Probably the most remarkable thing about watching the original pilot that spawned what is undoubtedly the most recognizable and important franchise in science fiction history is not what is different from the series that ensued, but what was already in place.
With some exceptions to the costuming, and a few subtle differences on the bridge, nearly everything about the look and feel of Star Trek was in place from the get-go. From the costumes, to the insignias, the sound effects, and general sense of awe and wonder at space travel, The Cage immerses you in a world which would eventually become familiar.
That said, the differences are fascinating, and we’ll address those shortly.
Probably the first thing I noticed watching The Cage was the quality of the writing. This was something new. There was no analogue to it in its day, other than Wagon Train, but in space. This was the pilot, and therefore a pitch, so the writers pulled out all the stops to immerse you and captivate you right from the start. The opening scene is rife with tension. The bridge crew are on the edge of their seats, on a collision course for… something.
That ‘something’ turns out to be a radio wave. What better way to convey exactly how far in the future the setting is than by presenting the prevalent bastion of communication technology that had reshaped and defined mass media over the previous half-century as being such an obsolete relic that it nearly defies recognition.
That radio wave happens to be a distress signal, which Captain Christopher Pike chooses to ignore.
“Let’s continue on to the Vega colony and take care of our own sick and injured first.”
For an impassioned Star Trek viewer, this move was shocking. It seems to bridge crew would agree, as they exchanged knowing glances. Since when does a Captain of the Enterprise not investigate a distress signal, when there could be survivors? This is perhaps the most un-Star Trek like moment in the episode. It becomes clear very quickly that Christopher Pike is not James T. Kirk.
Where Kirk is filled with wonder and enthusiasm, Pike is jaded, tired, beaten, angry, and his battle scars are showing. He is a young prodigy rising to captaincy at an usually young age, but he carries himself like an aged and worn out warrior in the midst of an existential crisis. Where Kirk would willingly sacrifice himself and his crew (especially Red-shirts) for the greater good, Pike has no fight left in him, and is ready to hang up his gloves and live a life of picnics on parkland with horses, or retire to an opulent merchant life in the Orion colonies (foreshadowing eventual scenes of psychic alien illusion). It’s a good thing he has a doctor who thinks he’s a bartender.
“We both get the same two kinds of customers. The living and the dying.”
Also, Kirk likes women. Kirk really… likes… women.
Pike does not. Especially not on the bridge. There is an undercurrent of gender politics that underscores all of Pikes interactions with women. He is snippy with Yeoman Colt (played by Laurel Goodwin , who looks so much like Amber Tamblyn that it creeped me out) simply for doing her job. Then, when justifying his chauvinism to Number One, he makes an exception for her implying that her position of authority came at the expense of her feminine traits.
Number One’s clear disapproval of Pike’s sexist attitudes alluded to a tension and power struggle that could have been really interesting to see developed further than what was revealed in the one episode. As it is, they showed a complex relationship that, in spite of this clear feelings of resentment, included a mutual sexual attraction. It’s hard not to view the presentation of this dynamic as an attempt to discredit vocal feminist women as harbouring amorous feelings towards their male oppressors, however being familiar with the work of Roddenberry and his endless quest for social justice, I give him the benefit of the doubt in thinking that this was an attempt to portray Number One as a complex character in a position of power, something rarely seen in Television. So rare, in fact, that the network requested that the character be removed from the show.
Famously, Roddenberry had to choose to throw his weight behind Number One or “the guy with the ears”. He opted to keep Spock on the show and marry Number One. So he lost a woman as second in command, however he did gain a black woman on the bridge crew, and the rest is history.
Predictably, the Enterprise crew receives confirmation that there are survivors and investigate the distress signal. The planet on which they land is truly otherworldly. A rocky surface with an oddly coloured sky, and plant life that sings. The crew are fascinated and amazed. Therein lies the wonder and marvel at the universe that is Star Trek.
Pike is very quick to anger in dealing with his challenges. A man of action, and less of a strategist. He is also very clearly the lead of the show, and I wonder if the show would have survived had it maintained the format of the pilot. It is very clear that they were on to something, but it lacked the camaraderie that we enjoyed in the divine trifecta of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Spock played the voice of reason and McCoy played the voice of emotion with Kirk caught between them weighing the merits of both. There was built in conflict between them, but also a lasting friendship which made them characters that we could easily identify with.
It is this chemistry that ensured the magic of Star Trek would endure and continue to resonate for nearly 50 years since its first broadcast.