A half-century later, 'The Man Trap' has only gotten weirder... and better.

By Darren Franich
September 08, 2016 at 04:02 PM EDT
Paramount Television

The original Star Trek TV show is half a century old, and I’ve never loved it more. It is talky, stagebound, narcotically slow. The alien planets look like sets, or they look like hiking trails in greater Los Angeles. The characters never change, no matter how many times they watch a world die, no matter how often they watch a fellow officer get murdered by aliens carved from rubber and nightmares. There is no running story — though there are semi-abstract will-they-won’t-theys, Nurse Chapel and Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk and Yeoman Rand, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Science-fiction storytelling is now synonymous with serialized storytelling. We expect that events that happen in one episode will matter in the next episode. Watching the original Star Trek now, the characters’ complete lack of interest in their own history reads dispassionate, almost inhuman.

Star Trek is old” — that’s not what I’m saying at all. Fifty years of creative evolution — in television storytelling in general, in science-fiction television storytelling in particular, in Star Trek storytelling to be laser-precise — have only made the original Trek look more wondrously strange, more cosmically lysergic. The realism vogue long ago took hold in popular genre storytelling; for this franchise, that trend apexed with Star Trek Into Darkness, shot in real, expensive places and gilded with real, ludicrous sociopolitics. So when you see the original Trek – the episodes are all on Netflix – what you glory in is the marvelous unreality.

The colors, first and foremost! The episodes on Netflix are remastered versions, and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. There is added CGI – mostly for scenes where the Enterprise floats around the latest mission-planet. Really, this just means the primitive and unconvincing original effects are now primitive and unconvincing digital effects. But the remastering adds wild new dimensions to the show. The worldscapes look more garish, painted-red skies almost Sirkian in their intensity. In “The Man Trap,” the first episode of Star Trek to air on television, the crew beams down to a planet called M-113. It’s a cruel name, clinical, bureaucratic. Surely, it had a real name once, but all we see is disparate carved stones across desert waves, the very abstraction of ruin.

Watching the original Trek in high-definition adds another level, too. Fifty years ago, television was shot with the expectation that the audience would experience the absolute worst viewing conditions. The season Trek debuted was the first year ever that the major networks aired all-color schedule, and the majority of American households still had black-and-white televisions. (There’s a story that Trek was so primary-colored because NBC’s parent company wanted to sell color TVs; there is a counter-myth that Trek was shot with such bright-dark contrast so that it would play well in monochrome.)

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The point is: It’s unlikely anyone working on Star Trek 50 years ago was imagining a future where viewers could experience every frame in microscopic count-the-pores-on-Shatner’s-face detail. Like a lot of television back then, “The Man Trap” seems to be at least 50 percent composed of close-ups, and the close proximity to the actors’ faces becomes intense and merciless in high-definition. You can see the make-up; you can see them sweat; some say you can even see where the real hair ends and the wig begins.

Actually, one of the most fun parts of “The Man Trap” is an effect that I can’t believe anyone experienced properly on 1966 televisions. At one point, Kirk and Spock beam down to planet M-113. (Strange things keep happening; people keep dying.) William Shatner’s face positively glistens with sweat; you can feel the spotlight just off screen. But Leonard Nimoy doesn’t seem to sweat at all.

I’m guessing this is the makeup Nimoy wore — Spock’s skin color is vaguely yellow-gray, though the remastering makes the reddish tinge of his cheeks freakishly vivid — but it deepens the character’s essential strangeness. Kirk runs hot; Spock’s ice-cold even when they’re taking fire.

Paramount Television

This might sound like I’m somehow criticizing the remastering, or declaring that the people who worked on Star Trek somehow failed. Nothing could be further. “The Man Trap” was directed by Marc Daniels, a lifer who helped create the look of I Love Lucy, which itself became the look of all sitcoms for an eon. There aren’t many flourishes, but half a century later, the professionalism of Trek is its own flourish. I love how some episodes become face-parades, a close-up cacophony. And I love the moment toward the end of “The Man Trap,” when a furious Dr. Leonard McCoy comes very close to betraying everything he believes in for a woman who isn’t a woman, and the camera can’t quite find the right focus on DeForest Kelley’s face.

Was that a “mistake”? Did they figure nobody would notice, on black-and-white televisions slurping grainy content through fragile antennas mom and dad can’t afford to fix? That mistake has become a haunting effect all its own, dreamlike, wall-bursting. A lot of Star Trek feels like that, 50 years on. It’s primitive the way cave paintings are primitive; unadorned by aesthetics, the obvious fakeness plunges you into some weird deeper truth.

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“The Man Trap” wasn’t the first first Star Trek episode, nor the second. Gene Roddenberry tried in late 1964 and produced “The Cage,” a famously half-stoned slow-groove adventure about brain-aliens and the illusion of reality, man. Another pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” cracked the code. In that episode, Captain Kirk watches Gary Mitchell — one of his best friends, old pal from the Academy, claims that young-man Kirk was a dweeb! — go mad with god-power. Ultimately, Kirk has to kill Mitchell. Like everything that happens on Trek, this is never mentioned again. You wonder if, in the 23rd century, people have evolved beyond grief, or if they’ve just gotten much better at compartmentalization, at pretending trauma never happened.

But “The Man Trap” aired first. It throws you right in. The Enterprise is on an assignment, and the task couldn’t be more banal. Kirk literally describes their mission as a “routine medical examination.” An archaeologist named Robert Crater has been working on planet M-113, “in the ruins of an ancient and long-dead civilization,” with his wife Nancy. (“Robert Crater” sounds like a porn star; “Nancy Crater” sounds like a Bond girl.) Says Kirk, “All research personnel on alien planets are required to have their health certified by a starship surgeon at one-year intervals.” Is this what the Enterprise crew’s life would be, if aliens didn’t keep attacking them? Checking boxes on a file form?

A twist: Nancy Crater is an old flame of Dr. McCoy’s. (“That one woman in Dr. McCoy’s past,” per Kirk’s narration — are all Captain’s Logs so saucy?) In an old temple, McCoy finds Nancy, remarkably unchanged in 10 years.

Or at least, McCoy thinks she looks unchanged, “like a girl of 25.” In Kirk’s eyes, though, Nancy looks very different.

“She’s a handsome woman, yes,” Kirk admits, “but hardly 25.” Like a lot of Star Trek‘s dialogue, this line has aged weird; it is accidentally funny and oddly cruel. The actress who plays Nancy, Jeanne Bal, was 38 at the time. Perhaps you sense some ambient cruelty in how the episode purposefully ages her, with an excess of gray hair and the implication that she’s the same age as DeForest Kelley, not quite 50 yet somehow unmistakably an old man.

There’s a third member of the Enterprise crew, a Michael Phelps-looking doofball with “expendable” tattooed across his forehead. When he looks at Nancy, he doesn’t see Nancy at all:

Fake Phelps and Blondie Nancy walk off screen left. There’s a scream, and then viewers see their first dead Enterprise crewman, a man trapped.

Nancy says that the crewman ate a poisonous plant; if you believe that, there’s a bridge on Planet M-113 I’d like to sell you. Between the episode’s title and the lead creature’s male-gaze-baiting superpower, you could argue that “The Man Trap” belongs to a particularly debased sub-subgenre of Star Trek story: The Dizzy Dame Strikes Back. Nancy, malicious ex-girlfriend of Dr. McCoy, will very soon run rampant through the Enterprise, at one point even taking the form of Dr. McCoy. This first episode rhymes uncannily with Trek‘s last episode, “Turnabout Intruder,” the episode where a malicious ex-girlfriend of Captain Kirk runs rampant through the Enterprise, even taking over Kirk’s body.

“Turnabout Intruder” has the baddest of raps — it does gender politics the way UnReal did police shootings — although there’s something desperately Joan Crawford-esque about that last episode’s villain, and the bare residual hint that Starfleet still runs on Sterling Cooper sexual politics. There are many episodes of the original Star Trek that make as much or vastly more sense if you pretend the villain is the tragic hero.

That is certainly true of “The Man Trap,” which we quickly learn isn’t just about trapping men — the thing we know as Nancy shapeshifts once, twice, thrice. She becomes a man, and flirts with Yeoman Rand. She becomes another man, and flirts with Uhura – in Swahili!

So Nancy is a woman who is also a man; can be white, can be black. That fluidity actually feels more convincingly human, 50 years later, than Kirk’s brash assurance. And Kirk won’t notice when McCoy starts acting funny, won’t even barely realize that one of his best friends is a shapeshifting monstrosity. Actually, Kirk mainly seems annoyed with McCoy throughout the whole episode. When the Doctor begs Kirk not to leave Nancy all alone on planet M-113, Kirk brushes him off: “You need to get some sleep.”

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Eventually, it becomes clear that the thing bedeviling the Enterprise isn’t Nancy at all. Kirk and Spock battle Professor Crater, played by Alfred Ryder with mad-scientist poignance.

Subdued, Crater spins quite a story. There is a creature on the planet, the last of its kind; a species gone extinct, like “the Earth buffalo.” The Craters found this creature, and it’s implied that they took care of it. But it needed salt to live, and their salt stores ran out. It’s never entirely clear what happened. It’s implied that the creature attacked Nancy, but Crater also says, with no explanation, “Nancy understood,” which sounds like a sacrifice. Either way, Nancy’s long-dead, “buried up on the hill.” (The budget was too small for a hill; much sadder to imagine it, I think.)

What happened to Nancy is a mystery; what has happened since Nancy is deeply weird. “I loved Nancy very much,” Crater says. “Few women like my Nancy. She lives in my dreams. She walks and sings in them.” The shapeshifter becomes Nancy for him: “It needs love as much as it needs salt.” Oh yeah: Crater’s been cratering. But he casts his xenophilia in noble, philosophical terms. “It isn’t just a beast. It is intelligent, and the last of its kind.”

Kirk has no time for this. In the first great Shatner soliloquy, he provides his own straightforward summation of the matter at hand:

You bleed too much, Crater. You’re too pure and noble. Are you saving the last of its kind, or has this become Crater’s private heaven, here on this planet? This thing becomes wife, lover, best friend, wise man, fool, idol, slave. It isn’t a bad life to have everyone in the universe at your beck and call, and you win all the arguments.

“You’re too pure and noble.” Ironically, that line would become an all-encompassing critique of Star Trek in the years to come. Roddenberry, a utopian thinker and the foremost evangelist of his own cult of personality, didn’t care much for interpersonal drama nor grime nor grit; this is why nobody likes the first Star Trek movie, or the first season of The Next Generation, or, hell, “The Cage.” (Though of course, everyone’s entitled to their own goofy opinion.)

So I love how, in this first aired episode, Kirk’s defining trait is that he isn’t pure, that he isn’t too noble.

Crater’s response to Kirk is beautifully simple: “You don’t understand.” And we never will; a couple minutes later, Crater’s dead, killed by the creature he tried to protect. (It’s impossible to tell if Crater died accidentally or on purpose; so much of Star Trek‘s action happens off screen, probably a budget thing, accidentally making major plot turns into open-text ambiguities.)

Things progress quickly now. The creature flees to McCoy’s cabin, once again takes on the form of Nancy. Kirk walks in, phaser out, demanding McCoy step aside. McCoy refuses. A monster? Needs salt to live? What is his Captain ranting about? McCoy grabs the phaser out of Kirk’s hand — and then Nancy somehow stops Kirk from moving, maybe telekinesis, maybe mind control. (The creature’s powers are tantalizingly ambiguous; sometimes it seems to be physically shapechanging, and sometimes it must just be beaming images into people’s heads.) Spock runs in, tries to convince McCoy to fire his phaser. “I won’t shoot Nancy!” says McCoy. “If she were Nancy,” yells Spock, “Could she take this?” And then Mr. Spock swing-punches Nancy seven or eight times.

Jeanne Bal really gives a great performance in this episode. She’s coy, freaked out, her salt-lust playing out like smack-addict desperation — and, in this final scene, she’s Terminator-precise. She knocks Spock over, returns to Kirk for her feeding. She looks back at McCoy — and she changes into her true form.

I think this true “Nancy” is one of the great horrific cosmic visions. It is the definition of a nightmare, gillman-green skin and madwizard hair, Birdo mouth and suckling tentacular fingers. Yet there is something so sad in that face; you feel how completely this thing cannot help itself. Worth pointing out, by the way, that there aren’t really any bad guys in this first Star Trek episode. The creature seeks salt, because it has to; it might be “intelligent,” but it’s also an animal that will do what it has to do to survive, like the buffalo, like a human. Crater just wants to save the thing, even if it kills him. McCoy battles Kirk, but only because they both think the other has gone crazy, fighting for their own good. Everyone winds up depressed, or dead.

McCoy shoots the creature. It turns back into Nancy: “Leonard! Leonard, no! Leonard, please!” McCoy asks the Lord’s forgiveness, and shoots again. In that moment, of course, McCoy must know that Nancy is already dead — yet in that moment, he also has to feel like he’s killing her. (He never loved but one woman, and today he lost her twice.)

The creature lies dead; Kirk says he’s sorry. And then we’re back to the bridge. Sulu asks, nonchalantly: “Ready to leave orbit, Captain?” Kirk’s got Spock on his right, McCoy on his left. McCoy looks magnificently sad; Spock looks like Spock. Kirk’s mind is elsewhere:

Kirk looks at McCoy. And then McCoy does this.

What’s your read on that expression? Why the smile? It doesn’t quite seem to connect with Kirk’s summation line, unless McCoy’s realizing that all things must pass, old lovers and bison both, and somehow that realization gives him peace. There’s a “snap out of it” quality to McCoy’s expression, too — a sense that the time for mourning is finished, that there are further adventures (and creatures, and crazy ex-girlfriends?) awaiting out in the cosmos. Maybe McCoy’s smile expresses some deeper understanding that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy universe.

When the Enterprise arrived at Planet M-113, there were two lifeforms on the surface. Now the planet is empty, an unmarked grave for a species lost to history. “Warp one, Mister Sulu,” Kirk concludes. They leave orbit. There are more planets to seek out, more graves to dig.

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