Editor’s note: Rental Rehab is pleased to welcome itself back from the dead with a witty new series by guest writer Joshua, who will view and review the Star Trek Original Series.
Episode: The Cage – Pilot (1965)
Director: Robert Butler
Writer: Gene Roddenberry
The Cage opens with the same dilemma posed by Modernity itself: why make one’s self vulnerable to pain if comfort is an accessible alternative? When we meet him, Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) has decided to resign his commission. A recent mission has left many of his crew dead or injured, and the demands of command are too heavy.
Conveniently, the crew of the Enterprise is lured to the planet Talos by a distress call, where Captain Pike is soon captured. Telepathic aliens contrive to pair him with Vena (Susan Oliver) to start a race of captive humans, dreaming simulated lives for the entertainment of their keepers. After all attempts at escape fail, the aliens finally decide that humans are basically incompatible with a life of captivity and Pike is released, while Vena is left behind.
This Enterprise is more workmanlike and serious than we expect, like a Mid-Century Modern submarine. The landing party is a party – six people in harness, holster, and protective clothing – and not just the three top officers on board transporting down in their pajamas. The costuming is almost bland, even military in appearance, and the pilot does its female characters the honor of allowing them pants instead of the mini-skirt/go-go boot ensemble. What’s more, these soberly dressed women have positions of influence in the pilot that the franchise would take decades to deliver.
A character like Vena, who on Kirk’s ship would present just another opportunity for alien strange, challenges Captain Pike with an existential question mirroring his personal doubts: is a “real” life of pain, risk, and freedom preferable to an existence of perfectly beautiful, choose-your-own illusion? The creators of the show might be trying to say something here about freedom and dignity, and the way that Modernity has made the wrong choices far too compelling.
Inside the illusory world, Vena offers herself as all women, or any woman – demure or conniving, vulnerable or frankly sexual. But in the possible lives they experience, Vena makes of Pike only one request: Choose me. Over freedom, over duty, over dignity. Chose me over truth. Like Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca (1942) or most of Fleetwood Mac’s back catalog, The Cage asks us to identify exploration, accomplishment, and freedom with an exclusively masculine solitude, and love with subjugation. Is it painfully romantic or is it moral savagery?
The patter that will become a critical axis of the series is missing, the impression being that Captain Pike is a hard-ass who doesn’t countenance any bullshit on his bridge. He glares with his bright blue eyes, kind of like America’s pissed-off father coming home from work. There is the requisite crotchety doctor, and Spock seems (if anything) like an adolescent still undecided over whether to embrace his human or Vulcan half.
Finally, The Cage leaves us with the same nagging questions posed by every story where the border between reality and dreams becomes fully permeable. Does Pike really leave the planet, or is he still stuck in the Matrix, having a slightly better Star Fleet career as someone more sensational? Were Pike as fatigued by his own upright frigidity as he claims, wouldn’t he subconsciously crave being a James T. Kirk – wouldn’t you? If your cerebral female first officer were too threatening, why not turn her into a nurse in a short skirt? The ambit of the show is much smaller than we thought if all three seasons and the continuing franchise take place in a cave underground. That’s some tasty allegory!
Better yet, there never was a Star Trek show at all – it’s real, and I’m Captain Pike, stuck in a zoo experiencing a fully imagined 21st century history. All I’m doing is processing the details of the life I lost as a science fiction entertainment.
Or you yourself might be Christopher Pike, noodling away in the dark as your body atrophies and fades away, dreaming this blog entry for the entertainment of unseen manipulators. Sweet dreams, Captain.
 Pretty obviously not William Shatner.