Content Warning: A ton of spoilers for the 1965 Star Trek pilot “The Cage,” as well as spoilers for pretty much anything tangentially related to the characters Captain Christopher Pike and Vina. Though since it’s been 57 years, maybe we shouldn’t consider them spoilers anymore?
Every once in a while, Star Trek surprises me. For the most part, when I go into an episode of the original series or “The Next Generation,” I have to temper my expectations. I have to remind myself that whatever I’m watching is a product of history, be that the horrible special effects, ugly-ass costumes, or the occasional sexist comment. Even on a show as progressive as Star Trek, these things happen.
But sometimes, an episode reminds me of why “Star Trek” is such a phenomenal franchise and how science fiction can tell moving, introspective stories about the human condition. These stories are even more beautiful through the lens of Star Trek’s commitment to compassionate story-telling. These are the stories that stay with you long after the episode’s run-time has finished.
For myself, this episode was “The Cage.”
“The Cage” was the original pilot for “Star Trek.” The episode was written in 1965 by Gene Roddenberry, and most of the footage was eventually reused in the two-parter episode “The Menagerie.” Although tame by 2022 standards, the original pilot was radical in that it featured Majel Barrett, aka a woman, as the second in command of a starship and an alien officer, Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy. Once the series was picked up, Mr. Spock got to stay, but the woman had to go.
The story is about Captain Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, of the USS Enterprise, who receives a distress beacon from the fourth planet in the Talos star system. When the crew of the Enterprise arrives on Talos IV, Captain Pike is enchanted by a beautiful young woman, Vina, who we soon learn is acting in her own interest. Captain Pike is kidnapped by the Talosians, an ancient race of sentient aliens with extraordinary telepathic abilities. The Talosians soon reveal their main objective: they’re bored and like to capture space travelers to use as living television sets. With each captured traveler, the Talosians probe their mind and create powerful illusions based on that person’s memories.
The Talosians subject Captain Pike to a series of illusions, though he quickly notices a commonality in these illusions: Vina. Captain Pike probes Vina for any information she has on the Talosians. Although the episode initially suggests that she is colluding with the Talosians, we come to understand that Vina is as much under their control as Captain Pike. As Captain Pike plots to escape, he has the following exchange with Vina:
“VINA: Yes. They can’t read through primitive emotions. But you can’t keep it up for long enough. I’ve tried. They keep at you and at you year after year, tricking and punishing, and they won. They own me. I know you must hate me for that.
PIKE: Oh, no. I don’t hate you. I can guess what it was like.
VINA: But that’s not enough. Don’t you see? They read my thoughts, my feelings, my dreams of what would be a perfect man. That’s why they picked you. I can’t help but love you and they expect you to feel the same way.”“The Cage” by Gene Roddenberry
While Captain Pike admits that Vina is a total babe, he’s not down with living in captivity as a Talosian plaything, so he eventually wins his freedom. Captain Pike wants Vina to come with him on the Enterprise, but she reveals one last truth about herself. When her ship first crashed on Talos IV, she was horribly injured, referring to herself as a “lump of flesh.” The Talosians healed her to the best of their abilities, but as they had never seen a human before, the process left Vina disfigured. The reveal showing Vina’s true form is profoundly sad. It is as though she never had a chance at happiness. Nevertheless, Vina chooses to live the rest of her life on Talos IV, where she can retain her illusion of health and beauty, and Captain Pike respects her decision.
Vina’s relationship with the Talosians is complicated. Although they have healed her, it is without a doubt that she is their prisoner and has been subjected to years of torment at their hands/brains, intentional or not. However, when Captain Pike physically harms one of the Talosians, she tries to defend them. Vina shows empathy for her jailers, not just because they make her beautiful but because she realizes that the Talosians are not evil. By the end of the episode, we see that the Talosians can be kind and compassionate, like when they restore the illusion of Vina’s health and gift her an illusion of Captain Pike to keep her company.
The Talosians refuse to share their gift of telepathy with the Federation for a simple reason – the Talosians have ensured the destruction of their own species through the compulsive use of their powers, and they would not inflict that on any other species. The Talosians are far from perfect, yet they show a great capacity for compassion.
When I finished watching “The Cage,” I was moved by Vina’s story. Until “Deep Space 9,” Star Trek was not a serialized show, meaning that characters introduced in an episode had no guarantee of returning. As a result, the strength of each episode was often reliant on the performance of the guest star and how that character’s story ties into the episode. Many Star Trek actresses were cast seemingly on their ability to look hot and flirt with Captain Kirk but aren’t always given much else to do. As a result, I think these episodes aren’t as good (unless the female character has a dope outfit or hairstyle – I can forgive a lot). Gene Roddenberry wrote a fantastic pilot with nuanced characters, but I must give Susan Oliver, the actress who played Vina, credit for such a compelling performance. I think her work elevated the episode.
Although much of Vina’s storyline centered around her falling in love with Captain Pike and wanting him to reciprocate those feelings, enough details are scattered throughout the episode to paint a detailed picture of this woman. We feel her loneliness and desperation. We understand why she would be drawn to Captain Pike and want to help him, but also why she would be willing to defend and empathize with the Talosians. We see what was likely once a confident young woman, now ground down after years of mental anguish.
By the original conclusion of “The Cage,” I was relieved that Vina would receive something like a happy ending. However, I remained curious about the fate of Captain Pike. The episode “The Menagerie,” a popular two-parter from the first season, heavily featured the character and managed to answer some of my questions.
I think “The Menagerie” is a clever episode that skillfully utilizes footage from “The Cage” to create two new episodes within the original series and successfully expands Star Trek lore. The story is pretty simple: Captain Christopher Pike is horribly injured after an accident and is now confined to an electric wheelchair. Although his mind is still active, he can only communicate through a little button on his chair to say “yes” or “no.” It’s a huge bummer. The point of the episode is that Spock brings Captain Pike back to the Talosians so that he can live out the rest of his life in peace and good health, with the added benefit of Vina as a companion.
So let’s just address the elephant in the room before I wax on about how much I love this show: the stories of Vina and Captain Pike are ableist. The idea that Vina couldn’t be treated by Federation doctors to regain some semblance of her former self is difficult to believe. In addition, the story that a woman would rather live within an illusion where she can be pretty and blonde rather than live a real life as a disabled woman is a little offensive. I’d like to take this moment to remind readers that this episode was produced in 1965, and society has made a few baby steps forward regarding how we perceive disabled women.
Sort of. Society still has a lot of work to do.
I accepted Vina’s choice because, in addition to the promise of beauty and a happy life, the Talosians also seemed to help Vina forget any pain or discomfort in her mobility. They did the same thing for Captain Pike. Obviously, it is unrealistic that the Federation in the year 2265 would have wheelchairs less advanced than Stephen Hawking’s electric wheelchair. Still, I was willing to accept Pike’s story of being injured so severely that he had lost his ability to speak and move freely. I understand why so many fans dislike how Captain Pike returns to the Talosians. For one, the events of “The Menagerie” make it clear that it is not his choice to return to Talos IV but Spock’s decision. Captain Pike no longer can voice what he truly wants. I understand why fans and disability advocates may be less than pleased with Captain Pike’s ending because he is stripped of autonomy. And, like Vina, he chooses to live in a beautiful illusion rather than in the real world as a disabled man.
The whole point of “The Cage” is that humanity would refuse to live in captivity, but the end of “The Menagerie” adds the caveat “unless you are severely disabled.”
I still think that the creators of “Star Trek” did a good job reusing footage from “The Cage” to create a compelling story about Captain Pike, and I am happy Vina and the Captain can be reunited. I also think the people working behind Star Trek have attempted to combat ableism within their show. An example of this would be the episode “Loud as a Whisper,” in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which cast deaf actor Howie Seago as an ambassador who leads a series of peace talks. In addition, the show “Strange New Worlds” features actor Bruce Horak as Hemmer, the blind chief engineer of the USS Enterprise (no, this is not Geordi, although Hemmer’s a cool guy in his own right). I’m curious to see how “Strange New Worlds,” will continue to develop the story of Captain Pike and his inevitable tragedy. One significant detail “Star Trek: Discovery” included is that Captain Pike is aware of his impending accident and disability. I wonder how that kind of knowledge would influence anyone.
When I watched “The Cage,” I was drawn to Vina’s character and was curious if her story was expanded. I wanted to know her life before the Talosians, or if she ever regretted not leaving with Captain Pike. I was pleased to discover that her character is featured in an episode of “Star Trek: Discovery.” Not only that, but the episode seems to expand a little bit on the relationship between Captain Pike and Vina. I have not seen the episode, but if I’m not mistaken, it suggests that the connection between Captain Pike and Vina did not diminish, despite the time and distance passed.
The thought of Captain Pike being stripped of all autonomy to live in a beautiful hallucination is a little sad. However, the thought of Captain Pike returning to his lost love and living the rest of his life in peace and harmony? That is completely different. He would joyfully return to Talos IV to be with her. My heart can’t handle it. It’s too much. After a lifetime of him searching and her waiting for them to be reunited? Well, damn, that is one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever heard.
While “Lost Lovers Reuniting” is not a trope specific only to science fiction, I think the potential love story between Captain Pike and Vina exemplifies how science fiction can enhance a love story. Vina and Captain Pike didn’t just randomly meet – the Talosians chose him for her. She can’t help but love him. And through the Talosians, the two will eventually be reunited. Or at least I hope so, assuming that “Strange New Worlds” doesn’t deviate from the timeline.
If “Strange New Worlds” chooses not to reunite Captain Pike with Vina, it’s no big deal, but I will be horribly upset, and I’ll probably flip a table in a singular burst of rage-strength that will terrify and confuse anyone in my presence. Though I’m cautiously optimistic that this will not be the case.
Though reunification is still some distance away. As of now, there are several “Star Trek” shows airing on Paramount Plus, including “Strange New Worlds” and “Discovery,” which both take place a few years before the original series. I have already begun watching “Strange New Worlds,” because in my humble opinion, it is a wonderful show with fantastic performances, imaginative set design, and beautiful costumes that almost make up for the crap people wore in “The Next Generation.”
However, to truly appreciate “Strange New Worlds,” I have a lot of work to do. First, I need to sit down and watch every episode of “The Original Series” that I haven’t already seen, and then I need to do the same with “Discovery.” Then, just to be safe, I should repeat this process with “Voyager” and “Picard.” I’ve already watched all of “Deep Space 9” and “The Next Generation,” but I’ve forgotten details, so that’ll require a touch-up. Maybe “Enterprise” also because I liked T’Pol and Porthos. It will be a herculean task, but I’m willing to do it.
My only fear is that if one unaired episode of the Original Series can knock me down, how will I stand the potential tragic love stories ahead of me? Are there enough tissues for all the tears I’m bound to shed? Will the Hershey Company be able to produce enough Reese’s Peanut Butter cups to keep up with my grief-eating?
I guess I’ll just have to watch and find out.