Star Trek: The Cage, or, How I Learned to Stop Living and Love Television.

Mojave is now lush parkland. Is this some kind of sick joke?

Okay, now here’s the elephant in the room: why didn’t this pilot get picked up to be a series? Why does Where No Man Has Gone Before exist?

The primary reason has to be how Gene Roddenberry wrote Captain Christopher Pike. Considering a long-term character plan, I don’t think that he was intended to be so gruff and jaded. We see glimmers of Kirk-like exuberance in his character, but only at the end of this episode.

The Cage focuses around the Enterprise shortly after a major catastrophe has occurred. Several members of the crew are dead. While the crew is adamant that Pike couldn’t have done anything differently, he is nevertheless distraught about the course of events, and his role in them. By the end of his adventure on Talos IV, he has discovered that his fantasies of a life back in his hometown, or perhaps as an intergalactic slave trader (WTF?!?) don’t hold any appeal for him. He realizes that his best true destiny is that of a Starship Captain.

The problem here is that Christopher Pike’s character arc in The Cage is written like a feature film, and not a television Pilot. The job of a Pilot is to sell the concept of a series. It’s not to show the emotional development of a character—that’s what the actual series is for. So our forlorn Starship Captain who rediscovers his passion for exploring the Galaxy—but he doesn’t significantly demonstrate how he would have acted during the course of the series.

The embittered Christopher Pike.

The embittered Christopher Pike.

This can be laid squarely at the feet of the writing. Jeffrey Hunter was a terrific actor; you don’t star in three John Ford films without being so. And it’s a shame that he was never able to further cement his legacy, due to his untimely death.

And it’s not just Hunter. Even the action in the episode falls flat. The only major action-adventure sequence is really boring! The Kalar is entirely unthreatening as a creature—just a large man with bad teeth and a fur hat. Much of the scene consists of characters first cowering in a corner, then grabbing each other by the shoulders and shaking. I don’t think the problem was that the pilot was “too cerebral.” It’s just not exciting, on either a character or visceral level.

But there were business factors at work that led to the rejection of The Cage and the issuance of a second pilot. As related by Herb Solow in Inside Star Trek, Mort Werner, the head of programming at NBC had the following to say about The Cage:

I didn’t think Desilu was capable of making Star Trek, so when we looked over the pilot stories you gave us, we chose the most complicated and difficult of the bunch. We recognize now it wasn’t necessarily a story that properly showcased Star Trek’s series potential. So the reason the pilot didn’t sell was my fault, not yours. You guys did your job too well. And I screwed up.


One of the prominent ways that The Cage dates itself is how the show treats the women aboard the Enterprise. Roddenberry very deliberately foregrounds issues of gender, family and sexuality, much to the detriment of modern audiences. When it was written 50 years ago, society was still wrestling with a profound shift in gender norms; many of those issues have yet to resolve themselves. And it was written by a man who had infamously troubling relationships with women, both on and off the screen.

In the episode’s defense, it features the character of Number One, who is almost entirely unique in the original series. She is calm and calculating, so much so that when she was dropped from the episode, most of her personality characteristics were transferred to the legendary Mr. Spock. And at the end of the episode, it is her defiant resolve that no human should live as a slave is what resolves the conflict. With Pike, she is the most well rounded character of the episode.

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Number One.

Again, Roddenberry has entirely blamed network anxiety at NBC over her gender for the fact that this character was sacked. But again, in Mort Werner’s words:

In varying degrees, we’re not happy with some of the cast. We support the concept of a woman in a strong, leading role, but we have serious doubts as to Majel Barrett’s abilities to ‘carry’ the show as its costar. We also think you can do better with the ship’s doctor, the yeoman, and other members of the crew. We applaud the attempt at a racial mix; it’s exactly what we want. Hopefully there’ll be be more experienced minority actors available for next year. Jeffrey Hunter was okay, and if you want to use him again, that’s fine with us…

And one last thing, Herb. For God’s sake, no more scantily clad green dancing girls with bumps and grinds, okay?

But at the very least the concept of Number One was solid enough that her personality traits would survive, albeit in a different character, into the series proper.

Conversely, Vina, the featured guest star, was a very poorly written character, where any kind of logical coherence fell by the wayside. She provides a strong case study that poor representations of women in American Media are simply bad writing, without need for condition. It’s just inept writing that we are conditioned to forgive because it is applied to a woman character.

The concept of Vina is that she was the sole survivor of her expedition, and that her solitary captivity on Talos drove her to complicity in the Keeper’s plot to capture another human.

Now to an extent I can accept that, but for one thing: her character was a scientist on a mission of exploration. I can scarcely imagine any of the other characters on Star Trek getting stranded on a planet that not only features a menagerie of creatures from across that region of space, but also the ruins and records of an ancient civilization, and not being able to keep themselves busy and productive for years. Further, the script later impresses that her unhappiness stems almost solely from her disfigurement. Again, given the tolerant and egalitarian attitudes present in the themes of future original series episodes, it seems incredibly unlikely that her disfigurement would preclude her reintegration into human society.

But even beyond all that—we are told that the Talosians had no idea what a human looked like, and therefore, how to put her back together. Yet could not this race of telepaths have reached into her mind and found out how she pictured herself?

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So even beyond weird issues of Stockholm Syndrome, beyond the notion put forward in the episode that women on Starships is a new phenomenon, and beyond the male Gaze that is rampant through the episode, lies a core of just plainly inept characterization and lazy writing. Fundamentally I think that this makes up the core of most Feminist criticism—that a writer doesn’t automatically get a pass to write lazily just because they’re writing a woman character.

This leads to a thesis that will persist across this blog: that Gene Roddenberry was not nearly as talented a writer as he was a script doctor. His original stories tend to be heavy-handed, and demonstrate a worldview even more anachronistic than the original Star Trek series as a whole.


Another note of representation in The Cage is that of racial representation. While Uhura and Sulu have yet to be introduced, there are People of Color among the extras. Roddenberry had it in his mind to have his Starship Enterprise be more representative of Earth than any other science fiction to date.

One of my major interests in representation is that of Latino History in the United States. Further, I feel that they are one of the most profoundly underrepresented groups in Science Fiction. A few years ago, I heard a story that particularly affected me: Salma Hayek was up for a role in a prominent SF film. The director was fighting for her inclusion, but an unknown studio head reportedly said, “Whoever heard of a Mexican in space?”

Perhaps if José Tyler had made the cut into Star Trek, that casting decision years later might have gone differently.

Navigator José Tyler.

Navigator José Tyler.

Still, the resulting character is generally bland. Peter Duryea, the white actor cast in the role, was given piteously little to work with. But still, even the character description leaves a great deal to be desired:

“The Navigator. José (Joe) Tyler, Boston astronomer father and Brazilian mother, is boyishly handsome, still very much in the process of maturing. An unusual combination, he has inherited his father’s mathematical ability. José Tyler, in fact, is a phenomenally brilliant mathematician and space theorist. But he has also inherited his mother’s Latin temperament, fights a perpetual and highly personalized battle with his instruments and calculators, suspecting that space – and probably God, too – are engaged in a giant conspiracy to make his professional and personal life as difficult and uncomfortable as possible. Joe (or José, depending on the other party) is young enough to be painfully aware of the historical repute of Latins as lovers – and is in danger of failing this challenge on a cosmic scale.

Nevertheless, if the role had perhaps been recast, and an actor of color had managed to infuse the character with the kind of humanity and pathos that Nichelle Nichols and George Takei were able to bring into their characters, it would have been a huge step forward for representation in the genre.

Expect to see me bring this subject up again at every opportunity, particularly when I talk about Muniz in Deep Space Nine.


Spare ruminations:

  • There is some very uneven attention to detail in the episode. When the landing party first beams down to Talos, they are very conspicuously wounded. One member of the landing party has a bandage on his neck. Spock is visibly limping. Yet for much of the remainder of the episode, the characters are unscathed.
  • The bridge of the Enterprise was originally intended to be much more interactive and active. There were plans for the screens above the stations to be always changing and displaying new information. In addition, Spock changes some displays with a wave of his hand. However, due to Union rules at the time, each projector was required to have its own projectionist, the relatively dynamic nature of the bridge was dulled. Boo.
  • Other than his ears, there is nothing in his characterization, or even his dialogue, to demonstrate that Spock is an alien. Just the ears and eyebrows.
  • I’m convinced that the Talosians are really Americans. Fascinated by fantasy worlds, they have abandoned their planet to environmental degradation, and have forgotten the great industrial feats of their ancestors. For someone writing for television, Roddenberry sure delivers a heavy-handed indictment of it.

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  • I find that quote about the bumping and grinding green dancing girl to be really hilarious.

  • Tom

    Actually, Vina was not a scientist, but a civilian passenger. While it’s not stated why she’s on the ship, or what her skills are, it could presumably be that she really had no skills to survive on a planet without becoming completely dependent on the Talosians, regardless of her injuries.

    • Jesse MacKinnon

      I just looked it up. “There was a Vina listed on that expedition as an adult crewman.” Sure, I entirely buy that she might not be a scientist per say, but on a voyage of exploration…

  • Tom

    I had always interpreted what the Talosians meant about repairing her was that they didn’t understand how her internal organs and systems looked like, or were supposed to work, so while they patched her up so that they worked, they may have done so using other organs or methods, which in turn left her externally disfigured. Otherwise, you’re right, her memories should have showed them, unless they couldn’t get images from people when they’re unconscious.

  • Tom

    As far as setting Spock apart as an alien, I believe there were plans for him to have a much more dramatic change in skin tone originally. Wasn’t it red in one draft, until there were objections that he would look too much like the devil? And I think he was supposed to have a much darker green skin-tone, but I recall a story where the film developers kept correcting the color because they thought it was a mistake. They later decided to leave the green skin-tone less apparent.

    • Jesse MacKinnon

      Definitely yes on the Red skin tone. That’s one bit that isn’t over-exaggerated in the myth making. They were afraid that southern affiliates would see it as “too Satanic.” And he was also supposed to absorb energy through a metal plate on his stomach. The green skin tone thing you’re thinking of Majel’s screen test as the Orion.

  • Tom

    And finally, I had not considered that one of the failing of The Cage was that Pike developed too quickly over the course of one episode. One of the things I always observed was that the character of Pike was a bit too angry throughout the story. While I understand they were presenting a character in conflict, it doesn’t make for a very likable character. Fantasizing as a slave trader isn’t exactly the makings of a good role model either. As much as I like Jeffrey Hunter, and curious where the character would have gone, I don’t think his characterization set the right tone for the show. He is to Shatner how Eric Stoltz was to Michael J. Fox.

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