The Cage: What Could Have Been

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Star Trek’s original pilot has a sordid and somewhat fabled history in the development of the Trek franchise. The fact of it’s existence isn’t so different from an innumerable amount of pilots out there, but what is unusual is that you can watch it in its intact, and now HD remastered form. That being said, unless you’re a die hard Trek fan … I’d skip it.

A Middling Plot

The plot follows thusly, the crew of the Enterprise (which, I noticed, isn’t actually named in the pilot. I might have missed it, but I don’t think they used the words), are drawn to the planet Talos by a distress signal of a lost Earth ship. After a brief encounter the captain, Christopher Pike, is taken captive. A really messy hour follows where Pike repeatedly resists the seduction of a beautiful woman, is tortured, and his crew tries repeatedly (and fails) to rescue him. Now this would be fine if the plot was somewhat consistent, but it’s not, and I’ll explain why.

Don't mind us! We are totally normal Hu-Mans.
Don’t mind us! We are totally normal Hu-Mans.

First off, Pike makes a really dumb decision from the get-go. He walks off into the woods by himself with a beautiful woman immediately after meeting this group of stranded refugees which are acting very suspicious. Now, if he was primarily motivated by certain desires (like a certain future captain of the Enterprise) I’d totally buy it, but Pike is shown to be a solitary man who is standoffish about women. Now I also understand that the reasoning behind Pike’s resistance is sheerly for free will’s sake. He doesn’t want to be forced or tricked into anything, he’s concerned about what’s real (and also the fate of his crew). That being said, his running off with a complete stranger about ten seconds after meeting her seems out of character.

Secondly, the way in which the Talosian’s powers are used isn’t fleshed out very well. Their power is described more as being masters of illusion, but it seems to be more than that, and the fact that a primal emotion such as hate prevents their telepathy is weird. Why does hate block them and not love or lust? It’s a weird decision to focus on one emotion, but at the same time, the writers wrote themselves into a corner by crafting such an overwhelmingly powerful group of foes and then having to find a way for the heroes to stumble into victory. Literally the only reason they survive is that a Talosian stumbles into Pike’s cage and tries to steal the phasers.

I bet this guy is kicking himself
I bet this guy is kicking himself

There were so many ways that the Talosian could have either gotten the phaser or made the phaser “disappear” but instead the episode only had ten minutes left so they had to write themselves out of their predicament.

The episode is gorgeous, however

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Yeah, I know it’s a matte painting, but its still a great shot.

Even though the plot is mediocre, the episode itself is shot beautifully. Star Trek as a series was originally described by Roddenberry as a “wagon train to the stars,” and that shows better in this episode than any other. Not only are the sets themselves very reminiscent of  TV western from the 60s, the shots themselves are wide, and take in the panoramic vistas of Talos. These shots are brilliant and drenched in a wide array of colors, except for the bridge, which is rather monochromatic compared to what comes (there isn’t a splash of red on the set).

the landscape
the landscape

In speaking of the ship-side shots, their usually rather tight and come from a lower floor position instead of being level with the cast, like you would see in most later Trek.

A classic noir shot.
A classic noir shot.

It’s an interesting stylistic choice, and the rapid switch between cameras in each scene makes the pilot seem far more cinematic than something you’d normally see on TV in the 60s.

I understand now why the show wasn’t picked up

Yeah, that's Spock.
Yeah, that’s Spock.

The characters in this episode are largely nonexistent, with the exception of Pike. There’s a blonde guy, a doctor, a female second-in-command, a female yeoman, and Spock. Even though Spock is basically a completely different character, the few lines that Nimoy has are filled with such gravitas that he sells his role (even though he has next to nothing to do). Almost all the characters are immediately forgettable. That being said Pike seems like the anti-Kirk. He’s not brash, he’s calm, intelligent, and honestly he seems like a early draft version of Picard, or Kirk circa-Wrath of Khan. He’s world weary and tired of being in command. He’s an interesting starting point, and his relationship with the doctor is similar to the dynamic between Bones and Kirk.

I literally can't tell you this guy's name
I literally can’t tell you this guy’s name

In addition to being a good character, Jeffrey Hunter’s performance as Pike drives the episode forward even when nothing else does. If anything works in this pilot its him. Majel Barrett also delivers a good performance, and I would have loved seeing her character developed further, but unfortunately in a 59 minute runtime she has very little to do.

It still doesn’t feel like Star Trek

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That’s not because it’s a different crew, or that the uniforms are different, or that they’re lasers and not phasers. It doesn’t feel like Star Trek because it really feels like an Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episode. It feels like something that could happen to any random group of space travelers. Nothing makes this episode feel unique. What is a fascinating parallel is that both the place Pike spends the majority of this episode in, and the ship on which he lives, are a cage. 

Red shirt kill count: none. There are literally no red shirts in this episode.

Trek The Cage Rating







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