CBS has chosen the weekend before the release of the new Star Trek movie to put out the remastered version of the original Star Trek pilot "The Cage" (check local listings). This is the last new episode to air in syndication for the Star Trek Remastered project, and so we now present you with our final TOS episode review.
REVIEW: THE CAGE
by Jeff Bond
[note: review and caps based on Season 3 Star Trek Remastered DVD]
Star Trek wouldn’t exist without “The Cage.” In fact, that applies right down to JJ Abrams’ new Star Trek, which takes one of its key characters not from the familiar Enterprise crew headed by Kirk and Spock, but by their predecessor, Captain Christopher Pike.
Pike was the captain of the Enterprise in the original Star Trek pilot—in effect, he was the lead character in a show that did not sell to the network and never got made. It was Gene Roddenberry’s second attempt at a Trek pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” written by Samuel Peeples, that sold the series. So Pike’s Enterprise might have been some obscure footnote to the Star Trek phenomenon had Roddenberry and his production team not been so short on time and money that they had to write a story around the “Cage” footage to create a special two-part episode, “The Menagerie,” in the original series’ first season.
In “The Cage,” Pike’s Enterprise picks up a distress signal from survivors of a spaceship wreck on Talos IV, and Pike takes the Enterprise to the planet to rescue them. Pike is a starship captain in the midst of an identity crisis—he’s weary of command, obsessed with what he sees as his own mistakes and flawed decisions in running the ship. He’s tired of getting people killed and wants to chuck the whole thing—as he tells kindly ship’s doctor Boyce, maybe he’ll retire to a peaceful life on Earth, or go into business on the frisky Orion colonies. Those Green Orion Slave women aren’t going to sell themselves.
Once the ship arrives at Talos IV Pike and his landing party find a shipwrecked crew, mostly old men, but with one comely blonde woman named Vina. She tells Pike he’s a “perfect specimen” and after they both disappear into a rock outcropping Spock and the remaining landing party men realize “there are no survivors on Talos IV…this is all some sort of trap.” The trappers are the Talosians, classic big-brained aliens who communicate by telepathy, control illusions they can project into the minds of their subjects—and who are a dying race desperate to repopulate their world, even if their own race won’t be the future Talosians. Pike is set up with Vina to be the new Adam and Eve, and Pike experiences a series of illusions that take him back to his old life, to a high stakes battle he was involved in, and to the possibilities of an exotic new life—all to help him bond with the ultimately pathetic human woman Vina.
“The Cage” has always made fascinating viewing for fans. It’s Star Trek in fetal form, very different from what the show would become yet with most of the familiar elements in place: the Enterprise, transporters, warp drive, Spock… yet the differences stick out. The computer produces paper print-outs; a transporter technician wears glasses; a couple strolls through the corridors in bathing suits and Bermuda shorts. This is the Star Trek that was “too cerebral” for NBC, an oft-repeated description that’s a bit funny given the gigantic alien brains on display in every scene with the Talosians. Still, despite some moments of humor and character interplay, this Trek is notably colder, more closely related to Golden Age hard SF as well as its clear antecedant, MGM’s 1956 space opera Forbidden Planet. Less than 10 years after the C57-D’s flight to Altair IV, some things have changed: the Enterprise crew is co-ed if not yet quite multi-racial, although early on Captain Pike still grumbles that he’s not used to having a woman on the bridge. Roddenberry clearly loved the titillation factor of a mixed-sex crew, something that reverberated throughout the series to come. But Christopher Pike doesn’t have Jim Kirk’s mix of discomfort and appreciation for the opposite sex. He’s just uncomfortable. In retrospect, Jeffrey Hunter is better in the role than I’d remembered—he’s realistic and convincing as a commander, reticent yet believable unloading on his ship’s doctor. It’s only later when he has to start bellowing the Roddenberrian pronouncements about freedom and human nature that he comes off stiff and mechanistic. His earlier reticence seems derived from character—Pike is entirely bereft of Kirk’s sense of fun. He’s a reluctant commander ready to turn in his tunic and leave the service. You can see how Hunter might have worked for the first few episodes of the series, but it’s hard to imagine how he could have pulled off the wild theatricality required of Shatner in episodes like “The Enemy Within” or the freewheeling, sometimes rigid, sometimes playful quality Kirk had.
Leonard Nimoy’s Spock is, of course, only partially formed here. His makeup is haphazard—his hair strangely mussed, eyebrows bushy and angled sharply upward, his precise diction not quite worked out (you have to wonder if Zach Quinto’s performance in the new movie echoes this intentionally or accidentally). And he smiles. Majel Barrett’s Number One has some of his unemotional qualities, but she remains an opaque character that Roddenberry evidently preferred to leave mysterious. John Hoyt’s Philip Boyce too is little more than a typical Fifties-style rocketship scientist (a character type Hoyt played many times), with only his early “doctor/bartender” scene with Pike hinting at the dynamic Roddenberry would get from DeForest Kelley’s Bones McCoy. Laurel Goodwin’s Yeoman Colt is adorable—a wide-eyed teenager compared to Grace Lee Whitney’s worldly Yeoman Rand. But her character role is the same—an attractive young woman to distract and tempt an overworked starship captain. It is interesting, however, to see how Colt and Number One are kept strongly involved in the story’s final minutes, with Number One herself making the brutal decision to end all of their lives by overloading their laser weapons.
“The Cage” has always existed in truncated versions since its original “airings” at science fiction conventions before finally turning up in special showings in Star Trek’s syndication runs. The new “restoration” looks as gorgeous as any of the original series transfers, with fantastic color (for the first time I noticed that Number One has her nails done) and detail. Most of the “lost” footage is reinserted fairly seamlessly. There’s Pike’s first creepy sight of his fellow captives in the “zoo”—mostly Project Unlimited “bears” borrowed from The Outer Limits, although seen in color here for the first time. The tusked “wild boar” alien that Meg Wylie’s Keeper transforms into later in the show is sighted first, adding some context to its later appearance—there’s also a “bird man” (shown with the film running backwards to give it an odd, alien quality) and the shadow of a “spider-thing” mentioned in the script but not shown. There are also some interesting added bits of conversation—Spock theorizing that the Talosians are studying Pike to see “how human beings are put together”—another line that echoes in the story’s sickening payoff of Vina’s plotline. Another nice, mordantly amusing touch is Vina’s code talk about her “headaches” when Pike refuses to play by the script when he’s transported via illusion back to Old Earth—and Pike’s line that any children they might have would likely inherit the same headaches. And when power goes off on the Enterprise there’s Spock’s line explaining that “without batteries we’d lose gravitation.” It’s all the hallmarks of an exceptionally well-thought-out story and series concept, right down to the sly humor of the Talosians pointing out Pike’s “primitive fear/threat reaction” to their superiority. What “The Cage” ultimately lacks is the warmth and humanity that made the best episodes of the series to come such gripping drama. Vina’s situation is tragic, and Susan Oliver is effective at putting across the idea of a woman desperate to trade her freedom and dignity for companionship. But that’s just it—it’s an idea, and “The Cage” is more “fascinating” than dramatic.
This was the last Star Trek Remastered episode to be done and as such it has a strange, Moebius strip relationship to the final third season episode “Turnabout Intruder.” In that episode the Enterprise flies off into a picturesque magenta nebula, and that same nebula makes a cameo appearance here in a brand new, retooled and retro title sequence for “The Cage” (the original pilot didn’t have the conventional Sixties TV “teaser” but opened with its title sequence). The nebula adds color to the sequence, although the effects technicians behind the original title sequence could never have composited the Enterprise over a gauzy nebula with this kind of success. There’s a spectacular movement into the episode proper as a side angle of Pike’s Enterprise (nacelle spikes and all) slides into the familiar down angle shot zooming in on the ship’s bridge, with a beautifully smooth transition into the live action bridge, just as if the camera were moving through a clear dome on top of the ship. “The Cage” is not an effects-heavy episode but CBS-D makes some interesting contributions and decisions, including aspects they elect NOT to change. As Pike has his crew scan ahead, debris and asteroid rubble flashes past the screen—CBS-D handles this as well as a digital take on the odd screen “focusing” effect as the ship moves through a radio wave (which is a rather odd idea in itself).
Later in Pike’s quarters we see the stars moving past the ship through the window next to the Captain’s bed. When Pike decides to go to warp and head for Talos IV we get the first, decidedly offbeat depiction of warp drive—with the bridge going “transparent” and giving us a view of the stars rushing past the actors and set to the tune of Alexander Courage’s theme music. There’s no digital manipulation here but it’s a fascinating visual idea that probably would have driven viewers crazy had it been employed in every warp drive scene over the course of the series. In the first cut to an exterior shot in the sequence the Pike Enterprise drifts close to the camera in profile, giving us a good view of the spiked engine nacelles with their oddly textured red forward domes.
Talos IV is depicted as a beautiful emerald world with gray and white clouds, much more in keeping with the banded, multicolored planets seen throughout the original series. This is no “Earthlike planet” as depicted so often by CBS-D yet it’s convincing, with viewscreen close-ups that seem to show impact craters among the geography. There’s a nice shot of the Enterprise sliding into orbit from an unusual angle, gradually tilting from left to right as it aligns itself with the planet’s equator. The planet exterior shows up in a well composited shot in the briefing room as Spock, Number One and their officers discuss the Talosians and Pike’s kidnapping. Interestingly, the signature effects shot in “The Cage”—and indeed one of the signature images from the Star Trek series, is not changed: Albert Whitlock’s spectacular castle painting of the surface of Rigel VII. If there’s any work done on this image it’s very subtle clean-up, and it’s great to see this beautiful sci fi planetscape retained.
Pike’s next illusion takes place on Earth near Mojave, and CBS-D does a great job of finessing the fairly simple backdrop painting used in the scene of his “picnic” with Vina. There’s a focus change and a great deal of rotoscoping with the set’s trees, and Jeffrey Hunter, placed very effectively in front of the digital matte painting.
While an early bridge data screen uses the original composites and information, CBS-D adds new material (much of it in color) for the late-in-the-game “fly swatting” scene in which the Talosians begin to rapidly draw information from the Enterprise computers (a sequence duplicated almost verbatim in Star Trek – The Motion Picture). It does look better but given the new schematics of space shuttles and other NASA equipment you’d think CBS-D could have thrown in at least one post-1978 piece of technology as an easter egg. It’s a nice touch, though, to end the episode with a reverse of the pull-in shot from the opening, this time pulling away from the bridge as the Enterprise sails away. There was a lengthy series of shots in the original presentation showing the Enterprise moving through space and we do get a few good shots of the Pike Enterprise making some final maneuvers before the retro end credits finish.
CBS-D also touches up a few of the Talosian illusion transitions, particularly late in the game where they add the rippling dissolve effect associated with these transitions over the monster the Talosian leader transforms into when Pike has it pinned down on the floor of the cage. There’s also work done on the final reveal of Vina’s actual appearance. Like McCoy’s healing from the plague in “Miri,” this was done the old fashioned way that can trace itself back to Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and The Wolfman: makeup applications that are modified while the actor stands still, film is run, and the footage is later dissolved into each successive stage. It was the only way to do such effects before the age of latex bladder effects and later CG, and often the actors moved during shooting or the abrupt changes between makeup stages spoiled the illusion. Thankfully CBS-D avoids further dating the look with any outrageous CG morphs, instead carefully blending the transitions between shots to help the effect along.
All in all this is marvelous, subtle work, likely done in a rush as the Trek Remastered project came to a close. While many people will have seen this episode on the Remastered DVDs, it’s interesting to put the episode out in syndication now, so close to the premiere of the new film—a film that, amazingly, features Christopher Pike in action again.
Remastered v Original