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.
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