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The Cage

Buttoned Down Trek

This episode simply refuses to age. It is beautifully written, beautifully acted, and beautifully photographed -- timeless science fiction.

Start with the story: A space ship, lured by a phony distress signal, is held captive by aliens looking to repopulate their devastated planet. Summarized like that, it sounds like standard sci-fi fare, which it is on one level. If it were nothing more, this would have been long forgotten.

But Roddenberry's goal was never to tell science fiction stories, rather to tell human stories. He wasn't about plot, except to the degree that it could be used as a carrier wave for a morality tale. He wanted to use an unfamiliar context to allow viewers to see themselves through different eyes. This goal would get him into trouble at times during the subsequent run of the series, especially when morality overrode the need to tell a good story, but it is at the heart of Trek. It's also what makes this episode (and the show) great. He may never have achieved this goal more effectively than he does here.

The real story Roddenberry wants to tell is about the choice between illusion (self-deception) and reality (self-awareness). His main character is given a choice between a life of blissful unreality and one of unblissful reality: "...you either live life--bruises, skinned knees and all--or you turn your back on it and start dying." As a model for character choices, this is ideal, and the choice this character makes will define him (and his successors) for a long time.

To set it in motion, he gives Pike a recent battle which has left him weary. In fact, it's enough to make him question the lifestyle he's chosen for himself. His doctor is concerned enough to make a bartending housecall. This scene is an interesting choice. One might expect that we need to see the captain as super-human first, and vulnerable-human second. A lesser script might have started with the Rigel fight to establish an action/adventure tone (which possibly would also have sold the series on the first try). But Hunter's intensity allows us to gather some basics about his character right from the start (and allow fighting to wait for later). This is a triumph of writing, casting and the actor's abilities, though it proved far too subtle for network executives.

So, even though the setup is short, it's enough for us to understand Pike as someone who works his crew and himself very hard. He's someone who cares about his mission, maybe a little bit too much. He's the controller of a well-oiled machine, surrounded by exceptional people, some of whom are young and eager. Immediately after the first scene on the bridge, there is a quick transitional corridor shot. It is especially effective because, in just a few brief seconds, life on a starship is sketched out. It's a community where people work and live. What might have been disorienting and unfamiliar suddenly becomes comfortable and familiar.

Roddenberry, as writer (with the uncredited Robert Blees), then makes Pike human by handing him a martini -- and a friend -- and setting up Confession Hour. It's a challenge for Hunter (the scene in his quarters was the first one shot), but he manages to avoid whining or letting Pike feel sorry for himself. He manages to project tiredness and disillusion -- the latter being the key to understanding what will come. Hoyt is well cast as the doctor, seeming amiable and trustworthy, and definitely believable as a confidante for the captain -- something the series would definitely need (and use later to great effect on many occasions). Their conversation makes it plausible for Pike to approach the Talos mission like a cop: He recognizes his duty, steels himself, and dives in.

These opening scenes are efficient without being shorthand. They establish the strong central character, then perfectly set the stage for what is about to happen to him. In fact, the scene in his cabin will be referred to literally during the picnic (in the restored version), and all of the illusions selected for him by the Talosians also refer back to that scene indirectly. His return to Rigel serves as a reminder of why he might want to make a change. The picnic offers a realization of one imagined alternative to starship life, and the nightclub another. It is this careful integration of sci-fi episodes with the human character which makes this script so remarkable. The human aspect of the story is set up early and referred to repeatedly as various sci-fi devices begin to drive the plot. Here Roddenberry sets up a fine model for his vision of the series.

Arriving on the planet allows the optical effects people to go to work, and we get our first glimpse of the transporter. Surprisingly, it's almost fully mature in its first use. It would ultimately be a little faster, but all the elements (including the sound effects) are already there. Prior to this point, the opticals have looked a bit rudimentary compared to what the series would ultimately have. The ship fly-bys are all a bit rushed, and the movement and sound not quite right. But this was all new territory, and in that respect the work can be appreciated. Combined with Courage's theme music, the opening, the warp speed traveling sequence, and the arrival at Talos are all very effective.

Later in the episode, the effects would be quite dazzling, including the "washing" effect between illusions, and the spectacular laser cannon sequence. Smaller effects go almost unnoticed now that the format is familiar, but were quite important for setting the tone. These include the Talosian weapon, the hand lasers, the appearance of the hole in the glass (which is likely a simple dissolve), and culminate in the reversion of Vena to her natural state -- an effect requiring multiple levels of production.

On the set, the effects were no less spectacular, including the fire and liquid of Pike's childhood fable, and the surprising stone wall in the hallway of Mr. Pike's club. The effects are aided by sound at every step, and the sound effects were truly ground-breaking, if for no other reason than that they are seamless and virtually invisible to the ear. Much of what is heard here would be with the series throughout its run.

Courage's soundtrack is another crucial element in the success of the film. His score is so good, in fact, that it would set the musical style for the entire series, and quotations from this score would be heard again many times. Perhaps most noticeable about the score is how un-sci-fi it is. He uses oboe, flute, bassoon, and brass liberally, along with more exotic instruments and reverb effects to give different feelings to the same musical themes, themes so versatile and beautiful that they positively define the episode and the series. Vena's theme, for one, would be heard countless times across many different guest characters (culminating in "For the World Is Hollow..." when it accompanies a cameo appearance by Jon Lormer, who also appears here).

Our heroes set down on a genuinely beautiful planet set, with a memorable sky, and drearily picturesque, craggy mountains in the distance. The set must have cost a fortune, especially because of the decision to include an elevator. In hindsight, the elevator probably wasn't really necessary. Had the same script been produced during the series run, the elevator would likely have been eliminated or replaced with a cave opening of some sort, or at least an elevator which didn't have to be seen moving. No question, however, that the elevator is a nice touch.

All of the sets sparkle, including especially Pike's Club, the briefing room, the captain's cabin, and the zoo area. The two standing sets which would remain with the show, the bridge and the transporter room, are models of excellent design, though not quite mature. The coloring, for one, has not quite been worked out. The addition of reds to these sets (along with different colors for the uniforms) would later prove critical. The greys, while in keeping with Roddenberry's submarine-in-space concept, proves too dull visually. (This would be a problem throughout the life of Voyager and Enterprise, whose set colorings mimicked this pilot and were hopelessly dull.)

The lone unfortunate set, the picnic, is graced by a lovely background painting of Mojave that, regrettably, looks like a background painting. One can't help but wish they had traded the cost of the elevator for one day of location or back lot shooting for the picnic. The other painting featured prominently is the Rigel VII fortress matte painting, an image which is so striking and memorable that it too defines Trek.

The costumes also are somewhat immature. Considering that everything was new for this episode, they did fine. But it must be admitted that the fabric which looks lovely on Susan Oliver, looks a bit impractical on the Talosians. And their medallions are right out of a B-movie. The uniform colors do not quite pop off the screen, and two colors is clearly not enough. But the Enterprise landing party all wear the nicest looking jackets. It's a shame that this idea did not resurface until the movie series. Make-up likewise has many fine moments, despite one close-up on the Keeper in which the line of her prosthetic head is plainly visible. I'm certain this would not have been a problem on one watching, and no one probably expected that this film would still be watched after 40 years...

An interesting thing to note is how much of the story is told without dialogue. This is a sure sign of calm and confident storytelling, and includes the initial landing on the planet, the several scenes of Pike assessing his cage, and most of the club scene and what follows in the corridor outside. Roddenberry and Butler show masterful restraint in letting each of these scenes take as long as it needs, resisting the urge to rush to the next action point, or fill the silence with dialogue. Again, this probably had a negative effect on the network decision-makers. It was certainly very un-TV.

If there is a flaw to this episode, it's in the dramatic realization of Pike's choice. He's been given a glimpse of an alternative to his starship life, one that he openly contemplated at the beginning, yet he never seemed truly tempted by it. In fact, he treats it as if there is no choice to be made -- he has a duty and must return to it. This clearly establishes his character, but we are short-changed a bit in the drama. After such a beautiful setup, it would have been a more satisfying conclusion had Pike truly considered giving in to the temptation, if only for a few moments. From a story standpoint, it could have been as simple as changing the order of the illusions. After Rigel, give him the club and let him run away from that raucous temptation. But then hit him with what he really wants -- the picnic, wife, home -- and let him actually consider it. Let him get tired of trying to solve the puzzle and gradually lose himself, just a bit, in the illusion.

This would have required writing Vina as a little bit less afraid of her captors, and a little more persuasive. She should have been considered a collaborator with the Talosians (which she really was), acting as their agent. Perhaps she could have talked a bit about her early struggles against them, and then her realization that she was in a paradise of possibilities. She would have tried at the club to seduce his body, here she needed to seduce his heart. Follow that with some moments back in his cage contemplating what has happened. Then give him the opportunity to escape and force him to choose. That's the moment we are missing, the moment when he consciously decides that he must return to his true love, the Enterprise.

It's a small criticism. In all, the whole is definitely greater than the considerable sum of its parts. Hunter and Oliver shine, as do Wyllie and numerous other supporting actors. It is impossible to know if there was enough chemistry between these crew members to have sustained a series. One thing is for certain, with Hunter as the captain, Trek would have likely gone in a modestly different direction. His intensity and seeming unwillingness to smile likely would not have worked as well with either a non-emotional human first officer or a logic-driven Vulcan. Something would have had to give. (Frankly, the character of Number One, despite its ground-breaking nature, looks like something of a dead-end. And I think this notion is supported by the great lengths writers went to, some 20 years later, just to keep Will Riker busy.)

Pike, in this brief sketch, also appears to lack some of the charm and humor that Shatner and the writers would give Kirk. His bridge is tight, bustling, and very formal -- much more like the bridge of a nuclear sub than the comfortable workplace it would become. One can easily imagine Pike regularly convening his senior officers in the briefing room for all the talking, and leaving the bridge for all the doing (similar to Picard's style). This is partly due to Butler's strong direction, and his great success at realizing Roddenberry's initial vision.

Too cerebral? Perhaps, but that's probably because the protagonist has to use his brain to free himself rather than his fists (or a gun, for the most part). That may be one of the things that defines the best Trek episodes -- a list on which this really must be included. There's excitement, but it's mostly about ideas and principles. It shouldn't be surprising that network execs rejected this: they probably were bored -- dazzled, but bored.

Rating: Very Top (1)

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This page was last modified October 30, 2015 5:41 PM.