Star Trek TOS s01e01 The Man Trap

Let me first start off by saying that anybody who claimed the romance between Spock and Uhura that was presented to us in J.J. Abrams‘ feature film adaptation of the series was far fetched and unfitting of the characters need only watch the first twelve minutes of the first episode of the first season to see Uhura flirting shamelessly with Spock.

“Why don’t you tell me I’m an attractive young lady, or ask me if I’ve ever been in love?”

Got it? It’s pretty obvious. It wasn’t made up. It’s there. It’s been there from the beginning. Now we can move on.

I suppose it goes without saying that when I first watched these shows as a six year old, it probably went over my head exactly how sexually charged the series was. Especially this episode. There is no way the prepubescent mind would ever grasp the implications of what goes on at “Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet” nor why comparing McCoy’s old flame Nancy Crater to a woman he left behind there would earn Darnell a scolding and a time-out for inappropriateness. The youthful image that Crater —  being some kind of psychic shapeshifter —  projects to Darnell gyrates and rolls her shoulders in a way that exudes sexuality and eroticism. Then she struts away beckoning Darnell to follow. Darnell, of course, follows… to his untimely death. Oh. So that’s why this episode is called The Man Trap.

Watching this episode again recently, I was thrown by the episode number forgetting that while this was indeed the first episode to air, it was the 6th produced. Placing myself in the mindset of a first-time viewer, I entirely believed that each interaction we saw with each of the primary characters was meant to be an introduction, as one would do with the first episode of a series. This mindset lead me to believe (briefly) that there was an intentional subtlety in the way the characters were introduced without over-the-top or blatant superfluous exposition. This impressed me.

Learning about the order in which the shows were produced impressed me even more. That the series effectively drops us in without a tremendous pre-amble or establishing episode, but manages to clearly convey who these characters are, is a testament to the writing and acting. The roles are well defined, and each line serves as an introduction that tells us more and more about who they are.

“I keep expecting one of these plants of yours to grab me.”

In my last post, I mentioned that Roddenberry had to choose between addressing the contention of having a woman in a commanding role on the starship, or having an alien perspective which provided a larger window with which to view humanity as a whole. Roddenberry opted to take the woman out of the role of 2nd in command, but this hardly stopped him from addressing issues of gender politics.

While the first episode of Star Trek comes across as an undeniably sexy show, and it’s clear that Nancy Crater is titillating the audience as well as the crewmen she seduces to their death, in an odd duality the show seems to simultaneously address the effects of the sexualization of women in Starfleet. Yeoman Rand provides us with a window into this. She is stalked by the creature now posing as Green, then verbally harassed by crewmen in the corridors of the Enterprise who ogle her and comment to each other.

The built up fear from living with, what we can presume, are perpetual microaggressions manifests itself in Rand’s comment to Sulu when she expresses “I keep expecting one of these plants of yours to grab me”, referring to an apparently sentient and actively animate plant (a cleverly disguised hand-puppet).

Sulu even directly comments on gender asking “Why do people have to call inanimate objects ‘she’, like ‘she’s a fast ship’?” All of this points towards that at the heart, Star Trek is, and always has been, a morality tale.

Which brings us to the next topic addressed in this episode: Genocide. Yup. Star Trek didn’t waste any time before tackling the heavy hitting issues.

CRATER: She was the last of her kind.
KIRK: The last of her kind?
CRATER: The last of its kind. Earth history, remember? Like the passenger pigeon or buffalo. Ooh! I feel strange.
KIRK: Just stunned. You’ll be able to think in a minute.
SPOCK: The Earth buffalo. What about it?
CRATER: Once there were millions of them prairies black with them. One herd covered three whole states, and when they moved they were like thunder.
SPOCK: And now they’re gone. Is that what you mean?
CRATER: Like the creatures here. Once there were millions of them. Now there’s one left.

The basic premise is that the shapeshifting creatures require large volumes of salt (what their natural process converts it to is beyond me) in order to survive. Their planet had effectively run out of salt, so the last remaining creature had depended on her sole human guardian (after killing his wife by extracting all the salt from her body) to stay alive. This was done by ensuring Starfleet would regularly replenish their salt reserves. I’m not entirely sure why the creature’s existence was kept secret, or why diplomacy apparently wasn’t an option. Although it does appear that the creature entirely lacks self-control when hunger for salt takes over.

All this comes to a head when the creature, after withstanding a beating from Spock while disguised as Nancy Crater, has Kirk in her clutches and is killing him. McCoy, holding a phaser, must see past the image of his former love and shoot the creature, or let his friend and Captain be killed.

In spite of phasers having a “stun” setting being well established earlier in the episode, I guess it wouldn’t have fit the narrative for McCoy’s shot to be anything but deadly. “Lord forgive me,” he says before pulling the trigger.

Where the climax of a tense action scene such as this would normally leave the audience thrilled that the protagonists had once again heroically saved the day, this leaves us with a feeling that anything but heroism had transpired. The killing is viewed as a painful tragedy, and one that will inevitably traumatize McCoy at the sight of his former love dying at his own hands. And while Kirk is no doubt relieved to be alive, it is made clear that this will weigh heavy on his heart, and it is unclear that saving his life was morally justifiable.

SPOCK: Something wrong, Captain?
KIRK: I was thinking about the buffalo, Mister Spock.

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