Weekly Trek – January 18-24, 2016

As I announced in last week’s Pick of the Week post, 2016 marks the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek.  In honor of that, this column has morphed into the Weekly Trek, in which I will be discussing not just episodes and movies, but books, games, and other assorted tie-ins from across the half-century history of the franchise.

This week, we will be starting at the very beginning.  In 1964, Gene Roddenberry received the go-ahead to make a pilot episode for his proposed new television series to be called Star Trek.  The episode, “The Cage,” was shot in November and December of that year and looks very different from what we now know as Star Trek.

For one thing, there’s a different man in command of the USS Enterprise.  Prior to William Shatner’s casting as Captain James T. Kirk, Roddenberry had selected Jeffrey Hunter to play Captain Christopher Pike.  Pike comes across as a bit more introspective than Kirk, in some ways closer to Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who would command the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Leonard Nimoy is on hand as Spock, but at this point the character was not the man in control of his emotions that we see later on.  He also isn’t the ship’s first officer.  That role, simply called Number One, is played by Majel Barrett, who would go on to play Nurse Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek series, and Lwaxana Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as well as the standard Starfleet computer voice throughout Star Trek.

As for “The Cage” itself, the plot revolves around a planet of aliens with incredible telepathic abilities who kidnap Pike and other members of his crew to help breed a race of slaves.  NBC, the television network that commissioned the pilot, was not impressed with the result, which they felt was too slow and didn’t contain enough action.  They did, however, see enough potential to commission a second pilot, which was a very unusual move.  By that time, Jeffery Hunter had decided that he did not want to go forward with the series, leading to the eventual casting of Shatner.

Two other casting decisions are part of Star Trek lore.  The story goes that NBC objected to a woman in a command position and to the supposedly-Satanic looking Spock.  Roddenberry, knowing that he could only win one of those battles, elected to keep Spock and find another part for Barrett later on.  Another version of the story is that NBC executives knew Roddenberry and recognized that he’d cast his own mistress, an actress without much experience, in a leading role.  Roddenberry did eventually divorce his then wife and marry Barrett, and the two remained married until his death in 1991.

While “The Cage” never aired, most of the episode’s footage was used in a two-part episode of Star Trek called “The Menagerie.”  For many years, the footage used in this episode was the only color film of “The Cage” that existed.  Early video releases of “The Cage” had to make use of black and white footage from a reference print to fill in the missing pieces.  In 1987, a complete color print was discovered, and it is now included with the rest of the original Star Trek.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter