Episode 1-“The Man Trap” and signs of the times

There’s a scene in the ‘80s not-quite classic “Airplane!” when a hysterical woman begins to descend into hysterics as the plane goes into some turbulence. Her husband tries to comfort her by grabbing onto her shoulders and trying to shake her out of it. A man pushes the husband aside and tries to calm the woman by shaking her and slapping her face. Another man pushes her aside, throwing some punches at the woman for good measure. This goes on and on with everyone from nuns to jive-talking brothers trying to calm the woman by any means necessary.

Is it funny? Yeah, kind of, but only because the scene is played as silly as possible. Gags like this don’t work when there’s a hint of realism because no one wants to see a woman violently restrained for having emotions. As such, women very rarely are seen being struck or hit on TV or in films. The risk of the show being criticized or characters appearing to be brutal and unfeeling is too great. You especially don’t want to have your half-Vulcan character pummeling a woman with slaps and punches to the face while the ship’s captain baits her like an animal.

Sadly, this is the climax of “The Man Trap.”

“The Man Trap” is a hard episode to write about because it so desperately wants to have a topical social message about the preservation of nature, but does so by having the crew of the Enterprise beat the hell out of a woman. The issue is that, to a modern audience, “The Man Trap” is an episode that inadvertently becomes about feminism and women’s rights, but it is obvious that the writers had no intent to make an episode about that issue, choosing instead a message of preservation and the danger of extinction.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. The episode begins with Kirk and McCoy, in his first appearance, touch down on the mostly deserted planet of M-113 to give yearly medical exams to the Craters, Professor Robert and his wife Nancy, who used to be in a relationship with McCoy 10 years ago. All the men see Nancy differently, and as Kirk and McCoy wait for Robert to come back to the house, Nancy kills one of the crew members by sucking the salt from his body, leaving a series of red rings around his face, leaves a piece of the Borgia root in his mouth, and Nancy claims that he accidentally poisoned himself.

The Professor wants Kirk and McCoy to leave them alone, but both he and Nancy insist they need salt tablets. As Kirk and McCoy analyze the body, they realize that the crewmember died by having all the salt in his body removed and that the Borgia root could not have killed him. They return to the planet to investigate, and after Nancy kills another crewmember, she takes his form, and returns to the Enterprise with McCoy and Kirk.

The episode picks up a bit from there. The shapeshifter acts oddly aboard the ship, following around anyone that has salt and generally behaving strangely around other people. It’s intriguing, but not exactly fun to watch. It follows Yeoman Rand (I think someone called her that) as she gives Sulu a meal in Botany and eventually takes the form of a black man to harass Uhura.

Eventually, the crew starts to figure out that there is something aboard the Enterprise, when Kirk and Spock do battle with the Professor and find out that the shapeshifter is the last of its kind, comparable to the buffalo of “Earth History.” Kirk orders a lockdown on the ship to figure out what is going on.
The episode picks up quite a bit in the last fifteen minutes. The battle with the professor is fun, and there is a genuine tenseness to Kirk asking Robert if he could identify the shapeshifter when it is sitting right next to him. The reveal of the creature is great as well, with a green alien covered in hair, standing menacingly over Kirk.

However, the episode devolves. The climax in McCoy’s room is in my eyes, shockingly offensive, and some of the work getting up to it is really strange. Also, the final scene on the bridge really seemed odd to me when Kirk reminisces “Oh, the water buffalo,” and McCoy just sort of smirks. For McCoy, killing the last remaining member of the green-shapeshifter-salt-eater-race is a joke along the lines of “Ha, yes I did cause that extinction. That was droll.” It undercuts the attempted sadness of the message of preservation and really makes much of the point of the episode moot.

It doesn’t help that the message of the episode is almost muddled beyond belief. From what I can gather, the lesson of “The Man Trap” is “preserve nature or that fucker will come after you, transform into your ex, hypnotize you and suck all the salt from your body.” It’s something we all can learn from.

Like I said at the beginning, for me, as a humanistic liberal who has always been sensitive to race issues and sex issues, the idea of beating the hell out of Nancy, who I guess is technically a salt-suckered-alien, is just too difficult to ignore for “The Man Trap” to be a success, but that brings about a special issue that I’m sure will come up again as the series progresses; at what level do we stop judging “Star Trek” as a product of a different social time, and judge its politics as is?

I’m ok with a certain degree of different sexual politics in a show that was created in 1966. When Rand walks by in the hall and one of the crewmen says “how’d you like to have her as your own personal yeoman,” it’s easy to toss it up to the standards of a different time. The scene with the shapeshifter talking to Uhura about being lonely is a little less excusable, but it still can be mostly chalked up to this being a different era. The fact that most of the female crew isn’t wearing pants is easily part of the return to old science fiction, but it seems odd that men have full outfits while the women wear short skirts and hose, despite Dehner getting to wear pants in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” This can mostly be chalked up to gender politics and genre conventions, but it’s still there and it’s still vaguely out of place for a modern audience.

And maybe I’m looking at the climax too critically. The alien shapeshifter has taken the form of McCoy’s former lover and to try to convince the doctor to shoot her, Spock repeatedly strikes her face with brutal overhead punches. McCoy is obviously distressed, but doesn’t see the truth until she knocks Spock across the room and hypnotizes Kirk. It’s not really a woman, just like it wasn’t really a man earlier, but the implications are all there. The shapeshifter looks like a woman being beaten to the audience and to McCoy. In that sense, the scene is hard to tolerate.

What’s more, the threat is really clumsy. It’s an extremely convincing shapeshifter that uses it’s unlimited power to essentially go about procuring as much of one of the most common chemical compounds by using one of the most violent and overt ways possible. I would have really liked to have been at the pitch meeting for this one.

Overall, the combination of an absolute lack of a compelling and well thought out threat coupled with the sexism really derails much of the episode. If it wasn’t “Star Trek,” a multi-cultural ship filled with humans of a variety of backgrounds and a half-Vulcan, the idea of women being treated poorly could more easily be looked over, but stylistically the show has been moving in the direction of an idealized world where everyone is represented. Everyone, except women.

It’s really hard to describe how I feel about this episode. On one hand, the climax is disgusting and the threat seems not quite there. On the other hand, I love seeing the inner workings of the Enterprise. Sulu’s quarters are really interesting, and I liked just seeing something on the ship that wasn’t the bridge. The alien is cool, Spock and Kirk working together to take down the professor is fun to watch and the conversation among the crew about what to do about the shapeshifter is just as great as all of these are.

If it weren’t for the attack on the shapeshifter, this would probably be a better, albeit slower, episode than “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” However, a multitude of problems derail the effort, and “The Man Trap” suffers. Where “Where No Man Has Gone Before” made me excited to jump into the next episode, “The Man Trap” shows that there are some darker parts of the past that are hard to ignore.

Random Notes

I have really come to like Spock, and his conversation with Uhura at the beginning of the episode is great, but I don’t think the series had really figured out how to use him. He’s mostly there to be really cold in a scene or two and that’s about it.

When the landing party first meets Nancy, there seems to be some problems. Has she hypnotized them? Does she just appear different in their minds? How does that little power work?

Favorite line of the episode: “It’s a mystery and I don’t like mysteries. It’ll give you a bellyache and I’ve got a beauty of one right now.” Thanks, Kirk.

Close Runner Up for favorite line of the episode: “Stop thinking with your glands.” Once again, thanks, Kirk.

The sound that the scanner makes when Kirk tells Spock to expand the search is really ridiculous.

The sets on M-113 are even more flimsy and ridiculous than the ones in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” It doesn’t detract from anything and it helps add a little bit of fun camp to the series, but I really couldn’t tell what a vaguely round pile of rocks was supposed to represent.

Now I know that Spock is half-Vulcan, and that the planet Vulcan has no moon. Nice work, Spock and Uhura.

Swahili seems to be a dying language now, but I’m glad a going-extinct-space-shapeshifter has enough of a working knowledge of it to talk to Uhura with it.

Kirk is such a dick in front of McCoy and Robert for calling out Nancy’s grey hairs.

Next up: “Charlie X” which I assume is about an alien who rises up, discovers Space Islam, promotes violent resistance and is murdered by other radicals as well as by a Spike Lee movie.

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