Why was this episode aired first? I’d wager that it is strikingly similar to the themes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. A creature stalks and kills unsuspecting humans… only to discover that it was misunderstood in the end. In the end, you can’t help but feeling empathy for the thing.
So I earnestly hope that a few people who have been following my posts for the past few days did indeed watch this episode last night. Perhaps for the first time.
Let’s make a few things clear about 1960s television:
Standard TVs were 13 inches across. Acting would have to be very broad, large, and emotive to carry across such a small medium.
There were only three networks. It was entirely expected that people would be channel surfing during commercials.
Also, given the general lack of other home entertainment options, it was entirely expected that people would be engaged in activities like doing laundry or caring for children during the episodes.
So ultimately, imposing modern standards for television on this show is really wrong headed. The targeted audience member for all viewers of this show wasn’t the teen in the darkened, silent room. It was the parent caring for the kids, catching glances at it. That was the case for all television at the time.
So I’m going to state this directly: the assumed audience for this show was entirely different than the Netflix binge audience of today. When a show like Mad Men or Battlestar Galactica is produced today, they do so with the explicit assumption that their audience will be giving it their full attention. Artistic practice follows expectations of audience engagement, and that has changed dramatically during the last 50 years.
I’ve watched a lot of the shows during the 60s, and here’s what I’ll say about The Man Trap, and the first season in general.
The lighting is amazing. This seems like an esoteric thing, but I assure you it isn’t. Given the low budget, they were painting with lights. There seems to be this huge effort given in making sure that the show just looked good. It distinguishes the whole project from its contemporaries. The people who were filming this episode—which wasn’t even the actual pilot—were trying hard to impress.
Now, there’s no shortage of faults in this episode. When the creature boarded the Enterprise, why didn’t it just seek out the salt stores? And if society really was as benevolent as Star Trek ultimately turned out to be, why didn’t Dr. Crater just seek help? And good grief, and entire plot point is devoted to crewmen sexually objectifying Yeoman Rand!
But this is even before the Federation even got its name. I’ve never been adamantly devoted to canon, so I won’t here. So here’s why this is a decent episode.
It’s full of lighthearted banter that’s indicative of preexisting relationships between the characters. There’s nothing too deep, no big plot point. But when Kirk talks to McCoy of little red sleeping pills, there’s this sense that the characters have been with each other for a long time. It hints at these established relationships, and the actors sell them very well, which is very nice.
And like Star Trek will hammer in again and again, at the end of the episode, the audience is called to have empathy. In spite of the fact that the creature killed many people, we are not called to celebrate when it dies. The Man Trap strikes a mournful tone. We don’t have to judge it, but we can understand it.
The prop master of Star Trek was Wah Chang, an artistic prodigy who drew national attention at the age of 8, and soon drew the attention of Walt Disney himself. He designed many of the aliens on The Outer Limits, and the iconic HG Wells Time Machine from the 1960 film of the same name.
In 1964, he came to Star Trek. Due to union complications, his work went entirely uncredited. During the pilot, he was working for a design firm, but soon after quit, and came to work for the series as an independent contractor.
I’ve compiled examples of his work in the above image. He was called upon to craft the particularly complicated props, costume pieces, and models. He was one of the most important people to contribute to crafting the look of the show, and the Salt Vampire was one of many of his creations.