Far Beyond the Stars 001: The Cage (TOS S0E1)

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The day after I started watching Star Trek, the washing machine in my house backed up and flooded. It’d already been a rough week—my car died, I was struggling in school, I was having problems getting out of bed and going to work—and the weeks and months ahead didn’t promise anything better. This was two years ago, according to a tweet I sent my friend Caroline about the first episode that made air. I was bipolar and didn’t know it, an alcoholic in the middle of relapse, deeply unhappy, deeply unlucky, and generally without purpose.

Star Trek didn’t change any of this, but it did give me something to do when I couldn’t sleep or move or read. When I started watching, the appeal was pretty simple: There was a lot of it, and none of it would make me think. Two years later, I’m still watching this show in all of its permutations, practically every day, and, according to my Twitter feed, poetry, private messages and the weekend I spent listening to the cast of The Next Generation talk about being the cast of The Next Generation, I’ve spent a pretty significant portion of that time thinking about a show I never really wanted to think about.

This feels like a heavy way of introducing a project like this, an attempt to write about every Star Trek episode and film, but it feels like important context, like I’ve shed the person I was, emotionally and artistically, and need something solid to ground the person I am now. It’s been awhile since I’ve written about television or film like this, and I have no idea what shape it’ll take, whether posts will be jokey or sad or critical, whether or not anybody will read them.

What I do know is that this project will take years to finish, and given the nature of franchise television and filmmaking, may be impossible to complete. If I’m being honest, the prospect of Star Trek stretching out farther than I am capable of following is part of the appeal. Elsewhere on this site, likely in a review of a Marvel movie, there’s evidence that I used to desire narratives that had a beginning and an ending. Now I find myself fascinated with this series that will never conclude, a universe that has no fixed point at which it begins and ends. Star Trek, and other series like it, have come to function like life itself, continuing onward despite the passing of the people who make and consume it. For something like Star Trek to survive for 50 years is to assume that time and life are abundant, that from year to year there will be enough people alive and willing to lend meaning to it, making it more than images and sounds that occupy the space between commercials. This is my attempt at doing that.

And that means dealing with The Cage, Star Trek’s pilot episode which, outside of Spock, features a crew of white Americans so bland they may as well be in the commercials. Footage from this episode is later chopped up and reassembled for The Menagerie (a real fancy way of saying “cage”). Christopher Pike, a space cop who is so worn out on running the Enterprise that he idly wonders about taking up the much simpler life of an Orion slaver, ends up being more interesting in retrospect than he would have been had he carried on as the lead, though we’ll get to that later.

Something I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about when it comes to Star Trek is that it’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, entered into the series as a bold visionary of utopian futures. The United Federation of Planets is a deeply American idea of utopia, its exploratory arm pushing out into “the frontier” because, despite eradicating disease, hunger, war, and capitalism, 23rd century humans have not discovered contentment.

Discounting the personal ambitions of the characters, this is the anxiety at the heart of Star Trek, which is clear as day when projected onto the blank screen that is Christopher Pike. Abducted by aliens and held in their zoo, he is offered an easy life in exchange for captivity. The easy life is a fraud, literal illusions spun by the Talosians, who got so bored with their own lives that they built a zoo.

Much of the tension of Roddenberry’s script is ugly in its misogyny—the Talosians, dwelling in caves after nuclear holocaust, try to gaslight Pike into having children with a woman who, the twist reveals, isn’t “beautiful” but rather gaunt and disfigured due to a crash landing—as he tries to establish Pike  as a virile man of steely resolve. That the Talosians’ telepathic abilities can be blocked out by “hateful thoughts” means that Pike spends a lot of the episode delivering crude readings of lines about choking or shooting his captors. It leads to a pretty good bluff at the climax, but Pike is so flat that he feels like a man who is just punching the clock, even when his life is in danger, like he’s so busy closing on the colonization of three or four other planets that he forgot how to operate his corporeal form. Even Spock is just there, a function of the plot rather than a person.

The Cage isn’t bad, but it is rough. It’s a pilot, but pilots are, until a series really finds itself, a thesis statement for the shows that follow. I can’t buy into Star Trek’s utopia here because for all the good the United Federation of Planets eventually represents, what we’re given is limited by the cultural imagination of the time it was produced. While it’s nice that a woman is ostensibly second-in-command, by the end of the hour she and two other women are defined largely by their desire for Pike, a rigid action figure of a man who is weary of war until the Talosians force him to relive the various trials he’s faced.

Like the series premiere of Star Trek Discovery, The Cage attempts to hook it’s audience (in this instance the NBC executives who saw the show and ordered a second pilot) with sex and violence. Unlike Discovery, there’s no emotional heft to the conflict, nowhere for its energy to go. Not knowing what it means for an episode of Star Trek to “feel like Star Trek,”  I mostly go into an episode hoping it passes the hour pleasantly. The Cage is too base for that, and in shedding Pike and his crew and assembling a less dour cast to man the Enterprise, Star Trek managed to expound upon its hope that humanity would survive the struggles of the 20th century, bettering itself and contributing to the larger community beyond Earth.

Far Beyond the Stars is a never-ending series of essays about every Star Trek episode and film. You can support this ridiculous endeavor by subscribing to my Patreon, or by sending me a Ko-fi.