I’ve been waiting a long time to blog about the pilot of Star Trek, in part because I couldn’t decide which “pilot” to choose. The unaired one, “The Cage,” would not have been the world’s introduction to the character of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), being unaired and all, but it now serves as a record of how that character was first imagined. As we mourn Nimoy’s passing earlier today, it’s time to think about the character with whom he was virtually synonymous.Upon Spock’s sacrificial death in Star Trek II, Kirk famously declares, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.” Spock’s heritage doesn’t get unpacked in “The Cage,” but apart from his appearance, he doesn’t come across as any different from his human shipmates.
Spock speaks the first words of the episode. He’s giving instructions on the bridge regarding a strange signal that The Enterprise is picking up. Although Capt. Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) sits in the captain’s chair, it’s the pointy-eared half alien Science Officer we first see in control. When it turns out the signal may be coming from a marooned Earthling ship, Pike wants to stay the course and ignore it. Spock wants to go investigate — a compassionate and not exactly logical choice.
Pike is experiencing an existential crisis, having recently lost three crew members during a mission. He’s pondering whether to abandon his present occupation for a small town life of leisure back home. The ship’s doctor (John Hoyt) changes his mind with the help of a martini and the observation, “You treat everyone on board like a human being except yourself.”
The episode gives us a bit of insight into how Starfleet treat women versus men; the ship’s First Officer and Yeoman are both women and, although Pike indicates that he views the latter as more feminine than the former, this episode has nothing on the actual pilot for sexism. That’s probably another post.
When a landing party that includes Pike and Spock beams down to the site of the crash, they find a world not unlike Earth. From that point on, Spock gets little screen time, but first there’s The Smile. Much has been written about how uncharacteristic it is of Spock to smile at the simple novelty of an alien plant, but he grins like he’s in a Crest commercial. It’s sweet. Since he’s half-human, it seems — ahem — logical that he would exhibit spontaneous human joy, but some fans have taken strong issue with this “mistake.”
The plot of the episode concerns a race of people who communicate telepathically and want to build a colony of humans like a zoo exhibit. They have their “Eve,” thanks to the crew that crash landed 18 years earlier, but they’ve been seeking their “Adam.” Their choice, Captain Pike, can’t be contained, of course. The zookeepers take out the power on The Enterprise, attempting to use the ship and crew as bargaining chip. This time, it’s Spock who wants to cut the crew’s losses and bail. Perhaps bookending the story with these two antithetical orders was an attempt to illustrate Spock’s dual nature.
There’s surprisingly little action in tin the episode, which is likely what was “wrong” with it. There’s some cool technology, including of course the transporter. But other than a nifty laser, we don’t see much in the way of weaponry or pyrotechnics. The focus is more on human emotions, desires, and dreams. The pacing is slow, and one can imagine a network not wanting to introduce its new sci-fi action series this way. That’s okay. It lives on, if just a step outside of canon.
And Spock lives on. Smiling aside, Nimoy is the only member of the cast who hung around for the series, so apparently he hit the mark. Geeks around the world have shed tears today, in unabashedly human grief. LLAP.