“Above all else, a god needs compassion”: The Cage (TOS) vs. Where No Man Has Gone Before (TOS)

*This post contains moderate spoilers for “The Cage”, and heavy spoilers for “Where No Man Has Gone Before”*

Star Trek – “The Cage” (original pilot episode; did not air in series’ original run)

Written by Gene Roddenberry; directed by Robert Butler; first aired in 1988

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

In the original pilot episode of Star Trek, we meet (one version of) the crew of the Enterprise, led by Captain Christopher Pike. Having recently lost several crew members in an incident on an alien planet, Pike confesses to Dr. Not-Bones that he’s growing weary of being captain, and is considering settling down for an easier life. And then he gets his wish, sort of, when he is tricked and captured by the Talosians, who have the ability to make him see and experience anything they want … or, he’s told, anything he wants. Another human captive, Vina, urges Pike to make the best of his situation, living out whatever kind of life he wants with her … as long as that life includes playing Adam and Eve to a race of enslaved humans whom the Talosians can put to work restoring their ruined planet. Pike refuses, and fights back, as do Number One and the Yeoman, after being captured as, um, alternate Eves.     

VS.

Star Trek – “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (second pilot episode; aired season 1, episode 3)

Written by Samuel A. Peeples; directed by James Goldstone; first aired in 1966

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

In a second pilot episode of Star Trek, we meet (an almost entirely different version of) the crew of the Enterprise, this time led by Captain James Kirk. When the Enterprise encounters some sort of energy field at the edge of the galaxy, Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell and the ship’s new psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, are mysteriously zapped with glowy energy. Dehner quickly recovers, but Mitchell wakes up with glowy eyes and gradually (but exponentially) increasing telekinetic and telepathic powers. Despite their long-standing friendship, Kirk is disturbed by Mitchell’s new abilities, and by his growing god complex. At Spock’s urging, and against Dehner’s pleading, Kirk attempts to maroon Mitchell on an unpopulated planet. But an ever-more-powerful Mitchell frees himself, activates Dehner’s own previously latent powers, and tries to show her how insignificant Kirk and his fellow normals are … by killing them.  

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In past weeks, we’ve looked at the first episodes of several Star Trek series, and at the vision they put forth for their respective series. We saw how The Next Generation tried to keep the wonder of Trek alive, and how Deep Space 9 tried to temper that wonder with a healthy dose of complicated reality. And we saw how the two ‘prequel’ series, Enterprise and Discovery, offered different takes on the forces that shaped Starfleet into the aspirational organization it was when TV audiences first encountered it. Now, we’ll take a look at how two first outings for the Original Series – the rejected original pilot, “The Cage”, and the successful second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” – each attempted to put forth a vision, not just for Star Trek as a single series, but as an original concept (and, though no one could have known it at the time, as a decades-spanning entertainment franchise and fictional universe). Much gets made of Gene Roddenberry’s famous (and probably overstated) claim that “The Cage” was “too cerebral” for the network executives, but that claim hand-waves away an important point: “Where No Man Has Gone Before” actually gives us a significantly different (and not merely less “cerebral”) vision for Trek than we get from “The Cage”.

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Watching “The Cage”, the first thing that strikes me is how much it already looks and feels like Star Trek … and the second thing that strikes me is how much it doesn’t. The Enterprise we get here is pretty much the Enterprise we get throughout the series: the ship’s bridge, and Starfleet’s iconic technology – transporters, phasers, communicators … most of it looks (and sounds!) a lot like it will going forward, with mostly minor differences. Granted, I’m probably less, um, detail-oriented than some of my fellow Trek fans – at least when it comes to things like what the phasers look like – and so the comically annoying alert siren was the only technological difference that actually bothered me. And it’s interesting to spot elements that didn’t carry over into TOS, but were later picked up on in TNG: extras walking through the ship in civilian clothing, and of course the title of “Number One” for the first officer (the latter popping up, interestingly, in the first episode of Discovery, as well). But while the bridge itself looks and sounds familiar, the people on it are another story, creating a sort of ‘uncanny valley’ effect for those already familiar with Star Trek.

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It’s … disorienting, to see such a fully-realized Enterprise staffed entirely by unfamiliar (and, for the most part, less engaging) characters. The only familiar face is Spock’s, and his face is the only familiar thing about him. Leonard Nimoy’s performance, here, could hardly be more different from the one he would quickly settle into once the series truly began – he’s loud, energetic, and emotive. And his Vulcan-ness goes conspicuously unmentioned; as far as I can tell, his ears are just about the only indication we get that he isn’t actually human. Nimoy could’ve gone without his makeup and prosthetics, and it would have changed nothing about the plot of the episode. One or two cast changes from pilot to series is common on TV (I always feel bad for that one actor in a pilot who doesn’t make it onto the series), but for every actor except one to be replaced – and for that one to not be the lead – seems remarkable. Pike is an engaging enough character, and while Majel Barrett’s Number One isn’t given a lot to do here, I would have liked to see her character develop; Pike lamely telling her she’s “different”, after voicing his discomfort with having women on the bridge, is far from utopian, but there are any number of professions in the real world where you could easily overhear that exchange almost word for word, and it would have been interesting to see the series critically address that (though I don’t know how optimistic I am that it would have). But otherwise, none of the supporting cast stood out to me; I literally can’t remember their names, even after watching the episode a few times. This version of Star Trek, had it continued, seems as though it might have been less ensemble-oriented and more squarely focused on its lead character (which, interestingly, seems like the approach Discovery might be taking, judging from its first three episodes at least).

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Pike’s world-weariness (universe-weariness?) sets a tone that I don’t think Trek really came back to until the films, once the characters were decades older. Pike certainly feels older than Kirk, regardless of the characters’ actual ages, and his willingness to even consider voluntarily leaving Starfleet sets him apart from almost any character we would encounter in Trek until DS9’s Commander Sisko. And Pike’s contemplation, even in passing, of a post-Starfleet career in business with Orion slavers is another detail that marks this version of the Trek universe as much less utopian, less aspirational. It’s striking that, when the Talosians use this passing idea as the inspiration for one of the fantasy worlds they create for Pike, there is another Starfleet officer present in the fantasy, watching the painted-green Vina dance and obviously enjoying himself. The sight of a Starfleet officer lounging on pillows while a presumably enslaved woman dances for him, even as an illusion, paints a very different picture of Starfleet than we would get from Trek after this. Another famous quote from Gene Roddenberry is his description of Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, and while this line also probably gets more attention than it should, the wild west comparison actually seems pretty apt in this episode; this is a version of Starfleet whose officers I could imagine getting into shoot-outs during crooked card games at the nearest space-saloon. In general, the ‘frontier’ element of Star Trek has always seemed, to me, more marketing than accurate description, but “The Cage” really does feel like it takes place on a frontier.

This is reflected in the explicitly-stated theme of the episode, which is also, I think, the vision that “The Cage” sets out for Star Trek. The Talosians’ captive, Vina, describes their ability to create illusions as “a trap” for the Talosians themselves, because “when dreams become more important than reality, you give up travel, building, creating.” Or, as Pike puts it, paraphrasing the lecture he got from Dr. Not-Bones when he was contemplating retiring from Starfleet, “You either live life, bruises, skinned knees and all, or you turn your back on it and start dying.” The Talosians serve as an extreme endpoint for Pike’s desire for escape from the challenges and responsibilities of his Starfleet career (and perhaps as an argument against our own dependence on TV, an argument which might be stronger if Star Trek hadn’t gone on to become one of the most widely recognized shows the medium would ever produce). This vision for Trek is one in which the value of exploration lies not – or at least not only – in its opportunities for scientific or cultural advancement, but in the personal satisfaction and accomplishment that come with it. It’s a vision which, I think, would go on to inform the first episode of Enterprise, in which Captain Archer’s arrogance and bull-headedness are forgiven (by the show, if not by me) because his (decidedly unscientific) passion for exploration is treated as an inherent virtue.

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“Where No Man Has Gone Before” seems less comfortable with the idea of exploration for its own sake, and that aspect of its vision can be seen, I think, in many of the stories Trek has given us across the decades (and will be seen, I predict, throughout Discovery, though we’ll have to wait and see about that). Not that Trek in general, or “No Man” in particular, are against exploration – certainly not. But while Trek is commonly described as a tale of space exploration – again, invoking the imagery of frontiers, a wild west in space – any given episode of any given Trek series is just as likely to be a cautionary tale against ambition and technological advancement, as it is to be a celebration of those things. Where “The Cage” wants to get Trek started with a hearty endorsement of exploration for exploration’s sake, “No Man” starts us off with a warning instead: exploration and advancement changes you, for better or for worse.       

Normally on Trek vs. Trek, I compare episodes from two different series of Trek, but “The Cage” and “No Man” might as well be from two different series. Where “The Cage” starts with a sort of establishing shot we’ll never see again in Trek – zooming in on the exterior of the Enterprise and then through its hull, to reveal an interior shot of the bridge – “No Man” opens much like any episode of any series of Trek … with a “captain’s log” voiceover, playing over an external shot of the Enterprise. We also get a crew that’s much closer to the one that will become so iconic, even if not all the pieces are in place yet; Uhura’s absence on the bridge is conspicuous, as is the presence of yet another Dr. Not-Bones, but Scotty is already in rare form, and at least Sulu is present, if not quite himself yet. On our first glimpse inside the ship, we see Captain Kirk playing space-chess with Spock as he awaits a report from the bridge, establishing another Trek trope: characters interacting casually before the plot kicks in, engaging in conversation which doesn’t relate explicitly to the episode’s plot, but either foreshadows later events or is thematically significant.

Where No Man Has Gone Before 2

Here, the two characters’ banter serves to introduce Spock’s Vulcan-ness (which is mostly intact in this episode, aside from his reference to having a human “ancestor”, rather than a human mother, as well as the occasional uncharacteristic satisfied smirk) in a way that “The Cage” never did. But it also gives us a taste of the constructive conflict we’ll get from Kirk and Spock later in this episode, and throughout the series. When Kirk says it’s “irritating” to play Spock in chess (“Ah yes, one of your Earth emotions”), he’s foreshadowing the fact that Spock’s seemingly cold, detached assessment of the Gary Mitchell situation will, sadly, turn out to be the correct one; while Kirk will chide Dehner for not seeing the reality of Mitchell’s situation, he himself will avoid that reality longer than he should, letting his judgement be clouded, as Spock points out, by “Earth emotions”. This Kirk-Spock dynamic will, of course, become an integral part of TOS (rounded out by the addition of Bones in the first episode to actually air, “The Man Trap”). But more than that, it establishes Trek’s ongoing focus on dilemmas. Where “The Cage” presents the Talosians’ imprisonment of Pike as an obstacle, more than a dilemma – I never get the sense that Pike is truly, dangerously tempted by any of the fantasies they offer him – “No Man” uses Mitchell’s transformation to force a choice between two bad outcomes: Kirk either kills his friend, or lets him live to become an even greater threat. This will become the basic blueprint for an episode of Trek, and while not every episode from every series will offer an ethical dilemma to be debated, many will, including some of the best episodes to come from any series of Trek, such as “City on the Edge of Forever” (TOS), “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (TNG), and “In the Pale Moonlight” (DS9), to name just a few.

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And finally, where “The Cage” seems more interested in Pike than in any of its other characters, “No Man” adds one more ingredient to the Trek formula by treating its cast as an ensemble. It’s really not until the last act of the episode, during his showdown with Mitchell on the mining planet, that the focus lands squarely on Kirk, and up until that point, the episode makes a point of giving the rest of the cast some time in the spotlight (making a big deal of the “department heads” meeting immediately signals that this version of Trek will be about the crew, not just the captain). Granted, several members of the cast here don’t survive past the end of the episode; we have our first redshirt in the form of Kelso (even if he’s not actually wearing red), and it’s somewhat surprising that this pilot episode invests so much time developing the characters of Dehner and Mitchell, only to end with both their deaths. But the fact that it does spend that time on them establishes character interaction as an important part of Trek going forward; even just involving both of them in the psychic-powers storyline is an interesting choice, foregrounding the interaction between the two of them – and between each of them and the rest of the crew – rather than streamlining the story around just one of them. And while the treatment of Dehner’s character leaves a bit to be desired, from our perspective in 2017 – Mitchell calling her a “walking freezer unit”, in front of everyone on the bridge, is cringe-inducing – she’s certainly a more fully-realized and understandably-motivated character than Number One or the Yeoman in “The Cage”, and her inclusion here is a welcome addition which, short as it lasts, at least hints at the efforts (sometimes enough, sometimes not) that Trek will make towards inclusion and representation in the future.

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It’s not hard to understand why the “too cerebral” narrative has gained so much traction with Trek fans; it’s gratifying, as geeks, to think that our tastes are superior to those of the grown-up popular kids in Hollywood who had the nerve to say ‘no’ to our beloved Star Trek. But if we really, honestly compare “The Cage” to “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, I think we have to admit, at the very least, that these two pilot episodes promised significantly different series to follow them … and looking back, decades later, they promised different versions of Trek as a franchise, and as a fictional universe. Maybe those network executives weren’t the anti-intellectual philistines we imagine they were … maybe they actively, thoughtfully chose one of those visions over the other. If there’s a mirror universe to ours, where “The Cage” was picked up for a series and “No Man” was never made, which is the universe where we’re all wearing goatees? I guess we can’t know for sure … but while there are a lot of things I’d gladly change about this universe, the existence of Trek, as it is, isn’t one of them. (Well, maybe Enterprise …)

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Next time, we’ll talk about a couple of disgraced Starfleet officers who get sprung from prison for one last mission, when we look at The Next Generation’s “Ensign Ro” and Discovery’s “Context is for Kings”!

 

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