I hadn’t planned to watch The Cage on the basis that it wasn’t shown on TV (well, all right, it was as part of a celebration of Trek during the TNG era) and because I was going to see most of it in The Menagerie anyway but a bout of COVID has left me with extra time on my hands, so – as it was included on my Blu-ray box set – I popped it on.

Doctor Who fans, whose knowledge of the show in the 1960s is at the mercy of the random quirks of the BBC archive and overseas sales policies, can look at Star Trek with a certain degree of envy. Everything exists, all shot on 35mm film and able to be cleaned up and look fantastic (until we get to Deep Space Nine anyway). But we almost don’t have The Cage for the stupidest of reasons.

The two-part story The Menagerie was a desperate manoeuvre during Season One which enabled the Star Trek production team to magic up two whole episodes with the bare minimum of extra writing and filming. Kirk, Spock and co. sit around and watch Star Trek’s original pilot while a thin court-room drama unfolds. Shades of Trial of a Time Lord but that was on purpose.

To make this happen, Gene Roddenberry handed over the only known existing colour print of the pilot assuming that the editing team would make a duplicate and return the print to him. In fact the editing team assumed that they had been given a duplicate and merrily began hacking it up with scissors in order to assemble The Menagerie. When the pilot was finally released on video and shown on TV, the now-missing sections had to be patched from a black-and-white workprint.

Then – hurrah! – the negative trims turned up in a warehouse somewhere (or most of them did) and so now we can watch the pilot in all its glory. You can even watch it with early 2000s CGI spaceships if you want.

The story behind the story has been told often enough. Roddenberry sold the studio a space western – Wagon Train to the Stars – and then delivered a cerebral mini-movie with almost no action and a female second-in-command. This was Roddenberry’s girlfriend Majel Barrett and depending on who you ask, the studio couldn’t bear the idea of a woman on the bridge, or that’s what Roddenberry told her to spare her feelings, when actually they savaged her performance.

There’s a lot to like here. The crew works together very well – one of the pleasures of Trek is seeing a group of professionals problem-solving as a team – and the problem is a knotty one: once they know they can’t trust their senses, how do they know if they’re ever making progress? And the script doesn’t tease us for very long. Almost as soon as the crew has met the “colonists”, we zoom out to see the Talosians watching Star Trek. Not long after that, the illusion melts (very convincingly) away and Captain Pike knows what we know.

The ground-breaking effects look great, especially considering that this is before even 2001: A Space Odyssey had hit cinemas, so Forbidden Planet was the high watermark of moving-image science fiction (and there’s quite a big chunk of Forbidden Planet here). The Talosians, with diminutive and heavily made-up women playing the parts, but dubbed by male actors, look and sound completely original and their attitudes to the crew are fascinating.

But if the plot and the guest performances are all working, what’s wrong? A few things aren’t quite as we remember them. Spock orders that the Enterprise proceed at “time warp factor four”, he isn’t the emotionless Vulcan we remember, and he has a silly haircut and fluffy eyebrows. Reports are faxed to the bridge (I think paper was nixed from the second pilot onwards), the guns are called “lasers” and the communicators are very chunky. Also, the uniforms aren’t quite the ones we remember, although I rather like the grey-blue away jackets worn over the colourful pullovers – more functional and more interesting to look at than the plain velour jerseys we’d get next time.

But it’s the characters that don’t work. I rather like Majel Barrett as “Number One” and it’s refreshing to see a female second-in-command, but even after Captain Pike lampshades her sex, audiences couldn’t get on board with a bossy woman, so when the show is re-tooled the Enterprise becomes the boys club we’re familiar with. Number One’s emotionless cool was transferred to Spock instead. Variations on this character crop up again later in the form of Seven of Nine, T’Pol and (sort of) the Borg Queen. Leonard Nimoy becomes the only actor to survive to the second pilot (although Barrett is slipped in as recurring character Nurse Chapel in a blonde wig).

The other members of the regular cast don’t really register. There’s a young ginger kid who didn’t even get a name as far as I can recall, a perky Yeoman who keeps being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s a crusty doctor who exists principally to shine a light on Captain Pike’s character. As the lead character of the show, he’s genuinely fascinating. Jeffrey Hunter plays him with a fiery intensity and he even seems to have an arc of sorts – at the start of the episode, he’s haunted by an away mission that went wrong and is beginning to buckle under the weight of command responsibility.

What he isn’t, however, is fun. I really don’t imagine very many viewers would be tuning in week-after-week, in 1966, to spend more time with this sourpuss. Hunter does exactly what’s asked of him – including bawling out Perky Yeoman for no reason – and the camera loves his freakishly angular handsomeness, but the sense of a family unit, which Roddenberry and co would carefully contrive and/or happily stumble into, is fatally missing. We get the sense that Spock and Number One are rescuing their clinically depressed Captain out of a weary sense of duty, rather than a passionate need to save a beloved comrade. In fact, apart from Pike’s various outbursts from his titular confinement, the rest of the crew barely breaks a sweat. In the series, Spock’s calm in the face of a crisis is the exception – here it’s the norm, which lends proceedings a dry and tepid air. It’s this I think, more than the exotic concepts in the plotting, which gave this 60 minutes of film its often-repeated tag of “cerebral”.

So – we didn’t lose a masterpiece when the studio rejected this pilot. Hunter may be a better actor than Shatner, but Pike would never have been able to carry the series, and while we can only imagine that Perky Yeoman and Mister Ginge would have been given more to do in future episodes, they completely fail to register here. Crusty Doctor is a good idea for a character but he doesn’t jump off the screen, and while I’m sad about Number One, her absence created the Vulcan mythology which built the series, so it’s hard to get too cut up about it.

Okay, that’s the first go. Who’s ready for the first episode to be actually transmitted? We begin on New Year’s Day with The Man Trap.

Star Trek and me
So… What did I think of Eve of the Daleks?