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an analysis of "The Corbomite Maneuver" and "The Man Trap"
by Randall Landers
first published in Stardate 5, October 1980
reedited January 21st 2006 by the author

In September of 1966, Star Trek made its debut on NBC-TV. It was a modest success and picked up for a second year. Because of its fair to poor ratings, it was nearly cancelled, but a letter campaign convinced network executives to continue it for another season. But Star Trek had been given the 'graveyard' slot of Fridays at 10:00pm. Needless to say, it was cancelled at the end of the third season. All of that is now ancient history which every fan knows by heart. Let's considered the old saying that "first impressions are the most important" and examine the episode that was first aired, and the one that perhaps should've been aired instead.

"The Man Trap" was written by George Clayton Johnson, and it involves the Enterprise crew in a hunt for a monster that needs salt to live, and is willing to kill to obtain it. "The Corbomite Maneuver" was written by Jerry Sohl and involves the confrontation between a 'superior' alien race and the crew of the Enterprise. Both men are capable science fiction writers. Johnson wrote several episodes of The Twilight Zone as well as wrote scripts for Star Trek, Kung Fu and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Johnson also wrote the novel Logan's Run and the story upon which Oceans Eleven was based. Jerry Sohl wrote for The Invaders, The Outer Limits, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Sohl also scripted Frankenstein Conquers the World and Die, Monster, Die! as well as sixteen science fiction novels.

"The Corbomite Maneuver" was the third episode produced, and it is the first episode which introduces McCoy and Uhura. A number of scenes in this episode are of an introductory nature, especially little lines like "Mister Sulu, you have an annoying fascination with time pieces," and "What am I, a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor?" Even lines that were cut, such as Uhura's unfamiliarity with English, support that this is a new assignment for this group of people. In the opening teaser, we get our first glimpse of the Vulcan, Spock, as the ship's sensors record the approach of an object. Bailey, the ship's navigator, becomes panicky, only to have Spock puncture his panic with a sharp suggestion to Bailey that he have his adrenaline gland removed. It's a good scene, and one that establishes Spock is Bailey's senior officer.

"The Man Trap" was the sixth episode produced. In the first scene we see with Spock, Uhura is rebuked for making an error in the 'frequency column' of her latest report. After saying she's "sick" of hearing the word frequency, Spock has no reply but "illogical." The communications officer presses him further, asking about his home world, and we see Spock uncharacteristically running a finger under his collar. Once we receive word of a death on the planet below, she snaps at him about not having feelings for his friend, Captain Kirk. However, the audience clearly sees he is deeply concerned. We're receiving mixed messages in a muddled scene at best.

Let's continue with first impressions of the characters. The third episode opens the first act with Kirk and McCoy in Sickbay. We see Kirk working on an exercise machine as McCoy overlooks the test results. When the captain stops early, the doctor asks him to go for "a few seconds more" and adds "working up a little sweat is good for you." We're almost immediately reminded of H.L. Mencken. Soon, Kirk discovers the red alert that Spock had sounded and takes command of the situation. The captain leaves Sickbay with the accusation that McCoy could obviously see the red alert, and that the doctor deliberately didn't tell him about it. The doctor answers, "Finally finished a physical on you!" With no one present in Sickbay, we hear the doctor say, "I'm a doctor, not a moon shuttle conductor. If I jumped every time a light came on around here, I'd end up talkin' to myself." The audience clearly gets a favorable first impression of both men, admiration for Kirk's command presence, and empathy for McCoy's predicament.

"The Man Trap" introduces Kirk and McCoy in the teaser, and the audience isn't sure of what their relationship is or who these people even are. Kirk is teasing the doctor for "rushing us down ten minutes early" and gives him some "flowers" (are those amber stems of wheat supposed to be flowers?) to present to his old flame. The doctor asks the captain if he gets his women by bribery. Suddenly, we meet the confusing situation where "Nancy" appears as three different women, and the audience is completely confused about what is going on, who these two men are, and how they feel about each other. There's in fact a context of competition between the two which is completely antithetical to who McCoy and Kirk really are.

Story-wise, "The Man Trap" is a story about a monster that kills people by draining the salt from their bodies. It is a negative story, and is almost antithetical to Star Trek itself. Unlike the Horta in "The Devil in the Dark," this thing has no motive to kill other than its survival (it could have taken a salt shaker at any time and contented itself with it, but instead it sought out crewmembers and killed them, toying with them as it did with Uhura). And unlike "The Devil in the Dark," Kirk and Spock have no qualms about killing the last of this intelligent species. "The Corbomite Maneuver" is a suspenseful tale of first contact which ends on a truly positive note. The audience perceives "Man Trap" as standard space opera right out of The Outer Limits vein, while "Corbomite" has an interesting and pleasant twist in its ending.

Undoubtedly, "The Corbomite Maneuver" should've been aired first because it has so many introductory notes.

Why wasn't it aired first? It may have something to do with the press. In his book, I Am Not Spock, Leonard Nimoy mentions that the press interviewed him and then watched the filming of the scene in Sickbay where Spock says, "Captain, the creature attacked me!" Nimoy says this was filmed weeks before the show aired. Perhaps because the press had been impressed with that scene, NBC decided to air "The Man Trap" first.

Can a first episode make a good or bad first impression? Given that the premiere episode of Enterprise had 12,540,000 viewers, and the subsequent episodes had 9,180,000 viewers and 7,810,00 viewers, dropping by season's end to 3,900,000, it's all-too-clear that first impressions are extremely important. Perhaps if Star Trek had aired "The Corbomite Maneuver" first, the original series' overall ratings would've been quite different.


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