Thursday, October 18, 2007

TOS Rewind #11: "The Menagerie"

2/16/2016 Update:  We recorded a new podcast for this episode. Check it out here

And now we get to The Menagerie (Original air dates:  11-17-66 and 11-24-66).  The drink this time is a gin Martini (in recognition of the line, "who wants a warm Martini?").

This episode an unusual one.  It's the only 2 part episode done for the series.  While future Trek series would expand the multi-part format further (DS9, in particular), having a 2 parter was pretty new at the time.  According to what I have read, this one was come up with due to the fact that production was falling behind at the time and NBC needed more content.  Roddenberry got creative and reused the old rejected pilot, "The Cage" and built a frame story around it with the current cast.  I have to wonder if this kind of thing had ever been done like this before.  The effective reuse of another episode shows some very original thinking. 

The situation in which this episode was produced could have easily resulted in a throw-away show to get around the problem.  One Next Generation episode (end of season 2, IIRC) did something like this, but the result was extreme lameness.  Truly a fine example of a weak clip show.  This episode is anything but a tossed-off effort.  Roddenberry constructs a compelling story that not only integrates the material from the old pilot, but even manages to further develop the Spock character.  This episode really builds the foundation of Spock's enduring loyalty to his captain(s).  The drama of the court martial is well paced and really builds the mystery of the Talos IV world.  Kirk gets some good scenes in this one where he grapples with Spock's mutinous actions.  Shatner manages a good mix of anger and hurt betrayal when he confronts Spock.  The Mendez character makes a good foil for Kirk and serves to keep the story moving.

The core material used from "The Cage" is well-chosen.  I've seen the uncut version of the episode and they seemed to have picked the more significant  portions of the show.  I won't spend a lot of time talking about this material since we're going to review "The Cage" later.  One of the things that is fun about this episode is being able to compare the original cast to the more familiar one.  At first glance,  Jeffrey Hunter's Captain Pike is different from the familiar Kirk, but his character is actually more similar than I used to think.  If Shatner has an old-school style of acting, Hunter is even more in this camp.  It isn't really fair to compare Roddenberry's first captain character attempt, but Pike always comes off as a bit stiff.  One of the characters I always enjoy from this early effort is the doctor, a proto-McCoy, if you will. 

So, this one overall holds up very well for me and is perhaps better than I remember.

And now Eric's take:


Before I start this review, I should note that I have a cat in my lap “helping" me, so this will no doubt be the best review I’ve done…

When I was much younger, the only way I could see Star Trek was to catch it in reruns. (Yes, I lived in the time before VCRs.) Of course, there was no way to control which episodes were shown, so I
was particularly thrilled when I got to see “The Menagerie". I think this was because I saw it as a chance to step back into the future history of Star Trek, where there’s an earlier captain and crew (except for Spock) and the Enterprise is visibly different. Besides that, it’s just a good episode:  It’s unique among original Star Trek episodes, and it features not just one, but two wonderfully imaginative science fiction stories where we get to see some great character development.

“The Menagerie" is unique because it is the only two-part episode in the original series, and as far as I know, it is the only television show that has managed to televise an unaired pilot as an integral part of a different episode. The unaired pilot I refer to is, of course, “The Cage",  Gene Roddenberry’s first pilot that was rejected by the NBC studio execs as being too “cerebral" and not having enough action. I’ve never been able to understand these criticisms, but I admire Roddenberry’s ingenuity in getting his original pilot aired (indirectly at least) over the protests of the studio pinheads. Of course, the official story is that there was a budget crunch, so Roddenberry had to use whatever footage he had to his best advantage. Hence, a two-part episode that incorporated an edited version of “The Cage".

So from a production standpoint, “The Menagerie" is unique, but what really makes it a standout episode among original Trek episodes is that both “The Cage" and “The Menagerie" are excellent examples of imaginative science fiction. I won’t go into an analysis of the “The Cage" right now, (Doc and I will address it once we finish reviewing all three seasons of classic Trek) but there is much to say about “The Menagerie".  First, it is remarkably clever. It is a good story in its own right, but Roddenberry, who wrote the episode, managed to work most of “The Cage" into the narrative without it seeming contrived. There is also a nice element of suspense:  Why is Spock so intent on taking Captain Pike to Talos IV? Why would the Talosians want a human who is a complete invalid? And will Spock be executed for violating General Order 7?

These are all interesting questions, but I feel obliged to voice one other nagging question I’ve never been able to reconcile—why didn’t Spock simply do a mind meld on Pike to find out what he wants and what he’s thinking? Someone once suggested, in a fan magazine, that it was because too many of Pike’s nerves had been damaged by the radiation he’d endured. I find this hard to accept, however, because it doesn’t explain how the doctor’s able to tap into his brain so that Pike could signal yes and no.

In any case, what to me overrides any flaws like this is the character interaction and development in this episode. Spock’s concern for Captain Pike is touching, and we quickly discover that his loyalty to Pike is so strong that he’s willing to risk his life for his former captain’s welfare. This is the first time the audience really gets to see the extent of Spock’s loyalty and how complete his integrity is. And it is not just Spock’s loyalty we see exemplified— both Kirk and McCoy, despite being confused and angry at his behavior, stand by him. These character traits are central to the theme and tone of the entire series and will play a decisive role in many later episodes.

Finally, “The Menagerie" concludes on a positive note of redemption, even for the seemingly malignant Talosians, who turn out to be quite compassionate. And that’s really the basis of this episode: compassion, loyalty and friendship. But it’s couched in a fascinating story about the power, and danger, of illusion. Only in science fiction…

Next time:  “The Conscience of the King"