Sunday, May 17, 2015

TOS Rewind #77: "The Cage"

If you're reading this as the first entry of our series of Trek reviews, go read this entry first. It's the introduction and is (mostly) relevant today.

Today we are going to cover, The Cage (no original airdate)

And of course there's a podcast:

So is this going to be entry "0" or "77" which is how I have it as I write this (my entry numbers don't quite line up to the number of actual episodes because I doubled up on a few)? This episode, the original pilot, is sometimes stuck on the end of the series on video releases (like the Blu-Rays where it's placed on the Season 3 set) and someplace, I have an old Betamax tape of this episode, the version where the trims that weren't repurposed for "The Menagerie" were in black and white; sourced from Gene Roddenberry's old 16mm print which was, for many years, the only version known to exist of the complete episode. Want more detail on the tech, venture forth to our podcast, which can be found here. As Eric mentions below, this comes at the end of our series of reviews. In fact, this is the last written review we're doing; we still have a handful of podcasts to go back to as we didn't begin the project doing podcasts.

Traditionally, I have generally treated this, the old original pilot, as a mostly forgotten appendix to what I thought of as Star Trek. The only exposure I had to The Cage was its presence in The Menagerie (which was an alternate title for the pilot so that footage wasn't the only thing recycled). The background of The Menagerie tells us that it was an episode mainly designed to pad out the first season and bring the budget under control. Not knowing this, I never thought of that episode as cheap. This is mainly due to the high quality of The Cage as a source of flashback clips. The "clip show" in most television series, is usually the sign of a filler episode that contributes little to the show (Shades of Gray, anyone?) Not so for this episode. Of course this is not a review of The Menagerie, so let's take a look at the matter at hand.

So, what does a television pilot need to accomplish? In my experience and unprofessional opinion, the pilot needs to do one or all of the following.

1.  Provide a broad introduction to the world of the show and its characters. This introduction can be couched within a story arc that is launched in the pilot or just provide enough background on the characters to give us an idea of what they're about. This seems to be the way most modern television series, especially dramas, choose to begin.

2.  Provide a look into the typical situation or story that the show will encounter on a typical week. This, as far as I can deduce, is the way older television shows tended to sell themselves. After all, aside from soaps, most television dramas tended to be very episodic or even shows that were more of an anthology where different stories were told each week with different characters, such as The Twilight Zone.

3.  Provide the network, who is going to decide the fate of the fledgling show, with something to be excited about. I would speculate that when Gene Roddenberry pitched his "Wagon Train to the Stars" concept, he knew it would appeal to the deciders at NBC. Roddenberry, a veteran of television, knew how to sell. This particular pilot, however, wasn't quite what the audience--those network "suits" and the advertisers who paid the bills--was expecting.

So, my main gripe about The Cage is that I don't know that it really works as a pilot; something that really sells the show or compellingly launches the story and keeps us hooked. The story is good as a standalone or representative as an episode of a series well under way. Part of the reason I feel this is due to the fact that we meet the main character, Captain Pike, at a point where his career as a star ship captain has begun to wear him down. I do like the scene in Pike's quarters where he confesses this to his bartender/doctor; it's good dramatic character writing, but it just feels wrong to me as a successful introduction to launch the show. As Eric argues, the experiences on the episode rejuvenate Pike to the point that he is ready to move on and explore space, but I am not sure I buy it. Maybe it's nitpicking but it doesn't sit just right with me.

Other aspects of The Cage work well as a pilot. There are some solid science fiction ideas and things are explained fairly well; the show is genuine science fiction. It was a bold move to shoot this particular story as the basis for a 1960s network show. Roddenberry did create Star Trek and wrote this episode so we all owe a lot to him. However, only recently have I become aware of how much credit we should also give to the great Lucille Ball for standing behind Star Trek. From what I understand, Lucy saw something in this show that, along with Mission:  Impossible, financially wrecked her production company, Desilu. Of course both shows turned into successful franchises for Paramount, the studio that bought out Desilu, but at the time, both shows were very expensive to produce. A studio with deeper pockets might have absorbed the costs but who knows whether either show would have been tried by one of the majors. Star Trek, in particular was a show that was going to be somewhat of a risk and a more conservative company probably wouldn't have taken this risk. So, thanks again, Lucy;  all of us Trek fans owe you a lot.

I, like many other fans, do find it fun to take a look at what Star Trek was before its cast was settled. This is particularly interesting given how familiar and well loved the original cast is. Spock is the only familiar face, setting aside Majel Barrett for the moment, and even he is not yet fully formed. Spock is hardly the authoritative, logical Vulcan we all know so well. Spock is younger, more energetic, and yes, emotional. This of course plays somewhat well when the episode is used as a flashback. It would make a lot less sense if Spock had been the same rank and acted just the same. The sets and effects are, for the most part, not as good or just look more like something you'd see in a 1950s science fiction movie; just more old-fashioned.  The uniforms, amusingly enough, have aged better than the ones used in the series, especially on the women.

The story and ideas are really good. The message about the nature of escapism and addiction is potent without being too obvious or insulting to the audience. The performances are also good, given that this was a brand new show with unfamiliar characters. Besides Spock, a lot of the focus of this episode goes to Jeffrey Hunter playing Captain Pike. Hunter's performance as Pike is just a bit too much on the stiff side. This wouldn't be such a problem if Majel Barrett's Number One character wasn't also on the stiff and analytical side. There aren't enough contrasts in the cast dynamics. Spock's energetic acting helps but the cast doesn't seem to gel right off the bat. I'm being unfair of course but Shatner was the right choice at this time. The role of captain needed more humor and dare I say it, swagger. We got that and it wasn't something Jeff Hunter was really good at. I would speculate that Hunter might have played some of the serious parts of the Enterprise captain with more nuance; I don't think Hunter quite rose to the scenery chewing heights as Shatner, but I give The Shat an edge for his overall range. Again, not being completely fair. Besides Star Trek, my only exposure to Jeff Hunter has been the movies King of Kings and The Searchers. We have what we have and we can just be grateful things turned out like they did. 

I do like the idea of a woman first officer for this show. Was Majel Barrett right to play this part? I'm not really certain, but I find it hard to really judge this seeing how I've never seen her play any other similar role. NBC obviously wasn't ready to have a female authority figure on its show so maybe it's a moot point. Roddenberry certainly had his share of sexist ideas but he gets credit here for at least trying to bring some equality to television of the 1960s. Doctor Boyce is actually fine here. I like McCoy as much as anyone and while I find it hard to imagine Star Trek being what it is without him, Boyce could have a good character on the show. Boyce is certainly better than Paul Fix, who played the doctor (and a nameless doctor at that) in the second pilot. I don't want to leave out the Talosians. Unlike many Star Trek species, these beings really look alien; between the weird pulsing head blood vessels and the way their voices are recorded, the Talosians are far more effective than the average "alien of the week". 

Watching this episode makes me wonder how this story might have been done, had they, instead of reusing it in another episode, instead remade the story with the regular characters. Now that would have been interesting. What we are left with is a curious artifact from the dawn of what would become a massive sci fi/adventure franchise. Star Trek certainly didn't always live up the the promise of what Gene Roddenberry made with The Cage (of course in some ways it was surpassed) but the basic structure was put in place. Just get the in-wall TV set out of the captain's quarters!


Eric's turn:

This review is oddly placed. I am writing it after my review of “Turnabout Intruder,” the final aired episode of Star Trek:TOS. But given that “The Cage” is the original Star Trek pilot, this may be your entry point into our review of the entire series. No worries, though. We can work it out. (I'm a Beatles fan too.)

“The Cage” is Gene Roddenberry's first attempt at a Star Trek pilot, and he wrote and produced the episode. It was rejected by the NBC for being, as they put it, too cerebral. In an unprecedented move, however, they commissioned a second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and “The Cage” was subsequently folded into the two-part episode “The Menagerie.” (We go into more detail about all of this in our reviews of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and “The Menagerie.”)

I have always fascinated by this episode. It gives a glimpse of Star Trek before it was the Star Trek we know and love. Everything is noticeably different: the uniforms, the props, the cast (with the exception of Spock), and the Enterprise herself. This is the only episode that shows the crew using paper print outs, and Pike has a TV in his quarters, which look completely different from Kirk's quarters later in the series. (Presumably, and quite reasonably, the Enterprise underwent a major refit when command passed from Pike to Kirk.)

As a story, “The Cage” is well done. In our podcast, we debate whether or not it is an effective pilot and whether Pike and his crew would have worked as well as Kirk and company. As far effectiveness goes, it accomplishes what a pilot is supposed to do: it introduces us to the characters, milieu, and situation. And given that “The Cage” is the only outing we have with what is actually the original cast, there's no way to know how things would've developed had “The Cage” been accepted by the network execs. That said, I will freely admit that it's hard to imagine having as much affection for Pike and his minions as I do for Kirk and the gang. But then again, I am almost as fond of the Next Gen characters as the TOS characters, so who knows.

What I do know is that after finishing the third season of Star Trek, one thing that stands out about “The Cage” is that it is a significantly more intelligent and sophisticated story than most of the season three episodes. In the first few minutes, Pike makes it clear that the stress and responsibility of command has worn him down to the point of seriously considering resigning. In one of my favorite scenes in all of Trek, Dr. Boyce (the ship's surgeon with a comb over that would give Donald Trump a run for his money) tells Pike: “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.” Pike isn't in a place where he can accept or really understand this, but the illusions the Talosians subject him to gradually bring him around.

First, he gets to experience the pastoral, idyllic life he mentioned to Dr. Boyce, and then he sees what it would be like to be a seamy slave trader. Neither experience lives up to what he imagines they would be, and as Vina points out, the Talosians have abandoned reality for a hollow, vicarious existence through illusion. And finally, in the end, Pike chooses death over captivity, because he realizes that physical death is preferable to losing everything that makes him a living, breathing human being.

This is an interesting commentary on what Roddenberry has called the “human condition.” It also addresses the very pertinent issue of drug addiction, especially the particularly insidious narcotic that is televised entertainment. (A nice bit of irony given that “The Cage” is televised entertainment.) And all of this is presented in the framework of Pike's existential crisis, with which most people can at least recognize if not sympathize.

So “The Cage” is a fascinating glimpse into Gene Roddenberry's original vision of Star Trek. And it is also an intelligent, thoughtful, very well written science fiction story I always enjoy watching. What it is not, however, is the Star Trek I fell in love with many years ago, which leaves me with a profound feeling of What If...

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