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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: "The Menagerie"

Illustration for article titled Star Trek: "The Menagerie"

For all its throbbing-vein aliens and green-skinned slave girls, the two-part “Menagerie” finds its most iconic image in the fate of the poor Christopher Pike. Check out the picture—the guy saved some kids from deadly “delta-rays,” and for his troubles, he’s paralyzed, horribly scarred, and forced to spend the rest of his life in a giant black box. Sure, the box lets him communicate; one beep for yes, two beeps for no. I can’t imagine a conversation that would require anything more nuanced than that. Plus, the thing moves like a motorized wheelchair, so I don’t think he has anything to complain about, right?

The design is striking enough to be the subject of parody and fan-worship, but not even familiarity can diminish how simultaneously neat and utterly retarded the damn thing is. Common sense raises all sorts of issues here. There are quadriplegics with more mobility than Pike, and while allowances can be made for the fact that we’re never told exactly what delta rays do, it’s hard to imagine something that could render a man so inert that magic-future-tech can't save him, and yet he still doesn't die. And even if we’re willing to accept that, what the hell is up with the two beeps? Nobody had the time to teach him Morse Code?

But there is something nightmarish about that absurdity. The folks behind TOS were clearly trying to come up with the most horrible living death they could, and while it doesn’t really scan logic-wise, it does serve as a perfect example of “shit I don’t want happening to me.” Pike’s predicament has to be sufficiently dire for “Menagerie” to work at all; anything less than utterly horrible, and Spock’s actions would go from ill-advised to downright inexplicable. As it is, watching the cool-headed half-Vulcan engage a one-man operation to take control of the Enterprise is kind of fun, so long as you don’t spend too much time wondering about the consequences.

“Where No Man Has Gone Before” was the first Star Trek pilot to air, but it wasn't the first one filmed; Roddenberry originally tried his idea out with “The Cage,” featuring a slightly different Enterprise and an almost entirely different cast. “Menagerie” has two plots. The first has Spock turning mutinous, steering the Enterprise towards the forbidden planet of Talos IV, and then surrendering himself to a court martial; which leads us to plot two, focusing on Pike’s adventures on Talos IV years ago, back when he was captain of the Enterprise, the First Officer was a woman (gasp!), and Spock himself had a wider variety of facial expressions. This second storyline is made up of footage cannibalized from that first pilot, presented to Kirk (and us) as a visual recording made by the awesomely powerful Talosians. Clips shows are nothing new to TV, but this is something different—flashbacking to a rerun that never actually aired in the first place.

Different can be good, and back before VHS and DVD releases, this was probably the only way most people could see “The Cage” even in an abbreviated form. And it really is worth seeing; partly because the story isn’t half bad, but also because it does a great job of showing just how important casting was to TOS¸ and how crucial the chemistry between Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest is towards making the series work. When Roddenberry presented them with his first version of Star Trek, the network complained it was too brainy, without enough action, and while I don’t think it’s possible to be “too brainy,” I have to admit, the suits were on to something. “Cage” is clever enough, but there’s hardly any humor, and even less warmth. It’s a show that’s better respected than enjoyed.

Take Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike. (Hunter's only in the "Cage" clips; Sean Kennedy plays the inanimate-object version we get in the “present” sections of the episode.) He’s a solid actor—before his untimely death at 43, he’d done a lot of TV and movie work, including a great turn in The Searchers. There’s nothing obviously wrong about his performance as Pike; he’s believable, and he commits to the premise. But he’s not all that much fun. Whatever you say about Shatner, he’s got charisma coming out his ears as Kirk; Hunter is too grim. You buy that he’s world-weary, you buy that’s he’s furious at his captors, and you definitely buy his talent for “primitive thoughts,” but you don’t really want to spend week after week planet hopping with him. It’d be like vacationing with a guy who only wants to visit Holocaust museums.


The rest of the cast is similarly restrained. It’s nice having a female with a rank above nurse or secretary, but Majel Barett isn’t given a whole lot to do; at one point, Vina, the woman the Talosians are trying to mate Pike with, accuses her of being like a “computer,” but it’s more a clever line than an accurate character assessment. (Makes for an unintentional in-joke, too, since Barett would go on to voice most of the computers in the series.) The doctor's generic, the yeoman is cuter than Rand but not much else; the only real personality we get is from Spock. Ironically, out of the lot, Nimoy is the one who gets to display the widest range of emotion, but even he seems to be floundering. I’m sure things would’ve solidified if this pilot had been picked up, but it’s not hard to see why it wasn’t.

At least the actual story of “The Cage” is strong. The Enterprise gets a distress signal from Talos IV, and stops to investigate; they find what at first appears to be a colony of survivors from a crashed ship, a bunch of old scientists and one pretty young blonde. Within moments, though, the old guys vanish, and the blonde, Vina, spirits Captain Pike away. It was all a set-up by a bunch of big-brained natives—they’ve got this zoo going, and they want to bring in Pike so Vina will have a partner. Plus there’s something about the Talosians being a dying race, who need hot-blooded humans around to keep them alive. Standard alien stuff.


The Talosians are masters of telepathy and illusion, and one of the big strengths of the “The Cage” (and the parts of it that appear in “The Menagerie”) is how consistently those abilities are displayed. We never see the aliens engaging in shows of physical prowess, and their mental powers never blur into telekinesis. Instead, the big balds get what they want through trickery. After imprisoning Pike, they use a variety of fantasy scenarios to try and fool him into wanting Vina; he doesn’t fall for it, of course, although he does have a struggle over the “Orion slave girl” bit. But the fantasy doesn’t end there. Pike’s crew is frantically trying to break down the door to rescue their errant captain, but their weapons seem to have no effect on the structure. “Seem” being the operative word; it’s ultimately revealed that the barrier was destroyed early on, but the Talosians were projecting the image of an undestroyed barrier. The same way they convinced Pike and company that their phasers were inoperative; the same way they punished Pike for not obeying their wishes.

And the same way they make Vina look like an eighteen year-old girl (okay, they say she’s supposed to look eighteen, so I’ll play along), when she was really the only survivor of the crash from so long ago. When her true appearance is revealed, it’s a little heartbreaking; the Talosians rebuilt her, she’s healthy—but they had never seen a human before.


All very sad, and, while it has its problems, "Cage" would've made a solid hour-long Twilight Zone episode. But that's not exactly what we get in "The Menagerie"; while Roddenberry manages to reuse a good chunk of film, the whole thing plays out over two hours, and with a framing story from the regular cast that, while dramatic, doesn't quite gel.

Spock's behavior here, while not completely out of character, favors impulse over logic to a distressing extent. His motives are largely a mystery till the second part of the ep, but once we discover what's driving him—he's trying to get Pike back to Talos IV, where he can spend the remainder of his box-life living a carefree, illusion-based life—the knowledge doesn't really justify everything we've seen him do. Mr. "The Needs Of The Many Outweigh The Needs Of The One" is putting the lives of the entire crew in jeopardy just so his old boss can get an upgrade in nursing homes. Apparently, loyalty to his former commander trumps his loyalty to Kirk and Starfleet; while he doesn't exactly betray his current captain, you can't imagine Kirk being all that happy to have the Enterprise stolen away by his most trusted subordinate. And the main reason for all the subterfuge is bizarre; people are forbidden from visiting Talos IV on pain of death. Why, exactly? The Talosians are creepy, but once they realize that human beings hate captivity, they leave off quickly enough. The only real justification for the extreme measure is to justify a Spock's trial, a trial we need if we want to get all that "Cage" footage in.


As for the use of that footage—surely it could've been trimmed a bit. Gene wants to get as much bang for his buck, but spending all that time away from Kirk and Spock diminishes the conflict that's supposedly driving the episode. There's no real reason for this to be a two-parter, and the more we learn about the Talosians, the more we suspect that Spock's coup, though bad-ass, wasn't all that necessary. By the end credits, we've found that the court martial was a mock-up created for Kirk's benefit, which means the aliens have an astonishing range with their mind control powers. (Enough to make that whole "death penalty" thing largely irrelevant; if they really wanted to, they could've tricked somebody from Starbase 11 to drop by.) And then there's the way that the charges against Spock are tossed lightly aside, because, hey, he did everything with the best of intentions. Intentions or not, he stole the Enterprise, as well as defrauded the captain and assaulted a number of Starfleet personnel. At the very least, a slap on the wrist would've been nice.

But that would've taken away from our supposedly happy ending, with the crippled Pike reunited with Vina to spend out the rest of their days in artificially induced heaven. It's a rare moment of string-free wish fulfillment; in general, TOS tends to favor hard truth over even the most pleasant lie, and idyllic lives are hardly ever presented without cost. We're supposed to trust the Talosians motives here, but it's hard not to remember what they did to Pike the last time he put his will against theirs. There's something unsettling about abandoning a man that helpless to creatures who we still don't understand all that well, regardless of how much better that abandonment appears to the alternative. "The Menagerie" is a hodge-podge, written primarily as a money-saver, and the various parts never fit together that well, but it has its moments. Pike in that hateful box is still unnerving, and glad as we are to see him free of that box, the ambiguity of that freedom—that he's now entirely at the whim of a race he basically doomed to slow death years ago—is hard to ignore.


Grade: B-

Stray Observations:

  • On it's own, "The Cage" would rate a B+. Chopping it up and stretching it out does it no favors.
  • What is it with captains and pretty yeomen?
  • Watching Kirk defend Spock's honor so vehemently makes his willingness to forgivie Spock's betrayal at the end hard to believe. (Although maybe he was just that flattered that everyone had gone to such trouble to win him over.)
  • Up next week, "The Conscience of the King" and "Balance of Terror."