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Star Trek: The Cage

"A curious species. They have fantasies they hide even from themselves."

"The Cage" is the 1965 pilot of the original Star Trek, our very first glimpse of Gene Roddenberry's now culturally ubiquitous vision of the future. This pilot starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, Majel Barrett as second-in-command Number One, and Leonard Nimoy as alien officer Mr. Spock.

The suits rejected "The Cage," but let Roddenberry film a second pilot. Jeffrey Hunter turned it down and William Shatner replaced him as a new captain named James Kirk. We all know what happened next. During the run of original Star Trek, Roddenberry wrote an effective story framing "The Cage" and aired it as a two-parter entitled "The Menagerie."

The reason I decided to review "The Cage" (with the help of my friend Ben P. Duck, who reviewed every episode of the original series with me a few years back) is that after 56 years, it's finally becoming a series. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is currently filming its first season starring Anson Mount, Ethan Peck and Rebecca Romijn, who gave new life to Christopher Pike, Mr. Spock and Number One in the second season of Star Trek: Discovery. (Melissa George also gave a terrific performance as Vina.) I'm very excited about Strange New Worlds, probably because it's the closest we've ever come to a reboot of the original Star Trek.

What happens

"The Cage" is a beautifully filmed pilot with an intriguing premise: that virtual reality brought about the end of a civilization.

The set-up is an obvious homage to the classic fifties movie Forbidden Planet. The starship Enterprise receives an old style distress signal from the S.S. Columbia, a ship that disappeared eighteen years ago. On the planet Talos IV, Enterprise's landing party discovers a ragged group of survivors who vanish after the bubble-headed telepathic Talosians take the Enterprise's captain, Christopher Pike, and imprison him in what appears to be a zoo of aliens.

As the Enterprise's second in command, Number One, tries unsuccessfully to retrieve him, Captain Pike is subjected to illusions that appear real and tangible, all of which attempt to force him to pair bond with a woman named Vina, who at first appeared as one of the Columbia's survivors. When Pike still refuses to participate after three fantasy attempts, the Talosians kidnap Number One and Yeoman Colt, encouraging Pike to choose one of the three as his "Eve;" their intent is to recolonize their dead planet.


After consulting the Enterprise's computer and discovering that humans don't take well to captivity, the Talosians give up and let the Enterprise crew go free. Vina chooses to stay behind because her youth and beauty are also an illusion; she is old as well as permanently damaged from the original crash. The Talosians offer to keep her happy for as long as she lives, and they even give her a fake Christopher Pike as a companion.

What it means

When the story opens, Christopher Pike is stressed out and rethinking his choice of career. He is tired of making life and death decisions and seriously considering resigning so that he can have a simpler life. Of course, when his autonomy is removed by the Talosians, he snaps back and realizes that picnics in the park are not for him.

I'm not sure if this innovative pilot made its point, though. We all need fantasy, stories, entertainment, and most of us are able to keep it in perspective. Clearly, all Christopher Pike needed was a vacation. Plus, in later Star Trek there is the holodeck, which is similar to what tanked the Talosians. Granted, the holodeck often went off the rails, but addiction was never an issue.

And I've never been clear about the sort of life the Talosians intended for Pike and Vina on the surface of Talos IV. What did "carefully structured lives" mean? Tilling the soil and having lots of babies? Would there have been more virtual reality fun, a bit of The Matrix, to make it more bearable? And of course, wouldn't it have been more logical if the Talosians had kidnapped the entire Enterprise crew and made them slaves? But then the Federation would have shown up sooner or later looking for their missing ship. Whenever you start really analyzing Star Trek, flaws magically appear.

Acting and production

While movie star Jeffrey Hunter and his amazing sapphire eyes gave a good albeit predictable performance as Christopher Pike, Susan Oliver was truly the stand-out as Vina. She successfully transmitted how conflicted and unhappy Vina was throughout, attracted to Pike and reluctantly submitting to the Talosian efforts to draw him in while at the same time sympathetic to Pike's situation right up until the end.


Spock is undoubtedly the most popular character in the Star Trek franchise, but you'd never know it from his first appearance here. Smiling with delight at blue flowers that chime? Very un-Spock-like. Number One is far more interesting, mostly because she is a mystery. Why was she the only woman on that sexist bridge, as well as second-in-command? Why doesn't she have a name? Majel Barrett Roddenberry went on to play Nurse Chapel in the original series, Lwaxana Troi in The Next Generation, and the ubiquitous voice of the Enterprise computer in nearly every incarnation of Trek. (Star Trek novelist Peter David put those roles together, positing that it was Number One who initially recorded the computer voice.)

The other cast members are... okay. Dr. Boyce is a little like Leonard "Bones" McCoy; I can easily see Bones bringing booze to Kirk's quarters, and actually, didn't he do that in the second Star Trek movie? Lieutenant Tyler is young and enthusiastic. Yeoman Colt is young and, well, coltish.

The look of planet Talos IV is pretty cool, mostly due to the singing blue flowers and the background. The Enterprise itself is, of course, gorgeous inside and out, and continued to be gorgeous during the three year run of the original series. I also liked the look of the zoo, with the rocky walls, the long hallway, the chiming elevator. And the Talosians looked convincingly alien, mostly because the actors with the big heads were female but the voices male. Very Outer Limits.


The uniforms were blue, gold and beige, and everyone wore pants. There were pale blue and beige jumpsuits, and nice jackets for down on the planet. All very nice and classy, but maybe a little dull. The bright red, yellow and blue tunics of the original series were certainly more eye-catching. One detail I loved was that Number One wore blue nail polish. Of course she did.

Pike times four, or possibly Pike versus Kirk

It's clear to me now that Gene Roddenberry made some regrettable decisions with his first captain. Because, let's face it, Jeffrey Hunter's Christopher Pike isn't that likeable. Tired, depressed, hard on himself, regretting his actions, he even initially chose not to rescue the S.S. Columbia survivors, which made no sense. William Shatner's James T. Kirk was young, brash, dynamic and totally sure of himself, a completely different direction and clearly, one that better suited the series that Roddenberry was trying to make. Leonard Nimoy has said that it was his character's job to play off the captain; with Jeffrey Hunter's introspective Pike, Spock was louder and more emotional. With William Shatner's Kirk, Nimoy turned the emotion completely down and became the logical Vulcan introvert we all know and love.

Christopher Pike times four: Jeffrey Hunter in "The Cage," Sean Kenney
in "The Menagerie," Bruce Greenwood in the movie reboots, and
Anson Mount in Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

In season two of Star Trek: Discovery, Anson Mount made Christopher Pike his own. Mount's Pike is calm, decisive, enjoyably witty and always speaks his mind. I don't remember Bruce Greenwood's interpretation of Pike that well, but Mount's performance feels more like Greenwood's than Hunter's. Whatever Anson Mount is doing, it works, and it will be interesting to see what he does with the role on a long-term basis. (I also very much like Ethan Peck's intense interpretation of Spock, and Rebecca Romijn's commanding but sarcastic Number One.)

Ben P. Duck says...

Not to digress, but 39 minutes into the beautifully remastered version of "The Cage," Vina and Pike find themselves picnicking in the green fields outside Pike's hometown of Mojave. This greening of Mojave, specifically noted here, is an interesting detail and I will come back to it.

But first a digression (you knew it was coming as soon as you read "not to digress"). Vina notes that the sandwiches are Mother Pike’s special recipe for Chicken Tuna. Chicken Tuna, as I knew and urban dictionary will confirm, is a person with "a great tight body." Chicken Tuna is PEOPLE! I will stop there, but we may have established that Christopher Pike is canonically a cannibal. As with most of my nonsense, history will judge.


All that aside, what really struck me about this not quite first episode, not quite pilot was how fully realized the Star Trek vision was even here. Many of the details that would characterize the original series are fully in place as well as many features that would define Star Trek all the way to the present day are least hinted at. If you knew nothing about Star Trek this would serve as a near perfect description of Trek as it existed from 1966 until at least The Next Generation (and probably until Deep Space Nine). The level of world building (with details like the aforementioned Mojave) are simply not present in other science fiction of the period and is absolutely expected today. We are meant to sense a wider universe behind the scenes. The basic form, in which the peaceful but heavily armed crew encounters aliens/entities/civilizations who even if antagonistic are generally motivated by need or misunderstanding rather than Ming the Merciless style "evil," is there. The formula is basically a humane one that seeks empathy with the other to create the possibility of coexistence. Similarly, the story structure is immediately recognizable: the Enterprise rolls up on a problem, works it to resolution, and off we go to the next planet. The trekking was always a key to the formula. It's only the familiar characters that are needed to be dropped into the settings and relationships.

And about those relationships, the Captain is admired by all and attractive to literally every woman. The doctor is his confidant, not quite fitting into the otherwise military ranks (and also a purveyor of fine drinks). The first officer is his trusted subordinate with whom he shares a hinted-at but forbidden attraction. The alien science officer is needed and valued because of the very weirdness they are meeting and which he himself represents. Spock eventually takes over both roles in the series (the attraction being something generations of fan fic writers have long recognized), but those roles are filled by Number One and Spock together.

So many series spend whole seasons figuring out what they want to be, often starting in one direction and swinging wildly in tone over time. It says a lot about Roddenberry's vision that he knew what he wanted and then he pursued it for the entirety of his lifetime with Trek.

Though his support of cannibalism is hard to accept.

Back to Billie Doux for some bits:

— I thought punishing Pike by pulling something from a fable he'd read in childhood was very effective. I immediately thought of the many horrifying things I've read.

— This backdrop painting of Rigel VII is amazing. I recreated it with color art pencils back in my misspent youth.


— It was revealed that Number One fantasizes about Pike. Okay, okay, 1965. At least she was second in command, and in pants. Roddenberry did try.

— Sadly, Jeffrey Hunter died in 1969 of a cerebral hemorrhage after a fall, only four years after this pilot. Majel Barrett died in 2008, and Leonard Nimoy in 2015. Sigh.

Quotes:

Pike: "I'm tired of being responsible for two hundred and three lives, and I'm tired of deciding which mission is too risky and which isn't, and who's going on the landing party and who doesn't. And who lives... and who dies."

Pike: "I can't get used to having a woman on the bridge. (To Number One) No offense, Lieutenant. You're different, of course."
Why? Why is she different?

Spock: "Brains three times the size of ours. If we start buzzing about down there, we're liable to find their mental power is so great, they could reach out and swat this ship as though it were a fly."
Nice carry-through with the bug metaphor, Spock.

Talosian: "You'll now see the primitive fear threat reaction. The specimen is about to boast of his strength, the weaponry of his vessel, and so on. Next, frustrated into a need to display physical prowess (Pike is about to throw himself at the transparency), the creature will throw himself against the transparency."
I always liked how Pike stopped when he realized that they expected him to throw himself against the barrier, but then decided that he didn't care if he looked foolish, he was going to do it anyway. Nice character moment.

Pike: "Are you real?"
Vina: "As real as you wish."
Pike: "Oh, no. No, that's not any answer. I've never met you before, never even imagined you."
Vina: "Perhaps they made me out of dreams you've forgotten."
Pike: "And dressed you in the same metal fabric they wear?"
Vina: "Well, I have to wear something. (pause) Don't I?"

Vina: "When dreams become more important than reality, you give up travel, building, creating. You even forget how to repair the machines left behind by your ancestors. You just sit, living and reliving other lives left behind in the thought record."



Sleazy guy in fantasy: "Suppose you had all of space to choose from, and this was only one small sample?"
Other sleazy guy in fantasy: "Wouldn't you say it was worth a man's soul?"

Vina: "Now, there is a fine choice for intelligent offspring."
Yeoman Colt: "Offspring? As in children?"
Number One: "Offspring as in, he's Adam. Is that it?"
Vina: (to Number One) "You're no better choice. They'd have more luck crossing him with a computer."

Number One: "It's wrong to create a whole race of humans to live as slaves."

Boyce: "Eve? As in Adam?"
Pike: "As in, all ship's doctors are dirty old men."

A failed but still exceptional pilot. Four out of four chiming blue flowers,

Billie
---
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

4 comments:

NomadUK said...

It was revealed that Number One fantasizes about Pike. Okay, okay, 1965.

Not clear what's so 1965 about fantasising about someone, even one's boss. Surely it's not that unusual?

Billie Doux said...

Because they took a professional woman who was supposed to be second in command and sexualized her role.

percysowner said...

It always amused me that one of the themes of this pilot is the danger involved in a technology that makes your fantasies come true and can create any dream you want. It is clear that the tech eventually destroyed the entire civilization. And what message does Star Fleet take from it? "Let's build holodecks!". Obviously we humans are superior to the Talosians and (other than Barclay) don't get obsessed or addicted to the fantasy, because...reasons, i.e. they wanted to do fantasy episodes, but it is an ironic change when TNG comes along.

tucsonbarbara said...

Fun Factoid - Ethan Peck is the grandson of Gregory Peck.