Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Menagerie" (November 17 and 24, 1966)

Stardate 3012.4

The U.S.S. Enterprise receives a message diverting the vessel to Starbase 11.  There, Commodore Mendez (Malachi Throne) insists that no such message was sent.

Mendez also reports some grave news. Fleet Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter/Sean Kenney) has been badly injured during a rescue attempt aboard a cadet vessel. Although Pike survived the incident, he was exposed to delta rays is now horribly scarred. He is also confined to a life-support chair, and is only able to answer “yes” or “no” through an indicator light. As Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) points out, Pike is as alert as ever, but he is trapped in a convalescing body.

Pike is the former captain of the Enterprise, and was Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) commanding officer for many years. Accordingly, Mendez suspects that Spock sent the phantom message so he could see his former friend.

The truth is somewhat different.

Spock abducts Pike and hijacks the Enterprise, stranding Captain Kirk (William Shatner) at Starbase 11.  Spock immediately sets a course for Talos IV, a mysterious planet that Starfleet officers are forbidden to have contact with.

Violation of this edit is punishable by the last death penalty on the books.

Kirk pursues the Enterprise in a shuttle-craft, and attempts to stop his apparently-mutinous first officer.  When Spock is held for court-martial, however, exonerating evidence is presented…straight from the mysterious Talos IV.

On a view-screen on the court room, images from nearly two-decades earlier play out. They reveal the details of Captain Pike’s visit to Talos IV, and his strange encounter with the beings there.

Star Trek’s only two-part episode -- the brilliant “The Menagerie” -- began as a production expedient. Because Star Trek was expensive -- not to mention complicated to produce -- there was the ubiquitous worry that deadlines would be missed, and an episode might not make it to air.

The result was a clever re-use of the original pilot, “The Cage,” with new wraparound or bridging material featuring the regular cast, standing sets, and so forth. Few would have imagined, no doubt, that a glorified “clips” story would become one of the most beloved episodes of the series, or for that matter, one of the best Star Treks ever made. Yet that is precisely what happened.

“The Cage” by itself is a clever, intelligent story about mankind’s indomitable nature, and humanity's refusal to give in to emotions or appetites (such as desire) in the face of, essentially slavery. 

But the bridging material included in "The Menagerie" adds so much to the story-line. It is the yin to “The Cage’s” yang.  

If “The Cage” is about the ways that illusions can be a trap (like an addictive “narcotic,” in the words of the teleplay,”) then “The Menagerie” is an even-handed, book-end opposite conclusion.  

Sometimes, perhaps, an illusion can be legitimately, life-saving. Sometimes, it can be a refuge from suffering.

In exploring that idea, “The Menagerie” deepens the character of Spock significantly. Not only because we meet a younger, apparently more impulsive version of him in the material from “The Cage,” but because we come to understand that beneath his cool, glacial exterior, he does feel. He does care.

And the bonds Spock forges with his friends are strong...even unbreakable. Here, he exposes himself to legal jeopardy and possibly death in order to save a friend, Christopher Pike. He acts against regulations, against orders, against prudence, even, to enact a positive outcome for a man whose life has been destroyed.  

The question, of course, is this: are Spock’s decisions based in emotion or in logic?   

I could very well our dispassionate friend explaining the utter illogic of Pike’s continued suffering, as well as the illogic of a zero tolerance policy towards visiting Talos IV.  In this one setting, in this one case, there is only one logical place for the injured Captain Pike -- Spock’s friend to live out the rest of his days. And that place happens to be Talos IV.

Uniquely, the Star Trek movies present a kind of mirror or reflection of this episode's ethos. In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Kirk risks legal jeopardy and death, too, to visit a forbidden planet called Genesis. 

As is the case in “The Menagerie,” he does so to save his friends, both Spock and McCoy. He must alleviate their suffering.  

In both examples, one cannot escape the conclusion that Star Trek has made a judgment on “rules.”  

It is more important to achieve a good (such as saving a friend) than it is to adhere to a policy, rule, or hierarchy. 

When one considers all the occasions in which Kirk chooses “normal human development” over the dogma of General Order One, or the Prime Directive, this philosophical viewpoint becomes even more apparent.  

Rules are good. They give us all guidelines.

Helping people is better.

The original “The Cage” possesses a much more “cerebral” philosophy for certain. Pike’s adventure is not about helping friends, about succumbing to your feelings or even logic.  

Rather, it is about the opposite. It is about how a starship captain, Pike, must remain disciplined in the face of sexual fantasy. 

If Pike succumbs to his appetites, to his sexual desires, he will be responsible for fathering a race of human slaves. The Talosians keep tempting him with those fantasies. They are inventive and relentless in their attempts. For example, they set up a scenario in which he is a knight in a shining armor, protecting a virginal princess from a Kalar barbarian.  Here, he is asked to fulfill his biological male role of protector.

And then the  Talosians tempt Pike again with a scene of domestic bliss.  He is home, safe and well-established. His beautiful wife adores him, and he her. 

And finally, unforgettably, the Talosians tempt Pike with Vina’s (Susan Oliver) final appearance: as a seductive “animal-like” Orion Slave Girl.  Vina's dance is one of the great moments in Star Trek, the promise of alien contact that is dangerous, different and desirable.

I have written here before about the kinky aspects of the original Star Trek, and the way that the later generations prove far more conservative (as a whole) in their approach to sex, and sexual fantasies.  

“The Menagerie” is a prime example of Star Trek getting its kink on.  The ship’s captain is attacked, essentially, with sexual fantasy after sexual fantasy, but he must not crack; must not succumb. 

The underlying theme of “The Cage” aspect of this episode is that appetites and desires must be controlled, lest a negative future be wrought.  Pike can indulge in every fantasy, every kind of sex he can imagine. But in doing so, he risks focusing on the selfish; on the personal, and not seeing the big picture. He would fail to consider the welfare of the human race itself.  It's a classic conflict between desire and morality.

The provocative sexual aspects of "The Menagerie" might be today viewed as somehow sexist by some, especially since female crew-members are referred to at one point as “breeding stock.” 

And yet, at the same time, “The Cage” is amazingly progressive in one very remarkable regard. Number One (Majel Barrett), a competent, highly-accomplished female, is second in command of the Enterprise during Pike’s voyages. 

She is depicted leading a landing team, in command during a strategy briefing aboard ship, and in other situations that demonstrate well her skill, training and judgment.  So of course, the network axe Number One. Who does she think she is?

Alas, there would be no other female character of Number One's ilk in Star Trek until the age of Deep Space Nine. Crusher and Troi on Next Gen were always firmly ensconced in caretaker roles, and Tasha Yar was so underdeveloped that viewers rarely if ever got to see her in a leadership role.

“The Cage” is also forward-thinking in its presentation of Captain Pike.  Although he keeps horses, he is much, much less cowboy-like than is Captain Kirk.  Indeed, Pike seems a more direct antecedent of Jean Luc Picard than he is of James Kirk. Pike is introspective; he is moody. He is reserved…and private.  Thus Pike does not feel like a product of 1960s TV. He is very un-Bond-like and un-cowboy-like at the same time.

“The Cage” also features fewer Western tropes, in general, than we see in many Star Trek episodes of the regular series. It feels ahead of its time, and spectacularly so.

“The Menagerie” is also brilliant in a way that was certainly not intended. 

More than any other episode in the original series, it establishes the reality of the Star Trek universe by granting it…history.  

In this episode we see a future that is twenty-years earlier than Kirk’s time. It is a clunkier time in terms of technology, and appropriately so given the arc of history. There are Flash Gordon ray guns about, goose-neck monitors, and large communicators that have their circuitry visible under transparent materials.  

We see older uniforms, a younger Spock, and more.  We see a starship bridge that is recognizable as such, but clearly of an earlier design.

My point is basically this: Had Star Trek attempted to invent this “earlier” future, it would have cost the series a lot of money, and been been practically impossible to do so. 

But by importing an earlier production into its continuity -- in the form of “The Cage” -- “The Menagerie” presents a whole, incredibly believable, fully-realized three-dimensional “history” to the series we know and love. The differences and similarities in production design make the universe feel as though it is always developing, always in motion.  "The Cage" actually feels like it comes before Star Trek in history.

A critical flaw of Enterprise, I feel, is that it always looked like it came after Star Trek, and so didn't have the right vibe for a prequel.  It didn't feel like history. It looked and felt like something new.

When I finish blogging the first season of Star Trek, I’ll present my list for the ten best episodes of that span, but without giving too much away, “The Menagerie” will certainly make that list.

It dynamically expresses Spock’s under-the-surface humanity at the same time that it grows the universe dramatically, and transmits a message about discipline in the face of temptation.

Next week: “The Conscience of the King”


  1. I was always fascinated by how much more sophisticated the sets, props, and costumes of the series looked compared to The Cage even though they was probably only a year between the making of the pilot and the series. Clearly, The Cage design was stuck in the space cadet mentality of the 50s, where the series decided to move into a more streamlined 60s look. I've never found an explanation for why the extensive changes were made, but it sure benefits the look of The Menagerie.

  2. John your thoughts regarding "The Menagerie" are so very true. Using "The Cage" [first pilot episode] to create a history in production designs that enhanced the entire series was brilliant. That was a problem I had with Enterprise too, it's production design just did not look like it came before TOS. Science-fiction is best when you have a sense it is a universe with history like real life. Production cost was the catalyst for the re-use of "The Cage", but the results are a permanent foundation the Star Trek universe.

    If only the Pike in the J.J. Abrams films had a happier ending.


  3. Doctor Boyce
    (to Captain Pike)
    "We both get the same two kinds of customers - the living... and the dying."


    When I was young, "The Menagerie" was one of those episodes I always looked forward to seeing.

    Good review, John, in many ways. You are right on why the first pilot's footage was utilized: The series was running high in the red and almost missing its airdates on a regular basis. Also, the producers and the studio thought that letting a $615,751 film negative collect dust was a waste. Repurposing "The Cage" effectively "bought" another episode. The byproduct of this was it gave "The Menagerie" untouchable scope (compared to other television shows of the time, and for many years afterward).

    When this pilot show gets edited into (intercut with) a regular Star Trek episode we get a marvelous out-of-television experience.

    Your overview on the different periods of Starfleet technologies are spot on. Well said! There is a wonderful verisimilitude displayed in "The Menagerie" which the series as a whole benefits from immensely. The technological depth illustrated and contrasted in "The Menagerie" is something that gave Star Trek a special believability factor for the audience. I think "epic" is the current term used, and should be used here.

    The script, by John D.F. Black, Gene Roddenberry, and Gene Coon, rendered a story which could have been a standard look-back at the Enterprise of thirteen years ago, but instead gives us a compelling tale involving two Starship Enterprise captains and their respective crews. Brilliant storytelling. A special credit must go to film editor Robert Swanson for working, and make work, the then-and-now footage. (He was the cutter in one of four editing teams that worked on the series.)

    You are right when you state that Pike and Kirk are two distinctly different personalities. The Starship and Starbase personnel are memorable. Spock really does come across as almost human in this episode; he's emotional without wearing it on his sleeve... he shows it in his immediate and ultimate actions.

    "The Menagerie", with some benefit from the exoticness of "The Cage" and its Talonsian world, is actually an affecting viewing experience. Helping achieve this, especially during the story's denouement, is composer Alexander Courage's beautiful and haunting music.

    In the early/mid 1970s an independent television station in Los Angeles advertised and screened "The Menagerie" as a weekday night movie, placing it directly against the big networks' first run prime-time fare. Even by this point, this two-part episode would have been shown countless times, but what happened when the station aired "The Menagerie" as a TV Movie is it won its time slot.


    (on viewscreen, to Kirk)
    "Captain Pike has an illusion, and you have reality. May you find your way as pleasant."

  4. John,

    "The Menagerie" takes the footage from "The Cage" and turns it into something poetic, ethereal, and powerful. Not only in its fascinating look back into history, but its denouement, which is genuinely touching and vibrant and wonderful.

    In the original pilot, Pike is told that the Talosians will die off as a result of their failure to convince him to stay. He kind of shrugs it off and rejoins the ship and crew, and it's not very humane or humanitarian. Just another day at the office. His primary concern is for Vina, and so, the Talosians give her an imaginary Captain Pike to hang out with. It's kind of...creepy? I'm not saying it's horrible, but it leaves a strange aftertaste; not a very fulfilling conclusion to a great story.

    "The Menagerie" re-works the footage by dropping the line about the Talosians dying off. This makes them seem less sympathetic, until those final moments. When Kirk is shown Pike and Vina walking, hand and hand, completely healed and as one, his smile gives us an amazing moment. The two of them were always meant to be together, and here they are, both crippled and made whole, reunited. Fate has torn them apart and brought them back together. There could be no other ending for them, and it's a happy one...and it seems the Talosians knew what they were doing all along, and were trying their best to facilitate it. They're not the manipulative alien monsters that General Order 7 has led us to believe.

    You are so right that this episode defines the characters in ways that will manifest many times, all the way to the films and beyond. But it is the ending of "The Menagerie" that always gives me chills. It is, quite simply, beautiful.


  5. Sheri2:33 AM

    One correction: it seems to have been Majel Barrett to which NBC objected, not the character of Number One. The network didn't want the potential mess arising from Gene Roddenberry casting his mistress in a major part on its most expensive series (what if they broke up acrimoniously?), but of course Roddenberry was invested for decades in misleading people on this point. Of course, what was he going to tell Majel when the second pilot was ordered? When she changed her look to audition as Nurse Chapel, a minor character who initially was not a continuing character, she slipped in under the radar.

    Regarding The Menagerie/The Cage, I would add to your review that the Talosians are not depicted as entirely villainous, either; though they are deceptive and manipulative, their goal is to attract company for the tragically solitary Vina (a theme that will be revisited beautifully in Metamorphosis). They rescued her, tried to repair her without sufficient knowledge, and are trying to fulfill their responsibility to her by seducing Pike to remain--so much so that if he doesn't find any of Vina's guises attractive enough, they are prepared to use any/all of the women on Enterprise to induce him to stay.