Friday, December 16, 2011

The Cage

***** (5 stars out of 5)
I don't just give my top rating to the first 'Star Trek' ever made, first seen in its entirety by the public (well, fans anyway) at conventions in the 1970's. I also give that rating to guest blog poster Renaissance Dork, a local luminary. Oh, here he is now:

I need to establish, right from the beginning, that I love Star Trek. I love Kirk, Spock, McCoy and all the rest. I love the acres of camp, the rubber aliens and the rare moments of sincere pathos that shone through it all. I really, really love Star Trek: The Original Series.

But I'd trade it all to see what would have come from the original pilot, “The Cage”.

For those that aren't in the know, “The Cage” was the first pilot that Gene Roddenberry presented to NBC in 1965. Here is a quick synopsis:

Capt. Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) and the crew of the USS Enterprise travel through the far reaches of space. When they receive a distress signal from the distant planet Talos IV, they proceed to investigate. What they find are the survivors of a Federation expedition that disappeared 18 years earlier. Most of the survivors are now quite elderly except for one, the beautiful Vina (Susan Oliver), who they claim was born at the time of the crash. It's all an illusion, however, and the planet's super-intelligent inhabitants take the Captain prisoner. While the ship's First Officer, Number One (played by Majel Barrett. Yes, that one), and the Science Officer, Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy. Yes, that one), try to locate and rescue their commander, Pike is alternately subjected to temptation and torture for reasons that his captors will not explain to him. Eventually Pike wins free from his captors, who have decided that humans are just too much trouble to keep in captivity.

After reading that synopsis you might think to yourself, “Hey, that story sounds familiar!” And if you watched ST:TOS you will have seen bits of “The Cage”; it was used as testimony footage in the court-martial scenes in “The Menagerie” two-part episode. Because of a time crunch they had only one week to shoot two episodes. Since they already had one “in the can”, as it were, problem solved! But I digress...

NBC execs didn't think much of this weird sci-fi pilot, and rejected it. Why? First off, they weren't a fan of Majel Barrett's character, Number One. Depending on who you ask, they either didn't think a female authority figure would fly with 1965 audiences, or they didn't think much of Barrett's acting ability. Second, the execs didn't like the character of Mr. Spock; apparently the pointy eared alien freaked them out a bit, and they didn't see how audiences could possibly warm up to him. And the third big reason: Captain Pike was really depressing! How depressing? One of Pike's first scenes is him drinking and commiserating with the ship's doctor (nope, not McCoy, the first doctor on the Enterprise was Dr. Phillip Boyce, played by John Hoyt). Here's one of Pike's lines from that scene:

I'm tired of being responsible for 203 lives, and... I'm tired of deciding which mission is too risky and which isn't, and who's going on the landing party and who doesn't... and who lives... and who dies.

Cheery, isn't he? Now, there were some other reasons the NBC execs weren't thrilled by the first pilot. But coupled with those three main objections “The Cage” was rejected and Roddenberry was asked to write a second pilot. Which as we all know is “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, which led to the series we all know today.

And which I really, really love, okay? But I can't help thinking what the series would have become if that first pilot had aired. Because deep down in my soul, when I think no one is looking, I think “The Cage” is the better pilot. Okay, settle down and let me explain.

First, a female First Officer was a pretty ballsy move for 1965. And if you watch that episode, you'll notice that Majel Barrett is pretty much playing the character that will become Mr. Spock later on. She is cold, logical and has a forthright and commanding presence. She and Spock should get along great, right? Except Nimoy's first run at Spock is not the logical Vulcan we all know. The “first” Spock is much more emotional, even volatile, because Nimoy's first pass at the character was inspired by the name of Spock's race, the Vulcans (vulcan, where we get volcano. And volcanoes are fiery, get it?). So here is the set-up for what would later become the Spock/McCoy dynamic in TOS, except we leave out the “Dammit, Spock!” moments. And heck, we haven't even added in the gender tension yet, which would have blown the minds of mid-sixties viewers.

Second, I think Pike is a much more interesting character than Kirk. Wait, let me finish! Pike, as presented in the pilot, has demons. In contrast to Kirk's energy and bravado, Pike is tired and beat down. Obviously bad things have happened to Pike, and he is feeling the weight of his position and responsibility. He is the captain of a starship, a job that any sci-fi nerd would sell their left-frontal lobe to have, and he isn't sure if he even wants to keep doing it. Compare that to Kirk; yes, throughout the series we see glimpses that the Captain's chair is a sometimes uncomfortable place for Kirk. But he never fundamentally questions his desire to be there, even when awful things happen to him that should raise that question. And while Kirk is a compelling character in his own way, there is nothing about him that I want to learn. Pike on the other hand, yeesh! His past is so bad that in one of the first scenes in the show he escapes from the bridge to get drunk! Right from the start I need to know Pike's story, and I'm willing to wait through an entire series to get it.

Third, and this is where I tie one and two together, I think that bridge dynamic would have been more interesting. You have Pike, the haunted and reluctant captain. Add Number One, the First Officer who is obviously more commanding than the captain, and a woman to boot. Mix in liberal amounts of the volatile Mr. Spock, who is likely to grate on Pike's every nerve and have to be reigned in often by Number One. The possibilities of that dynamic excite me, and while I will never knock the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triangle, I think the Pike/Spock/Number One triangle (occasionally sprinkled with some Dr. Boyce) would have led to more conflict and been more consistently interesting.

Heck, forget the triangle, let's just look at tensions between Pike and Number One. The most obvious one is gender tension, because as has previously been pointed out a female officer on television in 1965, even on a sci-fi program, would have been mind-blowing. And Roddenberry knew that, setting it up even in the pilot episode. Here is the exchange when a new female crew member comes onto the bridge:

Number One: [Pike has just been thrown off-balance by his new yeoman] She's replacing your former yeoman, sir. Captain Christopher Pike: Oh, she does a good job; it's just that I can't get used to having a woman on the bridge. [Number One gives him a sharp look] Captain Christopher Pike: No offense, Lieutenant; you're different, of course.

Those three lines set the ground-work for episodes upon episodes of stories!. It opens up the chance to examine traditional gender roles, to look at how we perceive women in the workplace, in the military, what women are expected to sacrifice for a career opposed to what men must sacrifice...the list goes on. Never mind the effect having a strong female character on television in 1965 would have had on other shows written at the same time. Maybe it would have done nothing, but maybe it would have pushed other strong female characters into the foreground on television. Sadly, we can't know.

I could go on, draw parallels and comparisons, extol the virtues of a series that never was. But really, it's all conjecture. The fact is, “The Cage” was not the series pilot, and Star Trek became the series we know and love because of the adventures of a hot-blooded captain, his crusty ship's doctor and a certain logical Vulcan First Officer. And I'm not saying that ST:TOS wasn't any fun, because it was. We wouldn't still be talking about if it wasn't, right?

But if you get the chance, check out “The Cage” again. And take a second to imagine what could have been. I think you'll be pleased with what you see...

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