Though it was not the second pilot, nor even the first episode filmed, The Man Trap was the first episode of Star Trek ever shown on TV. This has confused some people over the years, as it is not your typical episode. Katie Mae and I watched this episode with my parents, and we discussed why this would have been the network’s choice to introduce the public to Star Trek.
We theorize that since The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were popular shows around this time, the format of a one-shot “monster” story might be better-received by their viewers than the first few that were filmed. Certainly, it has the feel of an Outer Limits episode, with eerie music, atmospheric captain’s logs, and of course, the salt vampire killing off the crew.
This episode, being the first one aired, contains a few Star Trek firsts besides the obvious. For one thing, this is the first appearance of Nichelle Nichols as Uhura. It’s also the first time Dr. McCoy delivers his iconic “He’s dead, Jim” line. There are also already a few depictions of the crew’s personal lives, as McCoy’s love life is discussed, Spock and Uhura are as close to playful as Spock can get, and we see Sulu’s interest in plants. Also notable in an episode full of both firsts and deaths is the absence of the iconic “red shirt death”.
But as we have alluded to a couple of times, one of Star Trek’s strengths is its ability to embed a morality tale or other theme within the story. And if you look even a little bit past the horror story of The Man Trap, you will find a rather sad undercurrent of loneliness. The salt vampire is the last of its race, and it is lonely. Sure, you could say that Professor Crater is spared because he provides salt tablets, but there are several moments that indicate that the salt vampire wants him around for more than his salt. It doesn’t want to be alone. And of course, Professor Crater himself is lonely since the death of his wife. Rather than avenge her death, he continues to feed the salt vampire so that he won’t be alone on the planet. There’s even a hint of loneliness in Uhura when she is confronted by the salt vampire disguised as a fellow crewman. It tells her that she was thinking of someone like him, and that she looked lonely.
So while it may not have been the most representative episode of TOS, The Man Trap was actually a good choice to introduce new viewers to the show, and if you can get past the salt vampire’s appearance (let’s face it, not the scariest monster makeup), you will find a very interesting take on loneliness.