Lost in the Movies: Star Trek - "The Cage" (unaired pilot)

Star Trek - "The Cage" (unaired pilot)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Star Trek. For now, I am only posting this standalone novelty episode, as a teaser for the full series which begins at a later date.

Eventually, I will review every episode, followed by reviews of the first six films, and then Star Trek: The Next Generation and the remaining films. I have seen very few Star Trek episodes, and watched several seasons of TNG over twenty years ago, so for the most part this will be a first-timers' perspective. There will be NO spoilers.

Story (screened for NBC in February 1965, not released until the late 1980s/written by Gene Roddenberry; directed by Robert Butler): Capt. Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) is tired of the pressure of being chief officer of the USS Enterprise. Wistfully remembering pastoral scenes from back on Earth with Dr. Phillip Boyce (John Hoyt), he's told that "A man either lives life as it happens to him, meets it head-on and licks it, or he turns his back on it and starts to wither away." Surprisingly, before the episode is over, Pike will get to return to those pastoral scenes but with a twist: he isn't really in the quiet countryside, he's inside a zoo-like cage, with the alien race of the Talosians controlling his mind in a desire to domesticate him. Lured to their planet by a distress signal, distracted by the beautiful Vina (Susan Oliver) - who turns out to be a fellow prisoner - and deceived by illusions of crash survivors who have long since died, Pike must now face the choice between meeting life head on or withering away in its starkest terms. Eventually he will defy the Talosians with his willingness to die rather than submit. They must let him go even if means the extinction of their race and Pike returns to his command with a new appreciation of his responsibility and the freedom that goes with it.

My Response:
As I started up the first episode of Star Trek on Netflix, I was excited to see how it would differ from the familiar icons of later episodes (not to mention further spin-offs and feature films). After all, pilots always stand a bit apart from the rest of their series, usually shot well beforehand, perhaps with different sets, costumes, and hairdos, with certain characters, usually minor ones, played by different actors or by the same actors in different styles. So I was expecting something different. Nonetheless, the first shock came rather quickly. "Star Trek...starring Jeffrey Hunter." Wait a second - Jeffrey Hunter?!

Sure enough, there is no William Shatner in "The Cage." Nor, for that matter, are DeForest Kelly, George Takei, James Dooley, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, or other familiar faces present. For those who don't recognize the actors by name (I admittedly had to look up a few), that's no McCoy, Sulu, Scotty, Uhura, or Chekov. The only familiar face - the most familiar face of all - is Leonard Nimoy as Spock, although his ears seem a bit longer and his manner less severely logical (and thus, perhaps perversely, less endearing). To a large degree, this doesn't feel like Star Trek at all and technically it may not be: this attempt at a pilot was not well-received by NBC (they called it "too cerebral," a battle I don't think they'd really win with this famously thoughtful show). Jeffrey Hunter chose to leave the cast, the pilot was shelved without going to air and replaced by a completely different script (though its plot elements were apparently re-purposed into later episodes), and the show officially debuted a year and a half later. "The Cage" was never shown on TV until 1988. So although Netflix chose to place it first in the lineup, many might argue it doesn't belong anywhere in the saga at all, except as a tacked-on curio (dubbed "episode 99" in some listings).

On the other hand, little here is explicitly contradictory. The captain's name after all is Pike, not Kirk (besides, Twin Peaks fans shouldn't be too concerned about the canonicity of re-casting). What little I've read about the episode suggests that when its elements reappear they will refer back to this story as an earlier event. So perhaps what we're viewing is part of the Star Trek saga after all, more on the order of a prologue than a proper beginning. In its themes and approach, if not many of the details or the overall flavor, "The Cage" is frequently recognizable as part of the limited Star Trek I do know. It foregrounds philosophical issues, dramatizing the characters' personal struggles with high-concept gimmicks and it also does something I've always liked about the world of Star Trek, especially in the Next Generation episodes I'm more familiar with: it creates different layers of reality which the characters can inhabit away from the everyday world, suggesting - whether through holographic illusion or psychic manipulation - a Russian-nesting-doll sense of environmental perception. My favorite episode of The Next Generation is very much in this vein.

I found out the mundane reasons for Hunter's appearance - and departure - after watching the episode; during its duration I wondered if perhaps his character would die, paving the way for Kirk to appear either in this episode or the next. That would have been an exciting premise (a bit similar to what was originally planned for Lost) but of course the episode goes a more conventional route. With Shatner in mind it's hard to judge Hunter's performance fairly. I thought he was fine (I know him mostly from The Searchers, though I'd forgotten he played Jesus for Nicolas Ray in King of Kings), but he does lack that sparkle-in-the-eye that Shatner brought to Kirk. Watching him interact with the crew is also fascinating - especially as the show toes the line between the progressive outlook it was famous for (a woman - played by Majel Barrett, creator Gene Roddenberry's lover and later wife - is Pike's Number One) and a more old-fashioned outlook (apparently the network and test audiences loathed the character, who is later revealed to be in love with her commander, and Capt. Pike himself makes sexist remarks about women on the deck even as he says "you're different"). For the most part, nothing in the story and few in the cast (aside from Nimoy's character design) jump out at the viewer. A template is set, but it will remain for later episodes to really build on it.

If you've neither read my italicized intro, bailed from this review in a fury, or inferred my own status as a viewer, let me clarify. I am not a Trekkie, Trekker, or Trek-anything. If you're a hardcore fan looking for a fellow-traveling viewing diary, my episode guide will definitely not be the right fit for you. For the most part, this will be my first time watching the series. Over time, I've seen several episodes, probably no more than a dozen, and most of those several decades ago. I'm a bit more familiar with The Next Generation, but that too was watched back in the nineties when I was a little kid, so much of it will feel new to me as well. The only piece of Star Trek I've seen at all recently is the sixth film a year or two ago and the two-part premiere of The Next Generation, which I watched in 2013 during an aborted attempt to rewatch the whole series. So what you're getting here is a fresh take, intended for two types of readers: the similar newbies, making their way through these episodes for the first time themselves; or the all-too-veteran viewers who are so familiar with the ins and outs of Star Trek that they would enjoy the opportunity to relive their initial encounter.

Most reviews will be short, shorter than this, and probably contain less historical context. The plot will be dealt with quickly with a short summary, followed by a paragraph or two of personal response.

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