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. Something much more Gulliver’s Travels than Gunsmoke.
While the series’ debut episode, “The Man Trap,” was a bit more of an action-oriented intro into the Trek universe with a twinge of The Twilight Zone, it still set the tone for the kinds of socially-driven stories that Roddenberry hoped to tell through the show.
In this episode, Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are sent to perform routine medical examinations on archaeologist, Professor Robert Crater, and his wife, Nancy. Together, we learn, the pair had been studying ruins on the planet, M-113, for the last five years.
We are then introduced to the main conflict of the story when it is revealed that Nancy Crater has actually been dead for years, and that a strange, shape-shifting creature — one that Professor Crater had been secretly protecting — has taken on her form. This creature, out of a need for sodium chloride to survive, attacks members of the Enterprise crew and feeds on the salt from their bodies before ultimately leaving them to die. When Kirk and crew attempt to fight back, to hunt down and stop this creature, they are told by Professor Crater that she’s the last of her kind. Akin to the buffalo, he explains.
With Professor Crater’s comparison, the creature’s story is given a direct comparison to that of the American Bison which were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s. While at the time that this episode debuted, the American Bison population was steadily in its upswing, the conservation efforts had really only begun to see progress just a few years prior to this in 1954. The U.S. efforts through federal and private protection programs to combat extinction of the American Bison was heavily publicized, and by evoking this imagery, the writers were able to provide a concise through-line from the episode’s plot to what they wanted to actually say.
While the American Bison may have been making a comeback during the time when this episode aired, there were several other species that the world had sadly lost. There was an accelerated extinction of multiple species of wolves throughout the previous two decades, the losses of the Caribbean Monk Seal and the Crescent Nail-Tail Wallaby in the 1950s, the disappearance of the Red-Bellied Gracile Opossum that was last seen in 1962, and the death of the last Arabian Ostrich that very year (1966).
Ultimately, what the episode wants us to think about is specicide, or how mass extinctions are exacerbated and accelerated by the often ill-matched conflict between indigenous plant and animal life and human habitation and industry. While extinction can be a part of natural selection, what this episode serves to illustrate is that with human influence it becomes a kind of unguided, artificial selection.
In the end, Dr. McCoy is forced to kill the creature to stop it from killing crew members aboard the ship — ultimately exterminating the last of a species that Professor Crater hoped to save. 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 it’s also not difficult to imagine the story from Professor Crater’s perspective. He dearly hoped to continue the preservation of this species without casualties. He consistently urged the Kirk to leave the planet, to leave him and the creature alone. From his point of view, it’s likely thatKirk and Dr. McCoy were the villains.
This notion, however, is what Star Trek is able to do at it’s finest. When it shows us that there are varying degrees of right and wrong or puts our heroes in spots where they can’t always make the “right” choice, it challenges us to question our preconceived ideas and empathize with those whom we may not expect.
On the other hand, this story also gave us something that we don’t often see in Star Trek: a “creature feature.” Trek is well known for both an abundance of non-corporeal aliens and countless others that look a lot like humans but with slightly different foreheads, brows, ears, noses, etc. So, to me (a huge Trekkie and monster movie fan), it’s a special kind of treat when we get a good old fashioned creature feature such as this. Unfortunately, the creature was officially never given a proper name in the episode, but it has since been referred to as the M-113 Creature, and most fans have endearingly dubbed it the Salt Vampire.
In many ways, the design of the creature have a very distinctive 1960s flair, but in many other ways it holds up, and it’s evident a lot of care and thought went into its conception. To me, it’s a really wonderful design — with a very distinctive appearance that was burned into my mind as a child watching this. According to Memory Alpha, “the creature was [intentionally] given a seemingly sad face, contrasting strongly with its otherwise horrific appearance.” It was also given suction-cup like structures on it’s hands in order to extract the salt from it’s prey. Pair all that with it’s oddly furry and textured overall appearances, and you’ve got a solidly unique and creepy new creature. This whole get-up was conceived from the mind of Hawaiian prop/creature designer, Wah Ming Chang, and was brought to life (in costume) by dancer and stuntwoman, Sandra Gimpel (who gave a lovely interview on the official Star Trek website back in 2016 — definitely something to check out).
Dating back to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the best monster stories tend to present us with creatures that are either misunderstood or meant to provide commentary on a wider range of issues. From macro-scale ideas such as an allegory for the proliferation of nuclear weapons and climate change (Godzilla) to more individualistic themes such as personal loss (A Monster Calls), or just more general tales of a sympathetic monster (The Shape of Water, Hellboy, etc.) creature features are often pulling a lot more weight than what initially meets the eye.
The same can be said for “The Man Trap.” It’s a creature feature with the best of them. In the Salt Vampire, we have a very sympathetic monster — the last of its kind —and in confronting our initial fear of it, we’re then forced to to take a look into a mirror and re-examine our own shortcomings instead.