Fifty years ago this week, on Thursday, September 8, 1966, NBC aired a “sneak preview” of a new television series called Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry. Sandwiched between Tarzan at 7:30 and The Hero at 9:30, Star Trek made its debut at 8:30 PM Eastern with an episode titled “The Man Trap.”
Though “The Man Trap” was actually the sixth installment produced for the new show, NBC executives hand-picked the episode as best representing the concept of the series from those that could be ready in time.
Herb Solow (Executive in Charge of Production): “NBC’s and Desilu’s desire was to deliver what the opening main title promised: ‘strange new worlds.’ There were really only two serious candidates [matching that desire]: ‘Man Trap’ and ‘The Naked Time.'”
In “The Naked Time,” the Enterprise visits planet Psi 2000 and the crew contracts a mysterious virus that lowers inhibitions and brings out deeply hidden emotions. As such, the episode provides an introduction of sorts to Star Trek‘s key characters.
Robert Justman (Associate Producer): “I felt that ‘The Naked Time’ made it easy for viewers to understand the main characters of our show and their relationships to each other. But the story took place mainly aboard ship. I suspected the NBC people wanted ‘Man Trap’ because it was scarier and more exploitable than the others. . . . It not only took place on a distant planet, but also featured a . . . loathsome salt-sucking creature.”
Bjo Trimble (Star Trek Fan, Author): “The unsuspecting viewer was thrown into the Star Trek universe with the briefest explanation that it was a science fiction show, and with no background on the characters.”
In “The Man Trap,” the Enterprise journeys to planet M-113 to provide supplies and medical checkups to a husband and wife archeological survey team. Soon, crewmembers begin turning up dead with all salt drained from their bodies.
Rather than serve as a vehicle for series stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, the episode is actually a standout for DeForest Kelley since a woman with whom McCoy had a romantic history figures prominently. Though Kelley would not share opening credits billing with Shatner and Nimoy until the second season, “The Man Trap” firmly establishes the importance of his character to the series.
George Clayton Johnson wrote “The Man Trap.” His previous work included seven episodes of The Twilight Zone. Johnson would go on to co-write the novel Logan’s Run with William F. Nolan. “The Man Trap” was Johnson’s only Star Trek episode.
The salt aspect of the script required the presence of saltshakers in a number of scenes. The production team found futuristic-looking shakers but grew concerned that audiences would not recognize them and eventually overruled their use. Instead, they adapted the futuristic saltshakers into medical sensors that became permanent parts of McCoy’s medical kit.
Robert Justman: “During a drought, you pray for rain. During the first year of Star Trek, we prayed for Marc Daniels. He finished ‘Man Trap’ on schedule, in six days. His film work was outstanding, crisp and energetic. Marc . . . was a demanding general and ran the set with a firm hand.”
Daniels would ultimately tie Joseph Pevney as the original Star Trek‘s most prolific director, helming 14 episodes in all, including “The Doomsday Machine,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “Space Seed,” and “The Menagerie.”
NBC’s ad for the Star Trek premiere featured the following copy:
Star Trek‘s competitors on its premiere night were:
8:30: My Three Sons (repeat)
9:00: The Ladies’ Man (1961 movie)
8:30: The Tammy Grimes Show (series premiere)
9:00: Bewitched (third-season premiere)
“The Man Trap” won its time slot that night, but the critical response was not as stellar.
Weekly Variety (1966): “Star Trek obviously solicits an all-out suspension of disbelief, but it won’t work. Even within its sci-fi frame of reference, it was a . . . long hour with hardly any relief from violence, killings, hypnotic stuff and a distasteful, ugly monster. . . . A quota of decorative females, most of them in vague roles, are involved in the out-of-this-world shenanigans. . . . It’s better suited to the Saturday morning kidvid bloc.”
Jack Hellman (Daily Variety, 1966): “Not conducive to its popularity is the lack of meaningful cast leads. They move around with directorial precision with only violence to provide the excitement and very little of that over the hour spread.”
George Clayton Johnson: This episode is “the very first one America saw, so almost all the critical reaction to Star Trek came off that first show — and the things that I read, the basic attitude of America’s reviewers, was one of total bewilderment.”
Star Trek would often struggle against mediocre ratings and reviews, until NBC finally cancelled it after three seasons in 1969. It was not until reruns of the series hit syndication that Star Trek truly began to be considered a “hit.”
- Inside Star Trek: The Real Story by Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, 1996.
- Star Trek Memories by William Shatner with Chris Kreski, 1993.
- Star Trek Concordance by Bjo Trimble, 1995.
- The Star Trek Compendium by Alan Asherman, 1989.
- These Are The Voyages: TOS Season One by Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, 2013.
- The Internet Movie Database