“Captain’s log: Stardate 1513.1. Our position: orbiting Planet M-113. On board the Enterprise, Mr. Spock, temporarily in command. On the planet: the ruins of an ancient and long-dead civilization. Ship’s surgeon McCoy and myself are now beaming down to the planet’s surface…”
And thus began, on this day 50 years ago, the first episode of the revolutionary television show, Star Trek. “The Man Trap” introduced the young captain of the starship Enterprise, his half-alien first officer, and his ship’s surgeon…and the world and pop culture have never been quite the same.
While “The Man Trap” is an enjoyable episode, I doubt that anyone watching it on September 8, 1966 would’ve expected Star Trek to become such a phenomenon. When I compare it to the first episodes of my other favorite TV shows (Blue Bloods, NCIS, and Call the Midwife), it is an unusual way to jumpstart a series about a bunch of interplanetary
misfits travelers. You aren’t given a detailed introduction to any of the main characters; rather, you get thrown head-first into a murder-mystery and just get to know everybody along the way. The story isn’t particularly shocking; anyone who’s seen Loki in action knows how crafty those shapeshifters can be. And when Kirk, Spock, and McCoy fight the salt monster, it’s easy to smirk and say, “I’ve seen worse in the Mines of Moria.”
But honestly, the part where the monster attacks Kirk is still one of the freakiest scenes in the whole show. The shapeshifting drives you crazy because YOU KNOW THAT PERSON RIGHT THERE IS THE MONSTER AND NOBDOY ELSE DOES! And you realize, quite suddenly, that you’ve gotten to know a whole lot about a certain character just by the way he or she reacts to a situation–and you didn’t need bagoodles of backstory to tell you all you needed to know. Not yet, anyway.
Of course, this is the first episode of the first season: the actors and the writers are still trying to “get in the groove.” Captain Kirk, for example, is even more boyish and playful than he is in later episodes. Dr. McCoy’s sense of humor isn’t nearly as acerbic and he doesn’t backtalk Kirk very much at all. Spock is much more animated and expressive. Interestingly, so is Uhura, making you wonder if the writers originally intended to make her more of a prominent character. These dynamics make this episode and “The Naked Time” the most similar in character structure to the reboot films.
You also learn, though, that Kirk is intensely protective of his crew and that the burden of command weighs heavy on him. In a highly-advanced technological age, McCoy remains stubbornly old-fashioned and even spiritually conservative. Spock looks at everything from a logical angle–and yet when Uhura challenges him on whether or not he cares about Kirk’s safety, he gets downright touchy. Uhura herself is cheerful and self-confident, the only one besides Kirk who can be openly playful with Spock and get away with it.
These things never changed, even as the Triumvirate actors settled into their roles and Uhura (sadly) moved more into the background.
According to Memory Alpha’s article on the episode, the producers had to decide between several episodes for Star Trek‘s television premiere: “The Corbomite Maneuver,” “Charlie X,” “Mudd’s Women,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Naked Time,” and “The Man Trap.” They chose the latter 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.”
Fair enough. I would’ve preferred “The Naked Time” because it does an even better job of developing the characters, and it includes Scotty and Christine Chapel. Nobody asked for my opinion, of course…haha. But “The Man Trap” still has all the things that make Star Trek so enjoyable, in spite of its over-arching humanistic worldview. The characters are believable, relatable, lovable. The good, honest, principled guys and girls always triumph in the end. Racial divisions are completely demolished by the inclusion of an Asian man and an African woman in the main cast–a big deal back in the 60’s. And if you can learn anything from this story and the ones that followed it, it’s that overcoming our differences and working not just as a team, but as a family, is more important than personal agendas and prejudices.
Even though it was cancelled after only three seasons, reruns in the 70’s made Star Trek an international, cultural phenomenon. By the time the first movie was released, girls were writing fanfiction in their college dorms (three cheers for our fandom foremothers!), people were actually attending Star Trek conventions (like, we probably wouldn’t have Comic-Con if it wasn’t for those people, okay?)…and poor William Shatner was having to accept the fact that he was going to be Captain Kirk for a long, long time.
And now it’s been 50 years since “The Man Trap” first aired. We’re still writing fanfics and people are still attending conventions–and not only that, but we have four (soon to be five) other series and something like thirteen movies! We even have technology directly inspired by Star Trek. The only thing that’s really changed is that William Shatner is okay with being Captain Kirk forever. All’s well that ends well 😉
And as for me? Well, I’ve been a Trekkie a little over a year, and in spite of my issues with its worldview, it’s still my happy place. There’s nothing better than settling down with an episode after a long day of work and writing. I love being able to have inside jokes with my Trekkie friends and family. I love knowing that Kirk and Spock and McCoy and all the rest of them are always going to be there to make me laugh and cry and look up at the stars and whisper, “Space…the final frontier.”
Oh…happy birthday you big silly wonderful old show. I love you to Vulcan and back.