The Man Trap
Our very first taste of Star Trek turns out to be an unusual one. Too much salt, maybe?
It’s old news how far this de facto first episode is from what pretty much anyone who worked on the Original Series thought the show was actually about. Shatner doesn’t get to cross acting chops with insane scenery-chewing dictators. William Ware Theiss keeps all the women more or less fully-clothed. And there isn’t a stellar wagon train in sight. Indeed, it’s almost comical how much the crew are not boldly going where no man has gone before right now. There’s already a man where they’ve arrived, and a woman too. Plus they’ve been visited by all those other supply runs, so the Enterprise isn’t even the first online shop delivery (“Favourite items: seventy-three boxes of table salt”) to pull into orbit.
(Incidentally, Crater’s suggestion that Nancy died two years earlier raises the question of what happened during the last Federation run to M-113. Did Not-Nancy nom on a few crew-members and get away with it? Or did the last bunch just not respond to Nancy’s clumsy stabs at seduction? “Stardate 1009.2: met some woman who chucked her jacket at me five minutes after I met her husband. Hard pass.”)
And of course, just about everyone knows why this episode got picked to go first; delicious killer monster goodness. No-one, it was assumed, would rather see the exploration of both the galaxy and the human condition when instead they could see an alien sucking salt out of people’s faces. It’s actually an interesting piece of transatlantic symmetry, given that this episode went out just three months before Doctor Who kicked off its last historical story for fifteen years. Monsters, it would appear, were in.
The result is a story that owes far more to the horror genre than it does the western, for all its talk of buffalo. Which is a perfectly reasonable place to draw inspiration from; Star Trek is a pretty big tent, after all. But as an opening bid, it’s arguably problematic. Not just because it’s so out of step with the general thrust of the program, but because the audience has no attachment to the people being menaced. Bear in mind the casual viewer has no actual clues as to who is in the main cast beyond Kirk and Spock. Even DeForest Kelley doesn’t get a credit until the end credits roll (indeed the show makes use of this fact to interesting effect in it’s actual broadcast pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”).
You don’t need to care about the characters in a horror story, of course, there are other perfectly fine ways to get the job done. It’s just that the episode doesn’t really seem interested in doing any of them. An alien kills a few people we don’t care about, and has a nice design that we only see at the end anyway. There’s not even much of the element of mystery that so many good horror stories rely on. We know very quickly the broad strokes of what’s going on, and spend much of the episode’s run-time waiting for the protagonists to catch up.
All that said, though, there’s still more to this episode than a simple monster run-around. Indeed, if we go looking for the narrative fingerprints of the western stories this show is supposed to be built on, we don’t really have to look very hard. At its core, this is a story about the loneliness of long journeys, and the memories of home we cling to.
Uhura, for example, doesn’t seem to be having a good time of it at all. She’s so numbed by the repetitious nature of her job she’s willing to hit on a superior officer in the middle of the bridge whilst they’re both on duty. She’s so homesick she’s almost seduced in a corridor by a perfect stranger because he happens to speak her language. And it’s not hard at all to believe, given the notional polyglot nature of Starfleet, that it really could be years or decades between Uhura meeting someone who speaks Swahili – certainly a paucity of Swahili speakers would make much more sense than the commonality of English as a language, especially given almost all the ship’s crew speak it with a North American accent. Uhura’s sense of isolation and need for a connection to her past both feel utterly believable.
Things aren’t much better for Doctor McCoy, for whom the ghosts of the past are clearly an issue. How clearly? Well, consider the crew’s first encounter with Non-Nancy (I refuse to use the phrase “salt vampire”; you might as well call something an “egg zombie” or “the Phantom of the Steak Tartare”). McCoy sees Nancy as she once was, and Crewman Darnell sees a woman he “left behind” (note that phrasing, by the way; Darnell gets strangled in the strands of his past too, though since he introduces himself to a total stranger who he knows is married by cracking on to her, it’s hard to feel too bad about him being chosen to be Trek’s first casualty). And yet Kirk sees exactly what he should rationally expect; McCoy’s lost love, ten years older. There are two possible reasons for Kirk’s immunity, both of them interesting. One is the possibility that Kirk is so fulfilled by his career that the feelings of isolation and nostalgia Non-Nancy preys upon simply aren’t there. You could argue this is an unfortunate connotation, an example of the “man who loves only duty” trope that would then play into the gender essentialism that runs through the series in general. I’m not sure I’d agree – you could spin it to be about contentment rather than an obsession with career – but either way, I think the better option is that Kirk sees Non-Nancy as she “should” appear because he’s seen her picture as part of his mission briefing. Which means in turn either that McCoy is still so tied in knots over Nancy he skipped the briefings entirely, or that he saw the pictures of her, on a starship millions of miles from Not-Nancy’s influence and still couldn’t kick the rose-tinted Retnox 5. Whichever it is, McCoy has clearly never really moved on. Indeed, his inability/refusal to move on from a decade-dead love affair is so total that it leads to him happily accepting his now-married ex to stay in his quarters overnight, no questions asked.
(Of course, we could always assume the original Nancy was polyamorous, and that McCoy knew this, meaning her decision to stay the night with him whilst married to someone else wouldn’t be at all unusual. The problem with this theory, of course, is that there’s not a scrap of evidence for it and that it would entirely rub against the grain of the culture in which this episode was written.)
But the best example of the lost and lonely here, quite clearly, is Not-Nancy herself. Last of her race, and reduced to sucking on salt tablets. Seemingly entirely dependent on the charity/pity of something she would otherwise see as food, but that has been upgraded to friend out of desire necessity. The closest human equivalent must be spooning a pig every night because there are no people around, and that pig has the only store of Lind McCartney ready meals left on the planet. The degree to which Not-Nancy is unhappy with this set-up becomes obvious when she desalinates Crater within minutes of establishing a new supplier of empathy (dick move, Creature From The Black Pudding Lagoon!). But this underlines a more general point: Not-Nancy doesn’t need to eat people at all. Or, more accurately, she clearly does need to eat people, but it’s for reasons other than acquiring sustenance.
Let’s break out the science. The average human body contains sufficient sodium and chlorine to produce about 210 grams of salt. Therefore by the time McCoy shoots her, Nancy has already scoffed her way through at least full kilogram of the stuff, plus whatever was in those actual salt tablets, and is hoping to polish off Kirk for dessert. Weight-wise, that’s like eating an entire rabbit, claws, fur, bones and all, in the space of a few hours. And yet Not-Nancy was able to live on a jar of salt tablets you probably couldn’t even fit a rabbit in for an entire year. She’s not eating to survive on the Enterprise. She’s gorging herself at a buffet because it’s got a fixed entry price and then it’s all you can eat.
I suppose you could hand-wave this away by arguing Not-Nancy was chowing down on various local animal life-forms down on M-113 before the Enterprise showed up, but there’s absolutely no evidence of that (indeed, we could argue the opposite; how else did she end up the last of her race unless they, to paraphrase Dave Lister, porked their way through an entire unconvincing desert?). What’s just as or even more plausible is that Not-Nancy has embarked on an orgy of destruction because that’s how things used to be when all her mates were alive. That she needed to be reminded of home.
That said, she may be mis-remembering somewhat. The curse of nostalgia is that the grass was always greener. Considering Not-Nancy’s obvious intelligence, and the fact her species apparently operates through mimicry and ambush, it must be obvious that her hunting pattern isn’t sustainable. She’s just begging to get caught, hypno-stare notwithstanding. Quite aside from the speed with which she starts gobbling up everyone within reach, she takes the first chance she gets to eat the one person on the ship who has proved his willingness to help her hide. That’s not just staggeringly ungrateful, it’s idiotic. Or at least, it is if her plan is to stay alive.
But what if it isn’t? We know Not-Nancy can survive for a year on the salt tablets the Feds keep bringing Crater. We know she can watch a Starfleet vessel come and go without tricking her way aboard and eating everyone in range. Something has changed, something that’s made her decide that she can’t live undercover anymore. Did her baser instincts finally overwhelm her common sense. Or has she finally decided that the loneliness is too much to bear? Are we watching the uncontrolled gluttony of someone too long starved, or is the self-condemned determined they should get the best last meal possible?
The suggestion that Not-Nancy pulls off a suicide by space-cop is certainly worth considering. She’s spent a year or two with Crater; she knows there are plenty among humanity who would go to great lengths to save a species from extinction, even a dangerous one. She’s much more likely to find herself back on M-113 and given regular supplies of salt than she is to be killed once captured. And yet she manages to do the one thing that will force McCoy to kill her. Not only that, but her glamour drops at just the right moment to persuade the good doctor that he needs to open fire. As my partner said to me as the episode credits rolled, “How do we know anyone but McCoy saw the monster?”, before going on to make the excellent point that the creature’s hand suckers aren’t actually in the places they should be given the mottling on its victims’ faces. The furred, hunched monstrosity McCoy fires at might be no more the alien’s true form than any other we’ve seen her wear. Perhaps she had finally had enough, and gave McCoy exactly what she knew he needed to force him to do what what she needed.
In a story about the crushing damage loneliness can do, it makes total sorrowful sense for the “monster” to get herself killed because she just can’t take the memories of her own past any more. The fact that she achieves this by ripping away McCoy’s own links to his past just makes it more ironic, and more sad. The theory also helps blunt one of the most common criticisms of “The Man Trap”: thirty-five minutes after the audience first hears that legendary promise “to seek out new life and new civilisations”, the crew take their inaugural alien visitor and shoots her in the face. But if Not-Nancy had intended for this to be her last day, McCoy’s reaction, already reasonable, is bumped up to inevitable.
As defences go, though, this can’t stretch as far as it needs to. If McCoy had no choice but to fire, it’s because the script gave him no choice but to fire. If Not-Nancy chose to end it all, it’s because the writers decided that’s what she should do. A conclusion might be inevitable given a set-up, but the choice of set-ups was without limit. So whilst the focus on isolation and homesickness makes “The Man Trap” a better introduction to a show nominally about exploration than it might at first appear, we’re still left with the fact that a story this early about the long-term effects of space travel makes no more sense than a stab at sci-fi horror does. The combination presents a galaxy that’s a vast expanse of tedium punctuated by occasional moments of lethal danger. This is almost the diametric opposite of the melting pot of endless wonders presented by The Next Generation; infinite diversity in infinite combinations reduced to a single question: will I be bored today, or murdered? If the TNG approach is a vital ingredient to the franchise’s longevity – and surely it must be – then the conclusion is inescapable. If Star Trek is going to survive long-term, it’s going to need to rethink a great deal of what’s being done here.
Next week, that process is going to begin.