May 20, 2009

The Man Trap Redux

Victor’s post get’s this blog off to a terrific start, demonstrating the validity of returning to Star Trek, underscoring its continuing relevance to cultural philosophy, and establishing how in the space of 50 minutes conventional television (and Star Trek is perhaps nothing other than conventional television, which is hardly a slur) can raise complex metaphysical, epistemological, and psychoanalytic questions. He nicely ties together several key scenes from “The Man Trap,” including the status of Nancy/the(a) Woman/Monster, Uhura’s failed seduction of Spock, Yeoman Rand’s fantasy status, and yes, even buffalo (more about that later). He ends, though, with the thought that “The Man Trap” ends with order restored: “With ‘Nancy’s’ annihilation, order is restored…”. Here I want to quibble. What can it mean to restore order when you’re exploring the final frontier, searching out the new? There’s more ambivalence here than the death of a monster can put to rest. Ambivalence that resides in the botany lab in the form of an alien female cock. Let’s set the scene.

Yeoman Janice Rand is being pursued by Ensign Green, who “in reality” is the salt monster. Green’s lusting after Rand’s table salt provokes a rebuke from her: “Who do you think you are?” This is an interesting question to ask of the salt monster, who seemingly becomes what others desire, who responds to others' strong feelings, and plays both sides of the fence, male and female. The monster’s indeterminate nature is sharply contrasted at precisely this moment by Rand’s very clearly determined nature. Coming out of an elevator, Rand encounters two leering crewmen:

Crewmen 1: Janice is that for me? (is he referring to the tray of food or to her sex?)

Rand: Don’t you wish it was? (is she referring to the tray of food or to her sex?)

Crewmen 1 to Crewmen 2: How’d you like to have her for your own personal yeoman?

Rand just is the feminine sex object. No ambiguity here. Rand walks into the botany lab where Sulu is working and addresses one of his plants:

Rand: Hello Beauregard. How are you today?

Sulu: Her name’s Gertrude.

Rand: No it’s a he plant. A girl can tell

Sulu: Why do people have to call inanimate objects she, like she’s a fast ship?

Rand: He is not an inanimate object. He’s so animate, he makes me nervous. In fact, I keep expecting one of these plants of yours to grab me.

Green enters the botany lab and, approaching the plant, it’s driven crazy by his presence. The plant shrinks down inside its protective layers and as Sulu murmurs to it (“Take it easy. Calm down.”) and strokes it, it stiffens up and pushes out of its protective sleeve. While Sulu insists the plant is female, it emerges like some monstrous alien cock (Janice, is that for me?), responding to his soft caresses. Is it Beauregard or Gertrude? Or neither? The plant resists the conventional order of male/female, even perhaps animate/inanimate. An order that Yeoman Rand all too nicely fits, placed their by her ogling shipmates.

The plant occupies a position tantalizingly analogous to the other members of the alien ménage of trois of “The Man Trap,” the monster, neither male nor female, and Spock, who fails to respond to Uhura’s script of seduction (“Vulcan has no moon.”). What’s alien is what challenges sexuality, what challenges our given categories of male and female, doesn’t play by the rules, frustrates our sexual scripts. Nancy is the active one, pursuing McCoy, desiring him, laying him down and having her way with him. His sexuality is questioned—even Kirk claims he shouldn’t be thinking with his glands but “be more like Spock,” whose glands remain tightly in the control of his brain, much to Uhura’s chagrin. Indeed, everything alien in the episode resists our traditional gender expectations. But then by this measure, even the human beings in Star Trek are somewhat alien, for even red-blooded male desire is frustrated and punished. Darnell, we learn, spent some time on Ripley’s Pleasure Planet (just what goes on there—a whole planet devoted to pleasure?) and for his indiscretion has to die at the hands of the blonde he was pursuing there.

Kirk too, in this regard, occupies an ambivalent position. As Captain Kirk first materializes in American homes, materializing on planet M-113 in this first aired episode, he’s playful with McCoy, they’re trading secrets about pursuing girl friends, and Kirk, reminding McCoy that he should bring flowers, presents him with a bunch of desiccated stems, romancing the good Doctor. Give the girl a bunch of dried up flowers. Later, though, Kirk is downright gruff with McCoy, upbraiding him for thinking with his glands. Is he in a jealous pique? The ambivalence of Kirk’s desire is underscored by what I take to be a central mystery of the episode: why does the monster appear to Kirk as McCoy’s lost love? Is Kirk himself empty of desire? Can the monster not get a read on his desire? It’s a mystery.(Kirk: " It's a mystery, and I don't like mysteries. They give me a bellyache, and I've got a beauty right now.")

So while one form of alien desire is rooted out and annihilated, others remain, potentially to provide more bellyaches for Captain Kirk. The problem doesn’t quite disappear. Something like those mysterious buffalo, extinct and yet still an object of thought. “I was thinking of the buffalo Mr. Spock," says Kirk pensively, in the final scene from the episode.

Up Next: "Charlie X."

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