Classic Star Trek Revisited: The Man Trap
Originally the concept of Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild was a much
different series all together. The show was initially conceived as a sort
of “Wagon Train” in space that would have given the shows writers a
vast variety of story concepts. Anyone who has seen the shows pilot
episode “The Cage” understands that the original concept for “Star
Trek” was a much different creature than what finally ended up on
network television. In a lot of ways the show would have more
resembled “Trek’s” offspring “Star Trek: The Next Generation” than the
“use diplomacy while we charge the phasers” program we have all
grown up with. The executives at NBC, however, believed that the
show as too cerebral for the general American populous and only
agreed to air the show if the scripts were “dumbed down”. Also the
shows writers decided to streamline the plot to a basic “spaceship in
trouble” format. Ultimately Roddenberry would have to make these
changes in order to see his creation reach the airwaves.
“Star Trek” would employ some of the best writers in the genre
including Robert Bloch and Jerome Bixby. (Fantastic Voyage, It! The
Terror from Beyond Space) This talent pool would be responsible for
some of the best series writing in the history of Sci-Fi TV. Ultimately
many of these writers would come to resent the constant interference
of both producer Gene Coon and consultant Dorothy C Fontana who
were both responsible for adapting each screenplay.
The show was designed to center around the Enterprises charismatic
girl-chasing captain James T Kirk (William Shatner) however the focus of
attention would belong to the ships second in command the always
logical and unemotional half Vulcan half human Science Officer Mr.
Spock (Leonard Nimoy).
(Excerpted from orders to Captain James T. Kirk)
III. You are therefore posted, effective immediately, to command the following: The U.S.S. ENTERPRISE
Cruiser Class – Gross 190,000 tons.
Crew Compliment – 430 persons
Drive – space-warp
Range – 18 years at light-year velocity
Registry – Earth, United Space Ship
IV. Nature and duration of mission:
Galaxy exploration and investigation: 5 years
V. Where possible, you will confine your landings and contacts to Class “M” planets approximating Earth-Mars conditions.
VI. You will conduct this patrol to accomplish primarily:
(a) Earth security, via explorations of intelligence and social systems capable of galaxial threat, and
(b) Scientific investigation to add to the Earth’s body of knowledge of alien life forms and social systems, and
(c) any required assistance to the several Earth colonies in your quadrant, and the enforcement of appropriate statues affecting such Federated commerce vessels and traders as you may contact in the course of your mission.
From the very beginning “Star Trek” was something different. Never before had a ‘true’ sci fi series of it’s magnitude been attempted on television. True, there were plenty of sci fi series that proceeded it like “Lost in Space”, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and most notably, “The Twilight Zone”, but Trek was in a different class, and the scared the crap out of the suits at NBC.
From the get go NBC wasn’t sold on the show, the pilot episode that Gene Roddenberry delivered to the network, ‘The Cage’, wasn’t what he had promised them, a western set in space, but a pure sci fi story. More “Forbidden Planet” than “Waggon Train”, and the execs didn’t like it. Well, to be honest, they didn’t understand it, feeling that the episode was “too cerebral” for your average American TV viewer.
At this particular time in television history, the people in charge of the big networks didn’t ‘get’ sci fi. Westerns they understood, comedies and dramas they could get their minds around. Spaceships, lasers, Vulcans and other worlds were way out of their league. Sure that kind of stuff worked in movies made for kids, but would a grown-up working man want to come home after a long day at work and want to watch a model space craft zooming around?
There were two things that they did know about sci fi, it was risky and expensive and they weren’t about to loose advertising dollars on anything that they believed wouldn’t hit a home run.
Despite their better judgement, NBC gave Roddenberry another shot, and his second pilot episode for “Star Trek”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, was a little more in line with what the network thought sci fi TV should be like.
Reluctantly NBC agreed to air “Star Trek”, but behind closed doors the network still had major doubts about it and ultimately wished that Roddenberry and his ‘space-opera’ would simply just go away.
It is safe to say, now at this juncture, that making “Star Trek” fail seemed to be NBC’s plan when it announced that it would place the show on Thursday night opposite the very popular “Bewitched ” on ABC and “My Three Sons” on CBS. Throughout the series three-year run NBC repeatedly placed the show opposite other such high rated programs on rival networks before dumping it in the legendary Friday night “death slot” at 10pm EST.
Surprisingly, NBC opted not to open the series with the pilot episode, leaving Roddenberry and his crew in an awkward position. With only a few episodes in the can there weren’t many options for a debut episode. Out of the episodes in hand producer Robert Justman suggested that the episode “The Naked Time” would fit due to it’s strong character driven story. NBC, on the other hand, selected “The Man Trap” because it was action packed and had a monster in it.
So, on September 8th 1966 “Star Trek” made it’s television debut, and surprisingly won it’s time slot against the comedy series reruns it was up against. That success would be short lived, however. The very next week “Trek” would fall to second place when ABC aired a new episode of “Bewitched”.
Here is the plot for “The Man Trap”:
Stardate 1513.1: The Enterprise arrives at planet M-113 for routine medical exams of archaeologist Professor Robert Crater and his wife Nancy. First Officer Mr. Spock is left temporarily in command. Kirk, McCoy, and Crewman Darnell beam down and Kirk gives McCoy a friendly hard time that he and Nancy Crater were an item ten years ago. Nancy arrives and each of the three men seems to see her differently: McCoy as she was ten years ago, Kirk as she should look age-wise, and Darnell as a totally different attractive younger woman. Kirk sends the dazed Darnell outside and when Nancy goes out to fetch her husband, she beckons Darnell to follow her.
Professor Crater arrives and doesn’t appear happy to see them, telling them that he and his wife don’t need a medical examination. But then, he adds that he’s glad to see McCoy as an old friend of his more social wife. Nancy appears, nervously insisting they restock their salt tablets. Kirk orders Crater to submit to the medical exam but before McCoy can proceed they hear a scream from outside. They go out to find Darnell, dead, with red ring-like mottling on his face. There’s a plant root in his mouth and Nancy comes up, saying she saw Darnell taste the plant and she couldn’t stop him. Kirk is skeptical that an experienced crewman would taste an unknown plant. Kirk has Darnell’s body beamed up to the ship.
Spock analyzes the plant, the Borgia root (named for Lucrezia Borgia, a notorious poisoner) and confirms records showing it’s poisonous but skin mottling is not a usual symptom. McCoy conducts the initial exam but can’t find any cause of death, poisoning or otherwise. Kirk and McCoy compare notes on Nancy, and McCoy admits he might have been seeing her the way he imagined her from ten years ago.
Kirk decides to remain to investigate Darnell’s death. McCoy, along with Spock, finally determine that Darnell had every bit of salt drained from his body. Spock adds that he would die almost instantly. Kirk beams back down to the planet with McCoy and two crewmen, Green and Sturgeon. They spread out but Crater slips away and calls out to Nancy saying he has salt. Kirk and McCoy find Sturgeon’s body, unaware that Nancy is nearby over Green’s corpse. Both the bodies have the same red rings on the faces. She pauses and then changes her shape, turning into a duplicate of Green. He meets with Kirk and McCoy and they beam back up to the ship to conduct a search from orbit.
“Green” roams the halls and runs into Rand, who is taking a food tray to Sulu in his quarters. “Green” is attracted to the salt and follows her in, but the plants react badly to him. He leaves and runs into Uhura, taking the hypnotising form of a crewman from her memories. Rand and Sulu arrive and Uhura is summoned to the bridge.
In his quarters, McCoy is trying to get some sleep. Kirk reminds him of the sleep medication McCoy gave him once. Spock confirms that the scans only show Crater on the planet, and he and Kirk beam down to capture the professor. “Nancy” assumes her female form and goes to McCoy’s quarters, and seems reassured by the fact he has strong memories of her that she can rely on. Nearby, Sulu and Rand find a dead crewman with the same red mottling.
McCoy is already asleep when the general alert sounds, and “Nancy” takes on his form and goes to the bridge. On M-113, Kirk and Spock find Green’s body and realize an impostor is on-board. They find Crater, who tries to frighten them off with phaser fire. They flank and then stun him, and the dazed Crater says that his real wife died a year ago, killed by the creature. Crater rambles on that the creature still appears to him as Nancy out of true affection. He adds that it’s like the Earth buffalo, the last of its kind and he helped to keep the creature alive. Kirk immediately communicates with the ship “It’s definite Mr. Sulu, the intruder can assume any shape – crewman, you, myself, anyone, do you understand ?” Sulu acknowledges, and Kirk adds “Go to General Quarters-4.” As they’re about to transport to the Enterprise, a frustrated Kirk tells the Professor, “Your creature is killing my people !”
With Crater, Kirk calls a meeting. McCoy & Spock join them, but the officers are unaware that McCoy isn’t McCoy. “McCoy” suggests they try to deal with the creature peacefully and Crater clearly recognizes it for what it is. Kirk prefers to eliminate the predator creature and insists that Crater help identify it. Refusing, Kirk orders McCoy to administer truth serum. They go to sickbay and a suspicious Spock insists on going with them. The alert goes off and Kirk arrives in sickbay to find an injured Spock. Crater is dead, killed by the increasingly desperate creature. Fortunately, Spock’s Vulcan blood made him immune to the creature’s hunger.
Back in her “Nancy” form, the creature goes to McCoy’s quarters and asks him for help. Kirk arrives with a phaser and a handful of salt and tries to entice the creature into attacking. McCoy refuses to believe Nancy is false and gets in the way so the creature can attack Kirk. It hypnotizes him and starts to feed off of him while McCoy holds the phaser, indecisive. Spock arrives and tries to use his superior strength against the creature, but it is stronger than Spock. McCoy realizes the creature isn’t his “Nancy” and, with his phaser, fires at it. The creature reverts to its true alien appearance and McCoy continues firing, finally killing it, saving Kirk.
– From Wikipedia
As one would expect, the critics of the day weren’t exactly kind when they wrote about “Star Trek’s” debut. Daily Variety columnist Jack Hellman gave the episode an unfavourable review, stating, “Not conducive to its popularity is the lack of meaningful cast leads. They move around with directorial precision with only violence to provide the excitement.”
Looking back on it now, it is easy to see why “The Man Trap” may have failed to bring new viewers into the “Trek” fold. It certainly isn’t one of the series best episodes, though it isn’t one of it’s worst either. One can only speculate now what may have happened if NBC would have gone with “Where No Man Has Gone Before” or “The Naked Time”. Possibly the show may have been a bigger hit, or then again possibly not.
Regardless “The Man Trap” gave all of us Trek fans a look into McCoy’s love life, a preview of Kirk’s womanizing ways and a good monster, in this case the Salt Vampire, to boot.
Can’t complain there.