It’s easy to say that NBC didn’t quite know what they had on their hands when it came to Star Trek. Looking back on the first dozen or so episodes, I see at least two or three other episodes that I’d chose as the series premiere over “The Man Trap.”
It’s not that “The Man Trap” is a terrible episode, per se. It’s just not a terribly good one.
Part of the issue is that the audience is aware that some creature is disguising itself as various crew members and other people in its thirst for salt. This leads to long stretches where it feels like the show is spinning its wheels while it waits for Kirk and company to catch up to what we were clued into in the first act.
This wheel spinning shows up as long stretches where it feels like Gene Roddenberry and company are trying to give us a glimpse into what life would be like onboard a starship with 430 or so crew members. It wouldn’t be all about getting the job done, but there’d also be a need for places to go for downtime and to rest a bit. *
*In fact, this rewatch of Trek sparked a conversation about what the franchise tells us about life in the 24th century on a recent episode of The All Good Things podcast. So, if you want to hear what I sound like in real life, tune in!
It’s in these early episodes that you can see Roddenberry trying to make the show a bit more of an ensemble than it would become even later in the season. While Kirk and Spock get a lion’s share of the action sequences and are the ones who piece together the mystery surrounding who Nancy Crater really is, a lot of character development is put in for McCoy, Sulu, Rand and Uhura.
I will admit that I’m a bit curious about how the creature’s powers work. Not that shape shifting thing or the sucking salt via its ginormous suckers but instead how it picks a mental image to latch onto and transform into. Uhura’s scene where she meets a man she’d been imaging in interesting enough but there’s also the question of just how the creature appears to three separate landing party members as three separate people without them catching on that makes me wonder. If Kirk would to look over quickly, would he see the blonde that his poor, doomed security officer sees? And how does the creature know that it should appear older to Kirk than the image from McCoy’s mind?
All of these questions arise during the two acts with the creature wandering the ship because, as I said before, not much is happening to really advance the overall plot. We have to keep the crew in the dark for a bit while Kirk pieces things together and gets to bark orders a lot.
I will admit I’m impressed by how much Uhura has to do in these early episodes. Nichelle Nichols reported her in her autobiography that she grew increasingly frustrated by her diminishing role as Uhura over the course of season one. It’s easy to see why since she’s given some substantial screen time in the first dozen episodes only to see it trail off a bit as the season goes along. Her scene with Spock early in act one when she asks him about Vulcan’s moon and gives him grief for his lack of reaction that Kirk might be dead is a great one. It also seems like J.J. Abrams might have watched this scene and got the idea for a Spock/Uhura romance in the rebooted timeline.