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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at the various Star Trek pilot episodes. Eagle-eyed readers of this feature might have noticed that I jaw-droppingly left out the very first Star Trek pilot, titled “The Cage”. No, faithful readers. I didn’t forget. I intentionally left to be the final pilot featured.
“The Cage” has an interesting history to it. The episode, filmed in 1964, featured a largely different cast (with the exception of Leonard Nimoy), style, and tone that what the original Star Trek series would become. It was slower paced, had little actor, and was deemed “too cerebral” by NBC executives at the time. It also had many of the hallmarks of Star Trek such as a multi-ethnic crew, slightly high-brow storytelling, and strong, leading roles for women.
“The Cage” was not well-received by the executives, but, in a shocking move, they ordered a second pilot (with some marching orders on adjustments and changes). Apparently, NBC liked the concept enough to do this unprecedented move. This, of course, eventually led to the creation of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, and “The Cage” was lost to obscurity until the late 1980s and the rise of the home video market.
But what about the actual episode? Should it reside in the annals of Star Trek or was NBC right in ordering changes? Honestly, I have to side with NBC on this one.
“The Cage” is interesting, but it is incredibly slow at times and can be hard to get through. Not that I mind slow-moving storytelling, but there was not enough interesting things going on to keep my attention from wandering. Truth be told, it is a 64 minute story which probably could have been told in 40 minutes.
“The Cage” introduces us to the crew of the USS Enterprise captained by Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter). Pike is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis and is considering resigning his commission. However, before he can proceed with it, the Enterprise gets a distress signal from an Earth ship that crashed the planet Talos IV nearly twenty years earlier. On the planet, the crew meets the survivors and the young, beautiful Vina (Susan Oliver) who attracts the eye of Pike.
But, it turns out it is all a trap! The survivors (except Vina) are an illusion and Pike is kidnapped by the telepathic Talosians who live underground. Turns out that the Talosians destroyed the surface of their world years ago, and they are hoping to repopulate it using Pike and Vina. Pike, though symptomatic, resists Vina’s seductive attempts. As such, the Talosians kidnap two female Enterprise officers hoping they will appeal to Pike.
Pike, learning how to break though the Talosians’ illusions, breaks himself and his officers free of imprisonment, and the Talosians learn that humans are too violent a species for their needs. Pike invites Vina to come with them, but she declines and it is revealed that her beauty is also an illusion – she survived the crash, but was left horribly disfigured. Pike and the Enterprise leave Talos IV as the Talosians give Vina an illusion of Pike to keep her company.
As I mentioned, it is not a bad story by any means. The central premise is actually pretty neat. It is just that it drags on a bit too long. Do we really need so many scenes of Vina trying to seduce Pike or the crew failing to rescue him? I suppose I understand the intent, but it brings the pace down.
That said, one of the seduction scenes did introduce the green-skinned slave girl into nerd pop-culture, so there is that.
I have some issues the way women are portrayed in the episode. Between Pike’s “Women are not allowed on the bridge” line to how the episode ultimately hinges on the idea that all woman just need a man, it is kind of insulting. Granted, this was the early 1960s, and times were different. I get that. I suppose it just is surprising since Star Trek has the reputation of showing women in empowering roles before it became common practice in the television industry. Clearly, that aspect of the franchise was something that developed overtime. In fairness, though, Number One (Majel Barrett), and Colt (Lauren Goodwin) are all shown to be competent and intelligent in their own right.
The biggest sin, in regards to possible sexism, in this episode is that Vina refuses to go with Pike at the end and return to her people because she is disfigured and unattractive, and the Talosians can give her the illusion of being pretty. Given her past and likely how she had lived for the past twenty year, I see the motivation. What is horrible is that Pike completely agrees with her on this and is content to just leave her there. That is hilariously awful, even by 1960s standards!
“The Cage” is a mixed bag. I am glad NBC did not go through with it, because we likely wouldn’t have gotten the awesomeness that Star Trek ultimately delivered. I am not sure if it deserves the reverential treatment that some fans give it. I’ll admit, it is a historical curiosity to see where Star Trek began, but I think that’s all it really is.
Now that I have looked at all the Star Trek pilots, perhaps it is appropriate for me to look at all of the final episodes!