The Good: Excellent character development, Concept, Moments of acting
The Bad: Effects issues, "Pilot" issues, Franchise issues as a result
The Basics: Star Trek begins with "The Cage," restored to its original all-color version, the story of Captain Pike being captured by telepathic aliens with a strange intent for their captives.
Gene Roddenberry had a tough time with his original concept of Star Trek. In its first incarnation, Star Trek was the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of the moody Captain Christopher Pike, his first officer the efficient Number One, and his chief science officer, Mr. Spock. It was a cerebral adventure that began with a feature-length pilot episode that was not picked up by the networks, but was so expensive that it was worth investing a little more in to remake the series with a second pilot.
But the first pilot has issues of its own; shot in color, the episode was recut later to be used in "The Menagerie" (click here for that review!). After that, though, the original episode was damaged and in order to restore it, footage had to be used from a black and white work print. As a result, there exist three versions of "The Cage," the fully restored, all color version, the "The Menagerie" print that is colored, but has black and white workprint clips interspersed where the original was damaged or missing and the all black and white version. Personally, I favor the fully restored version (which is what I am reviewing) because the work restoring the color print was done exceptionally well and it is the only version that has aired on television (back in 1988)! The full color version is available on video, DVD and laserdisc still. I understand the debates about colorization, but considering the program was originally shot in color, it seems silly to cling to the black and white workprint as any sort of authority as it was not even up to the standards Gene Roddenberry originally conceived the series at. And it was a worthy first take; "The Cage" remains one of the best pilot episodes of a series I've ever seen.
Captain Christopher Pike is becoming reclusive following a mission that went badly and cost the lives of several of his crew. Limping back to a starbase for replacements and repairs, Pike is less than enthusiastic when the starship he is commanding, the Federation starship U.S.S. Enterprise, passes through an old-style radio transmission which sets off alarms on the bridge. Over a decade prior, a ship in the area crashed and the distress signal is now reaching the Enterprise's location. Pike opts to ignore it given that there is no proof that there were any survivors and the Enterprise needs repairs, rest and replacement crew.
But shortly thereafter, the Enterprise receives another transmission, one that indicates that that there were survivors of the crashed vessel. The Enterprise journeys to Talos IV where it finds the survivors, living heroically on the barren land of the planet. In their company is a young woman who leads Pike away . . . and into a trap. Pike awakens in a jail cell, surrounded by similar captives and he soon meets his captors; highly telepathic aliens who are able to alter reality with their mind, which quickly confuses Pike, but not enough that he does not notice that the various fantasies that he suddenly finds himself in all include Vina, the survivor from the surface, a woman who seems to desperately want Pike to love her. As Pike sets his sights on escape, he finds his attempts foiled and made difficult by the powers of the Talosians, who seem determined to keep him.
"The Cage" is an ambitious and cerebral episode that is smarter than most pilots for one simple reason; despite the "pilot issues" (see below), it is a story that the viewer arrives at in process. This is not an origin episode that belabors who everyone is and how they all relate and how they met and all that sort of stuff that most pilots today do. Instead, the viewer is tossed into the Star Trek universe, sink or swim. This makes the story much more engaging because it does not try to explain itself or justify its own existence and that serves the story quite well. In other words, "The Cage" arrives with a strong sense of backstory and the characters work well with one another as if they have been at it for a long time.
The same cannot necessarily be said about the actors. "Pilot issues" are pretty normal first episode learning curve difficulties. "The Cage" has them, from the special effects (the opening credits are particularly amusing as the Enterprise rushes toward the viewer then pops out of existence as is presumably reaches the limit of the camera's motion) to the acting to a few very minor moments of character establishment (the only one that honestly comes to mind is the fact that Number One establishes herself as the second in command rather explicitly when it seems like everyone would know that when the Captain is away, she would be in charge). But the acting is generally good, with most of the actors remaining in character and interacting with the fantastic surroundings they find themselves in as opposed to being wowed by it or weirded out by the latex heads and blinking consoles everywhere. There are little bits, mostly from the background actors, that illustrate that some of the actors are not entirely professional, but largely the cast is professional and right in the swing of the concept and the episode.
"The Cage" is pretty smart television, though it does get a bit heavy in technobabble in the latter half of the episode. As Captain Pike acclimates to the changing environments the Talosians create as they probe his mind and he becomes less disoriented with the changes, he becomes obsessed with understanding what is going on. As a result, he begins to get very technical on the mechanics of telepathy and the nature of illusions and reality. This may seem to be overstating the case to viewers now who have seen decades of such reality-bending stories. Indeed, it is strange to think that Roddenberry bothered to explain and repeat so many of the concepts (the idea that the Talosians can hide reality as well as alter it becomes integral to several events late in the episode) as shows like The Twilight Zone preceded Star Trek and it seems like the target audience would have already been softened up for something this cerebral. Instead, of course, NBC opted to dumb down the series with a less ambitious pilot.
And that's a shame for many reasons. The first is that "The Cage" presented a substantial vision of the future. While most of the crew is white (and one person has glasses!), the crew is made up of people young and old and a pretty decent mix of men and women. As much as I love Star Trek, watching it objectively one quickly realizes that the supposed ethnic diversity of the show is mostly window dressing. Uhura seldom leaves the bridge or is allowed to make a substantive contribution and Sulu does a little bit of everything but is gone for almost half the series (Takei was acting in a film that went drastically long on shooting). But in "The Cage," which is devoid of all recognizable Star Trek characters, save Mr. Spock, women play a substantive role. Number One is authoritative, in charge and cool and efficient. Indeed, there are moments where she illustrates greater leadership than Captain Pike!
In addition to Number One taking charge with the crew when Pike is captured, Yeoman Colt - full of youthful enthusiasm - stands up well for herself when she needs to. But more than that, "The Cage" illustrates a very open minded vision of relationships in the future. Vina is alternately Donna Reed-style companion, sex kitten and fellow captive and Pike finds her various charms to be disappointing because they lack substance. When she overtly throws herself at him, Pike resists and is anything but aroused or amused. He's an intriguing character.
Pike is also a dark character. He is a captain on the verge of quitting, he's ready to cash out because he is through with being responsible for everyone. Other shows, like the debut of NYPD Blue and Sports Night capture well a beginning that the viewer comes into the middle of where a character is ready to pack it in. Starting from a place of conflict makes for interesting television and the irony for the franchise is that while many complain that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is such a departure from Star Trek, Commander Benjamin Sisko is highly reminiscent of Captain Christopher Pike!
And best of all, "The Cage" is not a stupid "kill-the-villain" episode of Star Trek. This is a conflict that Pike must reason his way out of and it is a compelling character journey that he goes on to do that. "The Cage" also creates issues within the franchise or rather those who neglect "The Cage" doom the franchise with series' like Star Trek: Enterprise and the recent Star Trek film (which puts Spock far too close in age to Kirk based on this episode). But Spock also is a completely underdeveloped character and he smiles with glee at the musical plant on Talos IV and it is unsettling to see.
But this is the original Star Trek and those who want to discount it fail utterly because it was recut for "The Menagerie."
And much of the pilot rests on the acting ability of Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. Hunter plays Pike as moody and disillusioned with a convincing slump and a slouching around on screen that makes him seem beaten from the first act. Hunter keeps his delivery of emphatic lines just on the right side of melodrama and he has a realistic physical presence to his action scenes that make him seem like a genuine officer.
"The Cage" is essential viewing for fans of the Star Trek franchise and anyone who likes science fiction will get a kick out of "The Cage." Those who are into general drama are less likely to enjoy this episode of Star Trek because most of the character work in the beginning is sacrificed for technical explanations and plot developments in the latter half of the episode. Those who like mysteries or surreal stories will find a lot to like with "The Cage" though (it seems like people who like that type of story are more patient with weirdness and slower pace sometimes).
"The Cage" is a solid start for Star Trek and it's hard not to watch the episode and wonder what might have been if this version had been picked up by the network. One can only imagine . . .
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Despite the fact that this is the pilot episode, it was included with that DVD set, reviewed here!
For other Star Trek episode and film reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.