You know what I realized a full day after watching the Star Trek pilot episode, The Cage? No one died. I mean, no one. The closest we get to an death is Bobby Barbarian who gets a sword to the kidneys followed by a harpoon through his chest, but he’s not real! He’s imaginary; a product of the Talosians’ mental powers. There are no red shirts who die; in fact I didn’t even see a redshirt! No enemies die, because ultimately the Talosians are not “bad guys”. No random strangers die. Contrast this to episode 1, The Man Trap. Kirk starts off on bad footing.
Turned down, rather aptly for an episode of beings with big brains, as too “cerebral” by the networks, The Cage had to wait over 20 years to be seen in its entirety but by the time we did get to see it, it is clear that they had not really hammered out some details yet. For instance, Spock is far more excitable (“The women!”) and he smiles more (when he realizes that the plants make music). His eyebrows are much more severe too, giving him a more demonic look. There is no McCoy; instead we get Dr. Bartender, who knows how to get his captain to talk. And Number One is a woman, played by future Mrs. Roddenberry herself, Majel Barrett. But for an episode that was not accepted by the big wigs, this story has a lot going for it.
For one, it was radically ahead of its time. The ideas put forth here were astounding. On the planet Talos IV, beings have destroyed their world through war causing them to live underground. They are dying and live vicariously through others. They bring creatures into their “menagerie” (an apt name, considering what’s to come) and experience life using highly advanced telepathy. The magistrate of the Talosians refers to an “escape from reality”. Allegorically, isn’t that at the heart of our Junkyard, really? And, believe me, that’s not an easy thing to write. We live other lives by what we watch on Television. The Talosians just have a hyper-advanced way of doing the same. It’s almost like VR, but more fun because it was real. Well, maybe the key is held in the line “when dreams become more important than reality…” See, the caveat might be found in the question: are dreams fiction that distract us, or are dreams the seeds that create a better tomorrow? If the dreams we are living by watching Star Trek are any indication, they are seeds and we have created many advances by making those dreams more important than the reality we were living in in 1966. We said “no” to the reality we were seeing in our daily lives and made life better. Over the next 79 episodes, we will explore some of those improvements. The world of Star Trek is ultimately a world of hope, aspirations and above all, dreams. It’s not the best Science Fiction story out there, but it gives us so much to look forward to.
Aside from that, there’s a heavy antiwar theme in this story focusing on the dangers that can come of it. War sterilized the Talosians and destroyed their planet. Interestingly, by improving their minds, Pike is able to ascertain that they are “too intelligent to kill for no reason”. The very thing that made them more intelligent also has it where they consider themselves superior to all other species and almost die as a result when Pike and company prefer to blow themselves up rather than stay in captivity.
Now, let’s take a second to ponder their favorite “VR” pastime and what they seem to prefer for their viewing pleasure. They claim they are dying and need more people to live their lives through, but what they are really interested in is watching people breed. Think it through! They are essentially creating adult entertainment to while away the hours. They even understand variety, giving Pike a blonde, brunette and redhead to chose from. (I’d say it would be hard to choose but the double entendre would be too obvious!) ((So would the choice!)) No wonder the planet is put on the Federations Quarantine list. With Kirk around, he’d never leave! I mean, Orion slave girls!?! I digress….
In fairness, the Talosians are amazing for one simple reason: the veins in their head pulse! It’s strange and surprising for 1966 television. Conceptually they are great, but as a “monster of the week”, it’s down to those beating veins. The scenery, again considering the time, was beautiful, even stunning. But the bit that really threw me, a veteran Trek fan, was the transporter. Watching this with my wife and son, I was amazed that I actually got chills when we saw the first transporter moment, because I realized this was the first time we’d ever see it! It carries all the excitement one would hope to see the first time around. This was a modern contrivance for getting from ship to planet in a hurry but it was decades ahead of its time. Less so is the attitude towards women, putting Number One as “different” and not being seen as a woman, since Pike does not like women on the bridge. Also questionable is the message that ends “but unless…” One wonders if the printer ran out of ink or the radio was just rubbish. (We learn this is actually part of the trap set by the Talosians! No one can turn down an ellipses…)
This was the start of it all. What became one of the greatest science fiction franchises in history started with an idea that was too much for the network execs to get their heads around. So Roddenberry started working on a “wagon train to the stars”. And the first televised episode was going to give us that… ML
The view from across the pond:
Having watched The Menagerie, it seems like a good time to take a sidestep and watch the unbroadcast (well, at the time) pilot episode of Star Trek. Mike watched it before the start of the series, which makes logical sense, but I left it because I am a newcomer to classic Trek so I didn’t want to prejudice my view of the series by getting an inaccurate first impression. And The Cage is a very different version of Trek. As a first episode it’s clearly not as effective as what the television station accepted in the end, and it’s a bit slow in the pacing, but it is still appealing in its own way. In many respects it was perhaps ahead of its time, a bit too thoughtful and thematic to be accepted in the television landscape that was demanding a western in space (spit). It is telling that one aspect that had to be changed was the female first officer, who was outright rejected by the test audience for the pilot at the time. Disappointingly, 1960s America wasn’t ready for that, or at least 1960s America didn’t think it was ready for that.
But let’s leave behind all the comparisons and the things we didn’t get, and look at what might have been. Let’s look at what actually happens in this pilot episode, and a good place to start is with the line-up of intended regular characters. The obvious place to start is with Pike. I’m not sure what the fan consensus is about him, so I might be wildly out of step here, but I thought he was great. Bearing in mind that this is his first attempt at playing the Captain, and the character would likely have mellowed over time, I do think Jeffrey Hunter’s Pike could have taken Trek to just the same levels of success as Shatner’s Kirk. Despite his disappointing moment of 60s sexism (“I can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge”), it is actually great to see a female first officer, and Majel Barrrett plays her very well. With Spock there as well, there’s a solid line-up of three main characters. John Hoyt is great as Boyce, and the Pike/Boyce friendship shows every bit as much promise as Kirk/McCoy did at the start. Here again I feel that the pilot was ahead of its time, because this is the closest friendship we are shown, and there’s a big age gap. That might not seem significant, but it is even now remarkably rare to show a friendship on television between characters of wildly differing ages, and that merging of friendship with a slight father/son dynamic is a fascinating one. I’ve had friendships with decades separating us, so I know how well that can work. That’s about it for the regulars. Nobody else makes much of an impact, although Yeoman Colt might have had potential as a love interest for Pike.
So, what else can we say about this? The production values are mixed, ranging from the very effective alien heads with their throbbing veins, to the alien plants which are just bits of paper on sticks. As for the storyline, the idea of an alien Noah’s ark is a little silly, but I did like the temptation of a world of pure fantasy. Some of the ethics of this were explored in The Menagerie anyway, but what really stood out for me was the fate of the original Talosians, whose dream world became so real to them that they stopped achieving anything. We might actually be dangerously close to that ourselves with Virtual Reality, and have certainly reached a point where a significant proportion of the population spend a lot of time doing nothing more useful than mindlessly swiping through social media… what’s the word… memes? (spit) Are we heading for a similar fate?
The difficulty facing a writer when the characters are offered a fantasy utopia is to come up with a reason why they wouldn’t accept it, and Gene Roddenberry does a great job of allowing Pike to experience the greener grass on the other side and deciding that it’s not so green after all. Showing him the reality of his retirement plan, all horses and countryside, was a brilliantly integrated idea, feeding into his realisation that commanding the Enterprise crew is actually the life for him after all, despite the sacrifices and hardships that involves. Pike is brilliant throughout his captivity, constantly questioning and looking for a chink in the armour of his enemy. In that respect the pilot does a much better job of establishing exactly why this man is the captain than the first few episodes of Trek does with Kirk.
Finally, I just want to mention Susan Oliver who does such a great job as Vina, building a believable rapport with Pike in a short space of time. Roddenberry makes an attempt at giving her a happy ending (which The Menagerie had to rewrite), heading off to live with her fake Pike, but I think perhaps it would have been more realistic if her story remained a tragic one. She has lived too much under the thumb of those aliens to truly believe that. She’s no fool.
“They own me.”
I’m no expert on classic Trek, watching it for the first time at the moment and only a dozen episodes into the run, but for what it’s worth I think the Pike version of Star Trek could have been something very special, and The Cage stands as a tantalising monument to what might have been, an even more progressive version of Trek, completely shunning the hard-of-thinking who wanted a western in space (spit) and those for whom the very idea of a female Number One made their heads explode. Maybe I’m guilty of hankering after the greener grass but, unlike Pike’s fantasy, I think it might really have been a better world on that other side. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: The Man Trap