“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1513.1:
• Our position: orbiting the planet M113
• On board the Enterprise: Mr. Spock, temporarily in command
• On the planet: the ruins of an ancient and long-dead civilization.”
So began our journey into the Star Trek universe, fifty years ago today. Though not the first episode shot, “The Man Trap” was viewers’ first introduction to Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild, airing on the 8th of September, 1966. “The Man Trap” was very much a product of its time and centered around a story of a shape-shifting salt vampire alien that appeared differently to the men of the Enterprise crew. She appeared to Dr. McCoy as “Nancy,” a young woman he’d once loved, now married to the archaeologist the Enterprise has been tasked with examining. She appeared to Captain Kirk as an older version of the same woman.
She appeared to the very first in a long line of redshirts as another woman entirely—fun fact: Crewman Darnell, that first expendable crewmember, didn’t wear a red shirt—and, in short order, kills him by draining all the salt from his body. The episode eventually reveals that the salt vampire has taken on the form of Nancy, whom it had killed at some point prior, out of guilt and a desire to please the archaeologist who feeds it. By the end of “The Man Trap,” the archaeologist is dead, Mr. Spock is injured, and Bones has to kill “Nancy” when he finds the salt vampire going after Captain Kirk.
“The Man Trap” was met with pretty outstanding ratings and a lot of mixed reviews. Many were turned off by the horror-genre plot. Others rather enthusiastically praised the casts’ acting, particularly that of William Shatner. *gigglesnorts*
Re-watching this episode now is…an experience. So many of the established “truths” of Star Trek aren’t there yet: the above mentioned appearance of a redshirt not wearing a red shirt; no differentiation in ship alerts; Bones beaming to the surface without protest. Moreover, the episode does not hold up over time, and not just from a special effects point of view: the entire plot is driven by a monster that disguises itself as different women in an effort to get close to members of the crew and suck them dry—or, in this case, saltless. At the end of the episode, Kirk muses that the salt vampire wasn’t truly evil, just desperate. Also, the name of the episode is “The Man Trap.” Ewwww.
However much “The Man Trap” may not settle with a more modern audience with (hopefully) different sensibilities, it was the threshold of a universe that does, indeed, boldly go. Even in Star Trek’s first iteration, we were introduced to a remarkably diverse cast, including a black woman on the bridge crew which, in 1966, was nothing short of groundbreaking. Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura was so inspirational in terms of representation that it was actually Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who convinced her to stay with the show when she expressed doubts about remaining. Though it was actually preceded by other interracial kisses; in 1968 Star Trek aired the first interracial kiss that everyone remembers – that kiss, albeit brought to us with a rather dubious plot – was a huge deal, especially when you consider that Loving v. Virginia was only decided the year before.
Star Trek, in all of its iterations, and with varying degrees of success, would go on to tackle incredibly complex, ongoing social issues like racism and discrimination, the brutality and long-term impacts of war, genocide, torture, colonialism, jingoism, terrorism, sexism, sexuality, and reproductive rights, among so many others. The Star Trek universe has shown us a future wherein people of color, women, and disabled people are—totally uncontroversially—in positions of power and enormous responsibility and are well-respected by their peers. It exposed us to a possible future in which poverty is an entirely foreign concept, capital punishment has been long since abandoned, and peaceful coexistence looks like a goal we are increasingly likely to achieve.
Fifty years after that Thursday night in early September, the Star Trek universe continues to grow. To date, there have been six television series, including Star Trek: The Animated Series, with another series scheduled to launch next year. There have been thirteen feature-length films; and countless novels and graphic novels, along with encyclopedias, cookbooks, technical manuals. There are even programs to learn one of Star Trek’s most well-developed alien languages, Klingon (if you’re interested, Duolingo is launching theirs in December).
Not too long ago, I shared a taste of my own personal reasons for holding Star Trek as dearly as I do. As the franchise continues to grow and evolve, I have little doubt that it will continue to enthrall folks like it has enthralled me. I am confident that it will continue to capture the imaginations of people for years to come and to inspire fans to create new technologies, to work to better social issues, to keep reaching toward peace.
Happy 50th, Star Trek! Live long and prosper.