“Previously, on Star Trek”: The Menagerie (Original Series) vs. If Memory Serves (Discovery)

*This post contains spoilers for season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: The Original Series – “The Menagerie, Parts 1 & 2” (season 1, episodes 15 & 16)

men 13

Written by Gene Roddenberry; directed by Marc Daniels (featuring scenes from “The Cage,” directed by Robert Butler); first aired in 1966

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Spock diverts the Enterprise to Starbase 11 to answer an invitation from his former captain, Christopher Pike. But Captain Kirk soon learns that no such message was sent, and that Captain Pike is in no condition to have sent it anyway, having been left unable to move or speak after a terrible accident. Kirk and Dr. McCoy refuse to accept that Spock would have faked the message from Pike … right up until Spock abducts Pike, steals the Enterprise, and takes it to Talos IV, the only planet so forbidden that visiting it is punishable by death. With the Enterprise’s computer locked on course to Talos, Spock surrenders himself, and demands an immediate court martial en route, to be presided over by Kirk, Commodore Mendez, and Pike himself, whose retro-futuristic wheelchair allows him to communicate with one tone for “yes,” two tones for “no.” As evidence, Spock offers up video footage which shouldn’t exist, and which turns out to be coming from Talos IV – and from The Original Series’ unaired pilot episode, “The Cage,” in which the Enterprise first visited Talos under Pike’s command. In this footage, Pike investigates a distress signal from a long-lost human ship, only to end up in captivity with its only survivor, Vina. The two are held in a zoo, of sorts, by the telepathic Talosians, who can make them see and experience just about anything, and who use their powers to try and convince Pike to settle down with Vina and populate Talos with human laborers, to save the Talosians’ stagnant society. Once they realize Pike will never stop resisting his captivity, they let him go, but Vina chooses to remain on Talos, where the Talosians’ powers can keep her looking and feeling like she was before the crash of her ship, which left her badly injured and disfigured. Back in the present (so to speak), all charges against Spock are dropped (for some reason), and this time, Pike chooses to stay with Vina on Talos, where he, too, can look and feel as he did before his accident.

VS.

Star Trek: Discovery – “If Memory Serves” (season 2, episode 8)

mem 9

Written by Dan Dworkin & Jay Beattie; directed by TJ Scott; first aired in 2019

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

We open on a title card reading “previously, on Star Trek,” and a montage of images from more than fifty years previous to this episode, depicting the events of “The Cage.” We then catch up with Captain Pike on the Discovery, a decade or so before the events of “The Menagerie.” While a recently reincarnated Hugh Culber breaks up with Paul Stamets and picks a fight with Ash Tyler, Pike searches for Spock and Michael Burnham in hopes of finding them before Leland and the Mirror Universe counterpart of Philippa Georgiou can recapture them for the shadowy Section 31. On the run in a stolen shuttle, Burnham brings an unwell Spock back to Talos IV, in hopes of healing her adoptive brother’s mind, which is “experiencing time as a fluid rather than a linear construct,” thanks to his encounters with the time-traveling Red Angel. There they meet Vina, who contacts Pike with the Talosians’ help, to let him know where his people are … and to have an awkward but heartfelt reunion. The Talosians agree to help Spock, if Burnham will let them experience a painful memory from her childhood. She agrees; they show her Spock’s memories of encountering the Red Angel – and of not murdering the people he’s accused of murdering – and she shares her shameful memory of pushing away a young Spock by calling him a “weird little half-breed,” out of fear that his relationship with her would put him in danger from xenophobic Vulcan extremists. As Burnham and Spock reel from reliving that, Section 31 closes in on them, but the Talosians use their telepathic projections to keep Leland and Georgiou distracted long enough for Burnham and Spock to return to the Discovery, which must now go on the run from the rest of Starfleet.

men 5

In any fictional universe as long-running as Star Trek’s, there’s bound to be some tension between looking back and moving forward – between prequels or sequels, returning to beloved old stories or going out on a limb with new ones. But in Star Trek’s case, that tension has existed since almost the very beginning, thanks to “The Menagerie” and its repurposing of “The Cage,” the unaired original pilot episode of The Original Series.

As we’ve discussed before, “The Cage” is unusual, both as a pilot and as an episode of Star Trek. As a pilot, it does an impressive job of introducing elements of Star Trek’s sci-fi setting so iconic that they’re likely to be familiar, today, even to those who’ve never watched so much as an episode of Trek: the core concepts of the transporters, the phasers, the Enterprise and its bridge are all very recognizable, already, in “The Cage.” Its characters, though, are an entirely different story. Spock is the only character from “The Cage” to continue as part of The Original Series’ cast, and while his name and his ears have stayed the same, Leonard Nimoy is otherwise playing a completely different character by the time we see him in the second, successful pilot episode of TOS, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” It’s jarring enough to watch the pilot episode of Seinfeld with its conspicuous absence of Elaine, or to see someone other than Alyson Hannigan playing Willow in an early version of the pilot for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But watching “The Cage” as an episode of TOS is a bit like watching Buffy Summers do stand-up, or watching Jerry and George dust vampires out behind the Bronze; either of those shows might be awesome, but they certainly wouldn’t feel like episodes of Seinfeld or Buffy. And beyond the obvious differences in casting, I’d argue that “The Cage” also puts forth a fairly different vision for the future than we’ve come to expect from Star Trek – one in which Captain Pike is considering becoming a galactic slaver as a valid career option, something that’s impossible to imagine from Captain Kirk … or from the incarnation of Pike we would get decades later, in Discovery.

men 11

Given these differences, it might seem strange that “The Cage” occupies as prominent and beloved a position in Trek fandom as it does … even if it’s not terribly surprising that footage from it would be used in “The Menagerie.” “The Menagerie,” for all its importance, is essentially a clip-show – a concept which must sound ridiculous to younger viewers coming of age in the era of on-demand streaming, but which was once common practice: a TV series would stretch its budget for the season (which, at the time of The Original Series, might contain more episodes than two or three seasons of a contemporary prestige drama) by structuring an episode around footage from earlier episodes, minimizing the amount of new footage to be written and filmed. Considering that the first season of TOS comes in at a whopping twenty-nine episodes (not counting “The Cage”), and that Gene Roddenberry already had his original pilot episode fully finished but never aired, you can’t blame him for taking the chance to air it while also stretching the show’s limited resources … even if there is some irony in the fact that another Star Trek clip-show, The Next Generation’s “Shades of Gray,” is generally reviled as one of the franchise’s worst episodes, while “The Menagerie” gets a pass. (I mean, I get it – given a choice between watching “The Menagerie” or “Shades of Gray,” I would pick “The Menagerie” every time – but I do think that difference in reception is worth noting.) And interestingly, the original footage which does appear in “The Menagerie” manages to contribute one of Star Trek’s most iconic images, in the form of Christopher Pike giving one beep for “yes” and two for “no” from his very distinctive-looking, retro-futuristic wheelchair. As a portrayal of disability, it leaves a lot to be desired, but as a work of sound and visual design, it has had an undeniable impact on pop culture; Futurama would structure its brilliant tribute to Trek, “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” around an homage to the scene of Spock’s court martial, with Fry telling his story in Morse code-like beeps, to name just one example.

men 3

Personally, I far prefer the original elements of “The Menagerie” to its recapping of “The Cage,” though of course I’m writing this at a time when I can watch “The Cage” just as easily as I can “The Menagerie,” which makes that recap redundant in a way it wasn’t when “The Menagerie” first aired; if I want to see Captain Pike’s original mission to Talos, I can just watch “The Cage,” but viewers didn’t have that option until relatively recently. And after spending Discovery’s second season getting to know the character of Pike better than I possibly could have from just “The Cage” and “The Menagerie,” I find that his scenes in “The Menagerie,” whether reused or original, mean more to me than they used to. But I find it slightly frustrating that the thematic questions suggested by the first half of “The Menagerie” are almost entirely dropped in its second half, which is dominated by scenes from “The Cage,” and by its message on the importance of exploration and real, lived experience, as well as its warning not to allow comfort and fantasy to hold us back from progress, as the Talosians have (a warning which, as I’ve noted before, is somewhat complicated by the fact that Star Trek would go on to become one of the most beloved and influential entertainment franchises of the 20th and 21st centuries).

men 14

Not only do these themes not really connect to anything that’s going on thematically in the newly-filmed parts of “The Menagerie,” but I’d argue that they’re in direct conflict with its ending, in which Captain Pike, at Spock’s urging, opts to spend the rest of his life immersed in the very comfort and fantasy which the Talosians offered him, and which he rejected outright, in “The Cage.” We can’t fault the character for that choice, given that the episode pretty clearly assumes that his recent disability is a fate worse, in its way, than the death sentence Spock conveniently avoids (a disturbingly ableist assumption when viewed through modern eyes, as society gradually becomes more accepting of the fact that disability is not a deficit or failure of the individual, but a social issue of access and supports – exactly the sort of access and supports I’d assume would be both technologically possible and a moral imperative in the utopian Federation). But it’s a glaring omission for “The Menagerie” to not comment on this reversal of the message originally offered by “The Cage.” My favorite part of “The Menagerie” is the mostly very well-handled tension surrounding Spock’s defiance of Starfleet rules and regulations out of loyalty to Pike, a defiance both Kirk and Bones repeatedly refuse to believe Spock could be capable of. But “The Menagerie” ultimately fails to pay off this tension, as well, both in Starfleet’s deus ex machina-like dropping of all charges against Spock – removing any consequences whatsoever for his extreme and uncharacteristic actions – and in the episode’s baffling and infuriating decision not to even show us Spock’s final farewell to his former captain, before Pike leaves for Talos IV forever (again, I understand the budget concerns behind the clip-show approach, but this was a scene that really needed to be filmed, and other original material should have been cut from the script, if necessary, in order to make that happen).

men 12

If “The Menagerie” misses its opportunity to explore loyalty as a theme, and as the foundation of Pike’s relationship to his former science officer, Discovery would take full advantage of that opportunity decades later, making loyalty a running theme throughout its second season, and an integral aspect of Pike’s role in it. “If Memory Serves,” coming around the mid-point of that season (and marking a definite turning point in its ongoing storylines), may not be the best showcase for the loyalty between Pike and Spock, since they get so little screen time together in this episode. But that loyalty motivates Pike’s search for Spock, in defiance of Section 31’s orders, in a way that mirrors Spock’s defiance of Starfleet orders for Pike’s sake in “The Menagerie.” Michael Burnham is also driven, here, by loyalty to – and love for – her adoptive brother, who is, in turn, driven by the feeling that Burnham betrayed his own loyalty to her, when they were both young: “It was foolish to idolize you,” he tells her, “and I regret it deeply.” The emotional heart of “If Memory Serves” is the Talosians’ revelation of Burnham’s memory of pushing a young Spock away with cruel, racist insults, out of concern for his own safety if he were to stay close to her. A character deliberately using harsh words they don’t mean to push away a loved one, for (what the character thinks are) altruistic reasons, is, of course, a well-worn cliché, and one that’s never really rung true for me as the sort of thing an actual human being (or whatever) would be likely to do. Then again, Burnham’s tendency to do the wrong thing for the right reasons – to take rash, extreme action, out of a genuine fear for the safety of others – is something we’ve seen her struggle with since Discovery’s first episode, and it actually feels quite in-character for a young Burnham to have pushed Spock away for (what she thought was) his own good, even if she now understands that it was the wrong thing to do.

mem 2

For precisely that reason, loyalty is a running theme in the relationship between Burnham and Pike, as well, throughout Discovery’s second season. When Pike takes command of the Discovery at the start of the season, he’s taking on a crew with a history of mutiny; Burnham, in particular, began and ended the show’s first season with separate attempts to seize command from Philippa Georgiou. Even though we’re meant to see her second mutiny, if not the first, as a righteous one – given that she was actually rebelling against the genocidal Emperor Georgiou of the Terran Empire this time, and not Captain Georgiou of Starfleet – it’s hard to imagine any commanding officer being happy about having such a person on their crew. And for her part, it would be understandable if Burnham, along with the rest of the crew, were hesitant to trust their new commanding officer, given that their last two captains, Lorca and Georgiou, both turned out to be Mirror Universe Terrans with their own agendas – one hiding his Terran identity, the other deliberately placed in command because she was a Terran doppelganger who wouldn’t let Starfleet’s values get in her way. Lorca claimed to value loyalty, of course, and Georgiou, as Emperor, demanded it; people who don’t place much value in the lives of others often claim that loyalty is important to them, but by “loyalty” they mean “doing what I say,” because what they do value is what other people can do for them. For Pike, though, loyalty is a two-way street, and we’ve seen since he first appeared on Discovery that he’s willing to give his crew a great deal of leeway if he feels that he can trust them – something that comes to define his professional relationship, and friendship, with Burnham. Again, Pike and Burnham don’t get any more screen time together in this episode than Pike and Spock do, but the loyalty between them is clear as Pike searches for both Burnham and Spock, and takes seriously Ash Tyler’s advice to trust Burnham’s abilities and judgement.

mem 4

By showing us this side of Pike, Discovery does something only made possible by its status as a prequel series: it adds context, and emotional stakes, to what we’ve already seen from other series. The impulse to do this can, of course, send an entertainment franchise careening wildly in the wrong direction, if the writers aren’t careful (see Exhibits 1, 2, and 3: the Star Wars prequels). And Discovery has, perhaps, taken some small missteps of this sort; its convoluted explanation, in “An Obol for Charon,” of the Enterprise’s lack of a holo-communication system like the Discovery’s, for instance, struck me as an unnecessary and annoyingly obvious bit of fan service. But, again, this impulse in Star Trek to retcon, to force what we’ve seen to fit together, is hardly new to Discovery. It can be traced right back to “The Menagerie,” and its insistence on fitting “The Cage” into continuity with the rest of The Original Series (to the extent that there was continuity in the anthology-like TOS), instead of allowing it to remain an outlying curiosity, a piece of behind-the-scenes Trek trivia. And for the most part, I think Discovery has acted on this impulse responsibly, and has used its position in Star Trek’s fictional history to add emotional stakes to what we’ve seen in other Star Trek series, rather than just filling in trivial plot details. In its first season, it added additional context and emotional weight to the relationship between Spock and his father, Sarek, by showing us Sarek’s shame over secretly choosing Spock over Burnham for a spot in the prestigious Vulcan Science Academy, lending tragic irony to Spock’s decision to attend Starfleet Academy instead. Throughout its second season, Discovery does the same for Spock’s relationship with his former captain, Pike – a relationship previously glimpsed only in “The Cage” and “The Menagerie” – by painting Pike as the sort of commanding officer, and the sort of friend, who could inspire the loyalty and devotion we see from Spock when he risks his career, and his life, for Pike in “The Menagerie.”

mem 5

And Discovery further justifies its own revisiting of “The Cage” (if that truly inspired, just-campy-enough “Previously, on Star Trek” sequence at the beginning isn’t all the justification you need) by similarly providing context to Pike’s relationship with Vina. In “The Menagerie,” as tragic as Pike’s circumstances are when the episode re-introduces him, I have a hard time seeing his reunion with Vina as the poignant happy ending it’s meant to be, seeing as how he spent only a few hours with her, over a decade ago. This is also one of those points where, no matter how much affection I have for The Original Series, I bump up against the differences in TV production and storytelling styles which are to be expected from a TV series that’s more than half a century old. The trope of a man falling in love at first sight with a woman who’s introduced by a Vaseline-coated camera lens and a swell of very 1960s music, in particular, instantly pulls me out of the story; as a result, I have a hard time taking Pike and Vina’s relationship seriously in “The Cage,” and an equally hard time seeing much significance to their reunion in “The Menagerie.” Or I did, at least, until Discovery gave Anson Mount and Melissa George the chance to act the hell out of Pike and Vina’s telepathic reunion in “If Memory Serves.” To be clear, I’m not casting any shade on the performances of Susan Oliver and Jeffrey Hunter, who originally played those roles – and played them well – in “The Cage” (with Sean Kenney also playing the injured Pike in original footage for “The Menagerie”). But, again, a lot has changed in TV-making over the last half-century, and as a member of the audience, I won’t pretend to be perfectly objective about those changes; I am a product of my time, just as viewers of The Original Series, when it first aired, were a product of theirs. And as a product of my time, if I’m going to care about these characters’ relationship, I’m probably going to need to see them connect through more than just a Vaseline-lensed double-take. Luckily, Mount and George portray that connection beautifully in “If Memory Serves,” communicating how these characters feel about each other – however short their original time together was – with a subtlety and emotional realism which I wouldn’t tend to expect from The Original Series (not because the actors, writers, or directors weren’t capable of it, but because I simply don’t think that’s what they were going for, most of the time, in that very different era of television). As a result, “If Memory Serves” has, decades later, made the ending of “The Menagerie” more meaningful to me, and if Star Trek must revisit its past, I can appreciate that this is the result.

mem 3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s