Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage”

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 22, 2016

“The Cage” was the first pilot for Star Trek, made in 1964-65. Wikipedia has an excellent history and plot summary, so I won’t repeat it. I’m sure most fans remember this proto Star Trek with Mr. Spock as the only main character from the regular series. The sets, special effects, costumes, models, gadgets, were are all much more primitive than what we see in later episodes. However, the story is exactly the kind of story Star Trek was known for, and was later recycled into the two-part episode “The Menagerie.”

spock smiles the-cage

What I discovered watching “The Cage” a half-century after seeing “The Man Trap” on 9/8/66, is a different impression of Star Trek. I was never a fanatical fan, but I loved the original series, and watched all the later series as they came out. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Star Trek as Sci-Fi Lite. Quite often television and movies make science fictional ideas look silly, and all too often I criticized Star Trek for not being scientific. In recent decades I found it almost impossible to sit through the old shows because I lost the patience for 20th century television. But something in me changed recently, when I began watching the old shows as a way of understanding myself as I was fifty years ago.

For some reason, I got into a headspace where Star Trek worked again. I was able to forget the limitations of 1960s television production, my skepticism about scientific plausibility, the silliness of plotting, and enjoyed the show as its creators intended. This time around I discovered Roddenberry was less into science fiction than I remembered.

As I watch each episode with my friend Annie, I’m actually looking forward to seeing Star Trek again. We’re playing the series in order the episodes were broadcast in 1966-69 using Netflix streaming. Annie and I were both born in 1951, and we watched the show when it first came out, me in Mississippi and Florida, and she in New Mexico. This time traveling is bringing back memories of discovering science fiction, first in television and movies in the 1950s, and then in books in the early 1960s. Star Trek actually repackages all the common science fictional ideas of the times. We like to think of Star Trek as being an original television series, and it was, but sometimes it was The Beatles, but quite often it was The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, The Monkees had some great tunes, but they were manufactured hits. What fascinates me now is how Roddenberry repacked 1950s science fiction for his 1960s philosophy.

Gene Roddenberry never had the science fiction originality of science fiction writers of the 1950s. I don’t think he was even a big fan of the genre before discovering Star Trek fans in the 1970s. Except for a few episodes written by science fiction writers, Star Trek wasn’t contemporary with 1960s written science fiction. The New Wave in science fiction hit just before the series premiered. Watching these old shows again in the 21st century lets me see them differently from how they appeared in 1966. This time around, I’m focusing on the history of science fiction, and the ideas science fiction were exploring at that time.

Watching these shows again, I realized that Star Trek was less about science fiction, and more about allegory. Roddenberry was using science fiction to express his political beliefs. For those who didn’t live through 1964-1966, these were exciting years intellectually. Science fiction is the main ingredient in Star Trek, but there’s many other ingredients as well, including 1950s television, Civil Rights, feminism, anti-war, Pop Art, the Counter Culture, and so on. Each screenwriter brought something different, and Roddenberry squeezed all of it into allegories.

The Allegorical View

cage-talosian

The words Talos and Talosians sound close to theology and theologians. In “The Cage” the Talosians have god-like powers. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist, and “The Cage” seems less about aliens from outer space, and more about beings from heaven. The show is about how theologians keep us imprisoned by our thoughts and the promise of heaven. Throughout the episode, the Talosians struggle to convince Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) to accept their fantasies for reality, tempting him with a beautiful woman, Vina (Susan Oliver). They want Pike and Vina to play Adam and Eve, and repopulate their planet. To be their servants, their hands in the physical world. It’s very Biblical.

The symbolism of this first show is rather striking. Humans reject god, leaving a rundown Eden to escape into space. Vina stays home, trapped in god’s delusion, disfigured by god’s image of what she should be. Rewatch “The Cage” and think allegory rather than science fiction. Think about the last temptation of Christ.

The Science Fiction

Pike-holding-Phaser

The warp drive was one of Star Trek’s most famous science fictional ideas, and it evolved over time. Science fiction has come up with many ideas about traveling faster than light. Ultimately, they’re all gimmicks to further the plot. In Star Trek, interstellar travel takes about as much time to get between the stars as ocean liners traveling between the continents did in the 1960s. In Star Wars, interstellar travel is faster than jet travel between countries in the 1970s. Science fiction seldom deals with the reality that interstellar travel, which will probably take centuries, if we’re lucky.

The transporter was another “invention” of Star Trek,  even though matter transporters had existed in science fiction before 1966. The story that’s always told, is the producers of Star Trek couldn’t afford using a shuttle craft, so they came up with the transporter to save on production costs. That’s fine, but there is a huge logic hole in their design. Why does it take a machine to send people, but not another machine to receive people? If they could grab people off a planet, why didn’t Scotty just beam Kirk from the bridge to the planet? Why did they always have to go to the transporter room to beam down, but didn’t need a machine to beam up. Think of the jokes Scotty could have played on Kirk, beaming him to a different Yeoman’s bedroom every night after he had gone to sleep.

Also, how many exabytes of data are required to describe a human in transporter logic? And the transporter appears to beam people faster than light. Does that require warping space? And how are people decoded at a distance without a machine?

The aliens in Star Trek often had super-powers, or even god-like powers. The Talosians could create perfect delusions in humans. The first regular episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” the creature was called a shape shifter, but obviously that was incorrect, because it appeared in one scene to several men, looking different to each. It evidently had the same power as the Talosians. But think about what such a power means. First it means faster-than-light data communication between two minds, with very massive amounts of data transferred. And with multiple humans, means multitasking at a tremendous rate.

Our minds can create very realistic, vivid hallucinations, but only when our senses are turned off. Like when we’re asleep and dreaming, or in a sensory deprivation tank, or we’ve taken some powerful drugs. Even then, the details of hallucinations are never even close to details of how we experience reality processed through our senses. Creating perfect illusions is impossible. This is only a gimmick for the allegory.

I don’t know why, but most “advanced” aliens are always given PSI-powers in science fiction. These super-powers are always very similar to the powers we attribute to gods. There’s no scientific reasons to think such powers exist in us, or aliens. Quite often in Star Trek, Kirk and crew meet aliens with such god-like powers. In each case Kirk is required to outthink such beings, and he does, although often with silly gimmicks. I get the feeling Roddenberry hated authority, religion, and any kind of mind control, and many of his science fiction stories reflect this in allegory. Often Roddenberry is much closer to The Twilight Zone than Astounding/Analog. But then again, maybe I need to revisit 1950s/1960s science fiction to see if it was more allegorical than science fiction.

To me, real science fiction was always about preparing us to go to the stars. Fans think that’s true of Star Trek. I’m not so sure, at least for the original series. My hunch is Roddenberry didn’t get the science fiction religion until after Star Trek:TOS. As I watch the shows, I’m wondering if the fans didn’t read the pro-space theology into the original series. I’ll see as we watch.

JWH

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage””

  1. Excellent Article…Many famous sci-fi writers of the era worked on Star Trek besides Gene like DC Fontana,, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Sturgeon..the writers were not all male, Fontana is female..Side Note: besides Spock the pilot also featured Majel Barrett-Roddenberry as Number 1. She was best known for her role as “Nurse Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek series, Lwaxana Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and for being the voice of most onboard computer interfaces throughout the series. She was also the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.” Also besides Gene Roddenberry there was another Gene associated with the program. Gene .L Coon who became showrunner during the second half of Season 1 thru the halfway point of Season 2. The man known as the second Gene was instrumental in fleshing out the finer points that would become the cannon of the show etc. I would recommend to your readers a fantastic book from around that time period aboot one episode of the show. Entitled “The Trouble with Tribbles: The Birth, Sale and Final Production of One Episode”, it was published in 1973. The book was written by David Gerrold the writer that wrote the script for Episode 15 of the Second Season entitled: “The Trouble with Tribbles.” That particular episode was considered by many at the time (during that era late 60’s early to mid 70’s) as being the highwater mark of the original series in many terms etc. Roddenberry was thought by many to have always been interested in sci-fi as a “wagon train to the stars.” His mortal remains were launched out into deep space etc…

    1. Thanks. I was thinking of buying David Gerrold’s book when I saw that Gerrold recommended: These Are the Voyages: TOS – Season 1 by Marc Cushman, et al., and I bought it instead, and started reading. I knew about Majel Barrett, but never thought of her as one of the regular characters. “The Trouble with Tribbles” was one of my favorite episodes, and I viewed it again recently. Tribbles always reminds me of Flat Cats, in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones. I still plan to get the Gerrold book on Tribbles.

  2. Hmm…since I haven’t done any research much less focused studying of the show, my thoughts about Star Trek are necessarily personal and based on watching it as a pre-teen. As a kid I enjoyed it, and was sad to see it be canceled. It offered a chance to think about the future based on our then current attempts to establish humans in space through the Space Race. Certainly, the political issues of the time had much to do about that. And at my age, the issues of nuclear war were not a joke; I vividly remember my father shopping for an underground nuclear fallout shelter for our family.

    But Jeez, guys it was just a TV show. Yes, it was groundbreaking in that Roddenberry and the writers had the opportunity to propose question-and-answer issues about humanity, God, and other Big Ideas. But it really was in many ways, “Wagon Train to the Stars”. Or more to my liking, a mash-up of Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Roddenberry had the chance to explore ideas that those two shows could just barely touch on. The Enterprise was a much bigger town than most of the “western” towns of the mid-to-late 1800’s could ever be. None of that had to do with the physics of the space-time continuum. And guess what? I had no clue. And it didn’t matter to me.

    I have no problem with looking at the show, it’s relationship to the continuing arc of Science Fiction, and how it has been recycled into cartoon-ish action films 50 years later. I suggest that even with the evidence of Roddenberry (and his true believers) in looking beyond mere entertainment, it is/was still a television show. Is it iconic? Yes at least in some ways. Is it Art? Well, that’s not for me to decide. It is however memorable, even if it is (from this current perspective) somewhat silly, derivative, and trite. And it was once upon a time, a hell of a good and interesting time for a kid.

    And to be fair, I have enjoyed your discussions.

    1. Yes, Star Trek was just a TV show. One that was intended to make money and garner audience share. So why does it inspire fifty years of fan love? There have been shows that made far more money, got a much bigger audience share, that haven’t become cultural phenomenons.

      For me, I’m using Star Trek as a portal to my past. I’m fascinated by memory, and how imprecise it is. When reconstructing the past, it helps to have external clues to trigger long buried personal memories. One of the cliches of getting old is looking backwards. Growing up we make assumptions based on very little evidence that influence our whole life. Having time to reevaluate those assumptions is a byproduct of retirement.

      I believe Star Trek is art, but is it good art? We live in a commercial world. Artists want to create and make a buck too. Back in 1966, NBC wanted a show that would appeal to young people. Gene Roddenberry wanteed a regular gig, so did Shatner and Nimoy. The writers wanted to make a sale. They had to work fast and within the limitations of the weekly production budget. Nothing they produced comes within sight of To Kill a Mockingbird or Slaughterhouse-Five – two artistic works from the 1960s that came first to mind. When I watch the old shows from Star Trek I think of the past and having fun, and not soul reflecting art.

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