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The Cage – The Star Trek That Almost Was

‘I’d seen science fiction movies before but I always thought to myself, ‘Not enough characterisation, not enough motivation.’ Perhaps I could use this as an excuse to go to those far-off planets,’ explained Gene Roddenberry on his inspiration for what would become Star Trek. ‘And be able to talk about love, war and nature, God, sex; all those things that go to make up the excitement of the human condition. And maybe the TV censors would let it pass because it all seemed so make-believe.’

Taking the core element of Hawaii Passage, an earlier pitch declined by Screen Gems that had followed the adventures of a large ocean liner and its assorted crew members, Roddenberry’s ambitious concept would ultimately come to redefine not only science fiction but also the development of both technology and equality, with its multi-cultural galaxy exploring diversity and a future where greed is no longer mankind’s driving force. More than a decade before George Lucas introduced audiences to an array of far-off worlds and fantastic aliens with his space opera Star Wars, the crew of the USS Enterprise were exploring new frontiers under a flag of peace as representatives of the United Federation of Planets.

Star Trek made its television debut on American television courtesy of NBC when it was broadcast on the evening of Thursday, 8 September 1966, two days after its official premiere in Canada. ‘Takes you through the universe and beyond in television’s most exciting adventure,’ boasted newspaper adverts in anticipation for its arrival and the network had invested so much faith in the show that they had taken the unprecedented action of producing not one but two separate pilot episodes after the first failed to reach the high expectations of the executives. As the show began to gain momentum, Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise would become synonymous with science fiction and intergalactic exploration, but had NBC accepted the original pilot Star Trek could have become something completely different to the show that fans have come to adore over the last half a century.

‘I always enjoyed Jonathan Swift, the lands he went to and the characters he invented. It always seemed to me that the type of writing I was doing was like what Swift did,’ Roddenberry told the Humanist in 1991 on how the author of Gulliver’s Travels influenced his own style of storytelling. ‘Swift used his characters to point out stupidities in our own systems of thinking. When you see the Lilliputians fighting and double-crossing each other, you are watching humanity through Swift’s eyes. I’ve been sure from the first that the job of Star Trek was to use drama and adventure as a way of portraying humanity in its various guises and beliefs. The result was that Star Trek — in the original series but even more powerfully in the second series — is an expression of my own beliefs using my characters to act out human problems and equations.’

It would be during his time working in public affairs for the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950s that Roddenberry would first develop his skills as a writer, before finally resigning in 1956 in order to pursue a professional career as a screenwriter. Over the next few years he unsuccessfully attempted to sell numerous pilots to networks but it would not be until 1963 when, drawing off his own experiences during the Second World War, he developed a television series called The Lieutenant. But the escalating conflict in Vietnam and the negative portrayal of American troops in the media would prove somewhat problematic for the show and it was cancelled at the end of its first season. But by the time principal photography had wrapped on its final episode Roddenberry had approached his producer, Norman Felton of Arena Productions, with a concept about a starship exploring new planets and cultures that he called Star Trek.

Felton, whose success with Dr. Kildare would soon be followed by the phenomenal impact of his spy serial The Man from U.N.C.L.E., rejected Roddenberry’s proposal as he felt that not only would the concept fail to find an audience but the cost of producing such a show would be too high. Yet Roddenberry remained determined and carried his pitch to several noted executives before finally gaining the attention of Desilu Productions, whose track record included I Love Lucy and The Untouchables. Making the acquaintance of Oscar Katz and Herb Solow, Roddenberry had finally found someone who believed in his ambitious concept and with the participation of Solow, he began to pitch the concept once again to networks, this time with the patronage of his production company.

The Cage

The initial concept for Star Trek followed the escapades of the U.S.S. Yorktown under the command of Captain Robert April, whose crew consisted of, among others, a half-Martian/half-man science officer called Spock and his emotionless female second-in-command, referred to only as Number One. Roddenberry’s pitch for the show consisted of a detailed sixteen-page outline that he had developed in March 1964 that would feature both an overview of the central concept along with a brief synopsis for several potential episodes. It would be NBC who would finally commit to the series and were presented with three stories for the pilot episode: The Women, Landru’s Paradise and The Cage. The network ultimately selected the latter and Roddenberry commenced work on the screenplay for a one-hour episode that, if rejected, could function as a made-for-TV movie. Science fiction had gained considerable popularity at the box office the previous decade, with many of the pictures exploring such themes as America’s fear of Communism and mankind’s inevitable path to self-destruction and it was this new-found interest in the genre that would pave the way for the likes of Star Trek.

Taking inspiration from Forbidden Planet, a critically acclaimed and visually impressive science fiction feature released by MGM in 1956, The Cage would introduce the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise as they receive a distress call from a nearby planet where, some eighteen years earlier, a spaceship had mysteriously disappeared during an expedition. Captain April and a landing party beam down to the surface to investigate where they discover surivivors, among them an attractive young woman called Vina. But when the Captain is taken hostage by the mysterious humanoids with telepathic powers he discovers that their intention is to use Vina’s beauty as a seduction in order for them to breed a race of slaves using April as the Adam of his new civilisation. But when they discover that their human captors would rather die than remain imprisoned, thus proving to violent for their needs, April and his companions are finally released.

During the writing of the screenplay the character of April would undergo several significant changes, at first renamed James Winter before Roddenberry finally decided on Christopher Pike. The Captain would share many similarities with that of Commander Adams, the hero of Forbidden Planet, a handsome hero who remains strong-willed in the face of danger and thus respected by his crew. While in the later incarnation of Star Trek Spock would be an alien from the fictions planet Vulcan, who operates from a point of logic and without emotion, in The Cage he is portrayed as closer in personality to his human colleagues, even breaking into a smile upon discovering musical plants. It would be the somewhat ominous Number One who would be without emotion in Roddenberry’s original script, the character lacking in any real depth other than her loyalty to her Captain.

One curious aspect of the script would be the minor hostility between Pike and Colt, a young and enthusiastic yeoman onboard his ship whom he displays little patience for, but due to the overhaul that the series would undergo after the pilot episode the reasons for this conflict would remain unexplored. ‘She does a good job alright,’ he tells Number Two, ‘it’s just I can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge.’ The remaining characters would remain somewhat underdeveloped, with teleport operator Pitcairn and ship doctor Philip Boyce introduced but then relegated to the sidelines while the story focused on the capture and rescue of Pike.

The budget for The Cage would be financed through NBC to the sum of approximately $600,000, which would cover the cost of script development, pre-production and principal photography. Casting for the episode would take place during the final months of 1964, the first role allocated being that of Number One. Having made the acquaintance of actress Majel Barrett as he rose through the ranks of television, Roddenberry was determined to cast the thirty-two-year-old Los Angeles native and refused to consider any other young hopefuls. Another actor that Roddenberry had crossed paths with that would become a member of the Enterprise crew was Leonard Nimoy who had previously appeared in The Lieutenant as an arrogant and greedy movie producer in an episode which, incidentally, had also featured Barrett.

While Nimoy would eventually become a genre icon for his portrayal of the emotionless alien Spock several actors were under consideration for the role, including including Michael Dunn, one year removed from his recurring role as a villain in the Wild Wild West and DeForest Kelley, another future veteran of the Star Trek franchise. But it would be Barrett who would suggest Nimoy for the part of Spock, having been impressed by his work on The Lieutenant and on her recommendation Roddenberry offered him the role. ‘A few weeks after I finished the job my agent called me and said, ‘Gene Roddenberry, the producer of The Lieutentant show, saw the footage, was interested in you, liked what you did and said he has in mind for you a role in a pilot he’s developing for a science fiction series,’ recalled Nimoy on Emmy TV Legends.’

Leonard Nimoy, Majel Barrett and Clegg Hoyt

The most important character would be that of Captain Pike, the charming leader of the Enterprise and anchor of the show. While television veteran Peter Graves seemed the most likely candidate, he would later find success with his own starring role in Mission: Impossible and following brief consideration for Forbidden Planet‘s Leslie Nielsen and Rod Taylor of The Time Machine fame, the part was finally awarded to Jeffrey Hunter, best known for his portrayal of Jesus Christ in the 1961 drama King of Kings. Much like the later Captain of the Enterprise, James T. Kirk, Pike would have a chiseled, handsome appearance and charm that would make him irresistible to the woman he comes into contact with, yet unlike Kirk he is able to control his urges, resisting the seduction and manipulation of Vina. Yet despite a strong performance, Hunter’s performance would lack the chemistry that his successor, William Shatner, would display during his tenure as Captain.

Principal photography on The Cage would commence on 27 November 1964 in Culver City, Los Angeles, with Desilu’s Stage 16 serving as both the bridge to the Enterprise and mysterious planet of Talos IV, commencing with scenes between Hunter and co-star Clegg Hoyt, as Dr. Boyce. The two-week shoot would be overseen by Robert Butler, whose résumé had included episodes of both Dr. Kildare and The Lieutenant. ‘When it came time for his Star Trek pilot he asked me to do it,’ explained Butler decades later. ‘So I read his script and I thought, ‘This is just a palette of science fiction.’ Everything in science fiction that I knew of was dragged into this pilot. The beautiful young woman who’s really an old hag, etc. All the old chestnuts were in the pilot. And I read it and I remember talking to my wife about it and saying, ‘This thing is too nuts! It’s crazy, I don’t know whether to do this.’ Being young and pure. And she said, ‘Ahh, why don’t you do it?’ So I did.’

Despite the script having gained approval from the network, throughout the shoot Roddenberry would undergo numerous rewrites while remaining onset to oversee the development of his vision. The production design, which would include the alien surface and the crude habitation of the alien creatures, would be overseen by art director Pato Guzman, who had been given the directive of using Forbidden Planet as a source of inspiration. Despite plagiarising the movie, Roddenberry was determined to portray a realistic future in his show and sought scientific guidance from various sources on how technology and society as a whole may develop over the coming centuries, yet unlike subsequent Star Trek stories no stardate is given for The Cage, thus not indicating when the story was set.

From a technical point-of-view the pilot episode would mark a significant triumph for Roddenberry, having raised the standard of what could be achieved on a television show by giving the look and feel of a motion picture. Filming came to an end on 11 December and was immediately rushed into post-production but when Roddenberry came to view the finished product he was furious. While the story had worked on paper, in reality when viewing it as a TV show he felt that it was slow and at times tedious, lacking the kind of pace that the network would have expected for a science fiction fantasy series. From a technical point-of-view the pilot episode would mark a significant triumph for Roddenberry, having raised the standard of what could be achieved on a television show by giving the look and feel of a motion picture.

Filming came to an end on 11 December and was immediately rushed into post-production but when Roddenberry came to view the finished product he was furious. While the story had worked on paper, in reality when viewing it as a TV show he felt that it was slow and at times tedious, lacking the kind of pace that the network would have expected for a science fiction fantasy series. Allegedly dismissed as ‘too cerebral,’ Star Trek had proved to be a little too much like Forbidden Planet, yet the executives wanted exciting aliens, thrilling chases and beautiful aliens. Instead they found themselves with a pilot episode that was philosophical and profound, yet devoid of action. Tests screenings had also revealed that audience members, both men and women, were agitated and even hostile towards the notion of a female in a position of authority, prompting negative comments in regards to the inclusion of Number One.

‘They probably felt that I had broken my word,’ confessed Roddenberry many years later when looking back on the reaction that NBC had on The Cage. ‘In the series format I had promised a Wagon Train to the stars action/adventure, science fiction-style. But, instead The Cage was a beautiful story, but it wasn’t action/adventure. It wasn’t what I had promised. Clearly the problem with the first pilot was easily traced back to me. I got too close to it and lost perspective.’ For Butler, whose hard work and professionalism helped make Roddenberry’s vision a reality, he would never understand the appeal of a show like Star Trek. ‘I don’t get it,’ he admitted. ‘I’m sure some sociologist would have a thoery about that but I don’t get it. To me it’s too preposterous, it’s too clean and it’s too wordy. Now, Twilight Zone was preposterous and wordy but it was in black-and-white, it was a half an hour…I could get Twilight Zone because they’re just good yarns but I just don’t honestly get Star Trek.’

Majel Barrett, Meg Wyllie, Susan Oliver and Jeffrey Hunter

While the executives at NBC were disappointed with what Roddenberry had produced they would make an unprecedented move by giving a television show a second chance with another expensive pilot episode. With the exception of Nimoy the entire cast were overhauled and replaced with a new crew for the Enterprise that included William Shatner and DeForest Kelley. The concept would remain the same but a more playful element was incorporated, while Spock would become the emotionless alien, much like Number One in the original pilot. While Star Trek would finally made its debut in September 1966 with The Man Trap, The Cage would remain unseen for over twenty years until a print was discovered in a vault in Los Angeles. ‘A never-aired pilot for the television series Star Trek is Paramount Home Video’s most potent ammunition in its celebration of the twentieth anniversary,’ revealed an article published by Billboard in August 1986. ‘The program runs for an hour and is in both black and white and colour. This is because the original colour work print of The Cage was cut up, when the episode was incorporated into The Menagerie, another Star Trek episode, says Gene Roddenberry, creator and producer of the show.’

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