Saturday, September 25, 2010

Best Clipshow Ever! Star Trek's "The Menagerie" Recycles Unused Episode Well!

The Good: Decent idea, Nice usage of footage, Fine acting, Good characterization
The Bad: Plot holes, Ultimately it seems somewhat pointless
The Basics: When Spock steals the Enterprise, Kirk must capture him and sit through the first Star Trek pilot in a fun court clipshow of Star Trek!

Star Trek and its descendants managed to not fall into too many of the traps of long-running television series’s. Ironically, the short-lived Star Trek fell into one of the most disappointing ones very early on in its run; a clip-show of sorts. For sure, it’s not anywhere near as bad as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s pure clip-show, the pathetic second season finale “Shades Of Gray”, but with “The Menagerie,” Star Trek reuses footage from the unaired pilot to create a “new” two-part episode. And for the record, in every official count of Star Trek episodes, “The Menagerie” is treated as a single episode.

When the U.S.S. Enterprise is visiting a Starbase because Spock is contacted by his old captain, Pike, Kirk begins to suspect something is wrong. At Starbase 11, Kirk discovers that Pike is confined to a mobile chair, barely more than a torso and head connected to a computer on wheels, unable to talk. The mystery is put on hold almost immediately when Spock hijacks the Enterprise, abducts Pike and heads the ship in the direction of Talos IV, the only planet on record that warrants the death penalty in the Federation!

When Captain Kirk and Commodore Mendez, the head of Starbase 11, pursue the Enterprise in a shuttlecraft, the soon fall behind and prepare to die in space when they run out of fuel. Spock, unable to let Kirk die, recovers the shuttlecraft and immediately an inquiry is begun into Spock’s actions . . . an inquiry that threatens Spock with death! In his defense, Spock illustrates why he did what he did by showing what happened on the only other mission to Talos 4, a mission he was a part of, when he served under Captain Pike.

“The Menagerie” hardly feels like a clip show because the episode works to balance the footage in the courtroom with the footage on the courtroom monitor. Indeed, it seems when watching the episode now that “The Menagerie” takes quite a bit of time to get to the point where the Talos IV mission actually is projected on the screen. The mission, of course, is “The Cage,” the first pilot to Star Trek. The series was entirely recast when NBC refused to buy that pilot, save Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. This allows Star Trek to use the footage from “The Cage,” without actually airing the episode. The result is an episode that did not cost much to make and allowed less footage to be lost or wasted.

“The Menagerie” works because it is generally motivated by character. Sure, there’s the huge plot contrivance of the Enterprise being hijacked in order to start a trial in order to show “The Cage,” er the Talos IV footage, but the question is why does it happen? Spock. Spock does everything and why? It seems to be out of loyalty to Captain Pike, who serves as one of the judges against Spock. This adds a level of intrigue; why would Spock risk everything for Pike.

The answer starts with the idea that Spock served under Captain Pike for approximately fifteen years. This little fact presented in “The Menagerie” guts the idea of James Kirk and Spock going through the Academy contemporaneously (shame on you William Shatner – he wrote a new novel that puts them there together!). We are also able to see Spock as both resilient, loyal and strangely insubordinate all at the same time! In “The Menagerie,” he takes a moral stand and refuses to back down from it. It’s pretty courageous. Is it Vulcan? Well, the loyalty part is, the lying and misleading is not.

This is a rather new character trait for Spock and while the series would later show a similar devotion to Kirk, which was reciprocated by Kirk in works like Star Trek III: The Search For Spock”, this is the first time we see Spock work so hard based on loyalty alone.

The footage from “The Cage” is worthwhile; it’s a good episode which finds the Enterprise, under Captain Christopher Pike, investigating Talos IV only to become a captive to a group of telepathic aliens. The Talosians want Pike to mate with another local human, a woman named Vina and they manipulate and punish him to try to achieve their goals. In “The Menagerie,” Pike is barely conscious, a leader’s mind trapped within a crippled body that makes him instantly sympathetic and sells the episode’s reason for being.

Following so closely on the heels of “Court-Martial” (click here for the review!), “The Menagerie” might make it seem like Star Trek has become obsessed with courtroom dramas. Whereas “Court-Martial” seemed more like Perry Mason than Trek, “The Menagerie” makes a good show of it, but the trial ultimately feels like a pretense to play the footage from “The Cage.” The thing is, it works! The usage of the new footage to create a viable story around which “The Cage” could be shown is a decent idea that is executed well.

While much of the episode, Captain Kirk is relegated to the same place as the audience – watching the monitor in the trial room – William Shatner does a decent job of keeping the character focused and the plot moving when presenting the non-flashback plot. Shatner plays Kirk as somewhat conflicted, wanting to believe that Spock had a good reason for doing what he was doing (including leading Kirk on a chase that nearly cost him his life) and believing there is the real possibility Spock has gone mad. Shatner wisely plays Kirk with a decent mix of anger and sympathy, loss and understanding.

Spock, in addition to his interesting new character developments in the form of a genuine spine, is well portrayed by Leonard Nimoy. In “The Menagerie,” Nimoy presents Spock with a sense of coldness and a methodical quality that is haunting and he makes the character feel haunted. While viewers have seen Spock logical, he has never seemed quite so detached and accepting of what he views as inevitable before. Nimoy executes that perfectly. He does not let a hint of emotion cross his face, not even his usual occasional bemused expression. Here, Nimoy perfects the silent efficiency of Spock and he sells him as a truly real and viable character while doing that.

In all, “The Menagerie” is likely to be enjoyed by anyone who likes science fiction. It is generally clever, fun and tells a decent story well. I will (always) recommend “The Cage” over “The Menagerie,” but to be fair, this version does cut out some of the moralizing and character, which is fine in the larger context because the character we come to care the most about in “The Cage” is Captain Pike, who didn’t make it to any other episodes other than “The Cage” and this one. In that same larger context, though, “The Menagerie” is redundant. When we can watch “The Cage,” uncensored, this episode has less relevance.

Still, it’s decent and it is a worthwhile episode.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into "Star Trek - The Complete First Season" on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode and season reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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