The two-part Menagerie incorporates, retells, and expands on the abandoned pilot episode The Cage, which featured Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. Unsurprisingly given the cobbled-together footage and plot, it’s not very good. Its saving grace is that it’s in part about not being very good. It’s a crappily constructed fiction which begs you, the viewer, to give it a break and just embrace the crappily constructed fiction already.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner), First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) beam down to Starbase 11. Mr. Spock says he received orders to divert the ship from his former commander, Captain Pike. However, Commodore Mendez (Malachi Throne) says that it was impossible for Pike to give such an order since he was disfigured, and paralyzed in a ship accident while heroically rescuing crewmembers. (The disabled, speechless Pike is played by Sean Kenney.)
It soon becomes clear that Spock lied about the message so that he could take Pike aboard the Enterprise and hijack the ship, redirecting it to Talos IV. The planet has been declared off-limits on pain of death after the Pike-commanded Enterprise visited it thirteen years before. Kirk and Mendez follow the Enterprise in a shuttle and Spock beams them aboard when it becomes clear their life support will run out if he doesn’t intervene.
A court-martial for Spock is arranged, during which he shows miraculously detailed footage of the events of the first visit to Talos. The planet is inhabited by (yet another) hyper-advanced race with big heads who control minds with their thoughts. They initially constructed numerous illusions intended to get Pike to breed with an earth woman named Vina (Susan Oliver) who had landed on the planet years before. Pike resists and the Talosians eventually relent and leave.
But now that Pike is injured and deformed they are ready to let him return and live out a life of utopian illusions. Star Fleet somewhat improbably decides that this was all a good reason for Spock to commit mutiny, and all’s well that ends well.
There’s more hole than plot here; the whole drama could have been obviated if Spock just explained the situation to Kirk upfront, as Kirk points out a couple of times. But if you’re watching a poorly thought-through farrago of pulp tropes, then so are the characters themselves.
The two-parter is compulsively framed around watching television. At the court-martial, the Talosians project images of Pike’s first trip to their planet—images which are simply footage from the abandoned pilot. More, the record the Talosians provide is in large part a record of their own illusions, as they create fantasies to fool or manipulate Pike. You are watching a mediocre fiction in which characters watch a mediocre fiction about a man living out a mediocre fiction.
Pike’s mediocre fictions are all recognizable genre defaults. In one he imagines himself and Vina in a standard hetero 60s domestic utopia, picnicking on a hillside and talking about the weather. Another, inflicted as punishment, is a vision of hell.
And others have more of an erotic, Orientalist charge. In one semi-medieval fantasy setting, Pike fights to rescue a gown-bedecked Vina from an alien monster creature who looks a lot like a Western caricature of a Mongol warrior. In another, Pike is cast as a decadent quasi-Roman, lounging in luxury as he watches Vina, transformed into a scantily-clad, green-skinned Orion slave girl, dance for him. (The Orion women are “like animals, vicious, seductive. They say no human male can resist them,” Menendez helpfully explains to Kirk and to the viewing audience, in case they somehow missed the sexual and sexist cues.)
Vina’s seduction is visual, both in the sense that she’s gyrating for the pleasure of Pike’s gaze and in the sense that she’s trying to get him to embrace the visual illusion he knows isn’t real. The Talosians want Pike to accept the fiction they provide because it’s pleasurable, even though he knows it technically isn’t true. (“I can wear whatever you wish, be anything you wish,” Vina pleads.) They’re asking him to suspend his disbelief—which is exactly what a show like Star Trek asks of its viewers.
The parallel is underlined as the end of the two-parter when Mendez flickers and disappears. The character we thought was “real” turns out to also be a Talosian trick. You, the viewer, are fooled just like Pike—though of course you’re not really fooled since you always knew that Mendez was a fictional image on the screen. You treat him as real because that furthers the story; he’s not there, but he’s there, but he’s not there. It’s a shell game. You play because it’s fun.
Pike on the screen rejects the game; he’d rather die than live an illusion, he says. The Talosians that this is quintessentially human. “The customs and history of your race show a unique hatred of captivity,” they say, after further examining Earth history. “Even when it's pleasant and benevolent, you prefer death.”
We’re supposed to take that statement as truth. But we know that the Talosians deal in illusions. And those illusions have already reminded us that the history of Earth is filled with humans putting each other in captivity. Pike is aroused at the thought of having power over an enslaved, racialized woman. The Talosian breeding scheme echoes, fairly deliberately, American practices during chattel slavery. Humans do value freedom. But they also value the imposition of unfreedom on others.
And if, as “The Menagerie” suggests, illusion is unfreedom, then humans certainly value that as well. The Talosians, with their big, veiny brain-heads, are stand-ins for writer Gene Roddenberry and directors Marc Daniels and Robert Butler, the team building fairly transparent illusions for your enjoyment.
The episode’s initial skepticism about cognitive capitulation to erotic fantasy is completely abandoned by the end of the run time. Vina reveals that she is not beautiful, but ugly and deformed, and Pike (in the footage of the first show) insists that that is a good reason for her to stay with the Talosians. Later, disabled himself, he too embraces the opportunity to be someone handsomer, stronger, and more exciting—just as Star Trek viewers get to tune in and pretend to be the virile Captain Kirk for an hour or so.
Pre-disabled Captain Pike might rail against this moral, and insist on the manly virtue of scrupulous ontological continence. I tend to side with latter-day Pike, though. Some imaginings can lead to unfortunate places, as when white Americans tell themselves that they’ve always believed in freedom and conveniently forget how often, and who, they’ve kept in cages. But in itself, there’s nothing wrong with imagining yourself as someone else, or with being seduced by fiction.
In fact, the Talosians, who constantly make-believe, are more human than that boring stick-in-the-mud Pike, who seems to think that imagining will turn him into an animal. You’re not trading away your soul by watching “The Menagerie.” Though, given the quality of this particular dream, you might, unfortunately, end up a little bored.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.