Star Trek: "The Man Trap"/"Charlie X"/"The Naked Time"
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Star Trek: "The Man Trap"/"Charlie X"/"The Naked Time"


"Is something wrong, Captain?"

"I was just thinking about the buffalo, Mr. Spock."

 Out of context it sounds like a bad joke. Oh that crazy Kirk and his buffalo-thinking ways! But in context, the final two lines of "The Man Trap" form a surprisingly melancholy exchange. Our first three episodes of the series proper—full cast in place (okay, Walter Koenig won't show up until the second season, but this is as close as we'll get for a while), everybody wearing the appropriate uniforms, Spock finally settling into his expected, stoic self—show Star Trek at its best and worst, mixing grand ideas and grander passions with antiquated sexual politics, bad hair, and in one case, a distractingly familiar storyline. The episodes are sometimes sad, in ways you might not expect; it's not like "salt vampire" is a phrase that lends itself to tragedy. (There's a bit in one of Shakespeare's unpublished plays about "yon slumbering saline succubus," but it doesn't scan, and most critics think it's something Harold Bloom stuck in there to screw with our heads.)

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" may be Trek's official pilot, but "Man Trap" was the first episode to air, not that you could tell from watching it. Apart from one hilariously forced conversation between Spock and Uhura, there's not much effort made to introduce us to the various crew members, or even the Enterprise herself. We get some standard exposition as to where the ship is, and why it's visiting this week's planet, and there's some obvious backstory thrown into the banter, but it's the sort of backstory that would've popped up regardless of where the ep fell in the show's run. That's not to say the story's not hard to follow, or the characters aren't immediately recognizable; it's a nicely wound script, delivering just as much information as is required each scene to let you know what's at risk, and the cast already seems completely at home in their roles. The banter between Kirk and McCoy may be on the corny side, but it still comes across as natural ribbing between old friends. One of the original Trek's great strengths—and it's something that none of the spin-offs were ever quite able to capture, though some came closer than others—is that feeling of immediate camaraderie. Some of the actors are better than others, and sometimes the whole boy's club atmosphere gets annoyingly thick, but hanging out with this crew is like going to a family reunion; only, here it's the reunion of a family you actually like.

TOS (the accepted nomenclature for Trek the original) has been credited as an influence on pretty much every genre series to hit TV since it originally aired—some sort of Velvet Underground parallel could made, I guess—and while that influence may have been exaggerated, it's not hard to draw a line between something like "The Man Trap" and at least a dozen different X-Files episodes. (The connection gets even more obvious with "The Naked Time," which isn't at all what it sounds like.) The structure is familiar; our leads arrive at a new location, mysterious deaths occur and minor inconsistencies build up, a monster is discovered with a clear modus operandi, the threat strikes home, and ultimately, the creature is dispatched in a climactic confrontation. Come to think of it, that's the plot of half of the sci-fi movies ever made. And for good reason—it's logical, and, when done well, works like gangbusters.

"Trap" is done very well, I think. Back when I first bought the set, this episode was one of the few that I'd seen but didn't remember very well; watching it again then (and now), I was impressed by its efficiency and its pathos. It doesn't have the gimmicky brilliance of "City On The Edge Of Forever"—the threat, an alien that can change its form and needs high quantities of salt to survive, is clever but not exactly mind-blowing. But it's solid, and some of the additional touches are quite effective. In particular is the pathos I mentioned earlier that culminates in the Kirk/Spock exchange. When the Enterprise arrives in orbit around M-113, they find Professor Crater and his wife Nancy, exactly as they were expecting, hanging around doing what appears to be frontier science in the ruins of a long dead civilization. Unfortunately, it's not that simple: it takes the deaths of three crew members before anybody catches on, but the Prof's wife (who happens to be a former flame of McCoy's) actually died a year ago. The woman everybody thinks is Nancy is actually a creature native to the planet, and now she's going about killing folks. What makes this interesting is that while faux-Nancy is a very definite threat, she's also the last of her kind; and after killing Crater's wife, the two formed a bound out of the Prof's grief and the creature's apparent need to be loved.

That's some pretty dark stuff. The buffalo idea comes from Crater, trying to explain why he protected his unwife for so long. See, once upon a time, there were millions of buffalo. And then white guys showed up, and they started shooting, and eventually, the buffalo died. There used to be millions of salt vamps on planet M-113—and now, but for one, they're gone. We don't know what killed them, but we do know that Crater's pet is the last of her kind, and that once she's gone, her species will be gone forever. Crater's reasons for keeping Nancy 2 around are probably more personal than philosophical; he's lonely, and she doesn't seem that easy to kill. But that the show makes extinction a consideration at all is noteworthy, and makes Kirk and his crew's victory something less than a triumph. There's an ambiguity here that isn't just lazy writing. When Crater tells us the creature needs love, he's telling the truth, but that doesn't change what happens.

There's a bit of ambiguity in "Charlie X" too, but it doesn't work quite as well. It's not a bad episode, but I'd say it's the weakest of today's three. Our Story: The Enterprise meets up with the Antares, a science vessel with an unusual passenger, Charlie Evans, the lone survivor of a transport ship crash, left marooned on an apparent desert planet for over a decade. That Charlie survived is a miracle; he's a bit rough on manners and has a tendency to wander around the ship like a yokel in Times Square, but he's just a teenager, so it's not like it's that surprising. Unfortunately, he also has the ability to transmute matter with his mind, and he's good enough at it that he can destroy space ships, disappear anyone who gets in his way, and do moderately impressive card tricks. Yeah, that's gonna be a problem.

"Man Trap" marks the first appearance of Yeoman Janice Rand, but it's in "Charlie X" that she really takes center stage—and man, there's a reason nobody remembers her. Grace Lee Whitney is a competent actress, but her character represents some of Trek's most egregious offenses against feminism. She brings people lunch, is available to be menaced when appropriate, and gets easily flustered, which happens a lot in "X" after Charlie develops a crush on her. There's a "hilarious" gag when Charlie slaps Rand on the ass, and nobody can explain to him why the gesture is inappropriate; the fact that Rand can't say a simple, "Kid, you shouldn't whack somebody," is embarrassing. Charlie's infatuation makes sense, if you can overlook Rand's hideous basket-style hairdo (nobody gets off too easy in the looks department on this show, but I'd say the women get stuck with the worst wigs), but her inability to handle the situation like an adult doesn't really fit. Of course, handling things like adults is not the Enterprise crew's strong suit, but it takes some of the fun out of things when you look at all those officers and realize that, apart from Uhura, not one of them is a woman. And Uhura's really just a glorified receptionist.

If Rand's inanity were the episode's only problem, I'd probably rate it higher than I do; but here we've got yet another threat with near limitless powers. It's like the ship keeps running afoul of the animator from "Duck Amok." Charlie's personality and relationship with Kirk make this different enough from "Where No Man Has Gone Before" that it's not exactly a retread, but that the show was dipping this often into the god-child well is disappointing. It's just such a lazy device, the sort of thing you come up with when you don't really have any ideas. Apart from Rand, the character stuff isn't bad; Charlie looking to Kirk as a father figure fits, and gives us both a reason to believe that the kid wouldn't just lay waste to everything, as well as providing the opportunity for a fairly hilarious "fight training" sequence. But that doesn't change the fact that the ending is as blatant a deus ex machina as you can get without bringing in the flowered chair.

There's some good stuff; a few of Charlie's more outlandish tricks are actually disturbing (like the woman with no face), and the boy is believably whiny as someone just realizing you can't always get what you want. Plus, Charlie's agony at his defeat—his adopted alien parents show up to bring him home—has that sadness to it we were talking about; the kid's a twerp, no question, but the way he screams, "I can't even touch them!" makes you feel bad about the whole thing. As if two times weren't enough, we'll be getting another godlike twerp further into the season, with much the same resolution; only that time, the resolution is played for laughs. Here, there's something horrifying about Charlie's fate. He didn't deserve to be stranded a billion miles from home, but now he's doomed to spend the rest of his life in exile.

"The Naked Time" is probably the best of the lot for this week; it's certainly the most iconic, as nothing gets stuck in the memory quite like a shirtless George Takei running around trying to enthuse people to death. It's also the first episode of the show to focus almost entirely on the main cast; there's no shape-shifting beasty killing people, nor do we have an emo guest star for everyone to bounce off. Here the danger is entirely internal, which means there's a lot of ACTING, a lot of camp, and, depending on your tolerance level, a certain amount of pathos.

If "The Man Trap" set ground for The X-Files, "Time" basically built the house that "Ice" rented. The Enterprise is in orbit around Psi 2000 (I love that the supposedly scientific planet names are as well planned as the original star dates) to pick up a science team and observe the planet as it breaks apart. When Spock and proto red shirt Tormolen beam down, they find the team dead—an engineer frozen at his post, another man frozen while showering fully clothed, and a couple more corpses, each in some bizarre, seemingly inexplicable state. While Spock checks through the facility, Tormolen stays behind; and being an idiot, he takes off the glove of his bio-suit, which lets him get infected by a strange red substance that he then brings back up to the ship with him. (Although seeing has how the suit's have headpieces that don't directly connect to the torso, he was probably doomed from the start.)

Soon enough, Tormolen starts acting freaky, obsessing over the dead bodies and wondering if man was really meant to explore the stars. (Shades of Conquest of Space here.) He ultimately ends up stabbing himself with what appears to be a butter knife and dying, but not before passing his sickness on to Sulu and the ever-annoying Riley. Soon, Sulu's swinging an epee about with wild-abandon, and Riley's taken over the engine room because he thinks he's an Irish king. Spock, Kirk, and McCoy realize they have an epidemic on their hands; a highly communicable illness that brings out the repressed elements of the personality, turning Tormolen into a suicide, Sulu into a swashbuckler, and Riley into even more of a jackass than usual.

The psychological commentary of "Time" isn't exactly what you'd call subtle (why don't we have "secret me" disease?), but it's a lot of fun to watch. The build from mystery to discovery to immediate problem is well-handled, and the gradual disintegration of the ship's crew, combined with the Enterprise's slow descent towards the planet, gives us a sense of danger to rest all the silliness on. Things get especially interesting when our leads are directly affected. McCoy manages to dodge the problem completely (considering he's treating the infected and taking no real precaution against infection himself, should we assume he's immune?), but Spock gets a bad dose when Nurse Chapel, whose apparently got herself a case of logic lust, puts the moves on him. The emotions he's spent a lifetime holding at bay come to the foreground, and after making a fast exist from sickbay, Spock ducks into a briefing room, tears streaming down his face. He's freaking out; which sucks for him, but sucks even more for everyone, since he's the only one on board who can get the ship's engines running again.

Here's where that whole ACTING thing comes into play. By and large, Nimoy is the straight man to a crew of stooges, but TOS got a lot of mileage out of pushing him over the edge when it could. Kirk shows up eventually and delivers his own freak out—once again, the supposedly hotness of Yeoman Rand is apparently crucial—but Spock's is the one that hits home the hardest. You don't want to see him reduced to everyone else's level. Thankfully, after an epic slapfight, Spock regains his self-control; and of all the people who get infected in "Time," he's the only one who beats the disease on his own.

For the most part, "Time" works, but the ending is a little odd. Forced to restart the engines after Riley turns everything off, Spock and Scotty "implode" them, and the Enterprise escapes orbit; only it goes so fast that it actually travels back in time. Plot-wise, this has no effect on anything—the only go back three days, and the ep is basically over anyway. You could say that it reminds that Kirk and his crew are essentially explorers, armed with technology they can operate but whose ramifications no one completely understands. But it was probably just thrown in because the show ran a little short, and hey, who doesn't like time travel.

Grades:

"The Man Trap": A-

"Charlie X": B

"The Naked Time": A

 

Stray Observations:

 

--It's weird seeing Uhura and Chapel hit on Spock. Also weird? Uhura getting a musical number.

--When Kirk offers the Antares "entertainment tapes," is he offering them porn? I'd like to think so.

--Again we see Kirk beating Spock at chess through his "illogical" strategy. I'm not a master, but I'm pretty sure chess doesn't work like that.

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