Some prissy dude with a dorky bowl haircut repeatedly punches a creepy middle-aged lady in the face right before she pushes him into a pile of books while some other older dude watches and another guy screams a scream which seems like it’s supposed to be a fake scream. It’s not a David Lynch movie; it’s the first aired episode of Star Trek, ever, and if it were everyone’s first exposure to Star Trek today, then, honestly, no one would like Star Trek.
Though “The Man Trap,” was the fifth regular episode of Star Trek filmed, it was broadcast first. 48 years ago today on September 8th, 1966, the world got their first taste of Star Trek, and it was this. Apparently, the reason it was picked first was mostly because of a weird process of elimination, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was too expository, “Mudd’s Women” was about space prostitutes, “Charlie X” had too-much ass-slapping, and “The Corbomite Manuever,” starred a laughing baby who drinks cocktails in the afternoon. In comparison, this story—the one about killing an intergalactic female vampire who digs salt—was the clear safe bet.
As a general caveat: of course there are those who really do remember seeing “The Man Trap,” when it first aired in 1966. My late father was one of them, and he used to tell me that he knew Star Trek was “special” from this very first airing. But, an original series purist like my dad would have never dreamed of making me start with “The Man Trap,” because it would be super-weird. Today, the people who love Star Trek and started with “The Man Trap,” are greatly outnumbered by the people who started with something else. True, in the 1987, I was that odd 6-year-old who affected a distrust of The Next Generation as it debuted, but even I’m not sure I ever loved “The Man Trap.” It’s part of Star Trek—so it’s protected by the mafia that lives in my mind and guards my favorite stuff—but let’s get real. While “The Man Trap” is accidentally a decent introduction to the show and its characters, it might have gotten Star Trek off on the wrong space boot.
Here’s what happens: the Enterprise rolls up on a planet where they’re supposed to be doing some routine medical check-ups on a couple of space-archaeologists. Captain Kirk’s famous “Captain’s Log” narrative voice-over thing starts firmly in the present-tense, as though this log is some kind of direct line we have into his mind. He tells us “Mr. Spock is in command,” while he and Bones and some joker named Darnell beam down to the planet. If you’ve never seen Star Trek before, you have no idea why Mr. Spock is important and you might suspect Darnell is regular character. The landing party meets the Craters—Dr. Crater, and Nancy Crater—and Bones, Kirk, and Darnell all “see” a different version of Nancy. She’s Bones’s old girlfriend and he sees her as a young woman, Kirk sees her as her “correct” age, and Darnell sees a blonde-bombshell person who is totally different. You ready for some Star Trek? Cause that’s the big hook.
Next, you get the famous “Space…the final frontier” shtick, which if this were your first Star Trek, would ring false, because after what you’ve just seen, it doesn’t seem like the mission of the Enterprise is to explore “strange new worlds,” but rather, to check in on randos who live on worlds that aren’t new at all, just strange.
As the episode gets going, there’s a decidedly Twilight Zone-ish vibe, in which an inverse-whodunit plays out, where we learn very quickly that a shape shifting creature is murdering people by sucking all the sodium chloride (salt!) out of their system. Nancy can morph into all sorts of other people because, as revealed later in the episode, “this is not Nancy.” Nancy’s been replaced by a “salt vampire” monster that in its true form looks kind of like one of the Morlocks from the George Pal film-version of The Time Machine.
Not-Nancy makes everyone very emotional. There’s some discussions about the salt vampire/Nancy being an endangered species similar to that of the buffalo, prompting Kirk to yell at a lot of people about being kind of wusses about killing it. Later Kirk is back-pedal-y and contemplative about killing this endangered intergalactic vampire, but it seems sort of like cop-out since he’s been a jerk the whole time. Bones, who is kind of in the spotlight—a thing that rarely happens in other Star Trek episodes—arbitrarily decides that Not-Nancy is still Nancy, despite being the person most qualified to tell that she is not. Spock takes up that mantle instead, jumping into the fray in a highly illogical manner.
Speaking of “regular” Star Trek characters, this episode does give quasi-regulars Sulu, Rand, and Uhura way more to do than many later, more famous episodes. From a storytelling perspective, this muddles the attempt at creating a solid episode of television, but as a statement of diversity “The Man Trap” is tops. If you’re just watching Star Trek for the first time, you’ve got every reason to believe that the salt vampire might kill Uhura, Sulu, or Rand. Sulu has just as much screen time as crewman Green or Darnell, who do fall prey to the vampire, so why not? In contrast, “The Man Trap” showcases how great and real Uhura and Sulu are as characters, with both of them getting to be fun and interesting in ways that they won’t get to be again until pretty much the Star Trek films.
Oh, Scotty isn’t in this episode. Whatever.
The weirdest thing about “The Man Trap” is probably its writer. Show creator Gene Roddenberry famously didn’t write a lot of the actual teleplays, and this one was written by a guy named George Clayton Johnson. If you’re like me, this name is famous for one reason: he’s the co-author (with William F. Nolan) of the novel version of Logan’s Run. If you were to look at his Wikipedia page, you’d barely even notice this and probably just assume this guy wrote for The Twilight Zone a lot. Now, this one and only collaboration with William F. Nolan was published in 1967, meaning his (arguably) two most famous contributions to science fiction happened in only two years, back to back. Johnson’s writing here is sharp and scary, and shows off his Twilight Zone chops. Also, there is considerable reason to believe he offered a story treatment for an episode called “The Syndicate,” based off of a Roddenberry idea called “President Capone,” which later became the second season mobster-comedy fest episode “A Piece of the Action,” George Clayton Johnson never wrote for Star Trek again, and that kind of seems to be a good thing.
Star Trek was not The Twilight Zone and it wasn’t a dark meditation on the state of society like Logan’s Run. I’m a delirious advocate of George Clayton Johnson and his work, but the tone of “The Man Trap” does seem a little off with the rest of Star Trek. The critics of the time didn’t really like it either, although I wouldn’t constitute that as sole proof that Johnson didn’t fit with the show. Variety called it “dreary and confusing,” which is kind of true, even if you like things that are dreary and confusing.
Personally, I do like this episode; probably because of it’s flaws. I also love Star Trek, and true love is all about acceptance. But had I been a critic writing in 1966 would I, like TV Guide, have written “the sky is not the limit for Trek”?
Almost 50 years later, Star Trek has proved over and over again that it is so much more than a trap for bored people. More than just a TV show, Star Trek is like a really eccentric relative who shows up in all of our lives and regales us with screwed-up stories. But it still doesn’t change the fact that the first time Star Trek came to dinner, things were pretty awkward.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.