Anyone who’s met me in the past thirty or so years will find my next statement an amusing one.
When Paramount first started releasing episodes of Star Trek commercially on VHS, I used to look at the boxes and wonder why anyone would want or need to buy every episode when they seemed to be running in perpetuity on my local UHF station every night at 6 p.m.
It wasn’t until later that I began to understand that the episodes were edited for time and to allow more commercials in syndication and that I was missing vital scenes in each episode. This realization created a desire within me to not only see every episode in its original broadcast version but also to someday collect them all together.
Given the number of time I’ve collected classic Star Trek now in various forms of media, I’m sure there are people out there smirking with amusement at my early attitude.
At the time, the only episode I wanted to rent or buy was the newly re-discovered, complete version of Star Trek’s original pilot, “The Cage.” While fans would get a glimpse at most of the episode later in season one, I was always curious to see what got left on the cutting room floor and to see what Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the series was like.
If there’s one episode of Star Trek that’s been the most released on commercial video, I’d argue it has to “The Cage.” I recall several VHS releases of the episode as well as the subsequent inclusion on the DVDs and now Blu-Ray sets. I believe the Blu-Ray and DVD sets include multiple versions including the original release that alternated between color and black and white footage, the full color version and then the remastered version.
That’s a lot of versions for an episode that was deemed as “too cerebral” for audiences by NBC back in the 1965.
Looking back at it now, “The Cage” is a rough-draft for Star Trek. Not just for the original series but all of Star Trek under the guidance of Gene Roddenberry until his death in 1991. In fact, I’d argue that “The Cage” is Star Trek as close to the vision Roddenberry had for our future as any other project or episode. I’d also argue that “The Cage” fits better with early seasons of The Next Generation than it does with the early run of classic Star Trek episodes.
A lot of that stems from the fact that this is the version of Star Trek that Roddenberry had the most control over without notes from the network or contributions from other writers and/or producers.
And honestly, if NBC had said “Yes” to “The Cage,” I’m not sure we’d be sitting here fifty years later talking about Star Trek.
It’s not that “The Cage” is a terrible episode, per se. It’s just not one that I’d consider among the top fifty great installments in the franchise or canon. The elements are there but it feels like “The Cage” is a rough draft of what Star Trek will become as early as the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
A lot of that comes down to the casting. Nothing against Jeffrey Hunter, but he’s no William Shatner. His calm, controlled captain feels less a man of action like James T. Kirk and more the mold of Jean-Luc Picard we meet in “Encounter at Farpoint.” Hunter does solid work as Christopher Pike but, honestly, I’m just as happy he decided not to come back once a second pilot was commissioned.
Along those same lines, there doesn’t seem to be the instant chemistry among the cast that we’ll get once James T. Kirk emerges on the scene. Elements are in play, from the friendship of the captain and the ship’s doctor for example, but they’re not quite in focus just yet. I think a large part of this comes from the fact that the story picks up after the Enterprise crew has finished an extremely trying mission (or missions) and is tired.
Hearing Pike wanting to give up being the captain within the first ten or so minutes of the pilot is an intriguing character point but it’s also one that puts the audience at arm’s length. After all, if this guy doesn’t want to be here anymore, why should we want to spend an hour with him?
I realize that a lot of this is to set up how the Talosians will tempt Pike once he’s under their control, but I still can’t help but feel that Hunter doesn’t quite command our attention or chew scenery in quite the same way that Shatner does. (Of course, it could be argued that no one really chews the scenery in quite the same way that Shatner does).
All of that said, fifty years later “The Cage” clearly has spent a lot of money to get this world onto our screens and while it’s not quite as vibrant as the Enterprise will be after “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” you still get the feeling a lot of the money went toward the creation of this world.
And while I don’t love “The Cage” I still appreciate it for what it did. It got Star Trek out there on the radar at Desilu and NBC. It was so expensive that NBC was willing to try again, this time asking Roddenberry to up the action quotient a bit.
I firmly believe there’s a mirror universe out there somewhere where many of us have goatees and there was a run of Star Trek that had Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike at the front and center. But this fan is glad that in our universe that that wasn’t the way things unfolded here.
I realize that I didn’t necessarily explore the deeper elements of “The Cage.” It’s not that I don’t want to, but there are others who have explored it as well. One of the best is the inaugural episode of Mission Log that examines this episode and susses out its morals, messages and meanings. Expect lots of links to them in the future.
And if you’re interested in finding out more about how “The Cage” came to be and to see what ended up on the cutting room floor, I highly recommend The Cage Page.
Finally, you can read get thoughts of published Trek authors Dayton Ward and David Mack on the episode over at Tor’s Star Trek Re-Watch.