Deep Trek – The Cage! The “Failure” That Made Star Trek Great!

Infinite Spocks In Infinite Combinations

Infinite Spocks In Infinite Combinations

Anyone who is even a casual fan of Star Trek knows the basic elements of its origins. We all know how the first pilot “The Cage” was according to Gene Roddenberry, considered “too cerebral” by the network. We also know how miracle of miracles another pilot was commissioned, featuring an almost completely new crew, with the exception of the character of Spock. Equally well known is the fact that footage from The Cage was used in a two-parter in the first season of Star Trek called The Menagerie. A move designed to save a bit of money, and also to buy a bit of time so that enough scripts could be completed to finish the season out. But I suspect that very few people have really thought about the very unique gift that the use of this failed pilot gave to Star Trek, and how it helped it stand out from every other show on television at the time.

Coming From Nowhere, Going Nowhere

Quite frankly that was the case with most TV shows of the time. Characters might have a back-story as established by the shows bible, but it was usually rather thin and unconvincing. Character development as we think of it today was pretty much non-existent. Shows existed in a kind of eternal NOW.

When we are first introduced to Star Trek it seems like it is more of the same on that front. Any history for a character is only relevant to the episode to hand, and will most likely never be referenced again. Likewise any thing a character might go through in the course of an episode will be forgotten by the time the next episode airs as if it never happened. But then came The Menagerie to change all that. Even if at the time nobody realized what that change would mean.

Who The Hell Is “Captain Pike”?

I won’t bother recapping The Menagerie, since if you are reading this then you are probably already familiar with the episode. At first it is not all that different from many other episodes of television. We are told that Spock served under another captain aboard the Enterprise before Kirk. One who is now bound immobile in a Space Wheelchair (TM). Characters from the past often show up on TV shows. Then in a mind blowing moment we are SHOWN that past. We see a completely different crew from the current crew of the Enterprise with Spock being the only person who is a part of both. The uniforms are different, the technology looks slightly more primitive. Suddenly Star Trek doesn’t just have back story, it has History, really honest to gods, living breathing history. Suddenly we can believe that this universe has been in existence far longer than a handful of episodes. Suddenly we are not merely watching a TV show but rather getting to glimpse into another reality that might just exist beyond the confines of our meager color (if we’re lucky) television screens. This planted a seed, and while it would not fully bear fruit for close to twenty years, bear fruit it would.

You Can’t Have A Future If You Don’t Have A Past

When Star Trek: The Next Generation was announced I was incredibly excited. The idea of a continuation of the narrative began in Star Trek was enthralling beyond description. Especially the idea that this was not merely more adventures of Kirk and Spock, which the movies were giving us, but rather showing us what else was going on in the reality in which those characters had inhabited in the original series, but using other people. People we had never met before. But TNG (as it would come to be called) was not a new idea for Trek, because as soon as The Menagerie aired that is exactly what Star Trek was transformed into. Kirk, and McCoy were the Next Generation, for Pike and company. As a result TNG was simply the logical continuation of that story. It is also what has allowed for multiple spin offs and a prequel to feel organic as part of one unbroken mega-narrative.

No Power In The ‘Verse Can Stop Me

The palpable sense of history that Trek has thanks to things like the use of footage from The Cage, and the creation of TNG has given it a kind of potency that is incredibly rare for a TV show. It goes beyond mere continuity into something much deeper and more ineffable. I believe it is the reason why JJ Abrams and crew chose to create an alternate timeline in which to work rather than simply doing a reboot of Trek. If they had truly wanted to wipe away decades of history (centuries in universe) I feel quite certain they would have been permitted to. But instead they chose to tap into the power that the history of Trek has by making use of it. As a result while JJ Trek might be an imperfect and often uneasy fit for many fans, it does not require that those like myself who do enjoy the new movies choose between this version of Trek and the prior incarnations. They are all part of the larger narrative.

A narrative we would not have, had there not been footage from a failed first pilot to be used in a cost saving two part episode.

To quote that eminent scholar of philosophy and quantum mechanics Kelly Bundy, “The mind wobbles.”


Roy was originally to be played by Wil Wheaton, but after salary negotiations fell through it was decided that he’d play himself.

7 Comments ON " Deep Trek – The Cage! The “FailureR... "
  • alt_example

    Shemrockski June 24, 2015 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    Great article THANX

  • alt_example

    seannewboy June 25, 2015 at 4:01 am - Reply

    A wonderful article, even if you did mention JJ.

    • alt_example

      Roy June 25, 2015 at 1:08 pm - Reply

      *L* Thanks. Just wait until I write about an aspect of Trek that has been on the decline since TOS, and that JJ has brought back full force. It might just blow your mind.

  • alt_example

    richelieu jr June 25, 2015 at 5:14 am - Reply

    Nicely reasoned.

    I suspect there is a much larger examination of the question, both as regards Trek and other ‘extended universes’ and their historical evolution to be made.

    I was suprpised by your concluding note,t hough, as someone whon alos enjoys ALL Trek, from the First Pilot to JJ, that a bit of êrspective on the history of Trek evolving might eb useful in tamping down emotions and inflammatory rhetoric on the issue.

    Abrams Trek didn’t ‘destroy’ Trek any more than TNG took away my love for TOS. Yhose things still exist, as theyw ere, as the wer ein your memory (more fragile) and as they will be percieved by you (and others) in future.

    I like to think of using a sports team analogy:
    Everyone is working towards the same goal, doing the best they can under the circumstances at that moment. Sometimes they are more or mess successful, according an given criterion, but it is not only unproductive to consider tings in terms of purity and betrayal, it is downright inaccurate. Intentional fumbles are so rare as to me illusionary…

    Love to hear more on this subject from you.


    • alt_example

      Roy June 25, 2015 at 1:26 pm - Reply

      Thank you for your comments. I find persistent fictional universes, especially shared universes absolutely fascinating. There is something about the way a group of people working across time, often without ever directly collaborating can create something that feels so real it becomes easy to forget that it is fiction.

      As for your sports team analogy, I think it is generally a good one, and I largely agree with your assertion that speaking in terms of this person or that having “destroyed” Trek is generally contrary to the very spirit of the thing we all value so highly. At the same time I can understand that sometimes you look at a piece of work and it just doesn’t work for you as part of what Trek means to you. I have a movie that is like that for me. But generally I try to focus on the positive aspects of any piece of Trek.

  • alt_example

    GavinRuneblade June 26, 2015 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Nice insight on TOS. They did occasionally bring things back in the early days (the USS Potemkin for example, is referenced or appears in quite a few episodes) but nothing quite like the Menagerie.

    Some of the really long-running soap operas of the era (As the World Turns, General Hospital, etc) obviously had been using the concept of character and setting history going back into the ’30s, but I don’t think they ever really used the flashback technique like Menagerie did.

    I wish I knew a bit more about their history, and especially the history of the radio dramas that were pretty much dead by the late ’60s, but definitely a part of the producers and writers lives as kids. Because I bet they both had an influence on the way Trek created its coherent imaginary universe.

    • alt_example

      Roy June 26, 2015 at 5:22 pm - Reply

      An excellent point. I had not considered the influence of the soaps. I would be very interested in reading a book talking about soap operas and their influence not just on television but on popular mass entertainment in generally, especially my favorite medium/genre, superhero comics.

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