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Star Trek Revisited: Rewatching TOS in the 21st Century

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STARDATE: May 24, 2011
EPISODE #1: THE MAN-TRAP

WRITTEN BY: George Clayton-Johnson

So, as part of my still very lame exercise program, I'm re-watching the original series Star Trek while working out. Figure I may as well do episode reviews.

Actually, so say that I am re-watching the original show would be wrong. I am watching the 'remastered' DVD of the original show, and as I just discovered through my viewing of the featurette included with Disk One, they didn't just clean up the negative. They redid all the 'exterior' special effects with CGI.

Some ranting about that:

What that means is that for any part of any episode that shows the Enterprise in space, they replaced the original shots of the model with computer-generated animation. Ditto for the original renderings of space, stars, planets viewed from space, battles...basically anything that was not shot on a sound stage in the original series has been recreated in CGI. The Enterprise still looks like the old Enterprise in that it is shaped the same, but of course its 'look' is very different and a lot more like the look of the last three Star Wars films than the look of the original series. The representation of space and the 'exterior shots' of planets and other ships look completely different as well. And they've changed some of the content of the exterior shots as well. Even the interior stuff has been digitally manipulated to provide more contrast and eliminate that blurred haziness so characteristic of the old tapes they used to broadcast late at night on Channel 11.

Oh, and for some of the landing shots on the planets, they've replaced the original backgrounds with CGI ones and digitally added details and features that weren't there before.

And they re-recorded the original theme music and then added Shatner's original voice over on top of it.

Everyone interviewed about this in the featurette talked very enthusiastically about how this was all honoring the spirit of the original and doing it the way the original team would have WANTED to do it, etc. May be true, may not be true. Nevertheless, it makes me sad, because I cannot recreate the original experience of watching the show. I mean to REALLY recreate it I would need my parents' basement, but anyway.

As I was watching them talk about replacing the backgrounds I realized why I was so attached to the old cheesiness. For whatever episode it was--"Arena," I think--they showed the original background and said, "Clearly, this is just a picture of a dented and beat-up piece of metal." Because ST:TOS was made before digital effects--WAY before digital effects--they had to use ordinary physical objects and just do optical tricks to make them look otherworldly. It made the whole thing pretty funny sometimes; but it also made it, fundamentally, more like theater. And in a way, more like engineering--or at least the only kind of engineering I can do, in which you use whatever you can find in the garage (because you're too disorganized to buy ahead of time and too ignorant to know what to buy anyway) and you make it be what you need it to be.

Anyway, none of this matters much to "The Man-Trap," which doesn't have any interstellar battles or much exterior work. I'll tell you what it does have, though: neanderthal gender politics!

You know what's funny? Watching this episode and remembering how, back in the day, when we would suggest to our Trekkie brethren that the show might be slightly tainted with sexism, they used to argue with us. They would argue! As if it were a debatable proposition! And we would feel like we had to defend our position!

Well, "The Man-Trap" is there to tell us: This show was not tainted with sexism. It oozed sexism from every pore. The whole universe was built on a conception of gender difference which had barely crawled out of the protozoic slime.

The Summary: Briefly, in "The Man-Trap" (written by George Clayton-Johnson; I'm gonna start keeping track), Kirk, Bones, and crewman Darnell (always a bad sign when your first name is "crewman") beam down to a hot dry planet to perform a routine health screening on an archaeologist named Professor Crater and his wife Nancy, who happens to be an old flame of Dr. McCoy's. It is established early that the being introduced as Nancy Crater manifests as a different person to each of the three visitors; McCoy sees Nancy as she was 10 years ago, Kirk sees Nancy as she would be at 35 (interestingly, the 35 year old Nancy has a fair amount of gray hair), and Crewman sees a blonde bombshell who reminds him of a different girl HE left behind. (So, basically, she's a lurer. But I digress.) Professor Crater seems oddly defensive and keeps telling everyone to go away. Well, 'Nancy Crater' lures poor Crewman away from the shelter; he is later discovered dead on a ledge with strange round sucker-shaped red rings all over his face. Bones ultimately discovers that he died of salt depletion, and so begins the hunt for the cause of death. Naturally it turns out that the real Nancy Crater is dead and the thing Professor Crater appears to be married to is a salt-sucking vampire who presents to its victims as some person they had the hots for long ago. It takes the Enterprise crew a while to figure this out, of course, resulting in several more deaths before Bones finally has to fire on what looks like his long-lost love, only to see her turn into a disgusting lamprey-faced hag with sucker fingers after her death.

OK, so, here's what I mean about the foundational sexism:

1) Well, the woman who drains the man's lifeblood from him in order to stay young and healthy, that's an archetype. The thing is, in purely literal terms, this creature is not a "man-trap." It goes after prey of either gender and it gets pretty close to both Yeoman Rand and Lieutenant Uhura. What makes it a "man-trap" is two things. One: like so many later Star Trek monsters, it becomes the fantasy woman of any man who looks at it. Funny how often this premise continues to find its way into a plot even as late as Next Generation. Two: in addition to salt, it later transpires, this creature "also needs love." So it won't just kill you...it will demand FEELINGS from you. What a nightmare!

The demand for feelings, unlike the demand for salt, appears to be gender-specific. It emerges for the first time during a scene with Bones in his quarters, in which the creature (as Nancy) talks about how it likes Bones's feelings better cause they're so much stronger.

2) So I mentioned Uhura and Rand.

Rand is quite clearly offered up as bait for the male viewers. Not only is she wearing the infamous miniskirt and gogo boots, not only does she have the infamous beehive hairdo, but her job, at least in this episode, appears to be to carrying trays of food to the officers. The creature is attracted to Rand initially because she's carrying a tray with Sulu's lunch on it which includes a shaker full of table salt. So basically, she's a stewardess. (Later, on the bridge, Kirk is for no apparent reason giving his dialogue while munching on some sort of alien vegetable snacks created by the prop department. Before leaving, he puts the dish down on a tray being held up by another red miniskirted female yeoman, without looking at her or speaking to her, and leaves.)

Disguised as a male ensign, the creature follows Rand into the botany lab, where Sulu is enthroned amongst a bevy of futuristic alien plants. These do not appear to have been digitally altered, by the way, and it is clear that the 'plant' about which Rand and Sulu banter so archly is actually a puppet built on a glove inside which is a clearly human hand. Anyway, after Rand brings Sulu his tray, she says hello to the puppet plant, which is sort of like a fluorescent pink venus flytrap with five pockets. She has given the plant a male nickname. Sulu says that people usually like to refer to inanimate objects as "she." Rand says that it's a him, "I can tell," and that one of these days she fully expects one of Sulu's plants to grab her. In the hallway, after she goes by, two male crewmembers stare after her and talk about how awesome it would be to have HER as their personal yeoman. She appears to accept sexual harassment as part of her job, only pausing to notice it when the person harassing her is staring at her salt shaker in a strange and alien way.

Uhura is not treated this badly. Nevertheless, the first thing they use her to do is establish Spock's comical lack of human feeling, which of course is thrown into high relief by the fact that he is conversing with "an illogical woman." (Uhura describes herself this way, though to give Nichelle Nichols credit she makes it sarcastic.) Conversation opens like this:

SPOCK: Lieutenant, your last report contained an error in the frequency column.

UHURA: Mr. Spock, if I hear the word "frequency" one more time, I think I'm going to cry.

He comments on how illogical it is for a communications officer to hate the word 'frequency.' She explains that she was just "trying to start a conversation," and then instructs him on how to flirt with her: "Why don't you tell me that I'm an attractive young woman..." etc. etc. etc. Yes, because that's the only way in which men can converse with their female colleagues...When she finally suggests he tell her how his home planet Vulcan looks at night under a full moon, he says, "Vulcan has no moon." She says, "I'm not surprised."

Watching all this I thought to myself: Whatever there was that was awesome about Uhura, Nichelle Nichols owns it, because none of it was comin' from the writers. She managed to make that conversation watchable by playing this flirtation as a joke that she knows Spock isn't going to get, and then leaving him wondering without explaining the punchline.

Anyhow, so that was "The Man-Trap." I can't wait to see what the CGI people did with "Cat's Paw."