“The Cage” is an important episode to look at for a few reasons, the most obvious being that it was the first episode of Star Trek ever and so is a good point to measure what stayed the same and what changed later.
The second reason is that it gets cited as an example of how Gene Roddenberry wanted to have more women in meatier, less sexualized leadership roles (and in pants!) but was unfortunately prevented by the powers that be in the network before it became a full series.
So let’s see how that plays out. We start with the Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike, receiving a distress call. They head to its source: Talos IV.
Pike creates an immediate impression of being tired, grumpy and impatient, with a massive chip on his shoulder from a recent battle. Yeoman Colt shows up on the bridge and he snaps at her.
His Number One (also a woman! also in pants!) reminds him that Colt is his new yeoman and he grumbles:
“She does a good job, all right. It’s just that I can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge. No offence, Lieutenant. You’re different, of course.”
So…how long ago did women on the bridge become a thing? How long ago was it that men were men and Captain Pike explored the galaxy with his band of hairy-chested, red meat-eating brothers and no women sticking their noses in?
Arriving at Talos IV, an away team led by Pike finds a ragtag but healthy group of scientists who survived their ship crashing. As they’re talking, a beautiful blonde woman steps forward. In what will become a familiar original series scenario, all the guys become briefly incapable of talking in her presence.
Her name is Vina and the scientists say she was born around the time their ship crashed, which would make her around 18.
As she talks to Pike the shot changes and we see three short dudes with huge, bulbous, heads watching Vina and the away team through a viewing screen. The pulsating veins on their bald scalps are a particularly nice touch for the time.
Doctor Boyce (who is as grumpy as his successor, McCoy, but way less funny) tells them the scientists are almost too healthy. They offer to show their secret and Vina leads Pike away. Almost instantly, she and the scientists vanish. The Talosians (bulbous head guys) appear and knock Pike out before dragging him into their lair.
Pike wakes up in a cell with a transparent wall, through which the Talosians are watching him. They’re communicating through telepathy but Pike can hear it as they talk about beginning their experiment on him.
Back on the Enterprise the rest of the crew is conferencing. Spock has an old-timey slideshow of the Talosians that he’s using to explain to people how smart these guys are: “Look! Brains three times the size of ours! And next up are pictures from my last summer vacation on Earth!”
The “experiment” begins as the Talosians create an illusion of the battle on Rigel VII that so influenced Pike. But in order to observe his emotions, they give him “something more interesting to protect”, meaning a Damsel in Distress: Vina.
When the Talosians let the out of the illusion and they’re back in Pike’s cell, Pike demands to know what’s going on and if Vina’s real.
She’s practically begging, saying she’s there to please him:
You can have whatever dream you want. I can become anything, any woman you’ve ever imagined. You can have anything you want in the whole universe. Let me please you.
Not being Kirk, he’s not going to agree to that right off the bat but he talks her into answering some questions. She reveals that the Talosians used to live on the surface but were driven underground by war. Since then they’ve concentrated on building their mental powers and observing specimens’ dreams, but they can no longer remember how to repair their machines or come up with new ideas and technology.
Pike suddenly realizes that the Talosians wanted him because they need a pair of humans: one man and one woman. When Vina admits that they are to be the Adam and Eve of Talos IV, she then screams: “Don’t punish me!” and then disappears.
When Pike gets upset about this, one of the Talosians decides this is progress. The next thing he knows, he and Vina are in another illusion: a picnic near Pike’s hometown.
Even though Vina’s trying her darnedest to get Pike relaxed, he keeps plying her for information. He gets her to confirm the Talosians can’t read primitive emotions like hate, but she keeps steering him back to the possibility of a relationship. Just when he admits he’s been attracted to her since he first saw her, the illusion changes again.
This time Pike is an Orion trader and Vina is the green-skinned, dancing slave girl.
And this is a part of Pike’s fantasy life that I, for one, did not want to see just as I’m getting to know the character.
“Funny how they are on this planet. They actually like being taken advantage of,” comments a random ogler.
When Pike won’t give in to this illusion either, the Talosians decide maybe he needs some more options. They beam down Number One and Colt, whose phasers don’t appear to be working. Not sure why they didn’t beam down some other guys for Vina to consider.
After a little catty exchange between Vina and Number One, the Talosian explains PIke’s choices:
“Each of the two new specimens has qualities in her favour. The female you call Number One has the superior mind and would produce highly intelligent children. Although she seems to lack emotion, this is largely a pretence. She has often has fantasies involving you…The other new arrival has considered you unreachable but now is realising this has changed. The factors in her favour are youth and strength, plus unusually strong female drives. “
So we get another theme that will reoccur: every woman who works on the Enterprise secretly has a thing for the Captain.
Pike figures out their not working was also an illusion. He blasts a hole in the cage instead and goes to the surface with the three women.
There Number One makes a bold move. She sets the phaser to overload and says the aliens need to stop endangering the ship or she will blow them all up rather than them living as farm animals.
The Talosians call off their attack, saying the humans are too violent anyway. Pike is ready to beam the rest of them up to the Enterprise but Vina says she can’t go.
The Talosians remove the final illusion and we see she is disfigured and much older than she originally appeared.
She says the Talosians found her in the shipwreck and pieced her back together without knowledge of what a human looks like.
Instead of being like, “Hey! How you look doesn’t matter! Come with us and pursue your own interests instead of living with these sociopaths!” Pike’s more concerned that the Talosians make her feel pretty again.
“You’ll give her back her illusion of beauty?” he asks.
“And more,” agree the Talosians, who create an illusion of Pike so Vina can also have a man!
Phew! Okay, that was a long one, so thanks for bearing with me. Overall I think “The Cage” is fantastic in many ways. It’s got a ton of imaginative plot packed into one hour. It’s a good introduction to some of the basic Trek principles like the need for teamwork and the importance of pursuing knowledge and challenging ourselves.
But other than the pants, the women characters aren’t treated that much better than the rest of the original series. Spending a scene dissecting your women officers’ reproductive potential and revealing their secret fantasies about the Captain isn’t really an auspicious introduction.
I also didn’t see a single person of colour in the pilot, so I’m glad that got changed moving forward.
What we learned from this episode:
- Number One is super smart (she’s also the only one who figures out Vina’s beauty is an illusion before the end).
- No one wants an old, ugly woman on the Enterprise. Old guys (Doctor Boyce, for example) are totally cool.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail. Vina talks with Colt and Number One but it’s very much a conversation about Pike.