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Analyzing the aftereffects of the first Star Trek pilot

The legacy that “The Cage”, Star Trek‘s very first produced episode (and first pilot, specifically) has had, in my opinion, cannot be overstated. Even though, in February 1965, the television network NBC rejected “The Cage” as overly “cerebral” and “too slow” with “not enough action,” the episode has gone on to become the foundation of what we nowadays know as Star Trek. It’s safe to say that the franchise definitely wouldn’t be what it is today without that initial starting block.

NBC was also reluctant to continue the characters of Number One and Spock, so Gene Roddenberry made a compromise with the network: he kept only one, Spock, later marrying Number One actress Majel Barrett. She went on to play many of the Starfleet shipboard computer voices, Christine Chapel in both The Original Series and The Animated Series as well as in a couple of the TOS films, and Lwaxana Troi in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.

Although Jeffrey Hunter declined to reappear as Christopher Pike when NBC made the then-virtually-unprecedented decision to green light a second pilot, Gene Roddenberry subsequently wrote to the actor in April 1965, admitting he had developed a “high regard” for Hunter during production on “The Cage”.

Watching “The Cage” in “The Menagerie” (CBS-Paramount)

Most of the original footage from this episode was later incorporated into the TOS two-parter “The Menagerie“, which was first broadcast in November 1966, as part of Star Trek‘s very first season.

Since Malachi Throne not only vocalized The Keeper in the reused scenes from “The Cage” but also appeared as Starfleet Commodore Mendez in newly filmed footage included as an “envelope” in the two-parter, his vocal tones as The Keeper in “The Menagerie” were electronically processed to sound higher-pitched. All subsequent versions of “The Cage” reused this audio for The Keeper throughout, and Throne’s lower-pitched original vocals for that role are nowadays only audible in a couple of brief clips in the preview trailer for “The Menagerie, Part II”.

The process of editing the footage from the pilot into “The Menagerie” disassembled the original camera negative of “The Cage”. Thus, for many years, it was considered partly lost.

Gene Roddenberry, however, had a black-and-white 16 mm print of “The Cage”, which had been made for reference purposes. It was the only existing print of the show and was often exhibited at conventions.

Early video releases of “The Cage” used this print, intercut with the color scenes from “The Cage” that had been used in “The Menagerie”. An example of this intercutting of footage was when “The Cage” was first released to the public on VHS in 1986, packaged with an introduction by Gene Roddenberry.

Roddenberry in the intro of the 1986 VHS release of “The Cage” (CBS-Paramount)

Then, in 1987, a film archivist discovered an unmarked, mute 35 mm reel, in a Hollywood film laboratory, with the negative trims of the unused scenes. He soon returned it to Roddenberry’s company, though it wasn’t until the following year that “The Cage” was finally broadcast on television in its complete, fully colorized form. This 1988 broadcast was as part of The Star Trek Saga: From One Generation to the Next, a two-hour retrospective special, hosted by Patrick Stewart.

The first home media release of “The Cage” in full color was as the last in a series of US Betamax releases, in 1989.

“The Cage” was later rebroadcast on UPN in 1996, with a behind-the-scenes look at the then-new film Star Trek: First Contact. That same year, a Talosian action figure appeared on Rain Robinson‘s desk in the Star Trek: Voyager two-parter “Future’s End”.

“The Cage” was the final installment that CBS Digital worked on as part of a full remastering of The Original Series. As such, the company digitally replaced all the episode’s shots of the Enterprise and orbital views of Talos IV with newly realized CGI. This work was completed just before midnight on 21 April 2008, with the last rendered shot showing the Enterprise “sailing off into the unknown at the end of the episode.”

The digitally remastered version of “The Cage” was initially intended to air in syndication on 26 April 2008, but was removed from the schedule the week before its intended airdate. It was rescheduled for 2 May 2009, partly to coincide with the release of the movie Star Trek, which came out six days later. That film features variants of Pike and Spock as well as a couple of Orion characters, and had, at one point in its development, been planned to briefly feature a Talosian, but this idea was ultimately scrapped.

The Talosian created to appear in the film Star Trek, and the recast Pike, Spock and Number One (Barney Burman/CBS-Paramount)

In 2019, the roles of Pike, Spock, Number One, Vina and the Talosians were recast for the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, which additionally featured Pike’s Enterprise, Talos IV and even footage directly from “The Cage”. Pike, Spock, Number One and their Enterprise reappeared, also in 2019, in the second season of the anthology series Star Trek: Short Treks, and are set to return in the new series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. In reality, the fifty-plus years between “The Cage” and that forthcoming series essentially marks it as one of the longest intervals, if not the actual longest gap, between a pilot presentation and series pickup in the history of television. Clearly, the legacy of “The Cage” lives on.

1 thought on “In the Aftermath of “The Cage”

  1. Great content, Dan. Really enjoyed this! There aren’t enough superlatives to completely hail “The Cage” and its significance in television, sci-fi, culture, art, music and, as you say, the starting block for all that would follow.

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