (tricking them through telepathy) and racks up a pretty impressive body count. The fact that we never see the creature kill anyone is a smart dramatic decision that increases the tension (as are the mysterious lesions on the bodies). The creature’s method of draining salt from its victims recalls classic monsters like vampires and zombies (the creature is referred to by many fans as “the salt vampire”). As beings that have conquered our own planet and sit mostly undefeated atop the food chain, I think there’s a primal anxiety behind the idea that another creature would prey on us.
As a character, the creature itself is a cipher, which is a little disappointing, but expected. Though it is intelligent and telepathic (which it uses to alter others’ perception of it), it doesn’t seem to possess any personal qualities outside of a need to survive. The most curious scene is when aboard the Enterprise, it disguises itself as Nancy once again in McCoy’s quarters. She/it claims to enjoy the thoughts of McCoy toward her more than anyone else, even her husband. And she seems sincere, as if speaking not as “Nancy” but as itself. It’s an interesting implication that the creature actually experiences the feelings of those that it is drawing them from (suggesting it is empathic in addition to being telepathic).
Perhaps the creature gets so caught up in the brain waves they’re sensing that it starts to believe them? After all, it lives with Dr. Crater as Nancy for at least a year or two prior to this episode. To what extent, I wonder? The episode doesn’t offer any answers, and Kirk angrily dismisses any true connection Crater could have with the creature (considering he’s lost four crewmembers at this point, he’s understandably not very charitable with the dude that’s been stonewalling him the whole time). There’s something tragic about this guy continuing to care for the creature that killed his wife, and also very weird – horrific even – about it masquerading as his replacement wife.
The much-awaited reveal is worth the wait, and the true appearance of the creature is appropriately monstrous. But also pitiable with its shaggy hair and droopy, sad eyes. Cornered, it makes one last attempt to feed on Kirk before McCoy is forced to shoot it. The final shot of it slumped on the ground dead, dressed in tattered garments is a somewhat mournful sight, deepened by the knowledge that it is the last of its kind.
Before it turns on him and kills him, Crater compares the creature to the (at this point in Trek) extinct buffalo, and likens its intelligence and adaptability to ours. Like humans, the creatures used to live in a civilized society before environmental catastrophe ruined its planet. Just as we have a primal anxiety about something higher in the food chain eating us, there also exists a more existential fear of human civilization itself being consumed or otherwise destroyed by an overwhelming threat. The invention of nuclear weapons is no doubt largely responsible for this anxiety in monster movies of the period (and indeed many 50’s movie monsters are atomic/radioactive in nature). And as the Cold War intensified, fear of communist spies disguised as our neighbors also ramped up, causing doubt as to who we could trust.
All of these anxieties coalesce into the threat provided by the forlorn creature of this episode. By the end, the monster is defeated, but there is still something unsettling. A common refrain at the conclusion of horror movies (that has entered into well-worn cliché territory) is the rhetorical question of who the monster really was – them… or us? (dun dun) As the ship leaves orbit of the planet, McCoy is sullen and silent and Kirk is preoccupied with thinking about the extinct buffalo. Having been responsible for the final destruction of the creature’s species (despite the danger it presented) is a heavy burden and antithetical to the values of Starfleet. There’s no victory here, just the least worst option.
But beyond that, there is the lingering fear that even if we are not the monsters today, someday we might be. At the potential end of our own great civilization, with our clothing reduced to tatters and our stomachs grumbling with starvation, would the last survivor of humanity behave any better than that of Planet M-113? Our culture and our relationships to each other are what separate us from the animals. When those are completely gone (as they were for the lone creature of M-113), is there anything more to yearn for than the nutrients to keep us going for one more day?
- Even though this was the first aired episode, it wasn’t the first filmed. This one was selected to air first because of its action elements, and the inclusion of a monster.
- The friendship between Kirk and McCoy is outlined pretty well here. When Kirk jokingly suggests McCoy bring Nancy a flower (and picks a dried weed), I love McCoy’s burn about Kirk having to bribe women to get them. He’s a pistol!
- There is a LOT of casual sexism here, which isn’t surprising. Rand is personally delivering Sulu’s food for some reason, and these douche cruisers blatantly ogle her as she walks by. Not surprising, but still disappointing. Although Sulu wonders why we refer to inanimate objects as “her,” which I suppose passes as a glimmer of enlightenment for the time.
- There’s kind of an odd scene with Uhura and Spock where she’s trying to engage him in casual conversation. Nichols is charming of course and I like the casualness of it (she’s just bored and talking to a co-worker), but it’s kind of inelegantly written and she seems like she’s hitting on him more than anything. Which is interesting, given their romantic relationship in the more recent movies.
- Likewise, there’s an interesting bit where Spock learns that one of the away team has died, but doesn’t know who. Uhura helpfully(?) points out that it could be Kirk for all he knows and expresses dismay at his unemotional reaction. I guess it’s to illustrate Spock’s logical detachment, but nothing dramatic is done with it. In the very next scene, him and Kirk are talking like normal, so…? I dunno.
- The scene with the creature and Rand is pretty good and tense, and is the classic horror trope of a character not knowing what kind of danger they’re in, only to be saved by a sudden door opening.
- There’s something interestingly transgressive about the creature switching between male and female (and different races), and being suggestive/seductive with both men and women.
- There are a lot of elements in this episode that will turn up in many more throughout the franchise. Shapeshifting aliens are surprisingly common, and this isn’t even the first one to use telepathy to create illusions (the Talosians from the original pilot). Trek is replete with ancient, extinct civilizations, of course. The two lone people on the planet recalls TNG’s “The Survivors,” and an alien taking the form of a killed love one would be repeated in “The Bonding,” and other episodes Science-y vampires have also been done many times.
It’s not a fault of this episode (or any of the others), and in fact I kind of like that there are these repeating motifs that still make for unique and enjoyable episodes.
- I haven’t watched any of Lower Decks, but apparently an M-113 creatures shows up at one point, proving they’re not extinct after all. All’s well that ends well?
- I found this shot of Crater really hilarious for some reason.