Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first-aired Star Trek episode, “The Man Trap.” But that first story isn’t really representative of all the good things to come from Star Trek because its plot is borderline ludicrous, even by the imaginative narrative standards of Trek.
While you could enumerate every single detail about why this episode is so odd in relation to the rest of Star Trek — Scotty’s absence, Bones as the main character, Spock punching people and smiling, etc. — the most overwhelmingly bizarre aspect of “The Man Trap,” is that it barely escapes the cliché of being a bug-eyed-monster story.
Bug-eyed-monsters or “BEMS” were a shorthand term used by science fiction writers in the pulp magazine era, which immediately proceeded the original Star Trek. Basically, a BEM is a lazy writing device, wherein an alien is standing in for “the other” which is generally a person to be feared or destroyed. Through the popularity of BEMS in pulp magazines like Startling Stories, space aliens gained an unfortunate reputation in the zeitgeist as a xenophobic trap that was hard even for the best science fiction writers of the ‘60s to avoid.
“The Man Trap” was written by George Clayton Johnson, who is probably most famous for having co-written the novel Logan’s Run along with William F. Nolan in 1967. But, prior to that, he was a prolific short story writer and sold notable scripts to Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone. In “The Man Trap,” the entire feel of the episode is decidedly more horror-oriented than the rest of Star Trek. A vampire that feeds on salt and can change its shape at will has assumed the form of Dr. McCoy’s old girlfriend. Will Kirk and Spock kill the alien or spare it?
Had this been a later Star Trek episode like “Arena” or “The Devil in the Dark,” both Kirk and Spock would have probably made big speeches about how they were not going to hunt down and kill the shapeshifting alien, but in this episode, phasers are decidedly not on stun, at least not with aliens. “The Man Trap,” was not the first episode filmed of the original series, and was probably selected by NBC to be the first episode aired because it resembled the morals and aesthetics of what was believed to be science fiction at that time; a genre populated by a lot of BEMs.
Still, despite its failings, and continuity oddities, George Clayton Johnson’s script for “The Man Trap,” did manage to subvert some of its monster-murdering trappings. The sad-scientist of the week, Robert Crater, worries that the salt vampire is the “last of it’s kind, like the buffalo.” Endangered species and the general awareness of environmental issues would be subjects Star Trek would revisit in its future. And even here, the episode ends with Kirk feeling guilty about their murder of the salt vampire, telling Spock in the final moments that he is reflecting on “the buffalo.” Even in these early steps, saddled by old science fiction cliches, Star Trek still made it’s mark by ending on note of reflection and doubt, rather than triumph.