Friday, May 1, 2009

Star Trek--"The Cage"

The original, unaired pilot seems like the best place to start. Practically the entire episode was weaved into ‘The Menagerie I-II” later, but I felt like it was a sloppy butchering. I will have more to say about that later, but for now, just note the pilot stands best on its own merit. I am happy a second pilot was ordered that featured the cast we have all come to know and love, but I still recognize how great the original concept was, too.

I first saw ’The Cage” when it made its television debut in 1988. I was unaware of the business side of Hollywood, so this was the first time I had even heard of a pilot. There was a lot of hype leading up to the premiere. This was in the pre-internet days, so tidbits like I heard were hard to come by outside of rumors I had heard being a part of the comic book and science fiction subculture, particularly at conventions. I recall bootleg copies of the pilot allegedly being sold long before 1988, but never seeking one out if they indeed existed.

The interesting part for me about that is how Paramount whitewashes what it allows the public to know about the behind the scenes stuff. Twenty-one years later after watching various news organizations dig into darker issues, such as Grace Lee Whitney’s sexual assault and subsequent firing, was an eye opening experience to the nastier side of Hollywood and how well they try to cover it up. In a roundabout way, the hype leading up to “The Cage” started an interest in “true’ Hollywood stories. It has nothing to do with my interest in Trek, but it is worth noting.

When I am talking about whitewashing “The Cage,” I am referring to the story that Jeffrey Hunter’s girlfriend badgered Gene Roddenberry so much over the star treatment she believed Hunter should be receiving, he was eager to dump him for someone else. How much of a factor that was in the recasting for the nearly unprecedented second pilot is debatable, but considering his tragic fate, there is a distinct possibility Hunter would have been much better off had he remained to play Christopher Pike in the series.

Hunter died on the operating table in 1969 while doctors were trying to repair a skull fracture he suffered during a fall after a cerebral hemorrhage. Hunter had suffered stroke like symptoms from a injury he received weeks earlier on a movie set in Spain. His death occurred only a week before the final episode of TOS aired. Hunter’s son, Christopher, told interviewers he believed alcoholism was a contributing factor to his father’s death. There is no value in speculating on the road not taken, but you cannot help but wonder if things would have worked out much better for him had he stuck with trek.

Enough with the drama. On with the show.

The plot of ’The Cage” features many science fiction staples. The Enterprise discovers the survivor of a ship which crashed on the remote planet Talos IV twenty years ago. Capt. Pike is captured by an aged, powerful race called the Talosians who wants him to mate with Vina, a survivor of the crash. The Talosians want the pair to mate in order to create a slave race to maintain their machines. They create a number of illusory scenarios to make the two fall I love, but their plans ultimately fail when Pike stops stops believing in the illusions. We learn Vina’s beauty is also an illusion. Shewas horribly disfigured when the Talosians tried to heal her injuries. The crew parts ways with the Talosians when the aliens refuse to open relations because they fear humans cannot handle their advanced technology.

I liked the overall theme of the episode. people would rather die than be imprisoned, even if the prison is the illusion of paradise. Even Pike, who is dissatisfied with the way his life is going, resists the Talosians’ efforts to fufill his fantasies. The flip side of the coin is Vina, who is perfectly willing to believe the lie that her beauty remains. I am notsure I can blame her for that, but it is food for thought that she hasa logical reason for living a lie. Ironically, Pkie eventually comes to that conclusion for himself in “The Menagerie.” it is not a stretch, since he urged the Talosians to maintain Vina’s beauty as well. I do not believe the change in attitude from pre-injury Pike to post-injury Pike cheapens the character.

The Talosians appear to be the inspiration for the radiation scarred humans in 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Both were a small band of survivors of a nuclear war, both lived deep underground, and both had developed telepathic powers to control others, although the Talosians created virtual realities and the humans in BtPOTA directly controlled their victims’ actions. Even their appearances are similar.You can also see elements of what would become Kirk’s womanizing ways. The talismans make several attempts to entice Pike into mating with Vina. At various times, she is presented as the girl next door, a damsel in distress, and temptress. Yes, we are talking about an Orion slave girl there. Pike manages to resist both archetypes of Mary and Eve. Kirk would have done it all three times and still escaped.A few other bits of note involve Majel Barrett as the first officer. there was some trepidation on the part of the network to allow a woman to have such power. Indeed, later on, Uhura would hold a rank as Lieutenant while an ensign would be placed in command of the bridge instead. A black man did play a commodore during the first season, so one has to assume Roddenberry was more enlightened about race than gender. Another point is that Spock has not yet settled into his Vulcan ways. Here he smilesand uses human colloquial phrases. He still has those pointy ears, though.

Overall, “The Cage” is one of the best episodes of the series. It deserves to be seen as part of the series run, if for no other reason than allowing fans to see just how gypped they are by the cut up version in ‘The Menagerie.”

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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