Star Trek: The Original Series episode 1 review

How does an episode of television broadcast on 8th September 1966 fare in high definition? We start our reviews right here...

In the coming weeks to celebrate the release of the new Star Trek movie, and the original series and movies on Blu-ray we’ll be reviewing the first season of this pivotal series.

Mark Pickavance will be our guide, as we cross the final frontier one story at a time.

Episode: 01Title: The Man TrapStar Date: 1513.1Writer: George Clayton JohnsonFirst Shown: 8th September 1966

This is a very curious start for Star Trek, because this first story isn’t the original pilot, or even the second pilot. It was actually the sixth episode shot, and as such, many of the early tweaks made after those have already been added. However, it does establish the purpose of the Enterprise and her crew, and the relationships between Kirk, Spock and Bones.

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The story is something of a murder mystery crossed with a simplified Forbidden Planet concept. The Enterprise and crew turn up at desolate outpost M-113 to check up on Robert and Nancy Crater, who are archaeologists documenting an ancient civilisation.

Everything seems reasonably normal until we realise that every person who meets Robert’s assistant Nancy sees someone different, even a completely alternative woman! This opening scene is given a Kirk retrospective voice-over to explain this point just in case the viewers got confused, or assumed this was a very obvious continuity mistake.

Soon a crewman dies, technically the first ‘redshirt’ of many. Although, in a weird twist of fate, and a perfect quiz trivia factoid, the first redshirt death in Star Trek is actually clothed in blue. It takes a further six episodes before one dressed in red on an away mission bites the dust. Even in this story he’s not the last death, and soon the bodies are stacking up, not only on the planet, but also on the Enterprise.

This is all because Robert Crater has omitted to tell Kirk or anyone else that Nancy is, in fact, dead, and the creature who appears to be her is a salt-addicted shape-shifter.

The final confrontation comes in McCoy’s quarters where ‘Nancy’ attacks Kirk only to be ultimately killed by the good doctor. At this point she turns into a hideous creature bearing a slight resemblance to a Morlock from the 1960 version of The Time Machine. That isn’t too surprising because they both share the production designer, Wah Ming Chang.

The writer of this story was George Clayton Johnson, and this was the one and only story he did for the series. Previously, he’d built a reputation from writing numerous significant Twilight Zone stories, and penning the treatment that ultimately became Ocean’s 11. If these science fiction credentials aren’t enough for you, he also wrote the book on which Logan’s Run was based.

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On the new Blu-ray release the enhanced version of this story is relatively unaltered, although it does have a nice CGI long shot of the archaeological dig site early on, and all new effects for the Enterprise entering and leaving orbit around M-113.

In terms of its position in Trek lore, other than being the first screened show, it’s not hugely significant. There are also some tonal differences in it to later stories. In missing that the first victim had no salt in his body at the first examination, Bones seems quite inept, although it could be argued that he’s distracted.

Kirk really gives him both barrels at one point for reacting emotionally, although he does apologise later. Kirk’s slightly inconsistent persona makes him seem a little unstable at times, although his directness does underline how McCoy fits into the bigger scheme of things as the humanist element. But it did make me wonder, when the shape-shifter takes McCoy’s form, why nobody notices that the chief medical officer has no appropriate knowledge for his role.

Scotty, Uhura and Sulu all appear in this story, but they don’t get enough screen time to develop their characters in any subtle or dramatic way. Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) gets more, although it seems to be mainly to show off her amazingly short mini-skirt, or be shot in excessive soft focus.

What did strike me was the amazing colour this show had, even at this stage, and there’s some very clever lighting inside the Enterprise that gives the show a very filmic feel.

I don’t think it was actually a great choice of opening story, but I guess it was a relatively gentle introduction to the series for anyone tuning in unsure of what it was they might get. The subliminal message of this story is environmental, as the creature is the last of its species, and yet they still killed it, which seems something of a mixed message.

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In comparison, the second episode that I’ll review tomorrow, Charlie X, is probably much more significant, as it was written by Roddenberry’s once secretary and since famed sci-fi writer, D C Fontana.