Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "The Menagerie"

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.

1 comment:

  1. John entertaining review of “The Menagerie”. This is a brilliant episode because of the re-use of the original pilot, “The Cage”. "The Cage" was an important pilot episode that did create a believable history for the series. Imagine if Gene Roddenberry had never re-used "The Cage" and it was just shelved. What a creative [and financial loss] that would have been. “The Menagerie” is a wonderful companion episode to "The Cage" in which we get to see the best of both Star Treks with Pike and Kirk.