Original Star Trek Pilot Episode
On September 8, 1966, the original science-fiction series Star Trek aired its first episode, “The Man Trap.” The episode introduced characters such as William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as First Officer Spock, and DeForest Kelley as Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy. However, “The Man Trap” wasn’t the original pilot for the series. The original pilot was called “The Cage.” When the network saw this original pilot, they didn’t like it and ordered a new one. Viewers eventually got to see some of “The Cage” as an episode of the first season called “The Menagerie.” But the content of “The Cage,” the reasons why it was replaced, how it was lost and eventually found, have become the stuff of legend. Let’s explore the history of this fascinating and mysterious episode.
Writer and producer Gene Roddenberry approached several TV networks with his concept for a new and realistic science fiction series called Star Trek. Like all TV series, Roddenberry needed to provide the network with a description of his new show, called a “pitch.” The pitch included a list of potential episodes to prove the show had staying power. “The Cage” was one of twenty-five proposed stories for Star Trek. At the time, the concept was simply: “The desperation of our series lead, caged and on exhibition like an animal, then offered a mate.”
Originally, the pilot was supposed to be sixty minutes, but the pitch meeting to NBC went poorly. In an attempt to sell the series, co-producer Herbert Solow suggested they film a ninety-minute pilot instead of a one-hour pilot. If it didn’t go to series, he argued, NBC could air it as a TV movie to recoup their investment. The network agreed, and “The Cage” was selected as the story to be the pilot.
In the original pilot, almost none of the regular cast members appeared. The captain was Christopher Pike, not Captain Kirk. The first officer was a woman known only as Number One, played by Majel Barrett. The doctor, Philip Boyce, was played by John Hoyt. In fact, the only regular character to survive to the full series from “The Cage” was Mister Spock, who wasn’t the first officer.
Plot Overview of “The Cage”
When the episode was written, “The Cage” became about the starship USS Enterprise investigating a distress call from a remote planet Talos IV. When the ship sends an away team to the planet’s surface, they discover a group of old men and one woman who claim to be stranded. But before they can take the survivors back to the Enterprise, the captain is kidnapped and imprisoned. He finds himself trapped in an alien zoo by a group of powerful alien beings. The alien Talosians possess incredible psychic powers, capable of making anyone see or feel anything they want. As his crew tries to rescue him, the captain is forced into a series of illusions, from his recent attack on Rigel VII to his hometown on Earth. As Pike tries to escape from an ever-changing prison of horrific and idyllic surroundings, he finds himself seduced by a mysterious human woman imprisoned with him.
The alien Talosians were thin beings with enormous pulsating heads. They were originally supposed to be crab-like creatures in the script. This was changed to be cheaper and to avoid the stigma of “bug-eyed monsters” in cheap science fiction movies at the time. The Talosians were played by women and voiced by men to give them an androgynous feel. Ironically, the big-brained psychic alien has itself become a cliché.
Another interesting moment came when the human woman Vina appears to Pike as a green-skinned Orion slave girl. Behind the scenes, her makeup caused some unnecessary headaches. The makeup team spent three days painting the actress various shades of green, but the test film kept coming back a normal flesh color. On the third day, they discovered the processing lab thought the green was a mistake and kept adjusting the skin color back to normal.
One striking difference many viewers notice in the episode is that Spock is much more emotional than usual. At one point, he even laughs. According to Nimoy, the idea of Spock being unemotional wasn’t in his character. Number One was intended to be calm and stoic, and Captain Pike was restrained as well. Spock being more energetic and vibrant was a way to balance them out.
“The Cage” ended up costing more than $500,000, a huge amount for the fledgling studio. It also cost more than any other episode in the original series. However, NBC rejected the pilot.
“The Cage” Was Rejected for a Number of Reasons
For one thing, network executives thought the episode was too cerebral. Much of the episode explores themes of the conflict between illusion and reality. Also, this was a time when shows like Lost in Space with flying saucers and alien monkeys were the standard of science fiction. A show like Star Trek’s “The Cage” with its military structure and psychic aliens seemed far too deep.
The network also thought the show was too sexy. The moment where Vina dances seductively as a slave girl, and the Talosians openly saying they wanted Captain Pike to “mate” with her left the network uncomfortable with its overt sexuality.
Third, the network thought the pilot didn’t have enough action. Other than a brief fight with a giant warrior and some laser cannon fire, there isn’t too much excitement in the story. In particular, the story ends with both parties separating peacefully. Roddenberry himself later said, “I should actually have ended it with a fistfight between the hero and the villain if I wanted it on television […] because that’s the way shows were being made at the time. The great mass audience would say, ‘Well, if you don’t have a fistfight when it’s ended, how do we know that’s the finish?’ and things like that.”
The network also wasn’t happy with the female first officer. While this has often been criticized as sexist, it seems the network objected more to Majel Barrett as a poor actress than her being a woman. The fact she was also having a public affair with Roddenberry probably didn’t help. Though Majel ended up leaving the regular cast, she returned to the show as a recurring character, Nurse Chapel.
Changes to the Original Star Trek
Even though they didn’t like the pilot, it seems like “The Cage” convinced the studio the concept could work. Reportedly, Lucille Ball (the co-owner of Desilu Studios) herself convinced NBC to make the rare move of paying for a new pilot. The second pilot was “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” “Where” focused on the Enterprise crossing the edge of the Galaxy, and becoming caught in a “magnetic space storm.” The storm grants two crew members god-like powers, which causes them to turn on the ship. The network demanded the firing of almost the entire cast, except for Leonard Nimoy as Spock and Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike. However, Hunter declined to return, convinced by his wife that the show was “beneath him.” William Shatner was hired as Captain James Kirk to replace him.
There were also a lot of minor changes. For instance, in the original pilot, female Starfleet officers wore pants just like the men. In the new pilot, the female crew wore extremely short mini-skirts. While some people criticized this as being a sexist move by the studio, it was actually initiated by a cast member. Grace Lee Whitney (who played Yeoman Rand) wanted to show off her “dancer’s legs,” and the crew liked it so much that they made the miniskirt standard uniform for all the women on the ship.
Struggles and Survival With Network
Though “Where No Man” was approved and took the show to series, it ended up airing as the second episode. The first aired episode became “The Man Trap,” about a shape-shifting alien disguised as a human who ravages the ship and crew. The original pilot was shelved until later in the first season. The studio was having trouble coming up with enough episodes to fill NBC’s order, and footage from “The Cage” was used to save money. Instead of filming an entirely new episode, “The Cage” was cut into a framing story about Spock seizing control of the Enterprise to return Pike to Talos. “The Cage” became a flashback in the episode. The result was a two-part episode called “The Menagerie.” While this allowed fans to see much of the original pilot, there was a disastrous side effect. The master copy of “The Cage” was cut into the negative of “The Menagerie,” and any scenes not used for the episode were lost.
After three seasons, the show was canceled in 1969. Gene Roddenberry was left out of work for most of the 1970s while struggling to sell various failed pilots like Planet Earth and Genesis II. While he struggled to try to produce other TV shows, Roddenberry supported himself by lecturing at colleges and Star Trek conventions. Roddenberry often screened his personal black-and-white 16mm print of “The Cage” for audiences. His copy was thought to be the only remaining version of the original pilot. But in 1987, a film archivist named Bob Furmanek found an unmarked print in the archives. It turned out to have the missing pieces of the original color print of “The Cage.” Paramount was able to combine the new color film strips with the negative of “The Menagerie” and audio from Roddenberry’s print to restore the full episode.
In 1988, a strike by the Writer’s Guild halted production on Star Trek: The Next Generation. During the strike, no episodes could be written, leaving the season started without enough time to write four episodes. In order to make up for the missing episodes, Paramount decided to air the newly restored episode of “The Cage.” Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard on TNG) introduced the two-hour special, The Star Trek Saga: From One Generation to the Next. It included “The Cage” in color on television for the first time ever.
While “The Cage” wasn’t well received at the time, it’s since been praised by the cast and crew. In her 1994 autobiography Beyond Uhura, Nichelle Nichols wrote, “Viewing it today […] the show stands as the purest earliest representation of what Gene hoped Star Trek would achieve.” In 1996, Grace Lee Whitney listed “The Cage” as one of her favorite TOS episodes, alongside “Charlie X”, “The Devil in the Dark,” and “The City on the Edge of Forever.” In 1997, Majel Barrett named “The Cage” as her favorite episode of TOS, along with “The City on the Edge of Forever.” She thought both episodes “are more Star Trek than anything else that has been conceived” and “pure Star Trek.” Now that the full episode is available, we can all enjoy it.