Thoughts on Star Trek’s Two Pilots



I originally wrote this in 2013. I thought I’d polish it up and present it again on this, the 50th anniversary of Star Trek’s first broadcast.

This time around I’m going to do something a little different.  Instead of a feature film, like I would normally review, I’m going into some detail on the two pilots for the original Star Trek TV series.

The original pilot for Star Trek was noticeably different from the show that we have come to know.  In fact, the only character you might recognize is Mr. Spock, though he isn’t yet the emotionally challenged alien we all love so much.  It takes many cues from previous science fiction, mostly books.  But you can’t help but notice similarities, especially in design, to the groundbreaking “Forbidden Planet.”  It didn’t exactly go over well with the powers that were.  But there must have been something because they commissioned a second pilot and eventually the show that would become so popular.  ‘The Cage’ fell into obscurity with only a few parts seen in flashbacks during a two part episode of the regular show.  It didn’t see uncut broadcast until sometime in the 80s.  Like the original pilot of Lost in Space, there are a lot of what might have been moments in ‘The Cage.’  The most striking things, of course, is Jeffery Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike.  Though I don’t know that network television of the time could have dealt with sustaining a character like Pike in any meaningful way; I like this captain who is at the end of his rope and ready to quit.  He’s seen too much, done too much, lost too many people.  Kirk, for all his cool, was really a typical TV action hero of the time.  I like Pike’s bitterness.

The storyline again echoes “Forbidden Planet” at the beginning, with the crew investigating a lost ship.  There’s even stuff about a long lost super advanced civilization (their hallways are the same shape as the Krell, for crying out loud).  But things take a different road once those aliens, iconic 50s/60s style giant headed folks in sparkling robes.  With Pike captured and the crew left to figure things out, we go into an exploration of what it means to be a Human, to be a free and independent being.  There’s a lot of stuff about illusion and memory, and what those things mean to us.  Apparently the executives who saw this originally thought that it was ‘too cerebral.’  Too cerebral?  I guess in the world of spousal abuse sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, maybe it was.  For Science Fiction, as film and TV have always been, it was 20 to 30 years behind the literary times.  It had a woman serving as First Officer (execs couldn’t live with that), something that wouldn’t have been at all shocking for any sci-fi reader of the day.  It had an alien working on the ship, another thing that wouldn’t have been strange to readers, but didn’t sit well with the suits.  I’d have preferred they keep the lady and the alien, but they had to pick their battles.  The resolution of the story is a bit too quick, too easy.  A bit of a deus ex machina with the sudden translation of the ship’s computer followed by a ‘woops, our bad’ on the part of the aliens.  Yet it still manages to pull out a bittersweet element with the blonde and her fate.

    With the second commissioned Star Trek pilot, ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before,’ we meet the new, more dashing captain of the enterprise, James (here R.) Kirk.  Also, the first appearances of Scotty and Sulu.  And Spock is more like what he would become, uncomfortable with Kirk’s ‘Earth emotions.’  We see much more of the ship’s interior in the episode, and a taste of the interesting lighting and color pallet that would be a hallmark of the show.  The story features another lost ship, this time it’s been swept beyond a weird energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy.  There’s some stuff about people with ESP (popular at that time) who are effected by the strange energy.  After the Enterprise goes through the barrier, it too is effected, or at least, some of its crew are.  Many die, but one, Kirk’s old school chum Garry Mitchell, gets a major league brain boost.  How does one deal with a man who is becoming a god?  How does a man deal with that transformation in himself?

Though I really love this episode, it does feature a movie/TV science fiction cliché that drives me a bit nuts.  In movies and TV, any superior machine or person is automatically amoral (rare) or evil (frequent).  Though the literature features robots and super-beings with good intentions, film and TV seems totally void of even the potential of benevolence among superiors.  I don’t see why superior intellect would not also feature superior morality.  We’re smarter than our ancestors and a hell of a lot more moral, why would our descendants (genetically and cybernetically advanced though they may be) be different?  Now, in the case of Garry Mitchell, one could easily see that he had some deep flaws in his emotional make-up right from the start.  The kind of thing that might never have turned ugly; but when power is thrust into his hands, allows him to be corrupted faster and more completely than normal.  Dr. Dehner, for example, seems like she might have retained her moral center if given the chance.  Mitchell seems like the kind of guy who walks through life without much hassle, not having to work for the things he gets, and resentful of the things that challenge him.  That’s a man made to abuse power.

Something about the script and pacing of this makes it feel more ‘cinematic’ to me than Trek ever felt until “The Motion Picture.”  In fact, I thought a modified version of this could have made an interesting feature film.  I’d like to see some of the issues dealt with in a deeper way, especially the reasons for Mitchell’s fall into power-fueled madness.  I guess they addressed the complaint that The Cage was ‘too cerebral’ by having a big fistfight ending.  That kind of set the stage for a recurring theme in the rest of the series.  I had an odd realization while watching this, actor Gary Lockwood is playing a human being uplifted to a super-being who turns evil.  A few years later, he would play the doomed partner of a man who is uplifted to a super-being with the potential for good in “2001;”  “2001,” which features a supercomputer that goes murderously rogue, while also featuring an uplifted human with the potential to save mankind.  Kind of a mixed message, there.

I don’t think Star Trek has ever quite lived up to the potential represented by these first two pilots, at least not more than a few times (‘The Inner Light’ from Star Trek: The Next Generation for example).  It’s a great show and has some really good episodes.  But few capture the sweep or emotion of these first two stories.  ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ (often cited as one of the best, though not my favorite) is probably the closest.  Watching them makes me wish things could have been different, better writing, more structured stories, more planning.  I know TV of that day didn’t work like that, slavishly devoted to the episodic, wrapped up in an hour, watchable in any order way of things.  But science fiction is often about ‘what if?’  So what if these two stories, ‘The Cage’ and ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before,’ had been more of an indication of the show to come?  Not the show of silly crap like ‘Charlie X’ or ‘Catspaw,’ but a more serious science fiction adventure show.  More Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, etc.  Less ‘Shadow of the Gun,’ ‘Omega Glory,’ and ‘Spock’s Brain.’  What if?


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