Star Trek: Pilot Episode “The Cage” (1965)

Original Air Date: February 1965/October 14, 1986
Star Date: 2254 (unknown in-universe date)
Writer: Gene Roddenberry
Director: Robert Butler

“There’s a way out of any cage and I’ll find it.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once notoriously rejected by NBC for being too “too cerebral,” this now legendary pilot episode of Star Trek offers a panoply of rich, complex ideas worthy of consideration. Rather than easily hooking its audience with flashy effects or explosive gun fights, “The Cage” is a slow-burn prison mystery which forces us to examine the nature of evil. Are the Talosians truly an evil alien species? According to the Talosians, the answer is emphatically “no.” The Talosians believe they are mere investigators and conjurers of innocent but deceptive imagery in order to offer a better world, test humanity’s limits, and hopefully save the future of Talos IV, their own decaying planet. The Talosians are anthropologists and breeders who decide to entrap humans in a “cage” or “menagerie” for further study, they are observant scientists. They hope that humanity can cultivate the land and repopulate their dormant planet (Talos IV once faced a nuclear holocaust thousands of years prior which drove the Talosians underground and led to strange telepathic abilities).

However, the Talosians maintain a cold and distant affect beneath their apparently neutral guise of scientific examination. Captain Pike and his crew view the Talosians as lacking honesty, empathy, and any semblance of true emotional experience. They are like dispassionate academics. To what extent might the Talosians mirror our own modern scientific conundrum? And in what ways might the Enterprise bear a strangely similar faith in the goodness of human inquiry? Following from our own modern theological injunction to “seek and ye shall find” we carry with us an overly optimistic, utopian promise in the future of human life. Like the Talosians, our first reaction upon experiencing a new species is to isolate it, study it, test its limits, and thereby inquire into its nature. In search of a god-like comprehensive perspective, we magnify what is small (such as atomic or sub-atomic particles) and adjust our telescopic focus to things that are large (such as distant planets). However, all things are nevertheless viewed via our limited perspective. Therefore, the human condition is fundamentally an aesthetic experience which is nevertheless striving toward something true. We are unsatisfied with mere dreams because they lack suffering and overcoming. The Talosians repress two things natural to the human spirit: they restrict human freedom and force humanity into an untrue dream-like world. Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the Talosians are cleverly deceptive illusionists who do not yet understand the human spirit.

It might well be said that humanity requires organic growth, evolution, and ceaseless self-overcoming for survival yet the Talosians do not seem to grasp this fact. Enslavement and deception inhibit the depth and meaning necessary for human life. This brings to mind the little story that Vladimir Nabokov once told in relation to his controversial novel Lolita –he got the idea for the book when reading a news article about an ape who was the first to scribble down written communication on paper. And what was the first thing the ape drew? The cold bars of his own cage.

This inaugural episode of Star Trek, which is slightly different in tone and casting from the regular show, opens with a beautiful sweeping scene of the Enterprise as it coasts through space. The frame then impressively pans directly into the bridge.

The Enterprise intercepts a strange signal from the outer reaches of space. Can we assume it is simply a system malfunction? Or perhaps a mere screen error? The signal is soon revealed to have originated from a long-lost craft called the S.S. Columbia which disappeared in the “Talos Star Group” some eighteen years prior –the Talos Star Group is an unexplored solar system with a total of 11 planets. The Enterprise crew members identify the fourth planet as a somewhat hospitable place with a breathable atmosphere (or a “class M” planet as Spock calls it). If the S.S. Columbia were to have crash-landed here, Talos IV would be the best bet for any remaining survivors of the crash.

Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) retires to his room and confesses his weariness of serving as captain –he misses his hometown, riding horses, and now finds himself longing for another life, perhaps as a businessman or an Orion trader alongside hoards of attractive green women (which will later appear as a Talosian-generated dream sequence in the episode). Pike confesses this all to Dr. Theodore Haskins (Jon Lormer), who memorably pours him a martini –because a man will reveal more to his bar tender than his doctor. Note: I picked up on the theme of escapism here as Pike dreams of greener grasses elsewhere though he is soon to be quite literally imprisoned by his own fantasies on a foreign planet. Another point of note is that Pike somewhat recently lost his yeoman and other crew members during a skirmish on Rigel VII two weeks prior. His “Number One” is played by Majel Barrett, a legend in the Trekkie community for many reasons. Sadly NBC rejected the notion that a woman could play a leading role in a show like Star Trek though Barrett does appear as Nurse Chapel later in the series.

Meanwhile, new information emerges about the S.S. Columbia: it appears that it did in fact crash-land on Talos IV with 11 survivors, and so the Enterprise makes haste for Talos IV. While maintaining orbit, Spock, Pike and several crewmen beam down to the planet’s surface where they find a somewhat barren landscape filled with strange blue motion-sensitive, singing plants and a small outpost where the remaining survivors of the Columbia crash apparently live. One of the men notes, “they’re human, they’re men.” One of the survivors is a beautiful woman named Vina (Susan Oliver) who notes that Pike is a “prime specimen” and a “perfect choice.”

Pike seems to quickly fall for Vina’s charms. She leads Pike away to show him how the Columbia crew has managed to survive all this time, but Vina suddenly disappears and a pair of large-brained Talosians appear before they shoot and kidnap Pike. He awakens in an underground glass encased prison cell. We soon learn that the Talosians are an alien race whose ancestors thousands of years prior destroyed much of their planet in a nuclear war, and so the Talosians hid underground where they evolved the capacity for telepathy. The Talosians now have large pulsating brains three times the size of humans, and they intend to study humans like lab rats. The distress signal which was sent to the Enterprise has been an elaborate illusion, it was merely a lure to entrap the Enterprise on Talos IV. But what do the Talosians want? As it turns out Vina was truly the only survivor of the Columbia crash years ago, but it severely mangled her skin. She has since been transformed into a beautiful woman by the Talosians. They hope to lure a man like Captain Pike to live with her on Talos IV in order to repopulate their planet. The Talosians promise a fleeting and empty life of illusions (they conjure several dream-like scenes wherein Pike and Vina have a peaceful picnic in the city of Mojave, a medieval battle scene recalling Pike’s recent struggle on Rigel VII (he battles a Kalar warrior), and a glimpse of Vina dancing as a green woman on Orion –all of which were mentioned by Pike in his confession to the ship’s Doctor just prior to arriving). Without freedom of thought, freedom itself is illusory for Captain Pike. He remarks that Vina’s life, which has been 18 years of effective imprisonment, is merely a menagerie or a cage. However, he learns that the one weakness among the Talosians is that they cannot use telepathy against complex human emotions so Pike attempts to exploit this weakness.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise crew tries to blow open the door to the Talosians underground lair but it fails. Next, they attempt to beam down inside the Talosian community, but the transporter is immediately commandeered by the Talosians and they decide to beam down only women for Pike, exposing their fragile inner thoughts. Captain Pike stages a rebellion and nearly kills one of them, so the Talosians decide the humans are not worth their trouble due to humanity’s unique hatred of captivity. In the end, Vina remains behind on Talos IV to live out her own fantasy devised by the Talosians while Pike and the crew solemnly depart from this nightmare. I found this to be a rather dark conclusion, if it were Captain Kirk in charge he likely would have rescued Vina and the other creatures imprisoned in the menagerie (though not always, for reference see “Mudd’s Women”). Pike and the crew return to the Enterprise. I suppose one man’s freedom is another man’s prison.

My Thoughts on “The Cage”

Whereas “The Cage” bears echoes of the Biblical Adam and Eve story, complete with a befuddled godlike species and all, this episode also lacks a certain joie de vivre that is present in the rest of the Star Trek series. Captain Pike is a tired and jaded leader while Captain Kirk is vivacious and amusing, he is rarely trapped in his own lugubrious thoughts. Perhaps this is part of the episode’s theme: would Captain Pike prefer to live in a fantasy instead? For Captain Pike paradise is indeed lost. Humans were never fully meant to live an easy and empty life of illusion in edenic bliss, instead we continue to reach upward and outward, striving against obstacles, ceaselessly overcoming, always learning and conquering new horizons. We should be wary, distrustful of our fantasies of an easier life.

We would do well to acknowledge the milieu in which “The Cage” was created. Lyndon B. Johnson was serving his full term as President of the United States following JFK’s assassination in 1963, The Beatles had just released their fourth studio album The Beatles For Sale, Bob Dylan changed his sound with the release of Highway 61 Revisited, the Vietnam War was raging with many thousands of young men drafted, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated, and it was also the height of the Cold War and the space race. The future was fearsome, exciting, and still an “undiscovered country.” Today, we have our own illusions about living through the “end of history.”

Nevertheless, “The Cage” is a brilliant introduction to the Star Trek saga.

Star Trek Trivia:

  • This was one of twenty-five stories for Star Trek generated by Gene Roddenberry.
  • During production, the title for this episode was changed from “The Cage” to “The Menagerie.” However, when the later two-part “Menagerie” episode aired, this shelved pilot episode was later reverted to its original title “The Cage.”
  • There is an amusing story about Gene Roddenberry acting like a mysterious eccentric in order to sell Star Trek to studio executives.
  • Gene Roddenberry consulted with Harvey P. Lynn, a physicist from the RAND Corporation as the unofficial technical adviser for this episode. He helped Roddenberry better explain starship navigation between stars and planets.
  • The movie Forbidden Planet had considerable influence on this pilot as well as many other shows, especially The Twilight Zone.
  • Majel Barrett was Gene Roddenberry’s mistress and later his wife (post-1969). She has often been called “the First Lady of Star Trek.” There is apparently some controversy over whether NBC executives fired her out of sexist bias or if they simply felt she was not the right person for the job (along with almost all of the remaining cast from “The Cage” except for Leonard Nimoy). Apparently, Gene Roddenberry initiated the story that NBC executives were sexist against her, whereas numerous other accounts suggest the network was focused on being family-friendly and did not want his mistress portrayed onscreen in order to avoid scandal.
  • Because Jeffrey Hunter (who played Captain Pike) was playing a stoic, internally-conflicted character, Leonard Nimoy felt the need to portray a more humorous, light-hearted character than we have come to know as Spock. His character would change again when the show was restructured and William Shatner was hired to play Captain Kirk.
  • Jeffrey Hunter later expressed mixed views about Star Trek. He was not a fan of science fiction, and thought Star Trek was somewhat beneath his talents, or at least that is what his wife strongly believed. He declined to participate in the show going forward. He tragically died in 1969 at the age of 41 while filming a movie in Spain in which a car bomb accidentally exploded causing a severe concussion and brain hemorrhage leading to his death several days later.
  • The original captain’s name was to be Robert April.
  • The first words in Star Trek are uttered by Spock: “check the circuit.”
  • Captain Pike claims there are 203 lives onboard the Enterprise, even though later in the series it is revealed to be a much larger number while Kirk is in command.
  • Many scenes from this unaired pilot episode were later featured in the classic two-part Season 1 episode “The Menagerie.”
  • This episode was first screened for NBC staff in February 1965, but it was later released in 1986 in VHS format with an introduction by Gene Roddenberry, but it was first broadcast on television in 1988.
  • There is an amusing story about how the cinematography effects department was confused about why Gene Roddenberry desired to have a fully green-colored woman appear onscreen.
  • Leonard Nimoy as Spock is the only character carried over from the pilot episode into the future series. Notably, Spock is not the First Officer in this pilot episode.
  • Robert Butler directed numerous television episodes for shows like Star Trek, Shane, Hogan’s Heroes, Batman, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman among others. He also directed two Twilight Zone episodes including “The Encounter” which starred George Takei.
  • Director Robert Butler was chosen by Gene Roddenberry to work on the first pilot for Star Trek after he had directed some episodes of Roddenberry’s previous series, The Lieutenant which featured Gary Lockwood who appeared in the “second pilot” episode of Star Trek entitled “Where No Man Has Gone Before” as Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell. Robert Butler disagreed with Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the show which he viewed as excessively pretentious, so Mr. Butler declined to return to the show. He is, however, given credit for the re-used footage in the two-part episode for “The Menagerie.” Apparently Gene Roddenberry and Robert Butler butted heads in that he wanted things to look a little dirty and gritty, while Mr. Roddenberry wanted the ship to appear clean and shiny.
  • This pilot episode uses the term “hyperdrive” instead of “Warp speed.”
  • The Talosians use the term “magistrate” to refer to their leader.
  • Leonard Mudie has one line of dialogue as one of the Columbia survivors. He was a veteran of dozens of films dating back to the 1930s. He was 81 when this episode was filmed, and he died the following year after the episode was completed. He was the second-oldest actor ever to appear on the original Star Trek series and the first to pass away.
  • Most of the Talosians were played by women but voiced over by men.
  • Two of the other prisoners are visible in the Talosian prison: an ape-like alien and a humanoid bird. The ape was used in an episode of The Outer Limits, and the bird was brought back by Wah Chang in an Outer Limits episode as well. A large crab-like creature can also be visible. In addition, when one of the Talosians transforms himself into a vicious creature a prop from The Outer Limits is used again.
  • When indicating the region of the Talos group on his viewscreen, Spock calls up a photograph which is actually of the Pleiades Cluster.
  • Richard Datin designed a three foot model of the Enterprise which was used for all future filming of Star Trek.
  • “The Cage” was far and away the single most expensive episode of the original series of Star Trek.
  • In this episode we learn that Captain Pike hails from the city of Mojave in California.

Click here to return to my survey of the Star Trek series.

4 thoughts on “Star Trek: Pilot Episode “The Cage” (1965)

  1. Very good point that Star Trek has quite often addressed: “We should be wary, distrustful of our fantasies of an easier life.” Even though it can depend on how we personally define easier. The differences between Pike and Kirk in how they individually deal with all the responsibilities for being starship captains, certainly now with Pike’s revitalization via Strange New Worlds, makes some of the earliest classic Star Trek episodes even more nicely nostalgic. Thanks for your very thoughtful review. Especially your most interesting food for thought about the Talosians. 🖖

    Liked by 2 people

  2. If Star Trek had gone ahead with Hunter, the franchise wouldn’t be what it is today! I thought it was brilliant the way they reused this footage of The Menagerie, for it added to the world-building of the Star Trek universe.

    Liked by 1 person

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