TREK-A-DAY: The Man Trap, Star Trek
EPISODE ONE: The Man Trap (Feb 1, 2012)
I always find it interesting watching the first few moments of a franchise that doesn’t know it’s iconic; take, for instance, the first few minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars: A New Hope, or the first few lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or The Hobbit. Before anyone on any of these franchises knew what they’d become, you get a moment of awesome, unassuming storytelling which somehow grabs us hard enough for us to want to see more. In The Man Trap, the first episode of Star Trek, we get exactly this. The episode begins mid-stream, with the Enterprise already well underway on its journey and all the characters’ relationships to each other established. We are told most of these through Kirk’s voice over and in general interactions, but never in a “But so-and-so, don’t forget, she’s your sister…” way that first episodes occasionally resort to in order to catch the audience up. Kirk tells us simply that Mr. Spock is in charge of the ship at the moment and that he and “Ship’s surgeon McCoy are beaming down on a routine medical examination…routine but for the fact that Nancy Crater is the one woman from Dr. McCoy’s past.” Reminiscent of Casablanca’s “Of all the gin joints in the world…” isn’t it? It immediately tells us this is going to be a story of lost romance and intrigue; and we’re sucked in. This one turn of phrase sums up what this episode is about and the most enduring feature of Star Trek: it’s about people, their emotions, hopes, dreams, relationships and how they interact with and against each other. Whether alien or human, this basic building-block of story is present and allows us deep connections to the fantastical settings and situations. Neat. So, the plot: Kirk and McCoy arrive on a planet to deliver a routine medical check-up for Dr. Crater and his wife, Nancy (the woman that got away). The problem is, everyone sees Nancy differently and at 8:15 into the episode… THE FIRST CREWMAN DIES! This is, of course, a watershed moment, given the fate of countless more extras in Trek…however it should be noted that he is NOT wearing a red shirt(!) but rather a blue one. 8:32 Brings our first: “He’s dead, Jim” (now co-opted by Google Chrome when it crashes) See it turns out that ‘Nancy’ is actually the last of a race of shape-shifting aliens who need salt to survive. This is a neat monster, because its basic motivation is both simple and exotic; it feeds on salt (rather than just eating people or killing them arbitrarily) and thus drains people for sustenance. It does, however, also need love (sure-why-not) and thus taps into people’s psyche and gives them what they want to see (hence the Nancy form). Throughout the episode it takes on many other forms, including Bones (making Deforest Kelly the first Trek cast member to get to play another version of their own character) as Kirk and Spock run an investigation. It’s part murder mystery, part vampire horror story, and part western. Wacky moments abound, such as Spock double fist pounding the Nancy impersonator to prove she’s not Nancy (Bones isn’t so sure) and Uhura being seduced by a Swahili speaking form of the Salt Vampire (it should be noted, however, that Uhura is already a smart, capable character, having just blown off advances by half of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, who apparently have an office aboard the Enterprise). Ultimately, Bones has to shoot the monster (still posing as his love) and Kirk reflects aloud how they essentially caused a species to go extinct (referencing the American Buffalo as Dr. Crater did early in the episode). There’s no Prime Directive in sight yet, so I guess that’s kosher. What makes this such a great intro to the series is that it doesn’t hold our hand, or throw tonnes of info at us at once; instead it introduces us to the characters that are important to this specific story (we don’t meet Scotty or Chekov in this episode). Kirk and Spock act as a well established team, Uhura tries to coax some emotion out of Spock, but mostly because she’s just bored at her console (she reminds me of a teenager working a mall food court; quite capable and intelligent, but tired of menial work and looking for intellectual stimulation). Sulu is established as a bit lightheared and mischievous, and we get our first taste of Kirk’s swagger and charm as well as his deep care for his crew’s well being. The conventions of how naval rules and regulations apply to space begin to show up and the characters are shown eating quite a bit, which seems a minor thing, but establishes that these are people who live and work aboard ship. Eating on the job is a necessity and it’s a nice touch. Throughout we get the taste of a greater universe, but they don’t walk us through the entire thing all at once. We’ve given a lot to chew on, but not bombarded with every last cool thing they’ve thought of. If we only got this one episode, we got a full, complete, and compelling story. What a fantastic way to kick off a show. It’s a fun, charismatic crew in an interesting setting and scenario that evokes all sorts of established genres and archetypes while establishing its own. The pacing is a bit slow by today’s standards, but it’s easy to see how this episode would capture the imaginations of its audience. And so it begins.