The Man Trap – First aired on September 8, 1966
In Star Trek, a routine medical examination is rarely ever routine. This may be why almost all the Starfleet captains famously put off and avoid theirs (I’m talking to you in particular Jean-Luc).
That is how this pilot begins, and yes I am starting with this episode and calling it the pilot because it was the first episode ever aired. While “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” may have been the original pilots, this was the first one that the public viewed and I have decided to review these episodes based on their initial air date.
So we begin with a routine medical examination which is scheduled for a scientist and his wife who have been studying some ruins for the past five years on an out-of-the-way planet called M-113. The only interesting thing which Captain Kirk notes in his log is that the wife of the scientist, one Dr. Robert Crater (also referred to as the Professor), is a woman from Dr. McCoy’s past named Nancy. It is this small piece of knowledge that sets up the dramatic ending to the episode, but more on that later.
Right off the bat we see that something is amiss because Kirk, McCoy, and their companion blue shirted crew member all see a slightly different woman when they look at Nancy. In the case of the crewman, it is a completely different woman, while in Kirk’s case she is an older version of what McCoy sees.
The many faces of Nancy
From the first encounter between McCoy and his past lover Nancy, we see that McCoy is a very passionate individual. He can barely concentrate on his work and is obsessed with the fact that Nancy looks just as she did when he last saw her years and years ago. I think this points to one of the reasons that this was chosen as the pilot to air first. We get a good sense of just how emotional McCoy can be. Of course this quickness of his to display emotion will come into direct conflict with Spock and his supposed lack of emotions and disdain for those who express them. In my opinion, McCoy is quicker to display emotion than Kirk is, and is often times much more passionate than Kirk. I think that this helps him have greater and more meaningful conflicts with Spock, while at the same time it allows Kirk to be the middle man. Kirk would be seen as extremely emotional compared to everyone else if McCoy or a character like him were not present, but because of McCoy he becomes the moderator between the Spock/McCoy squabbles. I have always seen this as a major part of why the dynamic between these three works so well. Kirk shows us how to find the common ground between reason and passion, except for those times when he is drawn too far to one extreme, at which point it is usually McCoy or Spock who uses their extreme to bring him back.
Anyhow, this introduction to McCoy is rudely interrupted by a high-pitched scream from Nancy. Kirk, showing off one of his major traits (being the ladies man that he is) immediately rushes out to see what has happened. Kirk and McCoy arrive to find their fellow officer dead after apparently eating a poisonous plant, or so Nancy claims.
We take a break from the drama for some much-needed comedy relief and character development courtesy of Spock and Uhura, not to mention some serious flirting, hello Star Trek reboot movies!! In all seriousness though, this is probably one of my favorite scenes from this episode. Just like with McCoy, we get a very good depiction of Spock’s character. We see that he has no interest in, and is quite confused by, the flirtatious Uhura. Rather than explaining the scene I’ll just leave this here and let it speak for itself.
As you can see, we get a very clear picture of the logical Spock we know and love.
Returning to the mysterious death of the crewman, Kirk finally gets one of his character moments. We see him frustrated, upset, and confused by the death of his crewman and he snaps McCoy out of another romantic reverie and tells him that he had better find out what killed this man. Not only does he balance out the passionate McCoy, but he also shows us his dedication to his ship and his crew which is one of the biggest driving forces behind everything he does. Once McCoy examines further, he discovers that the dead crewman has had all the salt in his body mysteriously taken out.
The creature winds up disguising itself as another crewman which it kills when Kirk and Spock revisit the planet to try and make sense of everything that has happened. While in this disguise, they beam it aboard the Enterprise where it can now wreak all sorts of havoc. It begins by wandering around and following the attractive Yeoman who happens to have a salt shaker on a tray of food she is carrying. After making her feel nice and awkward, the creature follows her to the botanical gardens where she has brought Sulu his lunch. If you ever wanted to see a human hand in a frilly pink glove pretend to be a semi-sentient plant and get scared by a salt eating creature disguised as a crewman, and then be caressed and comforted by Sulu, then this is the scene for you! Such a majestic creature! What a specimen! It’s a shame that we never see it appear again.
The creature also has a run in with Uhura where it pretends to be a dashingly handsome man of her dreams, and we learn that it uses the memories and thoughts of others to form its illusions. The creature eventually kills another crewman and then visits McCoy in his quarters and convinces him to take some sleeping pills. While he is knocked out, it takes on his appearance and tricks Sulu into giving it all the information they have on this developing hunt for the creature. Meanwhile, Kirk and Spock visit the planet again and try to talk to the Professor. He isn’t having it though, so he shoots at them and they are forced to stun him and bring him back to the Enterprise. It is during all this that we hear the Professor compare the creature to the Buffalo which apparently is extinct at this point, although it seems to be doing better nowadays.
With that, we arrive at the moral dilemma of the episode, and a pretty decent one at that, perhaps even a precursor to Star Trek IV. Essentially it boils down to this creature being the last of its kind, but it is killing everyone. So what do you do? The multiple crew killings obviously make the crew want to kill it. The only person vouching for the creature is the Professor. He has developed an attachment to it and claims they have developed a symbiotic relationship. We see just how symbiotic they are when the creature eventually kills him for the salt in his body. In return he got, well, the last 2 years of companionship that it provided after it killed his wife. Even trade? I’m not so sure. While the good Dr. was certainly noble for wanting to preserve a species (although we don’t know what kind of “companionship” this creature was providing, so we don’t know how noble he really was), multiple problems arise due to the rising death count.
Ultimately the creature is cornered when it, disguised as McCoy, is part of a meeting where it learns that the Professor can identify it no matter what form it is in, and that Kirk and the ever stoic Spock are willing to force him to help them against his will. Even the Professor’s declaration that it is an intelligent creature that needs love just as much as it needs salt, is not enough to convince Kirk. It is not enough to convince me either. It seems to me that while this creature is intelligent, there is no denying that fact, it is not altogether peaceful. I base that conclusion off of one thing, during the episode the Professor shows us that he still has a couple dozen salt tablets left. This leads me to several conclusions. I won’t outline them all here, but they essentially boil down to one fact. If there were still salt tablets left, then there should be no reason why the creature would be forced to kill for the salt it needs. Maybe it was low, maybe it did need to be replenished, but the only reason it would have had to kill someone would have been if there was no other choice. That tells me that when it killed the first crewman down on the planet, that it did so for more than just survival. There must have been some baser instinct at work, one which involves a disregard for the life of others, or possibly even an enjoyment out of taking life (although I do not think that was the case). I cannot say that this applies to the entire species. For all we know, this creature was driven mad by the lack of contact with others since the rest of its race died out, or from some other tragedy. All I can say with relative certainty is that at this point in the creature’s life, there was no stopping it once it had begun to drain a person of salt, thereby killing them, and that it killed multiple times without the dire need to. At the end of the episode the creature actually gets some of the salt that Kirk was using to tempt it. After eating the salt it proceeds to hypnotize him and try to steal his body salt. Since the creature literally just consumed a few tablets, the survival aspect of this act is nonexistent and it simply amounts to attempted murder. There were multiple moments in this episode where the creature could have surrendered but it consistently chose not to. Therefore, I have very few qualms about McCoy shooting it at the end, even though it tears him apart to shoot the image of his past lover. It had to be done not only to prevent the death of Kirk, but to stop what I believe can only be called a monster, albeit a more sympathetic one than most space monsters out there.
In the end, I can see why this was the chosen pilot episode. Good character development for your three main characters and an intriguing murder mystery/monster story which tied in a key environmental issue at the time which is still applicable today. The fact that this endangered species is both very intelligent and deadly makes the ethical and moral dilemmas that much more fun to debate! That is clearly what Kirk was doing in his head in the final scene where, while looking quite pensive and asked if everything is all right he replies, “I was thinking about the buffalo Mr. Spock”.
Now let me know what your thoughts are! Do you think the crew of the Enterprise had it right or wrong? How would you have handled the situation?