When Gene Roddenberry first marketed Star Trek to the network, he claimed it to be a “wagon train to the stars,” or a kind of action/western in space. Privately, however, he intended each episode to act as not only an adventure story but also as a morality tale, modeled after the concepts laid out in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
While The Man Trap was much more of an action-oriented introduction into the Star Trek universe, it still set the tone for the stark social commentaries that Roddenberry hoped to explore throughout the run of his series. However, as it was initially the 5th episode production-wise, this episode essentially thrust the viewers right into an established universe with very little context to begin with.
In The Man Trap, the Enterprise is sent to provide a routine medical examination on archaeologist Professor Robert Crater, and his wife, Nancy (with whom Dr. McCoy had a previous relationship). Together, the pair have been studying ruins on the planet, M – 113, for the last five years.
We are soon introduced to the main conflict of the story when it is revealed that Nancy Crater has truly been dead for years, and that a strange, shape-shifting creature, that Professor Crater has been protecting, has taken on her form. The creature – nicknamed by fans as the ‘salt vampire’ for its dire need for sodium chloride to survive, and its methods of putting its victims into extreme Hyponatremia by stealing all of the salt from their bodies – ultimately gives The Man Trap its moral dilemma as Professor Crater explains she’s the last of her kind while continually comparing her species’ fate to that of the ‘Buffalo.’
With Professor Crater’s comparison, the Nancy-creature/salt vampire’s story is initially seen as a direct allegory to the decline of the American Bison nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s. However, interestingly enough, during the time that this episode aired, the American Bison population was steadily in its upswing. One might construe this as lazy writing, or out of date referencing, but I believe that this was actually set up to bring attention to mass species extinctions and the general, human-led deprivation of biodiversity on our planet as a whole. The story does this by presenting a clear and easy analogy that the average person could understand through the American Bison.
At the time that The Man Trap aired, the world had seen the accelerated extinction of multiple species of wolves throughout the previous two decades, the loss of the Caribbean Monk Seal and the Crescent Nail-Tail Wallaby in the 1950s, as well as the death of the last Arabian Ostrich that very year (1966).
The frequent references to the ‘Buffalo’ could have meant to invoke recent memories in many Americans of the quick and steady decline of the American Bison and the ensuing public attention spawning federal and private protection programs. The hope was that these memories could shed light on the extinctions and habitat deconstructions of current, less-publicly sexy animals such as the Red-Bellied Gracile Opossum that was last seen in 1962 due to the man-made destruction of its forest habitat in Argentina.
Through these themes of extinction, The Man Trap more broadly constructs undertones of artificial interventions into the natural world which, many times, lead to accelerated “specicide” (a term coined by biologist Olivia Judson). Extinction can be a part of natural selection, but, as this episode points out, with human influence, it borders on becoming a kind of unguided, artificial selection. In the end, Dr. McCoy is forced to kill the salt-vampire to stop it from killing crew members aboard the ship – ultimately exterminating the last of a species that Professor Crater hoped to help repopulate. We are exposed to this story through the lens of the crew of the Enterprise, and on the surface are led to feel sympathetic to Dr. McCoy and Kirk. However, on the other hand, it is still easy to see the story from Professor Crater’s point of view. He dearly hoped to continue the preservation of this species without casualties, consistently urging the Enterprise to leave the planet and leave him, and the creature, alone. From his perspective, it’s not only possible, but probable, that Kirk and Dr. McCoy may have served as the villains in this story.
This notion is what makes Star Trek great – there are varying degrees of right and wrong; there is a concerted effort to not simply show stories with black and white plot points, but many shades of moral and ethical grays. It is meant to act as a compelling challenge to our sensibilities while at the same time taking us on an otherworldly adventure. In doing this, it’s not hard to understand why Star Trek succeeds not only as a television show, but also as a cultural phenomenon as well.