The Cage

Katie Mae: So…The Cage.

Ando: Yup. The first pilot of Star Trek. It’s also our only exception to the air-date-order rule, as this wasn’t technically aired until later. But hey, if Kirk can break the Prime Directive, we can too, right?

KM: Right [laughs].

A: Of course, here it’s Pike, not Kirk. But anyway…what are some of the early impressions you had of this episode?

Number One

Majel Barrett, Star Trek’s First Lady

KM: I think it would’ve been interesting if they’d kept the original cast. I would’ve like to have seen Majel Barrett as Number One.

A: I agree. And I also think it’s interesting to see that the captain and chief medical officer were always intended to be close friends and confidants. Even though here it’s not Kirk and McCoy (it’s Pike and Dr. Boyce), they were just as close as Kirk and McCoy would end up.

KM: It’s interesting to see what changed and what stayed the same. We lost a woman as second-in-command, but we gained a black woman as communications officer, so that’s kinda cool and groundbreaking, in a different way.

A: It was also pretty daring for a pilot to drop the viewers right in the middle of a plot. After all, rather than showing the ship as shiny and new and the crew fresh, they’re two weeks out from a difficult battle where crew were injured and killed. Captain Pike is exhibiting signs of depression and even PTSD. That’s not where you expect to find the first episode of a brand-new series going.

KM: Even modern shows tend to give more of an intro. Maybe they wanted to skip past all the scientific explanation technobabble and get right to the story. And I think they succeeded.

A: I do too, absolutely!

KM: Pike is pretty easy to relate to, especially at the time. This was right in the middle of the Vietnam War. He seems like the strong, soldier type, but he’s also showing his vulnerability- his trauma at what he experienced.

Captain Pike

Captain Christopher Pike

A: And that he felt personally guilty for the deaths of his crew.

KM: So he’s both soldier and cowboy. I think he’s exactly the starship captain America needed at that point.

A: Interesting how they downplayed the soldier role when the character was changed to Kirk. He was definitely more a cowboy than a soldier.

KM: I kinda thought the ladies’ man aspect of Kirk outshone everything else, though. Back to The Cage, though. How groundbreaking were those special effects in the opening? I mean, it’s not terribly impressive by today’s standards, but I’m sure back then it was pretty amazing, especially for television.

A: Oh, yeah. When you consider how the shot of the Enterprise model had to be composited with the crane shot into the bridge set, on what had to have been a small budget since this was just a pilot, that was incredible. It definitely could have looked a lot worse. I think it holds up.

KM: I wonder if it was like The Matrix of its time. That “bullet time” effect is arguably the most groundbreaking cinematic technique of my lifetime. You see it a lot more now, but the first time you saw it…wasn’t it the first time you’d been surprised by a movie in a while?

A: When it comes to special effects, yes it was. That brings up an interesting point. Star Trek is well-known for “predicting” technological advances, with things like touch screens and cell phones and so on. That wasn’t so much the case in this pilot, however.

KM: Yeah, you gotta love how Pike gets a printed piece of paper to sign instead of just bringing it up on screen. I mean, even right now, we have online signatures, and it’s not even the 23rd century!

A: OK, OK, well, I want us to go back for a minute to the topic of women on starships.

KM: I wonder whether it was a network decision or an interpretation of what this time period was supposed to be like that women had the positions they did. It was really nice that they have a woman as second-in-command. I like to think that was Roddenberry intentionally doing something daring. But she was the only one. The only other woman shown on board was an obviously airheaded yeoman.

A: Can’t argue there – even the Talosians said she was most useful for her high libido.

KM: Thinking about this makes me feel like a total feminist film critic. Aside from Number One, the women are literally sexual objects. That is all they’re for: breeding stock.

A: Bearing in mind only the pilot, I concur. That did change throughout the rest of the series, but since we’re focusing on The Cage, I can’t deny it.

KM: I just think it’s a little disappointing that, despite the daring decision of having a woman as second-in-command, they couldn’t just let it be. They had to draw attention to it by having Pike say, “I’m not used to having a woman on the bridge.”  I wonder if that was Roddenberry being in-your-face or being apologetic.

A: I’m not sure. It’s definitely a good topic of discussion, though. And I think that’s part of the beauty of Star Trek- that it can spark these kinds of discussions.

KM: So how ’bout them aliens?

Talosians

The Talosians

A: So we’ve got one with pointy ears and a bunch with big, veiny heads. Both are considered superior in intellect to humans.

KM: I wonder why humans feel that aliens must be smarter than us.

A: Probably because if we’re the smarter ones, it’s not that different from just a bunch of scientists studying off-world specimens. Later episodes in other incarnations deal with this idea a bit. I think it gets even more interesting when you consider that the writers (Roddenberry at first, but this continues all throughout Star Trek) often put “morality tales” in the episodes. If they portrayed these lessons as humans going around teaching inferior aliens how to be moral, it might come off as pretty preachy and heavy-handed, and easy to dismiss. But by having humanity learning from wiser species, it’s jarring and puts us in the position of still having a lot to learn about life.

KM: Gives “Five-year mission” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it? [laughs] Of course, despite their “vast intellect”, why did the Talosians overlook the simple need for genetic diversity when populating a species? Is in-breeding not a thing on their planet?

A: Well, from what we found out in the episode, breeding itself wasn’t really a thing at this point. But you’re right, they should have gotten more “specimens”.

KM: Genetics is a science. It’s something that they could easily have been studying. But I guess this is just an example of the necessity of suspension of disbelief.

A: Really, more of plot overriding science. After all, it takes these vastly intelligent aliens the entirety of the episode to finally get access to the Enterprise’s computers and recognize that humanity hates being enslaved. Honestly, after everything we know about them, why did it take that long? Because they moved at the speed of plot.

KM: Honestly, that covers everything I wanted to cover about this episode, aside from-

A: Favorite moments?

KM: THAT FACE!

Vina "that face"

THAT FACE!

KM: It gets me every time. What is with her?

A: [laughs] I have no idea, but I agree, that’s a good one. For mine, I just have two words: “THE WOMEN!

KM: [facepalm] Oh, Spock…

A: Thanks for reading! More episodes coming soon!

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2 thoughts on “The Cage

  1. “How groundbreaking were those special effects in the opening? I mean, it’s not terribly impressive by today’s standards, but I’m sure back then it was pretty amazing, especially for television.

    A: Oh, yeah. When you consider how the shot of the Enterprise model had to be composited with the crane shot into the bridge set, on what had to have been a small budget since this was just a pilot, that was incredible. It definitely could have looked a lot worse. I think it holds up.”

    Totally agree here, and more than maybe you realize. There’s much more here than just an overhead shot of the bridge super-imposed onto the model. If you watch the scene, you see the whole thing is also in motion. The camera position at the beginning, is in front and slightly below the ship. During the shot, the Enterprise comes closer and catches up to the camera, and then the camera slowly flies over the saucer, while simultaneously zooming in toward the bridge. And live bridge shot is moving and zooming in synch to all that.

    Obviously, none of that was done digitally (no such thing in 1964). That was all done with optical printing/mattes/blue screen, physical models, etc.

    On the 20-25 inch analog screens of the time, this optical effect would have been seemless. The imperfections around the matte lines are really only evident if you watch the non-mastered shot in hi-def on a big screen monitor.

    This effect was unheard of for TV at the time, and in reality, even in movies. Even Forbidden Planet (the biggest budget recent SF movie at the time) did not attempt anything quite that ambitious.

  2. KM: I wonder why humans feel that aliens must be smarter than us.

    I think GR just thought extraterrestrial life HAD to be smarter than us.

    Also, from a dramatic stanpoint, it’s much easier to craft a script with conflict from an antagonist that is in some way superior, and difficult to overcome. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much suspense, unless you somehow stripped the crew of their tech (which they did do sometimes, “Bread and Circuses”, “A Private Little War”, “The Paradise Syndrome”). So the alien has to be superior, or you have to take away Kirk’s “advantage” (natives take him captive and snag his phaser/communicator), or Kirk gets bonked and loses his memory, etc.

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