The U.S.S. Enterprise, under the command of Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) responds to a distress call from an Earth survey vessel in an unexplored system. The initially friendly and grateful survivors turn out to be illusions created by an advanced race of aliens called the Talosians. Their goal is to get Pike to accept a new life and mate with a human female named Vina by way of a series of elaborate fantasies — one including Vina as a very saucy Orion slave girl, another a recreation of the Enterprise’s previous mission, etc. After Pike repeatedly refuses to cooperate, attacks the Talosians and threatens to kill himself and others, the Talosians let him go — deciding humans are too violent and too against captivity to repopulate their battered planet (the inconsistently smart/dumb actions by the Talosians is one of the episode’s weaknesses). Vina, who actually was one of the original humans from the ship that crashed and not an illusion, was left deformed (her beauty throughout the episode was an illusion created by the Talosians) and decides to remain on the planet with a fantasy Pike. The real Pike returns to the ship and sets course for the crew’s next mission, never to return to Talos IV. Oh, wait …
Why it’s important
It goes without saying that “The Cage” is the most foundational episode of all of Trek. We’re introduced to so much that explaining it all would take too long. But, the big items include the Enterprise itself and the general look and feel of starships, a (somewhat) multi-ethnic crew with women (or, at least, a woman) in positions of authority and a main character who’s an alien (Leonard Nimoy, appearing for the first time as Spock). Most importantly might be the idea that Earth is fine and has developed to the point where it has ships exploring and colonizing the galaxy. One of my favorite moments of the episode is the way the creators slipped that idea in — “Same old Earth and you’ll see it very soon” — when Pike and Co. meet the “survivors” who ask if Earth’s all right. Whether intentional or not, the moment sets up the “positive future” idea that’s so core to Star Trek.
Naturally, some of the concepts aren’t fleshed out yet (there’s no mention of Starfleet or the Federation). But they, of course, will come.
What doesn’t hold up well
I’ll treat this one with extreme kid gloves. Use of paper and printers, a television set in Pike’s quarters, etc., can mostly be shrugged off. Talk of printouts 23 years later in “Encounter at Farpoint”, OTOH …
Probably the biggest issue comes from the dialog surrounding the crashed survey vessel’s apparent lack of warp drive. One of Pike’s crew tells the “survivors” on Talos IV that the “time barrier” has been broken — possibly, an allusion to warp. I suppose it could mean something else. Maybe in the previous 18 years, some other advancement happened that negated a “time barrier” that kept ships from going very, very fast at warp? I’m sure there’s some elaborate, expanded universe explanation, but it still doesn’t make much sense if you figure the survey vessel got to Talos IV in the first place. And there’s no dialog to indicate it was a sleeper ship.
This is part of a larger issue that we see in a lot of TOS, where the galaxy seems extremely small and the creators don’t seem to understand (or care about) the difference between warp and impulse. Anyway, the survivors crashed 18 years prior to the events of this episode, and we know that humans had warp about 200 years before “The Cage,” (based on events later in TOS and “Star Trek: First Contact”).
Lastly, Spock is, of course, way off in this episode. He’s the only character we see again — and he’s not quite the Spock we know and love until about the 10th episode produced in the first season — but watching him smile when he and Pike find the blue floating leaves is a really odd moment. It’s sort of a classic moment, too. Sometimes, Star Trek’s mistakes are an interesting part of watching its evolution.
Of course, many fans have only seen “The Cage” through the two-part “The Menagerie,” where the pilot’s footage was reused in a flashback. Either way, what we see is sort of fascinating (to borrow a phrase).
It’s quite odd that the pilot is so light on why humans are in space in the first place. Most of the character moments revolve around Pike’s internal struggle about whether being a starship (or, spaceship, based on this episode’s dialog) captain is worth it to him after an incident that occurred prior to the episode, leaving some crew members dead and others injured. Once captured, there’s a lot about humanity’s hatred for captivity. It’s not bad stuff, but it’s not particularly introductory to Star Trek. We don’t get a lot of big picture info.
That said, a lot introduced here does become part of what we watched for the next 40 years (50 years, in reruns). The Enterprise design, transporters, weapons, uniforms, the way the ship works, etc., are all generally started here.
I’d say “The Cage” is Star Trek’s aesthetic pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is the adventure pilot and “The Corbomite Maneuver” is the philosophical pilot. Hence the decision to release the reviews of all three on the launch of this site.