50 years ago today a show like no other was beamed across the airwaves. The first episode of Star Trek to be broadcast was “The Man Trap” on September 8th, 1966. The one with the Salt Vampire.
It was not the first episode to be filmed, and most sources officially place it as the fifth episode of season one. But between this and several other episodes like “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Carbombite Maneuver,” and “Charlie X,” the producers decided this one was the most straightforward story of the lot and the best way to introduce the series.
“The Man Trap” was definitely a good preview of things to come. You’ve got the first example of a classic Star Trek trope – a scientist with a personal connection to an Enterprise crewmember is living alone on a remote, empty planet and hiding a secret. In this case it’s Doctor Robert Crater and his wife Nancy, Doctor McCoy’s old flame. The episode has a dangerous monster that is cast in a sympathetic light by the end of the story, like the Horta in “The Devil in the Dark” or Balok in “The Carbombite Maneuver.”
As the episode begins, Kirk, McCoy, and a few soon to be killed crewmen who exist only to show how serious the situation is (another timeless Trek trope) beam down to the surface of Planet M-113 with provisions to resupply the Craters, who are researching the ruins of a long vanished civilization. It’s immediately apparent that something ain’t right; McCoy sees Nancy as he knew her years before, while Kirk sees her as an older woman.
Dr. Crater is adamant that the starship should drop the supplies and scram, further raising suspicions. After some of the crewmen are killed mysteriously, the landing party returns to the ship. It soon becomes apparent that something has followed them aboard, an intruder capable of changing into any physical form it can pull from a victim’s mind.
After Kirk is attacked by “Nancy,” Dr. Crater reveals that the real Nancy was killed by the last survivor of a species that once roamed M-113 as “the buffalo once roamed the plains of North America on Earth.” The creature survived on salt, and the Craters initially befriended it by giving it salt tablets from their provisions. When the supply of tablets ran low the creature grew desperate and killed Nancy by feeding directly on the salt from her body.
Throughout the last half of the episode Dr. Crater is adamant that the creature was only acting to survive, and that Kirk should not judge it too harshly. This was a big departure from the previous depictions of bug-eyed monsters in science-fiction of the era, in which physically loathsome creatures were largely treated as mindless menaces. The philosophy of trying to understand the motivations of different lifeforms and cultures has been deeply ingrained in every incarnation of Star Trek over its 50 year existence and is one of my favorite aspects of the series. I also love bug-eyed monsters and the Salt Vampire is one of the show’s most iconic – up there with the Horta, the Mugato, and the Gorn. The Gorn is literally a bug eyed monster.
The crew is forced to kill the Salt Vampire, the last of its kind*, and episode ends on a melancholy note as Kirk sits brooding on the bridge. When Spock asks what’s wrong he replies; “I was thinking about the buffalo, Mr. Spock.” The Enterprise warps out of M-113’s orbit and onwards towards hundreds of more adventures.
Live Long and Prosper, Star Trek.
*A Salt Vampire was to going appear on the Klingon prison planet Rura Penthe in 2009’s Star Trek (before that scene was cut from the film), indicating that the individual on M-113 may not have been the last of its kind after all!