***What happens when I, a 30-something-year-old fanboy who’s never seen a full episode of Star Trek, decides to take a look at the franchise with an open heart? You get “Rob Watches Star Trek.”***
SERIES: Star Trek
TITLE: “The Cage”
STARRING: Jeffrey Hunter, Susan Oliver, Georgia Schmidt, Serena Sande, Leonard Nimoy
WRITER: Gene Roddenberry
DIRECTOR: Robert Butler
ORIGINAL AIR DATE: October 4, 1988,
First screened in February 1965
SYNOPSIS: The Enterprise picks up a near-20-year-old radio signal from Talos IV. But upon investigation, the Talosians subject Captain Pike to a series of bizarre experiments.
By Rob Siebert
The same Rob from up top.
If you’ve watched television for any significant amount of time, you know it’s not uncommon for shows to evolve or change between when a pilot episode is picked up to become a series, and when the series actually begins. For instance, in the pilot for Seinfield was titled The Seinfeld Chronicles, and the Michael Richards character was called Kessler instead of Kramer. The Elaine character, who would eventually be played by Julia Louis Dreyfus, was absent entirely.
“The Cage” is the first pilot episode of Star Trek originally shown to CBS executives in February of 1965. It was rejected by the network, and another pilot was ordered. Ultimately, that was for the better. But that’s not to say this episode isn’t unenjoyable…
Mere seconds into very first interior shot of “The Cage,” the original pilot episode of Star Trek, it’s evident this is not yet the iconic show we’re familiar with. The only person on screen we recognize is Leonard Nimoy. He’s still playing Spock (shown left), but it’s clearly not the Spock we know. His hair is a little bit longer, his uniform (like everyone else’s) looks a little too sweatshirt-ish. He’s also got an emotional side to him. It doesn’t get much focus, but it’s there.
But the only person on the Enterprise bridge that we really need to know is Captain Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter. The episode revolves entirely around him. He’s obviously the main character, so that’s not altogether uncalled for. But as we’ll see, he also gets a certain…uncomfortable focus. It’s because of that focus that the entire pilot doesn’t age very well.
So the Enterprise receives this 18-year-old radio signal from Talos IV, and the crew realizes there may be survivors. Pike takes a search party down to the planet, and is lured into a trap by Vina, a beautiful woman and supposedly one such survivor. The distress call was a ploy by the Talosians to lure the Enterprise on to the planet, so that they might capture a human to mate with Vina. Eventually, their offspring would be made into human slaves. The episode makes numerous Biblical references to the story of Adam and Eve.
So here’s the thing about these Talosians: Their heads really look like nut sacks. I’m sure I’m not the first to make that brilliant observation. But once I saw the shot on the right, that visual was all I could think about. I mean, what do they even need a male for? They’ve got testicles on their heads. They can just mate with Vina themselves!
MEANWHILE, IN FEBRUARY OF 1965: Malcolm X is assassinated during a speech on February 21. The iconic red and white Maple Leaf design is officially designated as the Canadian flag.
Master illusionists, the Talosians and Vina desperately try to tempt Pike into giving in and accepting numerous false yet extremely enticing realities. When that doesn’t work, they abduct two women from the Enterprise, and attempt to place them in Vina’s role. They are Pike’s second in command known only as Number One, played by Majel Barrett, and a young lady known only by her Yeoman rank played by Laurel Goodwin (both shown below).
So from the Talosians’ perspective, because Vina was somehow deemed unattractive, two female crew members are brought into the story. We don’t know their names (though apparently Yeoman had one in the series proposal), and they are promptly judged by how they might be attractive to Pike.
See what I mean about how this doesn’t age well?
What’s more, near the end of the episode, Yeoman has either the temerity or the stupidity to ask Pike, “Who would have been Eve?” As in, who would Pike have chosen between she and Number One? Number One quickly shuts the interaction down, and Yeoman walks off. Somebody’s jealous…
And what of Vina? Once the Talosians are defeated, it’s revealed she was the sole survivor of the ship that sent the radio transmission, and ultimately crashed on Talos IV. When the Talosians found her, they tried to heal her. But as they’d never seen a human, they had no frame of reference. As such, without the Talosians using their illusionary powers, she is old, hunchbacked, and gruesomely re-assembled. Instead of returning to the Enterprise with Pike and the others, she opts to stay with the Talosians and keep her illusion of beauty. As a consolation prize of sorts, the Talosians grant her an illusion of Pike to be with.
If you discount all the stuff I just ran down with Vina, Number One, and Yeoman, “The Cage” is actually a pretty fun watch. It’s got cheesy ’60s sci-fi aliens and monsters. Oddly enough, there’s also a viking. Many of the known and loved elements from Star Trek are there.
The Captain Pike character, judged strictly by his own merits, is fine. The problem is all the female characters in the episode are obviously drawn to him. Thus, their worth becomes largely based not on their merits as individuals, but on how attractive they are. Vina even decides to live inside a lie just so she can remain attractive.
Sadly, this pilot wasn’t turned down based on its sexist writing. Rather, it was deemed “too cerebral,” “too intellectual,” “too slow,” and without enough action. When NBC got to look at it, however, they made the unorthodox decision to pay for a second pilot. This one had William Shatner in what would become the iconic Captain Kirk role. It would eventually air as the third episode of the first season, entitled “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
One thing I want to note in closing: As I’ve indicated, the writing of the female characters in this episode really rubbed me the wrong way. Especially as the father of a young girl. But I can’t bring myself to be overly angry with series creator and the writer of this episode, Gene Roddenberry. In 1965, we had yet to really get into the heart of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Like all of us Roddenberry was a product of the times he lived in. Considering he’s largely responsible for what at the time was one of the most diversely cast television shows in history, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Email Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check us out on Twitter.