Written by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Robert Hunter
Original Air Dates: February 1965 (NBC Presentation), October 1988 (First Television Broadcast)
There is something incredibly curious about the art of the pilot episode. Nowadays most television shows are commissioned to series right away, with six-to-eight episodes given the order to go straight into production. Back in the day of pre-streaming, you had one chance to get that series order otherwise your one-shot episode would wind up either on a shelf somewhere never to be seen again or as a footnote on an IMDb page or filmography section on Wikipedia. If it was ninety minutes it might have even ended up as a television movie or a straight-to-video release internationally.
The Cage, the rejected pilot episode of Star Trek, feels very much a part of the larger fabric of the series that would follow and yet the differences here are somewhat staggering if subtle. William Shatner is missing, not to mention Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takei and Walter Koenig all being absent too. The ship’s physician is not Bones McCoy which also means there is no Deforest Kelley with his entertainingly gruff dialogue delivery. Leonard Nimoy gets the first line to be spoken but given his youthful exuberance throughout and smiley face at various points, it would be easy and painfully obvious to say, ‘it’s Spock, Jim, but not as we know him’.
The production design of the Enterprise is very much the same as we’d see over the next three seasons, and the entire drive of the episode is very much what you’d expect a Star Trek story to be.
It makes for an interesting anomaly of sorts, and yet given that the character of Christopher Pike played by Jeffrey Hunter would return for mid-season two-parter The Menagerie and be used again in both the J.J. Abrams affiliated films and the Alex Kurtzman-produced Discovery before becoming the lead in Strange New Worlds, one can’t just disavow the episode outright as an out-of-canon rejected episode before normality sets in with the next episode.
Then there’s Roddenberry’s script for the pilot itself. It feels very much a prime slice of Trek and yet like some pilots to future classic shows, you get the sense the development into what we now know and think of as the series that followed is still in the stages of working itself out.
The Cage was dismissed by NBC executives as being too cerebral and not having enough action, thus leading to the writing and production of Where No Man Has Gone Before, which wouldn’t even end up being broadcast until the third week (strangely it would be chosen by the BBC in the UK as the first episode with which to introduce British viewers in 1969).
In some respects, both pilot episodes make for an intriguing double-bill, and yet the second attempt would be the one that would develop the more overt swashbuckling thrills that would go hand in hand with Trek’s philosophical concerns and sci-fi of big ideas.
Roddenberry was a noted science fiction fan, and yet had up to this point mostly worked on westerns and police procedurals such as Have Gun-Will Travel and The Detectives. You get a sense at some of the glee in the writing here, the thrill at working in a genre that involves space craft, aliens and themes that deal with the perception of reality, with an alien menace as the antagonist whose motivations are not destruction but more preoccupied with repopulation and an Adam and Eve component. It’s at this point that one remembers just how unabashedly horny original Star Trek can be.
It’s all wrapped up nicely by the end; Pike is back in the captain’s chair, there’s jokes about who the Eve would have been to Pike’s Adam, not to mention the hint that Number One (played by Majel Barrett) has romantic feelings for Pike which feels like a set-up for a ‘will they/won’t they’ component with which to play around with in future stories and the pleasing sense that a new adventure awaits next week.
Of course, the following episode (which if you’re watching on a streamer like Paramount+) is The Man Trap which begins with the iconic status quo of the series firmly established very much in the opening ten minutes, with Kirk and McCoy landing on a planet that will kickstart the main plot and Kirk’s ‘Captain’s Log’ narration to set the scene.
While The Cage has a look and feel that is very evocative of 60s era Star Trek (the entire 60s fabric, including the production value, is something that occasionally proves off-putting to modern audiences, even to some fans of the franchise, who want the slicker and more modern vibe that became part and parcel of the franchise from The Motion Picture onwards and which made its way to The Next Generation), it is also filled with the type of big ideas that Roddenberry was clearly angling Star Trek to be representative of.
The Cage and The Motion Picture are perhaps the purest evocation of Trek’s themes of exploration combining with grandiose stories that want to find their direction not in pulpy swashbuckling thrills but in the type of sci-fi that the likes of Arthur C Clarke and Issac Asimov made their own, with a cerebral intelligence playing against an epic backdrop.
The budget that The Motion Picture accumulated and the difficulties the film had in managing to become profitable despite being the third highest grossing film of 1979 meant that when it came to The Wrath of Khan, Roddenberry was replaced with as producer with Harve Bennett who managed to produce the sequel for $11 million dollars, its controlled production managing to ensure a more profitable venture that guaranteed the Enterprise’s future going forward.
One could argue that NBC’s rejection of the original pilot episode in favour of moving forward with the series based on Where No Man Has Gone Before was a foreshadowing of that development. That’s not to say The Cage is bad, because it’s not; in fact, it’s enjoyable in the way that so much 50s and 60s sci-fi is. There is a taste of the B-movie about it, especially in the production values where it’s clear that so much of it is being shot on sets based on the Paramount lot, and yet the plot involving memories and scenarios being controlled by an alien menace only adds to the artificiality of the word that Pike is finding himself in.
There are small bursts of action, but nothing too grandiose and the situation that the characters find themselves in is defused not with carnage but through words and the possibilities of violence as opposed to the act of confrontation itself.
Even Pike blasting through his cage isn’t depicted, but instead only relayed after the fact due to the effects of the mind control that he, Number One and Yeoman Colt (Laurel Goodman) are experiencing.
Despite the severity of the situation, things are resolved peacefully and in a pleasingly horny fashion for Susan Oliver’s character who gets to have a future of sorts with an artificial concoction of Pike. There is nothing more 1960s television than everyone getting a happy ending which says a lot about how far television has come when everything nowadays is serialised.
And yet, fifty-five years later, the continuing voyages of Pike and Number One would make it to screen. One could argue Strange New Worlds is a variation of the series that would have followed if The Cage had been better received. Discovery’s introduction of the Enterprise for a brief cameo in its season one finale set the stage for Pike to be a regular in season two, cast to perfection with Anson Mount in the role, with Number One showing up a few weeks later played by Rebecca Romjin and Ethan Peck’s Spock showing up not long after.
Thankfully, all of this played out somewhat naturally and although Strange New Worlds wouldn’t be announced until after season two of Discovery was done and dusted, one can imagine given that Trek has always been a spin-off friendly property for Paramount, making a shared universe a thing in live action long before so many other studios got into the act, the prospect of actually making a series with those characters must surely have been in the ether when the decision was made to include them.
It has the benefit of increasingly taking The Cage away from being a ‘what could have been’ discussion piece or mere backstory for a mid-season two parter and instead very much a part of the Trek language. For years it was thought lost, with the only scenes from it being part of the flashback sequences used later on in The Menagerie. Footage that was either believed missing or was only known to exist in a black and white format was soon discovered and the episode was restored.
While it’s the first episode of The Original Series available to watch on Paramount+, it is noticeably not the first episode available to log on sites such as TV Time or Serializd.
Like a lot of rejected television pilots with alternate casting or the possibilities of different story telling directions within it, The Cage remains a ‘what might have been’ while also functioning as a originator for the current brand of Trek that is wowing audiences and critics.
It has the pleasing sense of making the episode less of an afterthought now and something with a lovely aura of importance.