Captain's Blog pt. 61: The Man Trap

Star Trek entered the world on 8 September 1966 with "The Man Trap." 

"The decision to broadcast it before any of the other limited number of completed episodes was largely a process of elimination. (...) "Mudd's Women" was out of the running because no one wanted to lead off the series with a risqué story about selling women in space. (...) In the end, "The Man Trap" won out because its straightforward action plot was not considered too exotic, it had the advantage of a monster to thrill the viewers, and it fulfilled the series' "strange new worlds" concept." - Robert H. Justman and Herbert F. Solow, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story

It amuses me that "Mudd's Women" was rejected for the reason given. It's true that "The Man Trap" showcases the strange new worlds concept and has a monster. But everything else about it is just as (if not much more) risqué. On first glance, sure, it might seem like a straightforward alien monster story, but under its surface lies a nest of Freudian vipers. And in such a spirit, let us penetrate the subtext.

Let's start with the title (3 of 3 pts.) If it was just a space-monster story, the title would be rather silly. But it is the first (and perhaps most important) clue to not trust surface appearances. 

It was originally titled "The Unreal McCoy," which gets a little closer to the subtext. (And works just as well for double innuendo.) This is a bit like McCoy's version of "This Side of Paradise;" in this one, the other points of The Original Series fraternal trinity have to figure out how to neutralize the sexualized alien threat to their status quo. (It can even be read as a Dracula-esque race/gender panic in response to changing sexual and cultural attitudes. But hey: what can't?)

Script and Theme: (7.5 / 8.5 of 10/10) It's important to remember four things before we continue: 1) Roddenberry wanted to examine American society in a way that 1960s TV did not allow. 2) Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to be a delivery mechanism for those examinations, and that "Wagon Train to the stars" was his cover story for this aim. 3) Roddenberry liked sex. A lot. He liked talking about it, thinking about, having it, chasing it, rolling around it, and bringing it up as often as he could. Sex imbued everything he did. And 4) As a man of his generation with these interests and aims, it's a little silly to assume something called "The Man Trap" is not designed with all this in mind.

The Enterprise arrives to re-supply a remote outpost inhabited by one Professor Crater and his wife Nancy, "that one woman," as Kirk refers to her, from Doctor McCoy's past.
Nancy is actually long-dead, and what has taken her form is an alien with an unquenchable lust for salt and self-preservation.
She is capable of both altering her appearance and casting illusions so others see what they want (or expect) to see.

This proves fatal for Crewman Darnell, her first victim:

As more victims pile up...
Kirk and Spock learn from Professor Crater that the creature posing as Nancy (and now loose on the ship) is the last of its kind. It needs salt to survive, and the old man's is all but used up.

The creature, having taken the murdered Crewman Green's form, wreaks havoc aboard ship, first targeting Yeoman Rand, who brings a pillar of salt on a tray to Mister Sulu in the Botany lab.

"Stop thinking with your glands."
Unable to consume either the salt she carries and too exposed to attack her directly, the creature sees a new target and changes into an image it plucks from her mind.


Uhura is at first hypnotized, then fearful. She is saved by a hail from the bridge. The creature makes its way to McCoy's quarters, where she assumes his form.

"This thing becomes wife, lover, best friend, wise man, fool, idol, slave."

Kirk rushes to the Doctor's quarters but is unable to convince Bones of the truth of the situation. He appeals to the creature directly:

"My guess is she needs more. You want it, Nancy? Come get it."

Spock arrives ("Shoot quick!") and tries to intervene -

but is unsuccessful.
Freed from his hypnosis, McCoy shoots and kills the creature.

Kirk spares a thought for the American buffalo (!) then it's Warp Factor 1.

I mean, you don't have to be a Freudian scholar to ask serious questions about what the hell is going on here. Both the professor and Nancy are "all dried up." The creature's hands are giant suckers. The list goes on. If "the man trap" isn't meant to be female anatomy nor the salt male ejaculate, then the script has some serious 'splaining to do.

Going a little further down this particular rabbit hole, let's look at the visual design (2.25 of 3 pts) of the creature. Wah Cheng designed it and claimed he modified a gas mask:

I don't disbelieve him, but there is another way to read it.

Neither here nor there but perhaps nearer to here than there: I couldn't help thinking of the main crux of many a Hindu myth - ie the stealing of the "magic sperm." Almost every non-Ganesh myth has to do with magic sperm. Indra's drunk on it, someone wants to steal Indra's, Indra wants to steal someone else's... all roads lead back to it. Other myths revolve around stealing "moon blood." Odin from the Norse comes to mind, but he's hardly alone. You can't make this stuff up.

Do I think that this episode is a re-telling of ancient and sticky primordial myths? Is the illusion/ mutability of gendered desire the man trap? i.e. a "hang-up?" Is this gay panic? Woman panic? Rage against the gender-role machine? The danger of romanticizing "that one woman" from your past? Just another Manic Monday / Bug-Eyed-Monster with Sucker-Fingers?

It's not my intention to read too much into things just for the hell of it, but you've got to put these things in context. In addition to mapping out where Gene was coming from, above, analysis was en vogue in the 1950s and early 1960s; practically everything produced in this era bears its stamp. (Even beforehand: a great deal of 20th century entertainment is in the shadow of Freud.) As the kids say these day, retweet-does-not-equal-endorsement. I say: ask the questions yourself and see what the episode reveals to you; there is no one ring to rule them all, here.

And don't get me started on vaginal panic in Lord of the Rings; we'll be here all day...
Deconstructing this episode is a delight and should be taught in any Literary Theory class. It's a treasure trove. As with "This Side of Paradise," the best episodes of Star Trek seem to be have been constructed to stand up to a wide range of questioning regardless of what was ultimately meant to be conveyed. They work above-board as well as below-the-decks.

At one point this young lady runs out. Note the long pants.
With very few exceptions, you won't be seeing them on any female crewmembers for the rest of the series.

Guests: (4 of 5 pts) 

Jeanne Bal plays Nancy/ The Creature.
Alfred Ryder - arguably best known as The Leader from The Invaders but who'll always be the guy from Escape to Witch Mountain for me - plays Dr. Crater.
And Vince Howard plays Uhura's Swahili-speaking Fantasy Man.

Internal Logistics: (2.25 of 3). You can't really give "The Man Trap" too hard of a time about anything; it was fresh out of the gate, after all. So many of the premises established here change many times over the course of the first season (and beyond.)

but I do get a kick out of some of the somewhat questionable-to-the-future items we see on display here.

Kirk and the Gang: (25 of 10). 5 of those points are for Shatner's blood-curdling scream when attacked by the creature.

Here it is again.
"Why do people have to call inanimate objects she?" Sulu wants to know.
Nice moment between Uhura and Spock in the beginning. Foreshadowing of the '09 Trek. Maybe this is what gave them the idea.
It's an early episode, so Yeoman Rand has a fairly substantial part.
More symbolic intrigue.

Memorability: 3 pts for the tip of the iceberg and add a point for what lies beneath, because it looms large (no pun intended) in memory once considered. (4 of 5 pts.)

One for Trek trivia night.

Total Points Awarded: 56.5


  1. So basically, all this creature needed to thrive was to spend some time with Peter North...

    1. I think it's more that the creature is insatiable. Not even Peter North would be enough.

  2. I don't think you're reading too much into things, that's for sure. Given the extent to which Roddenberry liked to layer his work with barely-concealed metaphor, I think all of what you say here is right on the money.

    It's never been one of my favorite episodes, but for an early-first-season episode it isn't bad. It's nice to see Yeoman Rand. I like Yeoman Rand; too bad she disappeared.

    1. I do, too. Incidentally, I guess the guy who performed the hand-puppet in the botany-lab scene kept grabbing her ass during this scene. Given all that happened to Whitney on the set (or after-hours) and how all that played out, that's a rather creepy detail... I actually meant to include this, but I thought it might be a little out of place given the tone of everything else I was looking at. (i.e. harmless speculation on theme vs. real-life-tragedy and PTSD, etc.)

    2. That IS a creepy detail. Ah, the sixties...

      I'd love to know what sort of dynamic the series would have ended up with if Rand had stuck around. She's put to regular use in the episodes filmed prior to Whitney's departure, so it seems clear to me that Roddenberry intended to have her be one of the major characters.

      I also keep hoping that Rand will make an appearance in the Abramsverse. That would be a nice nod toward the original series.

  3. Right after this episode aired, Roddenberry's father went up and down the street apologizing to his neighbors. Kinda a dick thing to do.

    1. Hope he gave them some salt cubes while he was at it.

    2. (And I agree - that's dickishness.)