Happy Star Trek Day! Today marks fifty-four years since the first episode of The Original Series aired on American television, kicking off a franchise which is still going strong today. The Man Trap featured an alien called the M-113 Creature, but you may know it by its unofficial name: the Salt Vampire!
The early production history of Star Trek is complicated! After The Cage – the show’s original pilot – wasn’t picked up by network NBC, a second pilot was commissioned. This was very unusual, and rumours abound as to what happened. Gene Roddenberry and co. went away to work on a new pilot, and what resulted was Where No Man Has Gone Before. The new pilot dropped most of The Cage’s characters – only Spock would be retained – and reworked the series. It ultimately led to Star Trek being greenlit, and the show was picked up for a full season. Several episodes were filmed, including The Man Trap, and when NBC came to deciding the order in which the stories would air, it was selected as the premiere as its story was considered easier to follow by the executives at the network.
So that’s a potted history of how The Man Trap came to be Star Trek’s first episode, despite the fact it wasn’t filmed first! The episode would see the crew take on a nefarious alien which was the last of its kind: the M-113 Creature.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I really like the design of the creature and the special effects used to pull it off. The heavy rubber suits used for some of The Original Series’ aliens and creatures have a distinct aesthetic, but it’s one I think really works. The suits were very cleverly and lovingly designed, and compared to a lot of contemporary special effects have held up remarkably well over the decades. I’d even compare these kind of practical effects very favourably to lots of digital effects and CGI; no one will ever convince me that Enterprise’s CGI Gorn looks better than The Original Series’ rubber suit!
Though the M-113 creature was only seen in its true form very briefly, the same kind of special effects brought it to life in a horrifying way, yet with a unique look that is now emblematic of the Star Trek franchise. Many people who are only dimly aware of Star Trek would recognise the M-113 Creature and be able to identify it as a Star Trek alien; in that sense the creature is up there with races like the Borg and Klingons as being iconic.
It’s been great to see a couple of recent references within Star Trek to the M-113 creature. It appeared in Ephraim and Dot – an animated episode of Short Treks that aired back in December. And just last week we caught a glimpse of the M-113 Creature in Cupid’s Errant Arrow, the fifth episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks. These fun little “Easter eggs” to Trekkies were greatly appreciated, and serve as a reminder of Star Trek’s origins all these years later.
Though the creature the crew of the Enterprise encountered in The Man Trap was said to be the last of its kind, it’s arguable that may no longer be the case. Being mentioned in Lower Decks could be seen to imply that further M-113 Creatures have been discovered later in the 23rd and 24th Centuries, so we may not have seen the last of this iconic villain.
Nicknamed the “Salt Vampire” because of its ability to extract all of the salt from its victims, the M-113 Creature was a shapeshifter, able to take the form of other species, including humans. It also seems to have been sentient – able to mimic human behaviour and even hold in-depth conversations and form relationships.
Though distinct from later shapeshifting races – most notably the Founders of the Dominion – the M-113 Creature was the first such alien encountered in Star Trek. We’ve since seen a number of others, all of which owe at least a little something to their predecessor from The Man Trap. The concept of a shapeshifter is frightening, and that aspect has been used to great effect in several Star Trek stories.
The M-113 Creature also possessed several other abilities that made it a formidable adversary: it could telepathically sense the minds of sentient life forms – including humans – and use what it found to choose its appearance. This kind of tactic allowed it to get close to its prey and get them to let their guard down. It was also capable of paralysing people in order to get close to them when in its true form, and was incredibly physically strong – far more so than humans and Vulcans.
In The Man Trap, the sole surviving M-113 Creature (that we know of) took the form of Nancy Crater, a woman Dr McCoy had known; “that one woman”, as Captain Kirk put it. It lived with Crater’s husband, Robert, on the planet M-113 for a number of years. It was speculated that there had once been a civilisation of M-113 Creatures, but that the majority had gone extinct when the planet’s supply of salt was used up. Robert and Nancy Crater led an archaeological expedition to the world, encountering what could be the last survivor of the race.
Despite possessing some degree of sentience, it wasn’t possible for the crew of the Enterprise to reason with the M-113 Creature that they encountered, and it was killed by Dr McCoy while attempting to feed on Captain Kirk. If it were possible to negotiate with it – or others of its race – Starfleet could have provided the aliens with a supply of salt in exchange for peace. Perhaps such a story could be included in a future episode of Star Trek!
Despite its monstrous appearance and villainous role in the story, the death of the M-113 Creature in The Man Trap is a sad occasion. Potentially the last of its kind, the entire race and everything they had created now seems lost to history. Starfleet aims not only to seek out new life, but also to find ways – where possible – to peacefully coexist. It’s ironic, considering subsequent Star Trek stories, that the first encounter with an alien ended with its death!
But in a way, the aftermath of the M-113 Creature’s death is what established Star Trek as being more than just typical mid-century B-movie sci-fi fare. It took an emotional toll on Dr McCoy to kill what he thought was his long-lost love, and it took a toll on Kirk and the crew to have killed off the last member of a species. But as the Enterprise prepares to leave orbit, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy gather on the bridge and remember the creature in what was a very poignant moment.
It’s moments like this, across The Original Series’ early episodes, that set up Star Trek as being something special. There was more to the story of the M-113 Creature than just a horrible monster for our heroes to outsmart. That story was emotional and complex, bringing up issues of morality that other television series and films struggle to get across even today.
Star Trek offered – and continues to offer, fifty-four years later – much more to its audience than just exciting space adventures. This is why the franchise has endured so long, and it all began on the 8th of September 1966 with The Man Trap and the M-113 Creature.
Star Trek: The Original Series is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and other countries and territories. The series is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Star Trek franchise – including The Original Series and all other properties listed above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.