Star Trek Is...: The Cage


Rare Playmates Cage-era "Innerspace" toy prototype.
“The Cage” occupies a strange space within Star Trek lore: As a pilot created by Gene Roddenberry and those closest to him to demonstrate to NBC what they envisioned Star Trek to be all about, but one that never actually aired on television, it is at once the progenitor of the entire franchise and also the only part of it impossible to reconcile with the rest of the series' canon. “The Cage” is a very strange specimen indeed then: It's not quite Star Trek, at least not the Star Trek that fans would come to recognise and love years later, but, by virtue of it being a pilot designed to embody the show's core values and themes made before executive compromises changed the tone of the series, it is in many ways the purest Star Trek of all.

The one individual irreducibly linked to “The Cage”, what it is and what it does, far more so than in anything else bearing the Star Trek name, is Gene Roddenberry. Over the years mainline fandom has all but deified Roddenberry, and people tend to hold him up as a figurehead for everything they want Star Trek to embody and strive for (particularly so in the years immediately following his death in 1991 and the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005). This is also not helped by muddy and at times completely contradictory historical accounts of key moments in Star Trek history and Roddenberry's own biographical details perpetuated by what can frankly best be described as rampant hearsay and cult of personality. As a result, it can be hard to actually get a solid critical handle on who Roddenberry was, what the extent of his contribution to Star Trek was and what exactly he wanted it to be.

“The Cage” then really is the best place to talk about Roddenberry and his influence on Star Trek, because no matter what Star Trek is going to become over the next several decades it will never again be as closely tied to Roddenberry's personal conception of it as it is here. There are several reasons for this, the most immediately obvious one being its aforementioned status as a pilot, but also the fact that even as of the early Original Series Gene Roddenberry had a lot of help and input in shaping the direction of Star Trek that he didn't have as much of here. The fact he was willing to entertain and genuinely listen to everyone's ideas for, and criticisms of, his project is telling, but so is the fact their influence has been all but effaced from the history of the franchise to the point Roddenberry is, implicitly at least, held up as the source of every single good idea the series ever had, which is simply and flatly not true. But there is a reason Majel Barrett called “The Cage” her favourite episode and “Pure Star Trek”, and anyone who is seriously interested in the history of the franchise and Gene Roddenberry's “vision”, whatever that may turn out to be, really ought to study it.

Firstly, some things we do know about Gene Roddenberry: He was not a futurist. Nor was he a scientist, engineer or prophet. He was, however, a retired Air Force Pilot and LAPD officer who had done some freelance work for television before pitching the concept of Star Trek to Desilu Studios in 1964. What's the most immediately interesting about these early documents is that far from describing some long-winded space opera myth arc that sings the praises of Hard Science, Roddenberry is actually pitching Star Trek as as a combination of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, the absolute pulpiest of the pulp science fiction works. In private, Roddenberry is alleged to have claimed to be basing the show on Gulliver's Travels, and that he intended each episode to be structured around both an action adventure story and a morality play. Roddenberry did want his show to be believable though, so he brought in physicist Harvey P. Lynn to serve as his technical advisor, which also invites comparisons to Foundation-style Golden Age science fiction. So we can pretty safely say that even this early, Roddenberry is not thinking of Star Trek as either “A Wagon Train to the stars” or Horatio Hornblower in space.

The other person indelibly linked with “The Cage” and prototypical Star Trek is Majel Barrett herself. There isn't as much fandom lore or as many legends surrounding Barrett as there are Roddenberry, although there are several. Firstly though the most important thing to note about Barrett is that she and Gene Roddenberry had a very complex and nuanced relationship that isn't really adequately summarized by simply saying “they were married”. At the risk of turning Vaka Rangi into the celebrity gossip papers, this really is something we need to square away right now because it actually holds ramifications for formative decisions made about what Star Trek is and where it goes. Here's the thing: The primary reason Number One exists (and by association the character Spock will become) and the reason she's played by Majel Barrett is straightforwardly because of her relationship with Roddenberry. This isn't to suggest something so crass as the only reason Barrett was cast was because she was sleeping with Roddenberry, but rather to posit that Number One was probably written with Barrett in mind.

I get the feeling Barrett was not only Roddenberry's romantic partner, but a kind of inspirational muse to him as well. Number One is the first character described in the original pitch to Desilu and supposedly the first one created for all of Star Trek. She's explicitly written to be the most coolly competent character on the show and as the Enterprise's “most experienced officer” she is implicitly connected to the soul of the ship at a very deep level thanks to western naval tradition. What's also interesting, however, is that her femininity is consistently a matter for debate both in the treatment and what made it to air. Captain Pike is visibly uncomfortable with having women on the bridge other than Number One (as seen by his dismissive attitude towards Yeoman Colt) and in the script a big deal is made out of the fact Number One is icy and logical even going so far as to state “From time to time we'll wonder just how much female exists under that icy facade.” In other words, Number One is special because she's a woman who has acclimated to rational, male culture.

As much praise as Star Trek gets for its progressive attitudes towards gender roles, this isn't especially satisfying from a feminist perspective and it's clear Roddenberry wasn't entirely sure how far to go in this direction, but the fact Number One exists at all is a decisive move that will leave a big impression on people as a part of the series' developing lore and mythology. Barrett was important enough to Roddenberry that he restructured his entire television pulp science fiction throwback project to accommodate her, a project that he was even now becoming increasingly possessive of and attempting to turn into his masterpiece (often, sadly, at the expense of everyone else who contributed to its success). Number One just being on the bridge was a bold statement that cemented Star Trek's commitment to egalitarianism, if only in the pop consciousness and not on actual television. And that's solely due to Majel Barrett.

I'm spending so much time picking over biographical details about Gene Roddenberry, Majel Barrett and Number One because, well, they're really the most interesting things about “The Cage”, doubly so in terms of what we know the future holds. As an actual episode of television “The Cage” is surprisingly underwhelming, especially as the first, most definitive incarnation of Star Trek. That said, the ethics and general structure of this episode do prove revealing in sussing out Roddeberry's basic intent in regards to Star Trek, so I'm going to dedicate the remainder of this post to that instead of summarising or analysing the plot, which every Trekker knows by heart at this point. It's essentially Plato's allegory of the cave retold in pulp sci-fi terms (with one big twist I'll get to), which is noteworthy insofar as it was uncommon, though not unheard of, to get that kind of distilled philosophical fiction on television in 1964, and there's also the really galling laddish humour of the Talosians' “Adam and Eve” scheme and the crew's reaction to it, but that's about the extent of what's actually edifying to talk about in regards to the plot.

What's more revealing is what “The Cage” shows us about what Gene Roddenberry initially pictured the world of Star Trek to be like. You'll notice this episode bears no mention of a utopian United Federation of Planets with a mission to Seek Out New Life And New Civilizations and Boldy Go Where No Man Has Gone Before. I'll save you the trouble of checking the original pitch and treatment because you won't find it there either. In fact at this point there's little to no discussion about what, actually, the Enterprise does at all. All we get is a line about how Pike is recovering from a battle at Rigel VII and that the ship and its crew are en route to deliver some medical supplies when they picked up the manufactured distress signal. Frankly, at this point there's no reason to suspect the Enterprise is anything other than a battlecruiser working for some futuristic military organisation or law-keeping task force.

Because that's exactly what it is.

It doesn't take a Talosian to put the pieces together here. The Enterprise isn't going out to make friendly contact with undiscovered cultures or mapping uncharted star clusters, it's running errands back and forth between Earth colonies and occasionally sparring with enemy hostiles in disputed territories. It's a glorified patrol boat. Now I also hasten to add I don't think Roddenberry meant this as a bit of neo-imperial US chest thumping: There's nothing in anything he said or that was written about him to lend any sort of credence to that accusation. It is true Star Trek, especially in its 60s incarnations, does develop a very problematic and tangled connection to imperialism, but that develops generatively as the show morphs and evolves over its first three years. Equally though Star Trek wasn't meant as some kind of idealized, post-scarcity fairy tale either. Those connotations are indeed all part of the series and do come later, but they don't spring from Roddenberry, at least not at first.

What I think is a more fitting explanation for Star Trek is that Roddenberry was a fighter pilot-There's a unique kind of camaraderie amongst and bond between US Air Force pilots, and it would be silly to suggest this didn't have a big influence on Roddenberry's writing. No, what probably happened was that Roddenberry had this idea he really liked to do Gulliver's Travels in space and decided to set it on a ship that was part of the Space Air Force because that's the environment he knew. Also, he thought it'd be a good idea to let women into the Space Air Force too because he liked women and was inspired by his loverXmuse and figured that would be a sensible thing to do. It's pro-military only in the sense that doing a story about the Space Air Force is going to tautologically be that way by default simply by virtue of being about such a concept in the first place, not because Roddenberry had some imperialistic agenda to push. However, we didn't excuse this with Asimov and we shouldn't excuse it here either: Combine this with the elements Star Trek inherits from both pulp sci-fi (its action adventure trappings and general setting) and Golden Age sci-fi (the attempt to make the science somewhat realistic) and you wind up with a concept that is fundamentally, if not entirely intentionally, militaristic.

More support for this reading can be found in the Enterprise’s oft-celebrated multiracial crew. Like the addition of Number One and Yeoman Colt, this is frequently cited as proof that Star Trek was far and away the most progressive thing on TV in 1964. If you believe Gene Roddenberry, this was his idea and a favourite story of his to tell in later years on the convention circuit was how he had to fight Desilu and NBC tooth and claw to keep the Enterprise diverse because they wanted a “suitable”, i.e. white, cast. This popular claim is contested, however, by Bob Justman and Herb Solow (two Desilu executives and production associates who helped Roddenberry create Star Trek and who became producers themselves once the series proper began) in their 1997 book Inside Star Trek, which became an invaluable source for debunking myths and lore the franchise had accumulated up to that point and *especially* during the notoriously insular and self-congratulatory mid-90s fandom. According to Solow and Justman, NBC in fact requested that Roddenberry make the Enterprise crew multi-ethnic as they encouraged diversity in all of their TV shows. Once again like the addition of female characters, I believe this was at least partially Roddenberry's idea: There is a line in one of the very early treatment scripts where the captain, then named Robert April, chews out a crewmember for firing on friendly life-forms because they “looked hostile” and dismisses him in disgrace. However, it's very clear the idea is not *entirely* Roddenberry's, nor is it even unique to Star Trek, and to cast Roddenberry as some prodigy ahead of his time fighting valiantly for Diversity against the oppressive forces of Old and Evil is not only an oversimplification, it's a fallacy.

But the most damning evidence that Star Trek isn't a grand utopian ideal at this point is the episode's resolution: It's rather fascinating, and more than a little alarming for someone used to later Star Trek, to see how Pike escapes the Talosian zoo: He overwhelms the zookeepers with “primitive, hateful” thoughts which their telepathic powers cannot pierce, thus shattering their ability to maintain their illusions. It's hard to imagine even Captain Kirk resorting to this kind of action and seems completely at odds with Star Trek's supposed utopianism: There's no rousing speech about how humanity has moved beyond such things or how more evolved species have no need of such thoughts-It really is merely the bit of plot detail Pike needs to escape his predicament and it's not treated as anything more substantial than that. Furthermore, while we do get a token rumination on the nature of humanity at the end, it's couched more in terms of our lovable stubbornness, strong will and our unwillingness to be fenced in, not on how evolved we've become or our potential for greatness.

And that's really the takeaway here: “The Cage” isn't some super-cerebral musing on a idealized future with no war, poverty or bigotry: It's a square-jawed, manly pulp adventure story for the mid-1960s. It's maybe more intellectually-minded and has more of a diverse cast then other shows of its time, but it's by no means the most intelligent or interesting thing on the air right now either (we'll touch on one of those later on). I don't think it's bad enough to warrant NBC rejecting it on its own merits, though the pacing is tedious and the plot is thinner than it'd like you to think it is, but it's equally easy to see why the Star Trek team went back to the drawing board. When next we see them, the show will have changed significantly. Not all of the changes will be for the better, but one thing that's clear is that for Star Trek to work it's going to *have* to change. It's not Vaka Rangi yet, but if I'm honest it won't be completely Vaka Rangi for decades. More pressingly, the show as it exists now isn't the strange phenomenon that will last for over 45 years, but it *is* Star Trek and it's Star Trek the way Gene Roddenberry first wanted it. This is very important to keep in mind, as the spectre of “The Cage” will always haunt Star Trek from here to eternity, and for better or for worse.


Philip Sandifer 3 years, 9 months ago

There's an odd symbolic level on which Star Trek and Doctor Who really differ here. For ages the assumption was that Doctor Who was the knockoff British version of Star Trek - their goofy cult sci-fi show that could never compare to the gleaming money machine of our great cult sci-fi show.

In practice, of course, it looks like the reverse these days - Trek underperforms at the box office in the second outing and has its visionary revival artist conspicuously break up with it in favor of Star Wars, meanwhile Doctor Who has every appearance of becoming a perennial blockbuster that revives itself indefinitely. This is not the position anyone would have expected the franchises to be in a decade ago, and 2003 wasn't even a very good year for Trek in popular terms.

But you can see it in the opening images. Whatever might be said of An Unearthly Child and the Problem of Susan, it is fundamentally a series about running - about going onwards. Whereas Roddenberry's Single Vision and Newton's Sleep provide a literal Cage that Star Trek can never quite escape from.

The difference between emboitment and imprisonment, if you will.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 9 months ago

As someone who grew up on Star Trek and who is consciously working through its ramifications as a shared myth this is tough to read, but valid (although I may take issue with calling J.J. Abrams a visionary revival artist). Star Trek has always been trapped in a sense, held back by one thing or another. I think there is a way forward, and in fact I'm making a passionate case the franchise eventually finds it tomorrow, even if it does ultimately turn out there's a heavy price to pay for discovering that.

There is a sense the only way for Star Trek to really escape its cage is to burn the jail down and turn itself into something else...

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 9 months ago

"the assumption was that Doctor Who was the knockoff British version of Star Trek"

That is such a weird and alien assumption to me, and not only because the chronology of it makes no sense. I just don't see Who and Trek as being in any way the same kind of show. I'm reminded of Lawrence Miles' rants about the concept of "Cult TV" - that any show with a special effect is assumed to be the same sort of thing as any other show with a special effect.

On reflection, I can see how the comparison might make sense in a US context, where Doctor Who is a minor TV show watched by the typical cult-TV audience of young adults with above-average educational attainment. But in the UK, Doctor Who just doesn't inhabit that space, and was never designed to. It belongs with Basil Brush and The Generation Game - or, in the revived series, with Pointless and Strictly Come Dancing. Its nearest dramatic relative these days is Call the Midwife, not Battlestar Galactica.

None of this is news to you, of course, Phil, but even so I often feel a strange disconnect between Doctor Who as it is perceived by US viewers and Doctor Who as it is experienced by the British Saturday tea-time audience, as if the Americans are repurposing Doctor Who as something that it was never quite intended to be.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 9 months ago

I mean, I certainly agree with you, Iain - it's utter nonsense. And it is an American repurposing if it, albeit one that did eventually jump over to have some influence in the 80s and 90s. I agree that there's an odd repurposing. And one of the things I'm quite looking forward to covering on my blog is when the new series does break out in the US (largely in the Smith era, as the erstwhile Sci-Fi channel never really figured out what to do with it) and the way in which it does and doesn't translate.

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tantalus1970 3 years, 9 months ago

"There's a unique kind of camaraderie amongst and bond between US Air Force pilots"

I'd question this; I think you'll find similar bonds between other countries' fighter pilots, for a start.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 9 months ago

Well, there is a camaraderie amongst soldiers and pilots in general, for sure. But I'd say the US Air Force has a particular culture about it. Which is of course a given: Any distinct group of people will.

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Josh 3 years, 9 months ago

First off, great analysis, and I'll be checking back every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to continue this journey with you!

On the specific topic of Roddenberry's inspirations, I also think Forbidden Planet provided a blueprint for the general format. I do believe the crew in that film were on a similar "patrol boat" type mission, which fits with your point that Trek, at this point, is not "out there" to explore strange new worlds.

Also, thank you for pointing out that Roddenberry did not set out to create an ideal utopian universe with Trek. That's something that was, I think, largely a fan construction which he embraced in the 70s in that "I must find where my people are going so I can lead them" type way. It was with this new vision of himself as some kind of visionary thinker that contributed a lot to the development of TNG, which was a conscious attempt to create an ideal utopian universe, and had succeeded in some ways and failed it others. But we'll hold on that until we get there!

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 9 months ago

Glad to have you!

Yes, I agree Forbidden Planet was probably some kind of inspiration: At the very least he was familiar with it-A great many science fiction writers of a certain generation would have been.

I think the scenario you've described is pretty much what happened: People latched on the the more utopian aspects of TOS and remembered it to be far more progressive than it actually was. Roddenberry then went and made sure to play up that angle and write it back into what, at the time, was going to be Star Trek Phase II (although I mean also it's not out of the question he actually believed in this vision too: People can change over the years). That said I think there *are* some aspects of TOS that lend themselves to this kind of reading, but they're scant and largely do not spring from Roddenberry himself.

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tantalus1970 3 years, 8 months ago

I see your point; but I think it would be more accurate to say it has a unique camaraderie, rather than a unique kind of camaraderie.

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eumenidis 3 years, 6 months ago

Roddenberry may have got the ideas for the original form of Trek from directly from pulps such as "Astounding" as well as/in addition to Forbidden Planet; military space adventures seem to have been an established subgenre by the '30s, & I've long thought his SF series showed very heavy influence from the work of A. E. van Vogt.

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GarrettCRW 2 years, 10 months ago

It must be noted that part of Roddenberry's motivations for the Jonathan Swift in space bit was because of his previous show, The Lieutenant, which was an overtly military show. The thing is, he wanted to do an episode directly tackling race, and since the show filmed at Camp Pendleton, the US military had a few things to say (mainly that racism was not the way things worked in the armed forces), and pulled their support in response. NBC refused to air the episode, but Roddenberry went to the NAACP, which caused trouble and led to NBC cancelling the show after one year, and was why Star Trek was made at Desilu and not MGM (the studio behind The Lieutenant).

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 10 months ago

I could see that. From what I understand, Roddenberry was certainly not averse to recycling ideas, and he did have a few good ones.

Strange tying to reconcile that with Solow and Justman's claims about NBC's at least tacit commitment to diverse casting. Though I suppose diverse casting and directly addressing racism are two different things. I guess you take that, combine it with Star Trek's unique setting, and that explains a lot about why it was able to do what it did.

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