Thoughts on Star Trek’s First Pilot, “The Cage”

It’s perhaps fitting that the very post that inaugurates this blog is a post on what is, arguably, the television episode that began television history.

Star Trek is a television show that changed both television and how we understand it. It is, arguably, the very first television show that had a fandom in any real sense of the word. It’s also arguably one of the first television shows that tried to say something, that realized that television was as valid a medium for dialogue and ideas as epic or poetry or the novel. So I would be remiss if I did not comment in some way on the very first episode of Star Trek ever filmed.

This episode – “The Cage” – is technically the unaired pilot. It was not shown until the 80s – though NBC commissioned and paid for it, they were not impressed, and commissioned a second pilot instead. And it’s not difficult to tell why they were unimpressed – it’s definitely not impressive as far as Star Trek episodes go. The characters are a bit – wooden (Captain Christopher Pike especially lacks the charisma we’d later get with Kirk), Spock shows emotions, there’s even more cheesy melodrama than usual, the uniforms are cringe-worthy, and, despite the female First Officer of the Enterprise (which the network later scrapped) there’s also some uncomfortable comments about how Pike feels about “women on the bridge” – not including his first officer. All in all, it’s not exactly awe-inspiring, and my response when I watched this for the first time (with a friend in Seattle) was “I need more alcohol to get through this.”

We didn’t obtain alcohol, but I did get through the episode. Thinking back on it, I’m still not impressed by it as an episode – it hardly has the intellectual and philosophical complexity of so many of the ensuing episodes, even ones from the first season. (Ironically, NBC decided that this episode was nevertheless too “cerebral” despite all the literal fighting of monsters involved). Nevertheless, it’s clear that this is an episode that contained the seeds of what Star Trek would later come to be. It may not have had the intellectual complexity, but it certainly had many of the themes and ideas that later came to define Star Trek and what it stood for.

The essence of the plot of “The Cage” is one that’s come up again and again in Star Trek: our stalwart captain and his companions beam down to a planet where, in one way or another, they end up in a comfortable captivity. Their needs are provided for, their lives are safe (if they cooperate) and they will never want for anything again, but they are unfree. It’s a theme that comes up again and again, in “This Side of Paradise,” “I, Mudd,” “Metamorphosis,” and a number of other episodes I could rattle off the top of my head. The Enterprise’s officers constantly encounter versions of comfortable, sometimes almost paradise-like captivity.

And always the idea is the same: mankind is not meant for that captivity. Mankind is meant for something else.

In fact, the premise of Star Trek is precisely that: that mankind is meant to explore, to reach for the stars and the unknown and to discover both the universe and himself in the process. The Enterprise is a ship of exploration, just as the series is a story of exploration. Again and again, Kirk talks of how humanity is meant to strive, how existence extends beyond physical needs to the spiritual need for growth and discovery:

“Our species can only survive if we have obstacles to overcome. You take away all obstacles. Without them to strengthen us, we will weaken and die,”he tells another creature intent on keeping them captive and yet provided for in “Metamorphosis.”

That is the essence of Star Trek: a vision of mankind as requiring challenges and growth in order to survive, a vision of mankind always striving and changing.

And that’s the essence of this very first episode of Star Trek as well. It begins with a tired, slightly world-weary Captain Christopher Pike thinking of settling down. In the next few scenes, he beams down onto a planet whose inhabitants, the Talosians, offer him something that is almost like the settling down he’s thought of. In what could probably be read as a parody of the American ideal, he’s offered a beautiful woman, whom he has a chance to protect (fulfilling all kinds of alpha-male instincts and ideals of masculinity),  he’s encouraged to choose the woman as his partner, produce offspring, and live comfortably with her.

In fact, one particular scene looks almost like a caricature of the 1950s, like those old advertisements of happy white American families enjoying themselves and fulfilling an American ideal that had little to do with reality. There’s an idyllic picnic, lush greenery, plenty of food, and a beautiful woman who’s offering him a family and children (that American ideal, again, of the nuclear family, with parents and children). There’s a punishment for refusing that ideal, too.

Captain Pike refuses. He rejects this ideal at every turn, constantly questioning what’s happening, trying to think his way through it and out of it, trying to fight or talk his way out of the situation. He’s constantly doing something, striving, fighting, and in the process constantly seeking his freedom. He doesn’t appear to be in the least tempted by what he’s offered – like Kirk, who would later succeed him, he’s an adventurer and explorer, not comfortable in captivity.

He represents what the Talosians discover about humanity at the very end. Looking through humanity’s thoughts and the ship’s data banks, they make an important discovery:

“The customs and history of your race show a unique hatred of captivity. Even when it’s pleasant and benevolent, you prefer death.”

It’s bluntly put, but it’s an idea that the plot of the entire episode has been intent on making: mankind is meant for something greater than comfortable captivity. This is the vision of humanity that Star Trek stands for, a vision that Roddenberry had from the very beginning: a vision of humanity always striving rather than stagnating, however easy and comfortable the latter might be. And so, though the episode itself is unimpressive, though it has numerous discrepancies difficult to reconcile with the rest of the canon, it still gives a glimpse into the very beginning of Star Trek. And it seems fitting, in speaking of the episode, to finish with these words, spoken by Kirk in “This Side of Paradise”:

Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through, struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.

That is the ideal I see in every episode of Star Trek, from the very first one, and it’s the one I believe wholeheartedly in living by. 

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Posted on January 6, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I think this was a decent analysis of what might be the central focus of the first episode. I mean, it is called “The Cage,” after all.

    However, I wonder how this might be applied to other kinds of cages, both self-imposed and not. Mental cages–fear, uncertainty–and physical cages–sex, disability.

    Because Star Trek is nothing if not transhumanist at its core, I think we might also consider that the cage can be a metaphor for other things. Star Trek provides us with several examples of overcoming physical shortcomings, and even mental shortcomings. These things can serve as cages–for instance, for the paralyzed man or the man with a learning disability.

    I think this might also be reinforced by The Menagerie, where Pike goes back to the planet to escape one cage–his paralyzed body–for another.

    • You know, I was about to bring up “The Menagerie” as I was reading your comment, and then you beat me to it. Damn. I think there might be some kind of link between our consciousnesses, or something (yes, how very transhumanist of me).

      I do think you have a point there – after all, in much of the episode, Pike’s own fear, his own physical body and its susceptibility to pain, and all these other things – are used against him. They throw monsters and experiences of Hell from his own mind at him. So much of the cage is, in a way,, mental – he’s imprisoned because the Talosians make him *believe* there’s glass enclosing his cage, not because there’s actually any. So, I do think you’re on to something.

      It makes me wonder about other TOS episodes, though – because plenty of them are fascinated by the idea of a disembodied consciousness, by the idea of putting a consciousness or a personality into some kind of computer, by copying a human consciousness into an android body. And yet, though those things should theoretically be liberating, they’re portrayed as limiting or imprisoning. I get the sense this changes a little by the time Star Trek gets to TNG, which seems to be a bit more open-minded to me about things like transhumanism.

  2. I mean, the more I think about it the more I think that Star Trek in general is about cages and breaking out of them. I could rattle off a number of cage metaphors from Star Trek TNG that I think you might agree with (like Data’s journey to escape the cage–and limitations–of his synthetic existence and his struggle to redefine himself), but I think you get the idea I’m trying to get at.

    Speaking of trying to put a consciousness in an android body, there was that episode where the scientist uploaded himself into Data’s body to try to beat death.

    But, in a broader sense, the ship itself and the human body is a cage. Think about what Star Trek is, at its core: pushing the boundaries. Learning. Breaking through our limitations. I think the ship is a cage in that, while it is an incredibly powerful metaphor for the act of learning and exploring and the human condition, it also shows our limitations. We need the atmosphere in the ship to survive. We need the hull to keep it altogether. It has to be isolating to be in a space like that for extended periods of time.

    • So what it seems to me that you’re getting at – and correct me if I’m wrong – is that Star Trek seems to be walking a sort of line between the idea that the human spirit needs to be free in order to grow, and the idea that there are some inevitable limitations, perhaps necessary ones, that are part of being human and part of that very process of growing and seeking to be free.

      In general, though, I think it might be very interesting to go through all of Star Trek (or even maybe just TOS and TNG) and look at ideas of cages, and of the way the human body is portrayed as alternatively a limitation and a necessary, humanizing force.

      I totally forgot about the ep where the scientist uploaded himself into Data’s body, though, but now that you bring it up, it does ring a bell. I just have such a terrible memory for TNG episodes (as opposed to TOS episodes).

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