Monthly Archives: January 2014
Obviously, there’s more than three of them in the latest Sherlock epiosde, but a particular three caught my eye – ones that I consider to be slightly more obscure, and slightly more interesting than a simple adaptation of plot or name. Here (a bit belatedly) are my favorite subtle nods to the Canon in this episode.
John’s International Reputation
In the aftermath of John and Sherlock’s stag night, we see the two of them lying drunkenly on the stairs of 221b; Sherlock asks John “do you have an international reputation?” after bragging about his own. John, modest as ever, says that no, of course he doesn’t have an international reputation.
How very wrong he is, and how that made me shout with glee. John “three continents” Watson. The nickname stems from a line in The Sign of Four, where Watson himself says
“In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face…”
And there you have it, ladies and gentleman; John Watson is a player, a lover, a ladies’ man, with experience on three whole continents and, presumably, a number of different nations on each continent. He’s so very modest about it (despite his string of five or so wives, which probably explain everything), but a man who’s slept his way through three continents must have a reputation.
And there, I think, is another subtle nod by Sherlock at the Canon and at John’s supposed reputation.
Sherlock’s a Drama Queen
At least, that’s what Watson thinks. “You’re a drama queen!” he shouts at Sherlock at the climax of “The Sign of Three,” and yet again he’s hit upon the truth.
Throughout the Canon, Watson makes it a point to underline just what a drama queen Sherlock Holmes actually is. Canonically, he really, really can’t resist a dramatic situation: throughout the stories, he stages big, dramatic reveals; in “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” he actually sneaks a stolen jewel into the thief’s pocket, tricks the thief to admit that possession of the stone would be incriminating, and then dramatically pulls the aforementioned stone out of his pocket. He spends a whole story putting on an act and pretending to die, parades through the stories in a variety of believable disguises ( clergymen, manual laborers, and women among them), and…oh yes, there was that actual time he “died,” which was also just an act. Watson constantly compares Holmes to “a conjuror performing a trick” (“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”), and, most significantly, he claims “the stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoned, when he became a specialist in crime.” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
Sherlock Holmes is, indeed, canonically a drama queen, and I thank John Watson for pointing that fact out.
Or, alternatively, the poor, long-suffering Sherlock’s woes. One of the themes of the Canon (or, at this point, one of the clichés) is that of Watson writing up a case only to have Holmes complain about the “romanticism” in it and all that emotional and unnecessary stuff in the story. Poor Holmes, having Watson tinge his pure science of deduction with feelings. From the very second Holmes story ever published (The Sign of Four), Holmes complains about the way Watson writes up their cases, including their very first one, A Study in Scarlet. Holmes insists that the whole romanticism thing is about as bad as working “an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid,” but Watson, bless his heart, insists that “the romance was there.”
So when Holmes, during his wedding speech, states several times that “John a romantic,” I think it’s an allusion to more than John’s sentimental tendencies (though it’s that, too). It’s a nod to the canon, and to the fact that Watson does, indeed, tend to see everything through an emotional lens, and that’s how he writes his stories. Sherlock Holmes, even if he feels (and of course he does), tends to view the world through a more rational, and more scientific lens, and that’s of course why these two characters complement each other so well. So, it’s a nod to that, too – the differences between these two people, but also their similarities.
A fun fact: canonically, Sherlock Holmes’ birthday is on the 6th of January.
Of course, it doesn’t actually say this anywhere in the Canon. Nevertheless, we Sherlockians, who have undertaken the challenge of The Great Game, have deduced that Sherlock Holmes’ birthday must be on January 6th.
In honor of this fact, every year in January, Sherlockians from all over the world gather in New York for the Baker Street Irregulars Weekend (which is less a weekend and more like five days of Sherlockian shenanigans). Though the Baker Street Irregulars themselves convene on Friday for a by-invitation-only dinner, the other events are open to all Sherlockians.
This year, for the first time, I have the chance of attending the Weekend. I’ll be flying out tomorrow and staying all the way through Sunday, and in the meantime attempting to fit in as many events as humanely possible. Though it remains to be seen how much free time I’ll have in between running all over Manhattan in the cold, but the plan is to blog my way through the weekend. I won’t be the only one doing so – I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere will doubtless be dedicating a few posts to the weekend. Nevertheless, I, too, plan to make my small contribution to commemorating the weekend with thoughts and reminiscences. If you’re interested, to stay tuned – all my experiences of the Weekend will be posted here in the coming days.
As a final note: I suppose this is not exactly directly related to television itself, though the argument could be made that it is indeed related to a particular television show named Sherlock. Nevertheless, at this point Sherlock Holmes has become such a cultural icon (references to whom seem to exist in every television show ever made, ever), that it seems more than appropriate to blog about this cultural phenomenon here.
Watching Sherlock is often like a scavenger hunt. It’s written by people who are intimately familiar with the Holmes Canon (though I question some of their interpretations of it, such as their opinions on Irene Adler, but that’s a different story), and always manage to add deft little hints and subtle references to the canonical stories in addition to the more glaring references. Watching for them is always an extra layer of enjoyment to the already enjoyable episodes. And, though I suspect that I’m neither the first nor the last person who’s made this kind of post, I thought I’d make a list of (and short commentary on) what I found to be the most interesting nods to the canon in “His Last Vow”.
Charles Augustus Magnussen
This is the fairly obvious reference, but let’s delve into it a little more.
One of the most interesting stories in the Canon is “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” It’s frequently cited as a favorite, and with good reason. It’s a fascinating story in which Watson and Holmes take the law and justice into their own hands: recognizing that blackmailer Milverton cannot be taken down by traditional means, they resolve to break into his home with the intention of stealing back incriminating documents to preserve a lady’s honor. Breaking and entering isn’t all they do, though; they take the law into their hands even further when they end up finding Milverton, a gun being held to his head by a lady he blackmailed (a scene easily recognizable in “His Last Vow” as the scene with Mary Morstan in Magnussen’s office). Instead of intervening, Holmes and Watson watch calmly as he shoots him point-blank, deciding that his death (and her honor) are for the greater good.
The story raises a lot of fascinating questions about the role Sherlock Holmes plays in finding justice. Does he simply seek knowledge and the truth, or is it his duty, in solving cases, to serve justice rather than truth? It’s a thorny problem that becomes most apparent here, and Sherlockians love to debate the morality involved. It’s a problem that also seems to come up in “His Last Vow,” though less glaringly – Holmes clearly shot Magnussen to protect John, Mary, his brother, and the country at large, and yet he committed a murder. (If you’re looking for shades of grey, you’ve found them. Go forth and discuss!)
What’s most fascinating, though, is that the above makes Milverton one of the scariest, deadliest villains in the canon. He even outclasses Moriarty, because Moriarty was a plot device invented by Doyle to kill off Holmes. Moriarty doesn’t really have a personality in the Canon, and it’s only in show that he acquires one, thanks to Moffat, Gatiss, and co. Milverton, however, holds the entirety of British society in the palms of his hands, and he has no qualms about it – to the point where Holmes must take the law into his hands.
So when Sherlock Holmes says “I’ve dealt with murderers…psychopaths….none of them can turn my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnussen,” he’s pretty exactly right. Milverton/Magnussen is about as terrifying as Moriarty, if not more. In the canon, Holmes compares him to the devil himself, and I think it’s actual canonical reference, rather than television melodrama, that makes Sherlock describe Magussen in such terrifying terms. He was one scary villain.
Sherlock’s Engagement to Janine
If you thought that was what one might call a “dick move,” you are correct. Sherlock Holmes pretended to date, and then proposed, to Janine for the sake of getting information and breaking into Magnussen’s office. It’s really, really not a nice thing to do.
It’s also completely canonical; in fact, it’s a rather funny scene from the aforementioned Charles Augustus Milverton story:
“You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?”
“You’ll be interested to hear that I’m engaged.”
“My dear fellow! I congrat-“
“To Milverton’s housemaid.”
“Good heavens, Holmes!”
“I wanted information, Watson.”
While the scene itself is quite amusing, one cannot help but pity the poor housemaid, who is not heard from again in the story. Thankfully, in this particular adaptation, Janine is more than a match for Sherlock, and takes her revenge without being too evil about it. Still, Sherlock Holmes has a canonical reputation for being a very unpleasant person when he needs to solve a case or get information, a point clearly made here. Nevertheless, Sherlock also has a capacity to care very deeply about John Watson, despite his not-so-gentlemanly behavior to Janine- another point the episode clearly makes.
Cottage on the Sussex Downs
“I’m buying a cottage,” Janine informs Sherlock as soon as he wakes up from being shot. After a back-and-forth full of quips and insults, Sherlock inquires “where’s the cottage?”
“Sussex Downs. It’s gorgeous. There’s beehives, but I’m getting rid of those.”
It’s an off-hand reference that’s easy to miss, but it’s actually quite clever. In the canon, Sherlock Holmes retires (a rather sad ending for the great detective. I’d have preferred for him to go out with a bang, but that’s me) to the Sussex Downs, where he spends his time keeping bees. Now, I’m now quite sure why this reference came up in this particular context, and it remains to be seen whether this cottage or Janine will show up again, but even if it’s an off-hand reference that will never be returned to again, it’s an interesting one.
When Mary Morstan hands a flash drive with her “real” (well, that’s questionable but let’s assume they’re real) initials on it, they say A.G.R.A. We don’t find out what they stand for (much as we don’t find out very much about Mary at all), but the initials themselves are a reference, once again, to canon. A simple one this time: “The Great Agra Treasure” is a chapter from The Sign of Four, the Holmes novel in which Mary Morstan is introduced (and in which Watson falls in love with and marries her).
The Empty House
“The Adventure of the Empty House” is the story in which Sherlock Holmes returns from the dead. He dresses up as a bookseller, Watson doesn’t recognize him, he shows up at Watson’s place, Watson faints, and then it’s all good…they team up again, and go after Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right-hand man. They lure him out by putting a silhouette of Holmes in the window of 221b, knowing that sharpshooter Moran would be looking for an opportunity to kill Holmes, and observe the events from an empty house across the street from 221b.
If you’re reading that and raising your eyebrows, you’re correct, because almost none of that showed up in any way in the previous two episodes. There was no empty house, and, even more suspiciously, no Moran. Thankfully, said empty house finally shows up in the episode, in the form of a façade hiding train tracks (a clever adaptation, I thought). Inside that empty house is a silhouette that looks like Sherlock Holmes, but actually isn’t; this time, it’s meant to lure out Mary Morstan.
Given these similarities to “The Empty House,” though, there’s one thing missing: Moran. Canonically, we know he’s a sharpshooter, and quite deadly – rather like Mary, who manages to toss a coin into the air and shoot it accurately. Coincidence? I think not. My personal theory is that Mary Morstan is indeed Sebastian Moran, but that, like so much other theorizing, is far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, this episode finally touches on many of the canonical aspects of Sherlock’s return, and I’m glad of it.
Sherlock’s (lack of a) drug habit
Edit: it’s been brought to my attention that many viewers consider that Sherlock Holmes is, in fact, back to doing drugs in this episode. I must, respectfully, disagree – my interpretation of the episode is precisely that Sherlock Holmes has not returned to his habit, a fact I find significant, and which – given the conflicting interpretations – I think it may be interesting to delve into.
Early on in the episode, we find Sherlock Holmes in a den of druggies, presumably high, though he insists that he’s working on a case. John and Mycroft are both angry but unsurprised- after all, Sherlock’s drug habit is canonical: in the second Holmes novel, he calmly injects himself with a “seven percent solution” of cocaine while Watson off-handedly asks “what is it today, cocaine or morphine?” That drug habit is something Sherlock also references, most notably with the drugs bust and “three patch problem” of A Study in Pink.
However, there are a few aspects that make me think Sherlock Holmes is not on drugs. There’s the fact that they can’t find any in his apartment (for the big secret he’s hiding in his bedroom is Janine). Most importantly, though, Sherlock has a canonical tendency to do drugs when he’s bored because there’s no case. It’s something Sherlock himself admits to in this very episode: he solves cases “as an alternative to getting high.” Now, in this case, he is on a case. He’s after Magnussen – making it, to me, unlikely he’d be doing much more than smoking a cigarette. Plus, the whole idea was to make project the image of a druggie in order to make Magnussen underestimate him – hence, actually being high and impeding his ability to think seems pretty counterproductive. Of course, there’s also the scene with Molly, which to me seems a little ambiguous – I can’t quite make out the tone in which she says “clean.” Admittedly, she’s angry and slaps him -but Molly also has a history of being in on a lot of Sherlock’s elaborate schemes, and I find it more than plausible that she wanted everyone to believe Sherlock was on drugs (John included, because apparently John can’t be trusted with…well, anything).
Why do I think that’s interesting? Because, canonically, Sherlock Holmes’ drug habit disappears during the Great Hiatus. When Watson first meets Holmes in the canon, Holmes is doing drugs left and right (this was legal back in the Victorian period). It takes Watson a while to catch on, and he sort of informs Holmes off-handedly how harmful it is, but doesn’t really worry about it too much. Then Holmes “dies,” disappears for three years, and comes back completely clean. His drug habit is never mentioned again. It’s just …not there. It’s easy to write that off to Doyle’s absentmindedness, but fans have come up with a number of much more plausible and interesting theories. One of them, detailed in the pastiche “The Seven-Percent Solution,” suggests that Holmes sought help for his drug problem from Freud. Whatever the explanation may be, however, the point remains that Sherlock Holmes’ very famous drug addiction completely (and rather unbelievably) disappears during his “death.” To me, the reference here is that everyone seems to expect Sherlock to be continuing his drug habit – the people closest to him included. But if you look closely (to me, at least) – that drug habit is gone. Sherlock’s different.
The East Wind
In John and Sherlock’s final scene, Sherlock tells John “the east wind takes us all in the end.” It’s a phrase he mentioned earlier in the episode, and he explains that it’s from a story Mycroft used to tell him:
“The east wind…this terrifying force that lays waste to all in its path…seeks out the unworthy and plucks them from the Earth.”
This sounds like it comes out of nowhere, but, like so many other things in this episode, it’s yet another canonical reference – this time to “His Last Bow,” the story whose title was transformed into the title of this episode. The story in itself is rather lackluster, but it does feature Sherlock Holmes as an undercover agent among the Germans during World War I, and the general theme of the story is that a new age is coming, a new world. Sherlock Holmes is ready to step into that world, to accept the changes that are coming (and WWI was truly a turning point in European history – a war of a magnitude and a brutality unseen before on European soil).
At the end of the story, Holmes asks Watson, “stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.” (Quite reminiscent of Sherlock’s statement at the end of this episode that it’s likely the first time he’ll ever see John). In the canonical story, Holmes calls Watson “the one fixed point in a changing age,” before poetically going on about the future:
“There’ s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast.”
There’s a number of literary explanations to be derived from this reference that are beyond the scope of this post – after all, I’m not here to theorize about what’ll be happening in season four (at least, not yet. That’s to come). Nevertheless, I think it’s telling. We’ve seen so many changes happen over the past few seasons, including changes to the character of Sherlock himself, and I think we’ll see even more transformations coming. (Incidentally, that’s why I don’t believe Moriarty is actually back, despite what the cliffhanger says. I think what’s coming is some kind of change that we couldn’t even begin to predict, to the story and the characters).
There’s likely a number of other interesting references here and there throughout the episode, but these are both the ones that come to mind and the ones that I find most interesting from a literary point of view.
At this point, this little fact is a bit…belated, but nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not brag a little here, of all places.
I have recently had the honor of being published in the Baker Street Journal, the formost publication of Sherlockian studies, which has been publishing said Sherlockian scholarship for decades.
Unfortunately, to read the article in question one must have a subscription to the journal (either through the journal site itself, or through a university library). The most I can do is direct my readers to the table of contents, and suggest that they take a look at the Baker Street Journal if they so have the chance – it publishes some wonderful scholarship (if I do say so myself).
Sherlock is finally back, and I must admit, I’m not emotionally prepared for that fact. I thought I had a handle on those feelings with last week’s unimpressive (in my view) episode, but “The Sign of Three” broke the dam and the deluge of feelings poured in.
I am, as Mr. Spock has said, emotionally compromised.
“The Sign of Three” is one of the most spectacularly brilliant Sherlock episodes I have yet encountered, matched, I think, only by “The Reichenbach Fall” (which also came from the pen of Steve Thompson. Can he get an award?) This post is neither a review of it, nor a summary. It is a celebration of it, but also some commentary and thoughts on what this episode is doing with storytelling, with narrative, and with the original canon.
The episode in itself is a feat of storytelling. After a spectacularly funny, albeit predictable, beginning, which sets up the great problem of the episode – Sherlock Holmes must write a best man’s speech – the entirety of the episode is that speech itself. Within that speech, Sherlock describes several cases he and John solved, because no episode would be complete without cases, even if there’s a wedding involved. Intertwined with that case-solving are flashbacks to everything that’s happened between “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three,” showing John and Sherlock’s getting back on its feet and then evolving even further. But there’s also the thread of a larger murder running through the entire episode, with the smaller cases John and Sherlock work on tying into the large murder that he must solve- or, as Sherlock Holmes might put it, “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it.” (A Study in Scarlet)
Sherlock’s life may not be colorless, but the thread of murder is certainly there, and he solves it by delving into his mind palace, which is again cleverly intertwined with both the speech he’s giving and the flashbacks. We first encountered Sherlock’s mind palace in “The Hounds of Baskerville,” and it’s a pleasure I didn’t know I needed to actually see it. It is, after all, the physical, literal manifestation of Sherlock Holmes’ thought processes, portrayed in such a tangible way that we can grasp it while still intertwining with all the other events of the episode. To capture the mind of a man like Sherlock is nigh impossible, but this comes close.
From a storytelling perspective, it’s a brilliant achievement if one has an inkling of the general format of television plots. Usually, each episode is self-contained, containing what one calls “A” and “B” plots, which interact and drive the episode forward, both of which build onto a larger seasonal plot. This episode naturally does so, but it intertwines these three plots very cleverly: with the best man’s speech, the various cases, and the murder all making up the A and B plots and very cleverly interacting, while the progression of John and Sherlock’s relationship contributes to the seasonal plot. At least, that’s my understanding, but the various threads of this episode are so complex that I have a hard time untangling them. In fact, when Sherlock Holmes spoke of a case as being a “tangled skein, and I am looking for a loose end,”(“The Adventure of the Creeping Man”) I think I understand exactly what he means. It’s an intricate knot, and you have to know just where to pull to unravel it.
On to Sherlock’s speech then. The fact that Sherlock Holmes writes such a lengthy piece of text is more than just a storytelling approach, though it is that; it’s also an interesting commentary on the Canon and an interaction with it.
The Sherlock Holmes stories have come down to us as the writings of John Watson – he set down all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, with the exception of four (the four he didn’t write are very badly written). One story is penned by Holmes himself, during his retirement, and the writing of it is pretty terrible. Holmes admits it himself, lamenting that “Ah! Had [Watson] but been with me, how much he might have made of so wonderful a happening and of my eventual triumph against every difficulty!” (The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane). Watson is not there, however, leaving Holmes to tell his story “in [his] own plain way.”
Which just goes to show how important John Watson is, because it is his writing, his talent, and his predilection for romanticizing that makes Sherlock Holmes the hero he is. In the canon, Holmes is constantly criticizing Watson for all the romanticizing he does. “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you had worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid,” he rather rudely tells Watson in The Sign of Four. And in “The Sign of Three,” it’s no coincidence that Sherlock calls John a “romantic.” He means it in more than one way, and it’s not a derogatory comment, because John being a romantic is precisely what has immortalized Sherlock Holmes. It is his desire to tell vibrant stories, and his abilities to do so, that have brought Sherlock Holmes to life and made him a hero. Even possessing his talent for deduction and observation, Sherlock Holmes would not be the hero we know of today if he was not immortalized by Watson. And this is something that Sherlock acknowledges, bringing the attendees’ attention to Watson’s blog again and again, even raising his phone (upon which that blog is doubtless reachable), as if to thank Watson for the way he has brought them together in his tales.
And, in “The Sign of Three,” in penning his speech, in creating a celebration of John Watson in words, Sherlock Holmes is returning the favor. Just as Watson has celebrated Sherlock through his words and made him the character and the hero we love today, so Sherlock is doing the same for Watson, bringing him into the limelight. Watson has often been relegated to the side – Doyle himself didn’t have an overly high opinion of him, calling him rather “stupid,” many film adaptations cast Watson as a bit of a bumbling idiot, and so often he’s seen as nothing but a vehicle for the telling of stories, because when one’s protagonist is a genius, one requires someone else to write the stories. And yet, here, Watson is treated as a just complement to Sherlock, as important as the detective himself. He’s changed Sherlock, not only celebrated him, and he is essential to our understanding of the great detective. And so we see here Sherlock taking up John’s craft, the craft of words, to give John the respect he is due and create not only a parallel, but also an equality, between the two of them.
And it is a touching and heartbreaking speech. It shows how much John Watson has changed Sherlock Holmes, drawing him out and finding his inner humanity. No matter how many times in the canon Holmes states that he does not love (“my brain has always governed my heart,” he says in “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”, and it’s a sentiment he echoes in the speech itself), no one doubts that Sherlock Holmes cares about John Watson (one might remember Holmes’ frantic desperation when Watson is injured in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” which revealed to Watson his companion’s affection). It shows us not only how necessary Watson is to Holmes, but how much Sherlock himself realizes it.
“There are mysteries worth solving and stories worth telling. The best and bravest man I know…” Sherlock says, and how utterly fitting that he transitions from the concept of telling stories to that epithet for John. It’s an echo of “The Final Problem,” which reads less like a story and more like a eulogy by Watson of his dead friend. That story ends with Watson calling Holmes “the best and wisest man that I have ever known,” a statement that John echoes in “The Reichenbach Fall” with his stuttered, ineloquent “you were the best man and the most human – human being that I’ve ever known.” They come full circle, giving each other these similar-sounding epithets and celebrating the accomplishments of each other, for they’re equals. Sherlock may have the greater mind, but John Watson has, perhaps, the greater heart, and the two are absolutely necessary to each other. They’re equals who need each other and complement each other, and Sherlock’s foray into storytelling tells that.
This episode was everything I’d been expecting from season three, and then more. After the spectacular, deeply emotional “Reichenbach Fall,” there was room for so much emotion and so much characterization. “The Empty Hearse” seems to have skipped over much of the emotional impact of season two’s finale, but this episode fills in that gap. After the emotional development Sherlock went through in the second season, this is the natural development of his character, and it is heartening to see it so brilliantly done. I’m incredibly excited for the ensuing episode, “His Last Vow,” but also slightly terrified at the heartbreak and angst that’s obviously going to result, because Sherlock can’t be this happy for very long.
After much detecting and deducting, we Sherlockians have deduced that the great detective’s birthday falls on this day, January 6th.
Happy birthday, Mr. Holmes! As your obituary has never appeared in any paper, I must conclude that you are still alive, and, though already immortal in the minds and hearts of readers, you are approaching immortality in the more literal sense of acquiring age as well.
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.