The Great Star Trek Rewatch: The Cage [unaired pilot]

Greetings, everyone. For a while, I’ve been planning a new project – one in which I rewatch the entirety of Star Trek over the next couple of years (the jury’s still out on whether Enterprise will make the cut), and blog about each episode as I go. It’s a grand undertaking, but it’s one which gives my favourite franchise the thorough scrutiny it deserves. Over the course of these next few hundred blogs, I’ll be examining storylines, characters and science, casting a critical yet loving eye over this behemoth of science-fiction.

To properly start at the true beginning, I’ve decided to preface my viewing of TOS proper with the unaired pilot that the network liked just enough to give the concept a second chance, but not so much that they wanted to commission as-is. In this episode, we see a rather different version of the starship Enterprise so many of us know and love. There’s no gung-ho Captain Kirk in the big chair, no cynical Southerner Bones McCoy ready with a quick quip. Mr Spock is there, but this is a very generic and unformed Spock; sure, he’s a pointy-eared alien, but there’s no Vulcan logic and control present – in fact, at one point he even smiles at the sight of some jiggling blue alien leaves.

The rest of the crew are even more unfamiliar than an emotional Spock, and indeed that’s part of what the network didn’t like. Even though he gets both women and fight scenes in this episode, Captain Pike is clearly a calmer, more thoughtful man than Kirk. At the start of the episode, he agonises over the loss of several crewmembers on a previous mission, and wonders if the life of a starship captain is really the one for him – clearly the kind of introspection sixties audiences weren’t ready for. To be fair, maybe they had a point – if Captain Pike was already like this in the first episode, how much angst and self-examination would we have seen later on?

Most of the remainder of the crew are pretty nameless and generic at this stage, with a handful of exceptions. Majel Barrett plays Number One, the executive officer who combines natural beauty with an exceptionally logical mind – so much so that her crewmates think of her as cold and unemotional, traits that would later be rolled up into Spock. When the network asked Roddenberry to make a second pilot, they told him to get rid of “the alien and the woman”, and whilst he fought to keep Spock, it seems that the world wasn’t ready for a woman on the bridge. In fact, even Captain Pike, an enlightened 23rd century man, has difficulty adjusting to women on the bridge – except Number One, whose cool rationality qualifies her to be one of the boys.

Also on board this first incarnation of the Enteprise are Dr Boyce, a straight-talking older physician who acts as an early template for McCoy – and is also the kind of doctor to prescribe a martini for what ails you, as Yeoman Colt, a more junior female character who still seems like she would have been more fiery and stubborn than her later replacement Yeoman Rand. Naturally, all the women have a secret crush on the captain and want to get into his pants, but what is a starship without a little (purely hetero) sexual tension.

Anyway, I’ve managed to get this far without talking about the plot, so let’s dive right in. The Enterprise is drawn to the planet Talos IV by what appears to be a signal from the survivors of a ship that went missing 18 years ago. Upon landing on the planet, they discover a stranded group of scientists – plus one beautiful young woman, but in fact the whole thing is an illusion cast by the native Talosians to capture Captain Pike. After a war that devastated the surface of their planet, the Talosians moved underground, where the bleak and barren conditions caused them to concentrate on developing their telepathic powers. Now, the incredibly long-lived Talosians are masters of projecting illusions and letting people live out their dreams, but in return, they’ve forgotten how to do anything practical like build and maintain the machinery their ancestors built.

What they do have, however, is a collection of species they’ve lured in from different worlds, of which humans seem like the most promising candidates. And now that they have a human female (Vina, the one actual crash survivor) and a human male (Captain Pike), they’d quite like to breed a slave race to repopulate the surface and keep them in the manner to which they have become accustomed. To that end, the Talosians place Vina and Pike in a number of pleasant illusions designed to spark love and affection between them. In the meantime, the Enterprise crew tries their best to get their commanding officer back, but all their efforts are hampered by the fact that nothing they see or hear on or around the planet can be trusted to be real.

Like pretty much everyone, I first saw The Cage as a series of extended clips used to make a cheap two-parter, The Menagerie, partway through season one of TOS. For this reason, I’d always regarded it as a slow and painful experience, so watching it as a single 45 minute episode made it a much better experience. Although this is Star Trek in a very raw and unrefined form, it still felt more like a typical TOS episode than I was expecting – after all, highly evolved aliens toying with the lives of the Enterprise crew is a recurring theme of Star Trek, and one that goes to prove that most of these more evolved species are just massive arseholes. Obviously we don’t really get to grips with many of the characters here, but it’s a shame that we lost Number One, and Doctor Boyce is also likeable, although he survives in spirit in Doctor McCoy.

Compared to even TOS itself, the technological side is embarrassingly dated. Instead of PADDs, Captain Pike and his crew look at reports printed on paper and affixed to clipboards, whilst communicators look like My First Electronics Kits. Names that have passed into the popular consciousness aren’t quite here yet – instead of phasers, we have ‘lasers’, whilst warp drive is known as ‘time warp’. It’s even implied that the survivors of the previous expedition to Talos IV wouldn’t even know that “we’ve broken the time warp barrier”, when we all know that it’s less than 50 years from the present day to Zefram Cochrane’s inaugural warp flight.

To round off each of these blog posts, I’m going to demonstrate my geekiness by overthinking various aspects of the show’s science, technology and procedures. In this episode, we see a landing party head down to Talos IV without so much as a tricorder (presumably yet to be invented). Captain Pike and Spock are delighted by some jiggling blue leaves (sadly quite laughably fake by today’s standards), and even go so far as to touch this alien fauna. Surely an unwise move – what if these leaves had been the Talosian equivalent of poison ivy?

And of course, I could hardly sign off without pointing out one of the design flaws of any Enterprise – having the bridge in an exposed bubble at the top of the ship makes it unnecessarily vulnerable to enemy attack. And with the captain and all of their senior staff routinely gathered together on the bridge surely makes it even more of a tempting target.

Summary – The Cage: Star Trek in its most unrefined form, but still more enjoyable than I remembered.

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