Star Trek turns 50 with the anniversary of the sacred sci-fi franchise’s broadcast debut, “The Man Trap,” on Sept. 8, 1966. The Thursday night airing was the culmination of a storied process that saw creator Gene Roddenberry develop two attempts at a proper pilot episode, sticking with the latter William Shatner-starring iteration and subsequently shooting a handful of followup episodes. Yet the episode chosen for Star Trek’s aired introduction was actually its fifth!
Despite NBC opting not to launch with the intended pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Star Trek’s proper introduction to the zeitgeist with “The Man Trap” proved fortuitous for numerous reasons. It certainly didn't make sense at the time, even apparently drawing the initial ire of Roddenberry. Yet, in hindsight, that decision revealed a kind of wisdom that was seemingly missing when NBC canceled Star Trek nearly three years later.
However, avoiding the inside-baseball details that have filled memoirs, I will instead focus on five substantive story-related reasons why, on that fateful night 50 years ago, “The Man Trap” successfully conveyed the quintessence of Star Trek and made the ultimate pitch to pop culture.
The cast dynamic
“The Man Trap” might not have been intended as a proper Star Trek pilot, but it certainly did an efficient job introducing most of the primary cast. While it happened to be an off-week for Scotty, the episode wastes little time jumping into the crux of the show and the sometimes-whimsical, but never-dull chemistry between the characters.
Within the first few minutes on the surface of planet M-113, Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy engage in interpersonal wisecracking about the plot-relevant past romance between the good Doctor and one of their would-be examinees, Nancy Crater (Jeanne Bal), conveying to the unacquainted audience that Kirk, despite being ship’s Captain, was not some austere, stick-up-the-rear kind of authority figure and that McCoy (initially referred to as “Ship’s Surgeon McCoy,") was a delightfully ornery foil.
Much of the idiosyncratic groundwork for Spock also happened to be laid in this episode, such as the concept of a Vulcan’s strict adherence to emotion-deprived, logic-based values. The flirty advances of the self-proclaimed “Illogical Woman” Uhura with Spock on the bridge – possibly the later inspiration for the characters’ romance in J.J. Abrams-launched films – perfectly establishes the cultural clashes between Spock and the majority of the human crew that would also define the series.
Additionally, Grace Lee Whitney’s beehive-sporting Yeoman Janice Rand served as (aesthetically agreeable) expository glue to the other Enterprise (sometimes leering) crew complement in her depicted interactions, notably providing a spotlight on the revealed botany enthusiast Sulu.
A memorable creature
What better way can you get to know your show’s characters than by immediately tossing them out of the frying pan into the fire to fight a horrifically memorable monster? Indeed, the episode’s titular “Man Trap” was a killer creature that, lacking a proper name, is known as the Salt Vampire. However, while the vaunted visage of its scary, yet saddening true form remains one of the most indelible images from Star Trek, the creature’s venerable status stems from the idea that the its seductive powers gave a romantically-addled Enterprise crewman a salt-sucking Shanghai Surprise.
Indeed, “The Man Trap” walked a steady line with the Salt Vampire, a creature with an innate ability to inveigle people with the illusion that it is someone they know, often simultaneously deceiving groups of people based on their individual perceptions. However, the creature isn’t called the Salt Vampire because it secretly works for the Morton Company. Rather, it requires stupendous supplies of sodium chloride to sustain itself; something it accomplishes by tricking, paralyzing and grabbing their faces to literally suck every bit of salt out of its victims’ bodies with suction-cup-laden hands, leaving red lesions.
Yet, as dialogue points out, the Salt Vampire wasn’t just a clichéd, schlocky one-dimensional monster. It was an intelligent being that was the last of its kind that simply followed an instinct to survive. As the creature’s “husband” Crater profoundly noted of its tragic existence, “It needs love almost as much as it needs salt.”
The cannon fodder tradition
“Captain’s Log Additional: Armed and able-bodied crewmen are not attacked and slaughtered this easily.” LIE!
Another one of the signature attributes of Star Trek was its wanton weekly massacres of nameless Enterprise crewmembers who had the misfortune to beam down to the surface for dangerous missions alongside an untouchable main cast player. The show's broadcast debut with “The Man Trap" would prove to be no exception to that sacrificial tradition.
By the end of the episode, the Salt Vampire racked up a total of five dead bodies, claiming the literal salt of the Earth by sucking the life out of poor Darnell (still sadly under the impression that the creature was his ebullient blonde hookup from Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet), Green (who the creature imitated to get on board the Enterprise, yielding awkward interactions), Sturgeon, Barnhart and ultimately had no mercy left for Professor Robert Crater, despite its time living as his late wife Nancy (a creepy aspect of this episode that’s best left unanalyzed).
While the Salt Vampire’s handiwork wouldn’t yield the highest body count in Star Trek history, it certainly did set a tone when it came to the numerous, nameless cannon fodder crew members who would give their lives for the plot-bearing expediency of conveying this week’s threat. Interestingly enough, contrary to the shared sartorial designation of most cannon fodder crew, none of the Salt Vampire’s victims sported red shirts!
Clarifying the idea of the Salt Vampire’s unconventional depth, there was also the equally deep aspect of its emotional effect on the Enterprise crew, notably Dr. McCoy. From the get-go, the conniving creature targeted McCoy as its primary mark, utilizing the illusion of the real Nancy, who was not only Crater’s wife, but McCoy’s unforgettable (to him, un-aged,) ex-flame from years past. It even knew enough to call McCoy, “Plum,” a lover’s nickname only they would have presumably known.
However, as the episode progressed, audiences were treated to a widely-accessible aspect to this seemingly fantastical space drama, with an exploration of human frailties and the delusions to which we tend to cling. By the climax, the creature had snuck onto the Enterprise, killed four people, assaulted Spock in an attempted salt-suck (unsuccessful due to his salt-deprived Vulcan physiology,) and even impersonated McCoy, himself. Yet, the enamored Doctor STILL only saw Nancy, and it would take the creature’s violently powerful displays in its desperate final attempt to suck salt for McCoy to finally do what needed to be done and end the threat by way of phaser blasts.
Yet, despite its deeds, Kirk and the Enterprise crew displayed a certain reverence for the creature and it was clear that killing it was only a last resort, rather than an act of revenge or for simple sport. Comparing the creature to the (claimed extinct) buffalo, the episode even ends with Kirk lamenting its species’ passing from the annals of galactic history. Thus, another aspect of the Star Trek ethos was effectively conveyed to the world.
Strange new worlds, new life and new civilizations
Besides sufficiently covering most of Star Trek’s important aforementioned tropes, “The Man Trap” was also perfunctorily paradigmatic for what would become the show’s spirit of exploration and the search for knowledge and new life in the cosmos. From the start, the episode exercised brevity setting the series stage, showcasing the Enterprise and its bridge with a half-alien first officer Spock in command, followed by a quick cut to an away mission on an exotic planet locale (M-113) on which a handful of humans live in isolation. Within the first few minutes, the audience are adequately imparted the show’s basic premise.
The episode also fulfills its opening motto with our first glimpse of the “strange new worlds, new life and new civilizations” that Kirk promised to seek out in the opening voiceover. Certainly, the introduction of the horrific-looking, psychologically disturbing Salt Vampire conveyed the idea that the galaxy was not unlike the Wild West setting depicted in most of Star Trek’s contemporaneous television peers, only to the Nth degree (Next Generation pun notwithstanding).
Another interesting source of series exposition came from the quirky moment depicted in the Enterprise botanical garden with Sulu’s exotic, carnivorous beauregard plant, “Gertude.” For reasons unbeknownst to Sulu, the plant reacted violently to the Salt Vampire's presence (as Tribbles to a Klingon,) despite the creature being disguised as the late crewman Green. The shrieking, fidgeting flora established the idea that said "new life" found in the Star Trek universe wasn’t always necessarily humanoid.