The first thing to know about The Cage – which will surely jump out to literally any viewer even remotely familiar with Star Trek – is that it exists at a very unique place for the show. The episode was produced by series creator Gene Rodenberry but, in a curious bit of TV trickery, NBC ordered a second pilot episode after The Cage was finished and therefore never aired as part of the show’s original run. Yes, that means the cast in the episode, save for Leonard Nimoy, would essentially be jettisoned into space and never be seen from again, including the captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter).
The second thing to know, before reading any further, is that this entire installment of this series will be the first instance of me watching any Star Trek property – film, television, or otherwise. I never grew up in a Trek household, never had any interest in the movies, including the JJ Abrams reboots in the 2010s, and never had any friends that insisted I catch up. Which means that this column will be an unfettered look at one of popular culture’s most significant entities, but it’ll be devoid of any context for upcoming seasons and iterations. Judge the rest of this series accordingly.
After watching both The Cage and The Man Trap, it’s clear that Rodenberry didn’t want to deviate too far from the central idea from The Cage after the studio didn’t want to go forward with the show as is. Both episodes essentially deal with the same concept of shape shifting aliens, but they each take different paths to eradicate the problem. In The Cage, Pike is cordoned off from the rest of the ship’s crew and held hostage by aliens who manipulate his mind and force him to question what is real and what is fabricated. NBC reportedly scrapped the episode because it dealt with psychological issues that mainstream audiences would likely find too difficult to follow. Watching in 2022 with over half a century of sci-fi that has dealt with similar themes, I didn’t have too hard a time understanding what the show was trying to communicate.
But I can understand how casual viewers tuning in to a brand new show in a genre that didn’t necessarily lend itself to heady discussions could be left in the cold. That’s not to say that The Cage is a bad episode; Rodenberry’s confidence in his own world-building shines through first and foremost, even if the characters suffer a bit as a result. If Star Trek were to proceed with everything from The Cage intact, it would be fighting an uphill battle to familiarize us with its characters. With the exception of Spock (Nimoy), none of the crew members makes much of an impact, as their side of the episode basically deals with their attempts to rescue Pike. I do appreciate Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal of Pike as a captain who’s unsure in his ability to lead a ship full of men and women. It’s the one aspect that Pike has over Kirk in these two episodes.
With The Man Trap, the crew, now captained famously by James Kirk (William Shatner), has an infiltrator in its midst. When they arrive on a planet for a routine medical check-up, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Kirk begin seeing differing versions of one of its inhabitants. The way that episode director Marc Daniels visualizes the changing forms of the alien is one of the highlights of the episode, a feat of bare-bones filmmaking. (I have no idea what the production budget was per episode, but based on the show’s overall aesthetic, I can’t imagine it was terribly high.) As the alien makes its way aboard the Enterprise, we’re introduced to more of the show’s characters like Lt. Sulu (George Takei), Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and, yes, Spock. George Clayton Johnson’s script finds efficient and natural ways to incorporate the characters we’ll come to know and love over the season, while never straying from the central mystery of the creature on board.
Both of these episodes of Star Trek portray a universe full of possibilities, an exciting range of hard sci-fi and pulp storytelling, which I imagine was fairly uncommon in 1966. Part of the show’s enduring appeal was in its ability to tap into relevant events at the time and make them palatable in a sci-fi context. There’s a trace of that element here, in each indigenous species’ using the crew for their own purposes because of their exhausted resources. Beyond that, several of the show’s hallmarks which would go on to be parodied and duplicated elsewhere – the beeps and whooshes for every door and gadget, Kirk’s narration, the fantastical aliens – are all visible throughout The Man Trap. And, while it’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder where we’d be if the version of Star Trek in The Cage had continued, NBC and Rodenberry ultimately made the right choice.
The Cage Grade: B
The Man Trap Grade: B+
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