The Cage in the Menagerie: How a Failed Pilot Saved a Franchise

It’s hard to believe 5 series and a dozen movies later, but the Star Trek franchise nearly failed in its first season. Not only was the pilot widely regarded as a flop (necessitating the replacement of every cast member save Leonard Nimoy) but by the mid-point of the first season they’d run out of episodes to film. Since almost nobody had watched the pilot the first time around, anyway, Gene Roddenberry made the economical decision to re-purpose it, adding new material that allowed it to be stretched into two full episodes and giving viewers the first two-parter of the Star Trek universe (and the only one in the original series). The resultant episode, “The Menagerie,” would go on to receive much acclaim, winning a Hugo Award in 1967 for Best Dramatic Presentation.

As a modern viewer (read: binge-watching TOS on Netflix) “The Menagerie” mostly gives you a feeling of déjà vu. Not only did I watch the pilot already, but I just watched it a few nights prior; the skillful re-use of the material, in this context, loses some of its brilliance. It also opens the two episodes up for more comparison and analysis.

The obvious question that comes to mind is what exactly changed between “The Cage” and “The Menagerie” that transformed a no-start pilot into Hugo Award-winning material? “The Cage” is a fairly straightforward classic Star Trek plot. Advanced telepathic aliens create an imaginary Eden on a planet called Talos IV. Their goal is to capture a breeding pair of humans who can found a race to populate their world and work the land. Vina—the “Eve” in this equation, already on the planet when Captain Pike is captured—is revealed by the end to have been horribly disfigured in the shuttle crash that marooned her on Talos IV. In exchange for remaining on the planet with the Talosians they restore her to her lost youth and beauty. Illusory, yes, but still a deal she is ultimately unable to turn down. In another familiar Star Trek twist, the Talosians are revealed to be more sympathetic than was first thought; they’ve lost the ability to take care of the planet themselves, and will surely go extinct if they can’t put their plan in motion.

“The Menagerie” couches this original plot into a frame device. An in-world timeline is ret-conned in that has the pilot’s crew serving on the Enterprise for many years and showing Spock to simply be the last senior officer remaining onboard from that crew. It’s not clear at what point Kirk took over for Pike as the ship’s captain, but Pike is still an active Starfleet officer—at least until he’s gravely injured on a mission, leaving him incapable of speech or movement.

This is revealed during the set-up of the frame device. As the episode progresses, Spock kidnaps Pike and steals the Enterprise to transport him to the now-forbidden planet of Talos IV. Spock is arrested en route; a court martial is convened as they continue toward Talos IV. The original footage of “The Cage” is shown as “evidence” in the court martial, explained in the episode as telepathic transmissions from the Talosians. This format sets up some moments where the audience is watching Kirk and Spock watch the Talosians watch Captain Pike—screens within screens within screens that make the events from “The Cage” feel more immediate than if they were told in flashback.

The ultimate payoff is predictable if you’ve seen “The Cage.” The horribly disfigured Captain Pike can receive the same blessing of illusion as Vina; Spock was working with the Talosians all along to give this happier future to his once-commander. The two-layer plot is more complex than most in TOS, and though the frame device is sometimes clumsy, it would likely feel less so if you weren’t aware that it had been superimposed over an existing episode.

Only a minor tweak is made to the original episode footage, and it’s perhaps the key to why “The Menagerie” was more successful. In “The Cage,” the Talosians create an illusory Captain Pike to keep Vina company after he refuses to stay on the planet. It’s ultimately a bit of a downer ending. Vina thinks she’s happy, but she’s all alone with her illusions, and the Talosians are probably doomed to extinction.

Through a bit of careful editing, this illusion instead becomes the real Captain Pike. After Pike is beamed down to the planet from the Enterprise, the Talosians transmit footage to the ship of Pike happily reuniting with Vina. Captain Pike can live a normal life, the Talosians have their Adam and Eve, and Spock is forgiven for his crimes once it’s seen his intentions were ultimately honorable. Star Trek‘s attitude is by and large optimistic, and this “happily ever after” ending feels more complete, more satisfying than the original.

Many of the creative decisions involved in making “The Menagerie” were out of necessity. The show couldn’t afford to bring Jeffrey Hunter back to film (the actor who played Captain Pike in “The Cage”), necessitating the elaborate make-up and iconic wheelchair that kept modern day Captain Pike from having to speak or act (and excusing the fact that he looks nothing like the original actor). In fact, the only actor from the original episode they could get to reprise his role was Leonard Nimoy. Because of this, the frame device is heavily Spock-centric. His dual nature, only hinted at previously, is explored in more depth. There’s the human half of him that has sympathy and loyalty for Captain Pike, and the Vulcan half, logic-driven, capable of engineering such a complex deception.

These two episodes make for an intriguing comparison for a writer, certainly. “The Cage” was a decent episode in its own right, so it’s not surprising that the concept was successful. Re-packaging a story changes the way it’s perceived by the audience. It doesn’t have to be a new frame device. Even the change in titles gives the episode a different flavor, from the negative implications of a cage to the softer idea of a menagerie, a shift consistent with the alteration of the ending. Small changes can have a massive impact if they’re made in the right place, in the right way.

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