Monday, June 24, 2013

I’m an Illogical Woman (The Man Trap)

location:  TOS season 1, disc 1
airdate:  8 September 1966
strange new worlds:  yes
strange new worlds so far:  3
new life:  yes
new life so far: 3
new civilizations:  no
new civilizations so far:  1
amokmindedness:  yes
amokmindednesses so far:  3

“The Man Trap,” as even its title suggests, revisits some of the themes of “The Cage.”  The choice that Dr. Crater embraces is essentially the one that Captain Pike refused – a life of illusion, with a partner who can be any woman (or, as it turns out, man) that one desires.  But Crater’s life is in a way even creepier, since he’s knowingly allowing the murderer of his wife to take her place in his life.

In Nicomachean Ethics X.3, Aristotle presents us with a thought-experiment similar to the Nozickian experience machine I cited previously:  “No one would choose to have the mind of a child throughout life, even if he were to experience the pleasures appropriate to childhood to the highest degree.”  Although both experiments are designed to convince us that we care about more than the pleasant quality of felt experiences, Nozick’s is actually an improvement on Aristotle’s, since a J. S. Mill-style response based on a preference for some kinds of pleasure over others can get a grip on Aristotle’s example but not on Nozick’s.  Still, Aristotle is aiming at the same point as Nozick:  in addition to the way our experiences feel, we care (or should care, or have reason to care. or care when we are thinking clearly) about how things really are; and the value of pleasure depends on what causes it, and not just on how good it feels.  As Aristotle puts it, “pleasures are choiceworthy, but not from these sources, just as being wealthy is choiceworthy, but not if attained through treachery, and being healthy is choiceworthy, but not through eating just anything” (Aristotle probably has cannibalism in mind). 

By Aristotelean standards, then, life with a convincing duplicate of one’s wife is not an adequate substitute for life with one’s actual wife, whether or not one is aware of the substitution; and life with the murderer of one’s wife should be the least acceptable of all. 

So why does Crater defend (what I’ll call) the Buffalo Gal?  He doesn’t come across as unlikeable or superficial – quite the contrary.  (Credit is due here to Alfred Ryder’s delightful performance as Crater; in his twitchy, cranky, yet somehow polite obstinacy he reminds me of Patrick McGoohan.)  Yet one can’t help suspecting that there must have been some Stepfordian flaw in Crater’s relationship with his wife if he can so quickly embrace an illusory substitute.

As I’ve written elsewhere, in connection with Othello:

In a culture where men subordinate and objectify women, it’s no surprise that men have trouble perceiving women’s subjectivity – that notorious “feminine inscrutability” that men have so long simultaneously romanticised and complained about, without asking the “Copernican” question of whether the fault might lie in the vantage point rather than in the object.  Othello compares Desdemona to a statue – “that whiter skin of hers than snow, and smooth as monumental alabaster” – and fantasises about making love to her corpse:  “Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, and love thee after.”  In thinking of Desdemona as a statue and a corpse, Othello constructs her quite specifically as opaque – even as he endlessly bemoans her supposed opacity.  At the same time, Othello resents the very existence of Desdemona’s subjective interiority, precisely because it cannot be subordinated to him as her body can ....

If Mrs. Crater’s gender led Dr. Crater to devalue her interiority and confine his attention to her superficies, this could explain his ready acquiescence in the illusion.  (And McCoy may be complicit too, since to the end he is so fixated on the Buffalo Gal’s external appearance that he can barely bring himself to save Kirk by shooting her, despite clear evidence that she is not his former girlfriend, but is rather the murderer of his former girlfriend – as though what he loved all along was her external appearance, not her real interiority.)

To be sure, Dr. Crater claims to know, and be concerned with, the Buffalo Gal’s interiority; but it’s unclear how much of this is self-deception.  Crater’s insistence that the Buffalo Gal “needs love as much as it needs salt” is never unambiguously confirmed or disconfirmed in the story, but the impression one gets is that there is more manipulation and less sincerity in her behaviour than Crater has convinced himself to believe.  At any rate, her eventually turning on Crater himself suggests that salt has a somewhat higher priority than love in her personal value scale.  If he is guilty of objectifying her, she objectifies him with a vengeance – all she wants from him is his body, specifically its sodium chloride content.

In the course of defending the Buffalo Gal, Crater argues:  “The creature was trying to survive. It has that right, doesn’t it?”  The answer, of course, is no:  the Buffalo Gal is clearly an intelligent, rational agent, and so the requirements of morality apply as much to her as to anyone else.  For Aristotle, mere survival is no more adequate a conception of human flourishing than subjective pleasure is; just as “sensory experience seems to be shared in common with horse and ox and every animal,” he tells us in NE I.7, so “living seems to be shared in common with plants – whereas what is sought is that which is specific” to rational agents.  Quality of life trumps quantity; the virtuous person will “prefer a single year of noble living to many years of ordinary living.”  (NE IX.8)  Crater and the Buffalo Gal have each chosen a deviant conception of the good life – hers subhuman, and his subsapient. 

To the claim that the Buffalo Gal needed to kill people to feed on their bodies’ salt content, Aristotle’s reply would be one we’ve already seen:  “being healthy is choiceworthy, but not through eating just anything.”  Nor does the Buffalo Gal’s being the last of her kind exempt her from moral law.  “Some things one cannot be compelled to do, but rather must die, suffering the most terrible things; for indeed, Euripides’ Alkmaion being compelled to commit matricide is plainly laughable.” (NE III.1) 

But the relation to “The Man Trap” to “The Cage” is still more complex; for this episode gives us our first real glimpse of the muscle of (what we cannot yet call) the Federation.  Kirk claims the power first to force the Craters to submit to medical examinations (simply on the grounds that they belong to the class of “research personnel on alien planets,” implying a pretty broad scope of jurisdiction) and then to place the Craters in forcible captivity on the Enterprise for their own good (inasmuch as the ship’s mission is to “protect human life in places like this” – whether or not they want protecting, apparently).  This kind of strong-armed paternalism is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Talosians’ explaining that they “wish [their] specimens to be happy” living “carefully guided lives.”  The Enterprise crew have become the very evil they began by combating.  As another classic 60s sf show reminds us:  It doesn’t matter which side runs the Village. ... When the sides facing each other suddenly realise that they’re looking into a mirror, they’ll see that this is the pattern for the future.”

This episode is less irritating from a feminist standpoint than the previous two,  but the show refuses simply to let professional women be professional women, as in the scene of Uhura’s unsuccessful flirtation with Spock – a scene that takes on a somewhat different significance in light of the 2009 movie.  (“The Man Trap” also introduces the miniskirt as standard uniform for female crewmembers.) 

The interracial flirting is nonetheless daring for its day (though the episode makes sure later on to pair Uhura with an imaginary partner of the “appropriate” race), as is having a black female character whose name is based on the Swahili word for “freedom.”  It’s ironic that Uhura in her very first episode is already complaining about doing nothing but reporting frequencies.

Miscellaneous observations:

This episode inaugurates the new standard narration:  adding a split infinitive to the sexism of the second pilot’s narration.  It also introduces McCoy, Uhura, and Rand, as well as the more familiar uniforms.

Bruce Watson is wonderfully cast as the creepily vampiric Crewman Green.

In this episode the show finally seems to have found its way to the Spock we know; the way Nimoy says the line “My demonstration of concern will not change what has happened; the transporter room is very well-manned and they will call me if they need my assistance” is especially good.  (Recall the similar exchange in Sherlock:  “Would caring about them help to save them?” – “No.” – “Then I'll continue not to make that mistake.”)

The sickbay is now called the dispensary, although it was called sickbay in the second pilot.

The author of this episode, George Clayton Johnson, is co-author (with William F. Nolan) of the original Logan’s Run novel.  “Man-Trap” is also the name of a 1961 movie starring Jeffrey Hunter, the actor who played Pike in “The Cage.”

The title “Man Trap” is multiply ambiguous.  There’s the specifically gendered sense of a sexual trap set by a woman to lure a man, and the broader generic sense of any trap to catch a human being – but this last sense could apply to Buffalo Gal’s attempts to entrap the Enterprise crew, or to the Enterprise crew’s efforts to entrap it (since Buffalo Gal counts as human in the sense of being, or at least appearing, humanoid), or indeed (as noted above) to Kirk’s attempt to imprison Crater himself.

Clearer vision through blu-ray:

In the briefing room from 40:00 on, notice how Dr. Crater is looking at the fake McCoy; even before he tells us he can recognise the Buffalo Gal, it’s clear that he knows.

Less happily:  when Sulu’s plant freaks out it’s a little too obvious that it’s actually a glove with a human hand inside it.

Mirab, his sails unfurled!


  1. Nice points about the depiction of women in this episode. Seems like the term Salt Vampire is more appropriate, since the creature also tries to engage both Uhura and Rand. The title “Man Trap” is also misleading-- though an earlier version of the title was even worse, “The damsel with a dulcimer.” It does seem hard to explain why Crater, even as a cold research scientist, would live with and protect the creature that murdered his wife. Worst scene-- Rand offering the tray of celery and salt shaker as a snack-- contrived and ludicrous. All in all though, a compelling story that adds personality to several characters.

    1. And actually it's Dr. Crater who's the damsel with a dulcimer, "wailing for [his] demon lover."

  2. Understood.
    I had forgotten that dulcimer phrase was from Coleridge--maybe the Abyssinian maid with her singing was the model for Nancy (though it was actually Uhura’s voice). Who’d have thought this story started with a line from Kubla Khan :-)

    1. Not that surprising -- the number of Star Trek episode titles that are literary references is pretty high. Shakespeare gets most of them (and fairy tales and nursery rhymes get a surprisingly high number), but e.g. "Who Mourns for Adonais?" is a nod to Shelley's ode to Keats.