Original Air Date: September 8, 1966
Stardate: 1513.1 (2266)
Writer: George Clayton Johnson
Director: Marc Daniels
“The last of its kind. Earth history, remember? Like the passenger pigeon, or… the buffalo.”
The year is 2266. We are introduced to the USS Enterprise, a starship working under the Starfleet of the United Federation of Planets. The Enterprise is on a five-year mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The ship arrives at a planet called M-113, a red and arid place inhabited by Dr. Robert Crater, an archaeologist (played by Alfred Ryder who actually suffered a severe arm injury just prior to filming this episode hence why he appears somewhat stiff if you pay close attention). Dr. Crater resides on this remote planet with his wife Nancy (played by 1960s television actor Jeanne Bal). They have been conducting a near five-year survey of the planet’s ruins, the remnants of an ancient and long-dead civilization. Mr. Spock is temporarily left in command of the Enterprise while Captain Kirk and Dr. “Bones” McCoy beam down to M-113 for a routine medical examination. They are joined by a crewman in the science division named Darnell (Michael Zaslow). One unique aspect of this episode is that Nancy is in fact a former romantic paramour of Dr. McCoy (the pair were romantically intertwined some ten years prior, and to him Nancy has always been that “one woman” that got away). The episode gives us a rare glimpse into Dr. McCoy’s past which Capt. Kirk notes in his log: “Our mission: routine medical examination of archaeologist Robert Crater, and his wife, Nancy. Routine, but for the fact that Nancy Crater is that one woman in Dr. McCoy’s past.”
When Kirk, McCoy, and Darnell find Nancy on M-113 she actually appears in a different form to each man –including as the spitting image of a beautiful woman whom Darnell left behind on “Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet.” We soon learn that Nancy is some form of a shapeshifting succubus. She is clearly toying with the men –but why? The episode explores a terrifying theme: that men of goodwill like Kirk and McCoy are particularly vulnerable to the whims of a potentially evil siren. Meanwhile Dr. Crater grows increasingly hostile toward the Enterprise crew members, though he curiously makes a stringent request for one item: salt. He claims salt will help with the “heat.” Suddenly, Darnell (Michael Zaslow) is found dead with strange circular “red mottling” wounds all over his face and a poisonous borgia plant in his mouth. Nancy blames the death of Darnell on consumption of the borgia plant. Kirk and McCoy then beam back aboard the Enterprise to investigate the situation while Spock, ever the stern and stoic first officer, is caught in a flirtatious conversation with Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (during the conversation Spock reveals that the planet Vulcan has no moon). Meanwhile Dr. McCoy discovers that Darnell has certainly not been poisoned but that his body has in fact been emptied of all its salt content. Something strange is clearly afoot.
Kirk, McCoy and two additional crewmen from the Enterprise named Green (Bruce Watson) and Sturgeon (John Arndt) beam down to M-113 to confront Dr. Crater. Suspicious of foul play, Kirk demands that Dr. Crater and Nancy return to the Enterprise immediately in order to investigate what happened. However while they speak, crewman Sturgeon is found dead in the exact same manner as Darnell. Nancy, the shapeshifter, then secretly kills crewman Green in the same way and beams aboard the Enterprise now disguised as Green. Nancy –the imposter Green– roams the ship, stalking several crewmen. She follows Yeoman Rand who is carrying a shaker of salt into the ship’s arboretum to deliver to Mr. Sulu (the “weeper” plants in the arboretum are alarmed by the mere presence of the imposter Green). Throughout this scene, the imposter Green’s lust for Yeoman Rand (which is actually a maniacal hunger for salt) is contrasted with Dr. McCoy’s personal obsession for Nancy. Next, Nancy the shapeshifter takes the visage of a fantasy man for Uhura (it is revealed here that Uhura speaks Swahili). The shapeshifter reassumes the appearance of Nancy before encouraging McCoy to take a sleeping pill and then it assumes the visage of Dr. McCoy. Meanwhile, Spock and Kirk discover the dead body of crewman Green back on M-113. They confront Dr. Crater who explains that “Nancy” is the last of a dying species which once dwelt among the ancient civilization on M-113. She survives only by consuming salt (hence why this episode is sometimes remembered as the one with a “the salt vampire”).
Once we learn that “Nancy” the shapeshifter is on the verge of extinction, our perspective slightly shifts. Is it right to cause the extinction of a life-form? Is it moral to kill the last of a dying species? As always in Star Trek, moral relativism comes squarely into conflict with classical notions of justice as we venture out into the boundless edges of the cosmos. At any rate, Dr. Crater explains that his true wife, Nancy, was killed one or two years prior by this creature while living on M-113 (hence why his archaeological shipments have been declining in recent years). Since then he has been living a fantasy life with the creature on M-113, or as Capt. Kirk says: “Are you saving the last of its kind? Or has this become Crater’s private heaven on this planet. This thing becomes wife, lover, best friend, wise man, fool, idle slave.” Dr. Crater’s altruism is exposed as little more than petty vanity. Moments later we see the crew interrogating Dr. Crater while no one suspects that McCoy is actually incapacitated and now the creature has assumed the form of McCoy. The imposter McCoy then leads Dr. Crater away to the dispensary and then kills him. This is followed by an attack on Spock but thankfully his Vulcan “blood salts” are distinct from humans so he is spared. At the climactic end, Dr. McCoy must choose if he is capable of killing the hideous creature or preserving his false dream-version of Nancy. Ultimately, he chooses the former, killing not only the image of the one woman who got away, but also the last creature of its kind. Capt. Kirk closes the episode with the following reflection:
“Something wrong, captain?”
“I was thinking about the buffalo, Mister Spock…”
The comparison between the waning American frontier as exemplified in the decline of the buffalo and the Enterprise crew’s extinction of a hostile creature is apropos, yet unlike the buffalo “Nancy” is a menacing creature intent on destroying as many humans as possible. She has an insatiable appetite for salt/sodium. Dr. Crater’s defense of the creature is that she is the last of her kind, and that she merely requires love and longs to survive just like humans. Somehow Crater has managed to live alongside this creature for one or two years (though he cannot seem to remember the true length of time). Now, his farce finally comes to an end when the creature, apparently desperate for salt, attacks and kills him as well. In addition we learn something valuable about the Enterprise’s mission –it is not merely an optimistic futurist humanitarian expedition that hopes to save biological life in all iterations. It is not a purely messianic quest. For the crew of the Enterprise, life is not necessarily always good for its own sake. Some creatures from old and decaying civilizations must be wiped out to make way for the future –a future where the universe is safe and secure.
The writer of this episode was George Clayton Johnson (1929-2015) who also wrote a number of popular Twilight Zone episodes and co-wrote the novel Logan’s Run. His original working title for this episode was “Damsel with a Dulcimer.” This was sadly his only contribution to the Star Trek series.
Director Marc Daniels (1912-1989) was also involved in directing episodes of I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, and Mission: Impossible among other popular television shows. He won a Hugo award with Gene Roddenberry for his work on Star Trek’s “The Menagerie.”
Star Trek Trivia:
- This was the first episode to air but the sixth to be filmed. NBC decided to air this episode first because it had more action and features a monster. It was apparently not a particularly well-liked episode among the cast.
- Writer George Clayton Johnson’s early title for this episode was “Damsel with a Dulcimer” (a reference to Samuel Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan” poem) his only contribution to the Star Trek series. However, the original script title for this episode was “The Unreal McCoy.” It was used in James Blish’s novelization of the episode.
- Fellow Star Trek writer David Gerrold dubbed this episode “The Incredible Salt Vampire.”
- Wah Chang (1917-2003) completed the notable art design work for this episode. Chang, a Chinese-American designer, created a variety of the props for the original series including the tricorder and the communicator.
- The “medical scanners” used by Dr. McCoy in this episode were actually salt shakers designed by a Scandinavian company.
- This episode predates the Star Trek canonical “Prime Directive” which becomes the guiding principle of Starfleet prohibiting them from interfering in the natural development of alien civilizations.
- This was a rare episode that revealed details about Dr. McCoy’s past, namely his former lover Nancy.
- In a conversation with Uhura, Spock reveals that the planet Vulcan has no moon.
- Early into the series Nichelle Nichols was already tired of repeating the word “frequency.” Her line “Sometimes I think if I hear the word ‘frequency’ again I’ll cry” was a nod to her growing frustrations.
- The original USS Enterprise model from this episode currently resides today in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
- James Doohan (a.k.a. “Scotty”) does not appear in this episode, but his voice can be heard via Kirk’s communicator. The dialogue was borrowed from another episode.
- When Yeoman Rand greets Sulu with a plate of food in the ship’s arboretum, he responds with “May the great bird of the galaxy bless your planet.” The Great Bird of the Galaxy was the nickname of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. It was given to him by Associate Producer Robert Justman.
- This is the only episode of Star Trek wherein Dr. McCoy’s room makes an appearance.
- The Swahili which is spoken by the shapeshifting creature is as follows: “How are you, friend? I think of you, beautiful lady. You should never know loneliness.”
- Spock’s green blood is first established in this episode as we see it on his forehead (however an inexplicable red gash can also be seen). Spock says his ancestors spawned in another ocean than humans, his “blood salts are quite different.”
- Alfred Ryder suffered a severe arm injury just prior to filming thhis episode but nevertheless played his role of Robert Crater without complaint.
- The phaser Dr. Crater uses against Kirk and Spock is actually a reused laser pistol from the un-aired pilot “The Cage.”
- The phaser sound effect used when stunning Dr. Crater was created via a sped up recording of a bullet ricochet. The sound effect of Dr. Crater’s low “fazed” tone was actually Alfred Ryder’s voice slowed down considerably and played back.
- The year of this episode is 2266, or 11 years after the events of the un-aired pilot “The Cage.”
- Apparently Gene Roddenberry’s father was so embarrassed by this episode that he went door-to-door through his neighborhood apologizing to his neighbors for its contents.
- Apparently Gene Roddenberry disliked Alexander Courage’s score for this episode.
- In his autobiography William Shatner called this a “dreadful” episode and one of the worst ever, while Leonard Nimoy also lamented this episode as the series opener.