(Editor’s Note: Willow Yang is a frequent letter-writer/contributor to the Post-Geek Singularity and the Robservations live-stream. Her commentary on STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES episodes have become a fan favorite. As a result, we’ve decided to publish them as part of our TREK TALK series under the title: “Willow Talk”.)
I’m writing to discuss the failed first pilot of The Original Series, The Cage. The episode featured Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, which really bewildered me when I first watched the episode (wait, that’s not William Shatner!). Now, this wasn’t the first time that I’ve seen the character; I was actually introduced to Pike through JJ Abram’s Star Trek movies. What really got me interested in him however, was Star Trek: Discovery because, regardless of what your opinion on the show is, I do think that most of us can at least agree that Anson Mount is pretty great.
Jeffery Hunter’s take on the character felt rather different from Mount’s. He was a much more burnout and disillusioned captain who, when we were introduced to him, was already looking to retire and get away from all the responsibilities that he had been burdened with. While I don’t think that it’s fair to assess Hunter’s performance from the single episode of Star Trek that he was in – I love Patrick Stewart’s Picard, but it did take a while for him to grow on me – I found him to be lacking in some of the charm that Mount, Shatner, and Stewart were able to bring to their roles.
Being a show from the 60’s, there were certainly some dialogue that do feel a bit outdated. One line that particularly stood out was when Pike stated that he was uncomfortable about having women on the bridge. He then proceeded to assure his female first officer that she was “different”, unwittingly digging himself even a deeper hole. It is a bit difficult now to believe that someone a few hundred years into the future might still have issues with the gender of his coworkers.
However, The Cage was a pilot, and it is likely that many of the ideas and concepts of the Star Trek universe might have not yet been fully developed. More importantly, The Cage did feature a female first officer in Majel Barrett’s Number One, something that was probably unheard of and ground-breaking during the time of the episode’s release. Ignoring the possible nepotism behind her casting, I quite appreciated Barrett’s take on the character. She had a strong presence and authority, and I thought that she out-Vulcaned Spock in the pilot with her cool, measured response to Vina’s insult.
On a side-note, it was a bit disconcerting seeing Spock grinning and then, a little later on, shouting: “The women!”. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought that he was being possessed by an incorporeal alien again.
The Cage featured the first of what is to be quite a large pantheon of smug, super-powered aliens that consider themselves to be above humans, but ultimately realize that they aren’t as high and mighty as they thought themselves to be. In relation to the Talosians, there is one detail in The Menagerie that did puzzle me, and that is the reveal that visiting Talos IV is the only crime in the Federation that’s punishable by death. Why? Sure, the Talosians don’t appear to be the friendliest aliens, but they certainly aren’t the worst either; heck, they were willing to help Pike out.
Moreover, considering that they can apparently project their illusions from many light years away, it doesn’t really seem to matter all that much whether someone is physically on that planet or not. Personally, I felt that the death penalty was added to up the stakes and drama rather than for a logical reason. In my opinion, the jeopardization of Spock’s career is already sufficient to communicate his loyalty to Pike; the death penalty just felt strange and unreasonable.
One thing that surprised me when I first watched The Cage was the episode’s depiction of sexuality (which, from my understanding, was part of the reason for its rejection). The central ploy of the Talosians was to have Vina and Pike shag so that they could give rise to a population of human slaves (I guess the Talosians weren’t concerned about inbreeding).
To that end, Vina was practically throwing herself at Pike, both to avoid punishment from the Talosians and also probably because she hasn’t seen a man in decades. They go through a series of scenarios, first with the old-fashioned hero rescuing a damsel in distress, followed by an idyllic romantic picnic. When Pike fails to respond to either illusion, Vina reasons that a fantasy must be something a person cannot do, and for a reputable man like Pike, what is likely enticing to him is something more salacious. She adopts the guise of an Orion exotic dancer.
Although Pike still refused to be swayed by the illusion, ironically, he did earlier on confide to his doctor, Boyce, of his desire to become a trader on Orion, so it would appear that Vina might be onto something. The episode additionally makes some cheeky remarks about Number One and Pike’s Yeoman, and their secret sexual feelings towards him. Women do like to fantasize, and I thought that it was pretty great for a show from the 60’s to make such an observation, especially with characters who are respectable, who don’t fit the archetype of an immoral, promiscuous harlot.
On my initial viewing of The Cage, the ending of the episode did bother me somewhat with Vina’s decision to remain on Talos IV. The reveal of Vina’s true form is quite shocking (although it was already hinted at by Number One, who deduced that she must be a lot older than she appeared), and it seemed at first glance that it’s logical for her to remain on the planet where she can always appear young and beautiful. But is it?
Pike in The Menagerie was horrifically handicapped to the point where he couldn’t even talk (although, as a modern viewer, I cannot help but wonder why he wasn’t provided with a speech generating device a la Stephen Hawking); his quality of life was nil. Vina, while disfigured, states clearly that “everything works”; she isn’t worse off than a number of people we see today who suffer from physical disabilities. More importantly, the Talosians weren’t exactly treating her particularly well. They regarded humans as livestock; they were shown to be torturing and punishing her for disobedience.
I didn’t really like how Pike instantaneously agreed with her reasons for remaining on Talos IV upon finding out that she was no longer beautiful; it did feel a bit sexist to me with its implication that a woman’s appearance is of the utmost value, and the worst thing that can happen to her is to be old and unattractive.
I’ve had a long time to mull over the ending, and I do now think that the conclusion is probably meant to feel dissatisfying. Star Trek doesn’t shy away from endings that are tragic, uncomfortable, or controversial, and that is something that seems to have been established in The Cage. Vina makes a decision that I didn’t really like, but is also understandable given the allure of being able to live in a fantasy, where you can be free from the flaws and limitations of your physical body.
As the Talosians told Pike: “She has an illusion and you have reality. May you find your way as pleasant.” Star Trek presents choices, and it’s up to us to decide what we would have done in such a situation.
Live long and prosper,