The re-watch begins. Odds are good this is a mission that will go well beyond five years. I’m certainly fine with that. I’ve got nothing but time. Acknowledging the sheer amount of lore there is on Star Trek, as well as the understanding that there are no shortage of sites that provide better descriptions and behind the scenes information, I’m going to keep such things brief and largely provide my own insights.
For those who want to follow along, I’m working through the original series not by airdate, but by production order. This is how I’ve always done it so as to provide me with an evolutionary context for the series. It really doesn’t matter much beyond the first handful of episodes. It’s critical, I think, for the pilots. The second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” is the third episode on the original airdate order. The first pilot, “The Cage,” was unaired as originally presented until 1990, when the ramp-up had begun for the 25th anniversary of the series.
S01E00 – “The Cage”
Under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, the Enterprise answers a distress call from an earth vessel stranded on Talos IV some eighteen years previous. Pike is captured by the mentally-superior Talosians and pressured to become one of a mated pair of zoo specimens with the sole survivor of the vessel in question.
Gene Roddenberry was an idea man who was seeing humanity’s potential in a time of cold war, civil unrest, and foreign war, all under the shadow of the nuclear mushroom cloud. It was, perhaps, pie-in-the-sky thinking, but that sort of optimism was sorely needed. Under the guise of fiction, as with classic literature, higher truths about the real world could be expressed. Better still, the series offered us a possible future of hope and unity… if we wanted it badly enough to work for it.
When this first aired in 1990, I was 16 and already a Trekkie. The more preferred term “Trekker” had come into use, and I defied it. I was old school and proud of it. I was more than familiar with the two-part episode “The Menagerie” that had cobbled together footage from this original pilot. To see this unedited was to see what might have been had it sold. It made me better appreciate what we got and how we got it.
For as forward-thinking as Star Trek was, there are moments where the prejudices of the era still come through, such as Pike’s discomfort with having women serve aboard ship. It’s a hallmark that his first officer is a woman, not that Pike thinks of her as such. Then again, his yeoman is also female, and he seems to have problems with her as well. Aside from these characters and Spock, there’s not a lot of diversity to be had just yet.
There are hints in this episode of what would become staples of the canon. The ship’s doctor is called “Bones,” and performs the psychiatric aspect of his post as a bartender. Pike uses the command “Engage,” which while Kirk rarely used it, it became something of a catchphrase for Picard. Likewise, the first officer is known as “Number One.”
We are told in the course of the episode that the time barrier had been broken. At this time in history, the jet jockeys were in a rivalry with those who’d become astronauts (not yet actual scientists themselves) as part of the great pissing contest with the Soviet Union to get to the moon that served as the political substitution for nuclear war. The acknowledgement here is that engineering feats had to happen before brave souls could venture forth to use them. In the years between the second world war and this episode, the sound barrier had been broken, opening the way to the stars. The speed of the Enterprise‘s engines could be computed as the cube of whatever “warp factor” she traveled times the speed of light. Warp one, for example was 1 x 1 x 1 x the speed of light, or simply the speed of light. Warp two was 2 x 2 x 2 x the speed of light, or 8 times the speed of light. And so on up the line. The greater the technology, the greater the potential of the human race to get into trouble if our wisdom failed to keep pace with our tech. In the 1960s, that was a very real fear. Star Trek suggested that on some level we’d achieved that balance.
But… had we really achieved it, or was it just a veneer?
Pike demonstrates the cast down weariness of a man who’d seen too much war and death, overburdened with responsibility. Perhaps he’s speaking for all of us. Perhaps he’s just speaking for Roddenberry. Either way, he was very much in the template of the modern era. As a more serious misstep, he’s also a throwback to a century before. Keeping in mind this was the era of civil rights, Pike suggests to the doctor he might give up his command and become a slave merchant. It’s easy to misread this, and the Talosians did. When presented with this very idea, plucked from his own head, Pike resisted and turned his back on the notion. The green-skinned Orion women are forever part of the lore of Star Trek, perhaps kept to show how far humanity had come by contrast. As awkward as it is, it still somehow managed to highlight the idea that social injustice of that magnitude was a choice of the selfish and irresponsible. In a twist to traditional slavery, it’s mentioned that these verdant beauties actually want to be desired and used. It was a highly problematic — and largely unused — idea at the time, one that wasn’t really explained until the final season of Enterprise. Even so, it served to highlight one of the many ways in which the high-minded and superior Federation and its member worlds were to the likes of the more brutish forces in the galaxy.
NBC passed on the series for being “too cerebral,” but the potential was still seen. In a virtually unheard of move, they ordered a second pilot with the express intent of being more action-oriented as befitting the notion of the space western Roddenberry had promised in his pitch describing the series as “Wagon Train to the stars.” They ordered the character of Spock — deemed to be too “satantic” (and who originally was intended to have red skin a la Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End) — to be cut from the cast. In an act of complete defiance that redefined pop culture in unforeseen ways, Roddenberry kept Spock and recast everyone else. Through the alien nature of Spock, we’re able to take a step back and see humanity for what we are. Only through this manner of self-reflection can we understand and improve. That said, Spock is still very much in development here, emotional and sometimes rather loud. It’s been explained in non-canonical sources that it was, in fact, Number One who helped him to develop the path for a more pure logic that he would become known for.
S01E01 – “Where No Man Has Gone Before”
An old flight recorder from a lost vessel is brought aboard the Enterprise. It reveals a ship and crew lost when their captain ordered their own destruction. Traveling into the great barrier at the outer edge of the galaxy, the same force is unleashed, targeting and evolving those aboard with a high ESP rating. The most advanced threat is Gary Mitchell, Captain Kirk’s first officer and best friend.
Diversity level is a bit higher in this episode, especially in terms of international culture. Sulu makes his debut, which showcases the idea of friendship with the Japanese people. (Note: actor George Takei was in one of the Japanese American interment camps during World War II.) Likewise, Scotty is given a chance to make himself known. (A little trivia here: James Doohan got a finger shot off in the war. Working under the assumption that medical science in the future could have regrown one, Doohan hides it behind various props. Future close-ups of his hands working the transporter controls will use a hand double.) We’re given another high ranking woman in the form of Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, also sadly painted as something of a cold stereotype, but they do hang a lantern on this and soften her up a bit to make her sympathetic before killing her off in the end.
There are a lot of throwaway bits of dialogue that were designed for character development. These details would have serious resonance in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
For example, Gary Mitchell “aimed that little blonde lab technician” at Kirk, whom he almost married. Dr. Carol Marcus, I presume?
Mitchell also informs us that Kirk is a bookworm of the highest magnitude, even going back to his days at the Academy. Kirk was brought in to replace Pike as more of an action hero, but right from the beginning he’s still billed as a thinking man. I love that. Over the years we’ve been given pop culture’s skewed perception of who Kirk is, which has never sat well with me. It’s an idea that’s now known as “Kirk drift.” In the lore, Kirk is the youngest person to ever attain the rank of captain and command of a starship. He didn’t get this responsibility by being a womanizing moron, people. Notice that the entire time he has to fight Mitchell, he’s reasoning with Dr. Dehner for wisdom and compassion in the name of humanity. Powerful stuff, for those who wish to see it. Remembering Kirk’s fondness for antiques, and especially for great literature (“long-hair stuff,” as Mitchell calls it), Spock will later gift him a copy of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
As with “The Cage,” the idea of evolution of ability without wisdom corrupts basic humanity. Like the Talosians, only more so, Mitchell’s rapid development of godlike power has echoes back to the second world war and the concept of Eugenics. This sort of thing is still somewhat fresh in the minds of the audience in those days. Eugenics would soon be addressed directly in the series in the form of Khan Noonien Singh. For now, godlike destructive power retains a metaphoric stance, so it could be Eugenics, or it could represent the destructive capabilities of the world’s superpowers, and our own immaturity as a species in our attempt to wield such power.
During the climactic fight, Mitchell creates Kirk’s grave, complete with a tombstone that reads “James R. Kirk.” This is often called out as a production error. I submit that it demonstrates the imperfection within Mitchell himself that Kirk is able to use against him. After all, who should know Kirk so well as his best friend? If he can’t even remember his middle name, it says much for how much of his own humanity has been left behind. Side note: while non-canonical sources will establish his middle name as Tiberius, it isn’t until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that this gets a full canonical mention.
Spock is still in development here again. It’s interesting that he establishes that “an ancestor of mine” married a human. We’ll later learn that this ancestor is his estranged father. Spock’s still emotional in this episode to some extent, but it gives him a foothold of understanding through which Kirk will befriend him in the wake of the loss of Gary Mitchell. Where Kirk had to make the choice to leave Mitchell behind one way or another to save his ship, he’ll one day sacrifice his ship to retrieve the friend he leaves behind on the Genesis planet in the wake of fighting a superpowered madman.
What is interesting to note is what’s not there. The characters with the higher mental abilities were targeted for advanced evolution. Spock is not among them. Vulcans are not yet known to be touch telepaths. They’re also not even known as Vulcans (or even Vulcanians) at this point.
In the case of both of these episodes, the uniform colors are not yet tooled to the standard primary colors of gold, blue, and red. The gold is more of a green-gold (rediscovered when the original uniforms were dug out of storage for color matching on the remastering), and there are tan uniforms, all of which have thicker collars. The ship sets have more of the color that the series is known for. The reason for this is because Star Trek was advertised and showcased in color, a very big deal at the time… because the parent company also sold color television sets.