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Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Star Trek's original 1965 pilot episode: The Cage.

If you haven't seen Original Series Star Trek, you are missing out, dear readers. This may sound counterintuitive, but I love it so much that I... still haven't seen all of the episodes. I have to keep something for my old age, you know? But the other day I did watch the original pilot episode for the first time -- the pilot pilot, back before James T. Kirk was even a twinkle in Gene Roddenberry's eye, and the captain of the USS Enterprise was still Christopher Pike.
The premise of the unaired pilot is similar to a typical seek-out-new-worlds Trek episode, but the cast and overall tone is fairly different. The main trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy plus crewmembers Sulu, Uhura and Scotty didn't settle down until halfway through the first season, but the pilot episode featured the rather dour and worn-down Captain Pike backed up by first officer Number One (we'll get to her later), a surprisingly emotional Spock, and a crew of mostly interchangeable American men. Kirk's absence is significant, highlighting how gosh-darn serious the pilot is when compared to the rather jokey, colourful tone of "real" Star Trek episodes. I mean, there's still a hell of a lot of campy stuff to laugh at in The Cage -- angry humanoid pig-bear alien, anyone? -- but it was surely a good decision to replace the cynical, world-weary Pike with the more youthful, ridiculous Kirk and his love of doing forward-rolls in the middle of fight scenes for no apparent reason. (Sorry, have I mentioned yet that I LOVE CAPTAIN KIRK? I love him.)
A bizarrely smiling Spock inspects some super-convincing local flora with Cptn Pike. (source)
So, The Cage. Some of the crew beam down to the planet Talos IV to look for survivors from a long-ago spaceship crash, and find a small encampment of old men and -- gasp! -- a hot girl. What could possibly go wrong? As soon as Pike and his companions set eyes on Vina ("This is Vina, her parents are dead," one of the old men explains suddenly, in a moment of great unintentional comedy.) they become incompetent, because everyone knows that merely seeing an attractive woman instantly turns all men into craven imbeciles. Within minutes, Pike has been captured by mysterious aliens and his crew are left bewildered and bereft in a landscape of haphazardly-painted cardboard boulders. Number One was left onboard the Enterprise to lead the rest of the crew in the Captain's absence, and I'm pretty sure that if she'd been on the landing team then this whole kidnapping malarkey would've been a non-issue.
The plot of The Cage is pretty hackneyed, even by 1960s sci-fi standards, but it does work better with Pike than it would've done with Kirk. Pike, who admits to his friend the martini-swilling ship's doctor (some things never change) that he's thinking of retiring and going for something less stressful like the Orion slave trade (!!!), is the perfect victim for telepathic aliens who tantalise their prey with projections of their heart's desire. So even though he quickly works out that what he's experiencing is an illusion, his mind continues to conjure up fantasies of rescuing a damsel in distress, watching a sexy Orion slavegirl dance around in a bikini, and being married to a nice lady who makes picnics for him in the forst. Unfortunately, poor Vina is made to act out the woman's role in every one of these scenarios. (It's really astonishing that Pike is still single, isn't it?)
I love Number One's manicure and so should you. DITTO HER LASER GUN.
In some ways The Cage is less sexist than much of the later Original Series episodes, but it's still utterly rooted in 1960s society. Number One's presence on the bridge of the Enterprise tells us something about shipboard sexism almost immediately, beginning with an unfortunately realistic scene where Pike remarks that he's uncomfortable with "a woman" being on the bridge (referring to a young Yeoman, there to deliver some documents) before being reminded that Number One is a woman. He quickly catches himself and says that she "doesn't count". This kind of thing -- plus the fact that Number One is demonstrably the most competant person in the crew, yet is still left in a support role right up until the last moment -- indicates to me that the writers knew quite a bit about sexism and how it would show itself in this type of workplace (from a 1960s perspective, that is), and yet other aspects of the episode are preposterously misogynist. It's almost pointless to criticise a TV show written in 1965 for having terrible representations of women, but I find it fascinating that such a strong and strongly-written character as Number One can coexist with Vina's two-dimensional damsel/sexpot characterisation and Pike's incredibly dated fantasy life.
Vina in her guise as an Orion slavegirl.

When Vina first appeared ("This is Vina, her parents are dead.") I laughed out loud because she seemed so parodically vacuous and poorly acted, but by the end of the episode I was thinking that her situation was about 3242 times more horrifying and tragic than Pike's relatively brief clash with the Talosians. As a survivor of the earlier spaceship crash, Vina had been in the hands of the Talosians for twenty years, being tortured and forced to live in a fantasy world created by her telepathic captors. Pike, on the other hand, was trapped by the Talosians for a couple of days before his crew rescued him, during which time the Talosians forced Vina to try and seduce him in the hopes of creating more humans for the Talosians' entertainment. And at the end? Vina chose to stay behind because it turned out that her beauty was a Talosian illusion all along (and probably she has Stockholm syndrome). Oh, and it was Number One who saved the day. I miss Number One. If only Majel Barrett could've stayed in that role instead of turning into Nurse Chapel for the rest of the series.
Regarding the less serious stuff (because let's face it, some enterprising superfan has almost certainly written their dissertation on gender roles in 1960s Star Trek, and this post is already fast approaching tl;dr territory): the costumes and sets in this episode are A DELIGHT. For one thing, the Starfleet uniforms are understandably even more cack-handed than they are in later episodes, with officers and crewmembers all dressed in the same blue or gold sweaters, all of which look like they're doing their best to choke the wearer. And when going down to the planet's surface, the crew changes into jackets so ill-fitting that even I, with my limited dressmaking capabilities, could hot-glue-gun something better.
The stunning Number One in a not-so-stunning jacket. (source)
The costume team must have invested in a job-lot of uncomfortable-looking silver synthetic fabric, because not only are all the Talosians decked out in it from head to foot, Vina's minidress is made out of the same material, as is the comforter on one of the beds. Oh, and speaking of beds, the set-design inside the Enterprise is, as always, to die for. The sets were spruced up quite a bit after this pilot episode was made, but the overal aesthetic is the same. That is, an aesthetic that revels in acres of soul-deadening empty space, greyish lighting, and an oppressive atmosphere of being trapped in a sealed container drifting through the cosmos with no hope of rescue from the monotony unless you volunteered for a deadly-perilous mission to an alien planet.
Captain Pike "relaxes" on his uncomfortable, too-short bed.
Honestly, I find it hilarious just how much of a nightmare it'd be to live on the Enterprise if it were a real place. You probably know that hospitals and prisons are painted specific colours in order to help calm the patients and inmates, and most offices have dismal-looking houseplants lurking on the windowsills in an attempt to inject some life into the room? Well, the USS Enterprise has none of that. Just hundreds of grey, pink and pale green oblong consoles and angular 1960s furniture, with the occasional ornament in peoples' personal quarters only serving to highlight the overall monotony. No wonder the redshirts are always so keen to fling themselves, lemming-like, into danger. One of my favourite Tumblrs in existence is Space Trek (subtitle: "the quiet despair of the Starship Enterprise"), which posts nothing but hauntingly empty shots of 1960s-era Star Trek sets, sans people.
Pike and Vina have a picnic in the least organic-looking forest I've ever seen. (source)
Star Trek always seems to try harder with its "outdoor" sets. I like to imagine that somewhere out there, there are whole teams of people who spent their entire careers crafting air-filled boulders for TV heroes to throw at each other. In The Cage, the alien planet sets are even more painted-on than I dared hope, with the best ones being the utopic picnic scene pictured above (Pike's fantasy life = there is no middle ground between "alien slavegirl in a bikini" and "mid-20th-century suburban nuclear family Stepford Wife") and this deliciously cardboardy planetscape:
So, yeah, there's a lot of fun stuff in this pilot (most of it in the adorably crumby low-budget visuals), but it's flawed enough that I can definitely see why so many changes were made before the series went to air. I'd have loved for Number One to reprise her role in the rest of the series, but I have my doubts over whether the writers could've created a successful dynamic between Kirk and Number One, particularly since The Cage featured some foreshadowing of Number One having feelings for Pike. From what little we saw I feel like a Pike/Number One relationship would be a lot more compelling (for all that Pike gives every appearance of being a misogynist) than a Kirk/Number One relationship. I can only imagine how easily it might have degenerated into Number One playing the role of sensible, scolding foil to Kirk's fun, adventurous playboy -- a dynamic that very rarely works, especially since it's almost always the woman who ends up being the straightlaced one. Like James Bond in the earlier Bond movies, Kirk's carefree skankiness is in many ways preferable to an ongoing romance subplot. As for Pike, I suspect that an Enterprise helmed by him would have made for a significantly different Star Trek from the show we know and love. He was wrong for the optimistic, forward-thinking tone the show later developed, whereas Kirk turned out to be the precise opposite of a reluctant hero.


  1. All right-thinking people should love Kirk!

    "He was wrong for the optimistic, forward-thinking tone the show later developed, whereas Kirk turned out to be the precise opposite of a reluctant hero."

    This is exactly what bugged me about the reboot. Kirk is not a reluctant hero! He loves his job and his friends. But the reboot rewrote him as one anyway. I otherwise liked the movie - I didn't hate most of the other reinterpretations (actually, I thought it was really interesting who they reinterpreted - Scotty, Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura - and who they largely left alone - McCoy, Spock for the most part). But Kirk is so integral to the whole thing that it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    Anyway, thanks for this post - I really enjoyed your take on classic Trek. I know Trek in its time was limited by the available technology for special effects, but it's interesting how even relatively low-rent TV nowadays clearly gets much more budget for costume, sets, shooting in the real outdoors, etc.

  2. It's almost pointless to criticise a TV show written in 1965 for having terrible representations of women

    Ok. So because of my job I've been exposed to a shitton of "classic" television recently. I literally cannot watch "I Love Lucy"--as in leave the room--because the entire premise of the show is how stupid women are. Ditto "The Dick Van Dyke Show" which kind of surprised me, because it had women writers (so naive, me).

    That is, an aesthetic that revels in acres of soul-deadening empty
    space, greyish lighting, and an oppressive atmosphere of being trapped
    in a sealed container drifting through the cosmos with no hope of rescue
    from the monotony unless you volunteered for a deadly-perilous mission
    to an alien planet.

    Lovely. Yes. Also, where is the Enterprise hair salon?

    The Hagia Sophia alien bastion is a treasure.

    Those googles. Damn.

  3. Yes, I was arguing with my cousin a little while ago about reboot!Kirk (whom he really likes), and that was my big complaint! They took this incredibly competent guy who loved his job and his crew and is just delightfully enthusiastic about everything and they inundated him with boring, boring manpain.

    My other issue is that... TOS Kirk is -- okay, okay, I know, he's totally ridiculous and sort of a ho and super goofy, but if you look at the character in his best moments, when the show isn't so show -- an adult, a person who studied hard to get where he is and takes his job seriously and who has a stable identity not constructed entirely on daddy issues. Reboot Kirk is an adolescent manchild who is still entirely shaped by his desire to stick it to his step-father. (Um, excuse you, I like Spock to be the awkward adolescent trying to prove something to his old man, duh.)

    I guess that was my problem with the reboot? I liked the film more than I thought I would, and though Uhura was specifically awesome, but with that Kirk at the helm the whole thing felt pretty immature, like a teen fanboy's space exploration fantasy, and that's fine, but it's not really what I go looking for in Star Trek.

  4. I couldn't agree more, and I think this is part of a larger conceptual change to the reboot. I would argue that on the original show the real hero was Starfleet. It was Starfleet that brought the best out of the main characters and got them to work together. I think this not only brought on the re-characterization of Kirk, but the way he and Spock became friends only because Old Spock came around and *told* them to be friends. In the show their friendship seemed perfectly natural because of their shared ideals, but you could see the movie writers struggling to figure out how two such different personalities could ever get along.

  5. Sorry, I meant to say *losing* this not only brought on the recharacterization of Kirk, etc.

  6. That's a very good point about Starfleet! And the awkwardness of Kirk and Spock's friendship was the biggest disappointment for me in the film. That sort of love-hate dynamic seems really prevalent in film friendships, and while I get the appeal, I think it's overplayed. Friendships between very different characters can be fascinating and sparky and challenging in all sorts of good ways, but I don't think "I hate everything the other person stands for and slowly grudgingly learn respect for them" is the only model for that kind of relationship. What I'm saying is: Kirk and Spock balance each other really well without overblown antagonism?

    (Other examples: The Starsky & Hutch reboot, which completely erased the original characters personalities in favor of a generic odd couple bromance; arguably The Avengers, which really played up the values clash between Captain America and Iron Man in a way the comics didn't at first. The Avengers dynamic made sense and was interesting, though, especially since their differences became very important later on *coughcivilwarcough*, so it has that going for it.)

  7. As someone who is a MASSIVE Pike/Number One fan, I've seen "The Cage" about a dozen times in the past 3 years, and even then, I didn't realise until the most recent re-watch that we never actually see the REAL Vina interacting with Pike until pretty late in the game. The Talosians created an illusion of her, and then she when she DOES appear (in the scene with the picnic) she was clearly playing a role right up until she realises the way to get to Pike si via his fantasies--particularly the one he's most ashamed of. It's not until Number One and Yeoman Colt are beamed down that I think Vina starts shedding the role she's playing. Particularly as she discounts Colt fairly quickly as competition, but realises Number One is the true threat.

  8. oh, it looks so cool.Star Trek,I like it to death.

  9. AS a star trek fan,I loved the Cage.What people forget about Pike was the acter was playing a character who was physically and mentally exhausted.They were on their way to shore leave when they got a distress call from an unknown planet.Their last mission went badly,Spock was limping and the navigator had a bandaged hand.Pike's men were killed and injured and Pike was going to retire.I think this was Pike's turning point when he realized he did not wnt a wonderful fantasy life but a life with Starfleet.They would have worked on his character in following episodes.I love your blog but usaully as a lurker.Please keep your wonderful reviews of sci fi and superhero movies

    SPOCK IS by far the worst actor on the set. Its absolutely astonishing they kept him, but in a stroke of luck he turned out to be one of the best thing about ST.

    I loved Majel as #1..what a talent she turned out to be but --unfortunately her best incarnation was the strong First officer.

    I loved Pike. Dude can act. Remember, ST only lasted 3 years and was cancelled. Its simply not credible to say WS was better with only 1 sample size--even as phenomenal as Kirk was.

    And hey, if Planet Butt heads masters of illusion were so awesome---why not a pair of underpants to cover those juicy double cheeked noggens

  11. Nice article, i appreciate it very much!!