Friday, November 27th, 1964: it’s the day after Thanksgiving, and the first day of principal photography on the pilot episode for a proposed weekly science fiction television series:
Over the next eleven working days, director Robert Butler would oversee filming for “The Cage,” Star Trek‘s original pilot film. The first scene to be shot was set in the quarters of the U.S.S. Enterprise‘s intrepid captain, Christopher Pike, who’s suffering from something akin to a mid-life crisis following a recent mission that ended in tragedy. He’s questioning his choice of career, and whether it might be time to hang it all up and retire somewhere, or perhaps find another line of work. That’s when the ship’s doctor and his close friend, Philip Boyce, starts feeding him drinks and knocking some sense into his thick skull.
“The Cage,” wasted no time establishing what would become a few Star Trek staples right out of the gate, namely the theme of advanced aliens capturing and/or testing the Enterprise crew to determine their intentions, threat potential, worth, and so on. It also hints at how the series would handle relationships between the characters, in particular the captain and his closest confidants, and how behind closed doors he’s not above brief struggles with self-doubt. Several familiar Enterprise interiors debut here, as well, notably the bridge, transporter room and briefing room. As for the Enterprise itself, we’re given just a few tantalizing shots of the ship in the opening and closing scenes.
Though NBC passed on picking up the series, network executives were sufficiently impressed with the production that they commissioned a second pilot.
You know how that turned out.
Interestingly, there as a brief period during the first pilot’s production that it was renamed from “The Cage” to “The Menagerie.” Later, after Star Trek was in production and series creator Gene Roddenberry made the inspired decision as a cost-saving measure to create a “wraparound” story incorporating some of the original pilot’s footage, that episode was titled “The Menagerie.” In addition to the obvious benefits to the series’ production budget, framing the events of the first pilot as having happened several years before Captain Kirk’s five year mission aboard the Enterprise provided Star Trek with a substantial and tangible backstory, particularly for Mr. Spock, the only character to survive the multiple cast changes as the series evolved through the two pilot films toward weekly production.
The first pilot, which was never shown on television during the series’ run, would carry “The Cage” as its title when it eventually was released to home video in videocassette and LaserDisc formats in 1986. At the time, it was believed that no color print of the entire episode existed, so the decision was made to release “The Cage” in a hybrid format that included the color footage incorporated into “The Menagerie” along with additional footage from a black and white work print of the pilot. Later, a full-color print was found and was released on home video and was broadcast in the summer of 1988 as part of a two-hour Star Trek special hosted by Patrick Stewart, “From One Generation to the Next.” More recently, both versions of “The Cage” have been included in DVD and Blu-ray releases of the original series.
Though many “Star Trek concepts” would be retooled to varying degrees–for the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and again when Star Trek went into series production–in some ways “The Cage” represents Star Trek in its purest form. It showcases Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the voyages of the starship Enterprise, before he began refining it as production on the weekly series progressed, as much for his own reasons as to appease the wishes of studio and network executives.
“The Cage” is a special, essential component of the Star Trek mythos, existing as a part of its internal history as well as a template for what might have been so far as what ended up on our TV screens.
So, if you haven’t yet had or taken the opportunity to watch it for yourself, what are you waiting for? “Engage!”