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The Making of the Star Trek Pilots: Part 1, "The Cage:

Throughout its 46 year history, Star Trek has reinvented itself, and each time it has it has more or less resulted in the creation of a new "pilot" to launch that particular leg of its journey. This series of articles looks back at the making of those pilots, beginning with 1964's "The Cage".
From L-R: Scott Bakula, Patrick Stewart, William Shatner, Avery Brooks and Kate Mulgrew.

Throughout the early 1960s, the late Gene Roddenberry – eventually known as the Great Bird of the Galaxy – tried to get network interest in his idea for a television series called STAR TREK, the concept of which, by this moment in time, needs no further description than that.

This is the first of a nine-part series looking back at the making of the different pilots or “first episodes” of various incarnations of STAR TREK. Nine may sound like too many, but as will be revealed in installments to come, it’s an accurate number. Things begin with a look back at the making of 1964’s “The Cage,” in which the United Space Ship Enterprise arrives at the planet Talos IV to answer a distress signal. There, Captain Christopher Pike is taken prisoner by the telepathic Talosians who want him to mate with another human being named Vina, so that they can repopulate their nearly lifeless world. To accomplish this goal, they use their abilities to plunge Pike from one fantasy into another, attempting to blur his hold on reality and creating a false sense of security. Number One (ship’s first officer), Mr. Spock and other crewmembers work together to free him and end the Talosian plan.

Once Desilu (check out the audio interview with Desilu executive Oscar Katz at the end of this article) gave the go ahead for production, the crew for STAR TREK started to be brought together, including production designer Matt Jeffries, costume designer William Ware Theiss and director Robert Butler.

The late Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike

Then attention was turned to casting. Jeffrey Hunter, who had recently played Jesus Christ in KING OF KINGS and co-starred with John Wayne in THE SEARCHERS, among many other roles, was cast as Captain Pike, though other actors had been considered.

Majel Barrett, who would go on to marry Roddenberry and portray Nurse Christine Chapel in the ensuing television series, was cast as Number One, with John Hoyt as Dr. Boyce. One of the most integral roles to fill was that of Mr. Spock. After considering Martin (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) Landau and Michael (THE WILD WILD WEST) Dunn, Roddenberry decided to go with Leonard Nimoy, whose credits included ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE and two episodes of THE OUTER LIMITS.

Roddenberry reflected on working with Nimoy during an episode of his previous TV series THE LIEUTENANT, noting, "He had played a Hollywood producer, of all things, in an episode with a gum-chewing, wise-cracking secretary who later became my wife. I looked at him during those days and I thought that if I ever did this science fiction series, I'd use him because of his Slavic face and his high cheekbones. And so I just cast it with a phone call by asking him to come over."

Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock in "The Cage"

Elsewhere, Leonard Nimoy recalled the experience. "The first time I heard about STAR TREK," he mused, "was in 1964. Gene Roddenberry was producing a television series called THE LIEUTENANT [and] I was playing a flamboyant Hollywood [producer] who wanted to do a movie about the Marine Corps. When the job was finished, Gene called my agent, my agent called me and they asked for a meeting. I went in to see Gene at what was then Desilu Studios and he told me that he was preparing a pilot for a science fiction series to be called STAR TREK that he had in mind for me to play an alien character. As the talk continued, Gene showed me around the studio, he showed me the sets that were being developed and the wardrobe that had been designed, the prop department and so forth. I began to realize that he was selling me on the idea of being in this series, unusual for an actor. I figured all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and I might end up with a good job here.

"Gene told me that he was determined to have at least one extra-terrestrial prominent on his starship," added Nimoy. "He'd like to have more, but making human actors into other life forms was too expensive for television in those days. Pointed ears, skin color, plus some changes in eyebrows and hair style were all he felt he could afford, but he was certain that his Mr. Spock idea, properly handled and properly acted, could establish that we were in the 23rd Century and that interplanetary travel was an established fact. And with this, our ship would not be the United States Ship Enterprise, it would be the United Space Ship Enterprise, put out there in space by a federation of planets and the crew would be interplanetary in nature. In Spock, we would have a character who reminded us of that constantly.”

"The Cage" was directed by Robert Butler who had also worked with Roddenberry on The Lieutenant and has since gone on to become the "King of the Pilots," having helmed the initial episodes of BATMAN, MOONLIGHTING, REMINGTON STEELE, HILL STREET BLUES, MIDNIGHT CALLER, LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and many others.

"Gene had finished writing 'The Cage,' and he asked me to read it, which I did," recalls Butler. "I remember thinking it was a terrific yarn, but that it was somewhat obscured because it was such a showcase script. 'The Cage' showcased such solid, good and fascinating science fiction disciplines, examples and events, that it was, I thought, a little obscure. The story was somewhat remote, and I discussed whether or not people would get it. I could tell at that point that Gene was so consumed with it that he couldn't have heard any objections.

From L-R: Susan Oliver, Gene Roddenberry, director Robert Butler and person unknown on the set of "The Cage".

"Good ideas were being examined," Butler emphasizes. "Underneath all this I sensed a very honorable and well intentioned group of ideas. By the same token, I also remember that it was somewhat stiff. A street show is very loose in terms of language and characters, but in a science fiction show, or a show where you're creating a new reality, you have to adhere to and honor that new reality. You invent a set of circumstances which translates to a kind of rigidity. After all, they're in the equivalent of an army, and in any kind of service your behavior is more prescribed. Ideally, I don't like that because it's just another constraint. That kind of came with the territory, and wasn't good or bad. But I'm more comfortable with looser behavior."

NBC turned down 'The Cage' as reportedly being too cerebral for the television audience. Surprisingly, Roddenberry agreed with them to a certain degree.

At a STAR TREK 20th Anniversary convention in 1986, Roddenberry discussed what happened with "The Cage," as well as the network's motive for rejecting the pilot.

"The reasons were these: too cerebral, not enough action and adventure," he said. "'The Cage' didn't end with a chase and a right cross to the jaw, the way all manly films were supposed to end. There were no female leads then--women in those days were just set dressing. So, another thing they felt was wrong with our film was that we had Majel as a female second-in-command of the vessel. It's nice now, I'm sure, for the ladies to say, 'Well, the men did it,' but in the test reports, the women in the audience were saying, 'Who does she think she is?' They hated her. It is hard to believe that in 20 years, we have gone from a totally sexist society to where we are today--where all intelligent people certainly accept sexual equality. We've made progress.

"We also had what they called a 'childish concept'--an alien with pointy ears from another planet," he added. "People in those days were not talking about life forms on other worlds. It was generally assumed by most sensible people that this is the place where life occurred and probably nowhere else. It would have been all right if this alien with pointy ears, this 'silly creature,' had the biggest zap gun in existence, or the strength of 100 men, that could be exciting. But his only difference from the others was he had an alien perspective on emotion and logic. And that didn't make television executives jump up and yell, 'Yippee!'

"At that time, space travel was considered nonsense. It wasn't until we were off the air three months that man landed on the Moon and minds were changed all over. The Talosian planet's 'ridiculous' premise of mind control annoyed a great many people and the objection, of course, overlooks the fact that the most serious threat we face today in our world is mind control--such as not too long ago exercised by Hitler, and what's now exercised by fanatical religions all over the world and even here in our own country. Mind control is a dangerous subject for TV to discuss, because the yuppies may wake up someday and be discussing it and say, 'Well, wait a minute, television may be the most powerful mind control force of all,' and may begin taking a very close look at television. And so most executives would like to avoid that possibility.

"Looking back," he added elsewhere, "they probably felt that I had broken my word. In the series format I had promised to deliver a 'Wagon Train to the Stars'...action/adventure, science-fiction style. But, instead, ['The Cage'] was a beautiful story, in the opinion of many the best science fiction film ever made up to that time. But it wasn't action/adventure. It wasn't what I had promised it would be. Clearly the problem with the first pilot was easily traced back to me. I got too close to it and lost perspective. I had known the only way to tell STAR TREK was with an action/adventure plot. But I forgot my plan and tried for something proud."

In the pages of Inside Star Trek, Desilu Executive Herb Solow and associate producer Robert Justman offer a different scenario. “The NBC party line was that ‘The Cage’ was ‘too cerebral,’” they wrote. “That description has been bandied about in all the books about STAR TREK and was a rallying cry in the early days of the series. The unspoken reason, however, dealt more with the manners and morals of mid-1960s America. NBC was very concerned with the ‘eroticism’ of the pilot and what it foreshadowed for the ensuing series. Their knowledge of Roddenberry’s attitude toward, and relationship with, the fairer sex didn’t help. NBC sales was equally concerned with the Mister Spock character, him being seen as demonic by Bible Belt affiliate-station owners and important advertisers. Their concern, perhaps not accepted by all executives at the network, nonetheless had presented a serious stumbling block to the sale of the hoped-for series.”

Explained Oscar Katz, "I asked NBC, 'Why are you turning it down?' and I was told, 'We can't sell it from this show, it's too atypical.' I said, 'But you guys picked this one, I gave you four choices.' He said, 'I know we did and because of that, right now we're going to give you an order for a second pilot next season.'"

Although okaying a second pilot, NBC did make several "suggestions," including the removal of Mr. Spock because, according to Oscar Katz, "they thought Spock's ears would be scary."

"They rejected most of the cast and asked that Spock be dropped too," Roddenberry concurred. "In fact, they particularly asked that Spock be dropped. This is one of those cases where you go home at night and pound your head against a wall and say, 'How come I am the only one in the world that believes in it?' But I said I would not do a second pilot without Spock because I felt we had to have him for many reasons. I felt we couldn't do a space show without at least one person on board who constantly reminded you that you were out in space and in a world of the future. NBC finally agreed to do the second pilot with Spock in it, saying, 'Well, kind of keep him in the background.'"

This was particularly ironic when one considers that Spock would eventually go on to become one of the most popular characters on the show. In fact, the constant struggle between logic and emotion that waged through the half-Vulcan/half-human touched a generation searching for direction.

Adding to the scenario, Nimoy explained, "The network eliminated one character entirely, the role of Number One...They told Gene to also get rid of the guy with the ears, insisting that the audience couldn't identify with an extra-terrestrial character. Gene battled this but was finally forced into a compromise. He felt the format badly needed the alien Spock, even if the price was the acceptance of 1960s style sexual inequality. A new pilot was written and Mr. Spock was in Number One's place as second-in-command as well as having some of the woman's computer mind qualities. Vulcan unemotionalism and logic came into being."

In his autobiography I AM SPOCK, Nimoy described his portrayal of the character during the making of “The Cage.”

“For one thing,” he writes, “I didn’t’ have a handle on the character yet. If you watch ‘The Cage,’ you’ll see Spock emoting all over the place. He frowns, he smiles, and when the landing party is standing on the transporter platform, ready to beam down to Talos IV, and Number One and Yeoman Colt disappear, he leaps forward and shrieks, ‘The women!’ Even his intonation is different, and certain words are pronounced with a hint of a British accent… The reason for this was because Gene thought Spock should be played as though he had learned English as a second language, perhaps by listening to tapes of classic British English. He gave me a record of W. Somerset Maugham reading his own work. However, I wasn’t comfortable with the accent and decided to let it go.

“In ‘The Cage,’” he continues, “I wasn’t playing a Vulcan; I was playing a first officer. You know, where the captain says, ‘Full speed ahead,’ and his second-in-command briskly echoes, ‘FULL SPEED AHEAD!’ That was the character I portrayed against Jeffrey Hunter’s Captain Pike… He was a very soft-spoken, thoughtful, easygoing gentleman, and his character, Christopher Pike, was a brooding, introverted man who took his responsibilities as captain very seriously. In that way, Captain Pike and Spock were very much alike as characters. So, for that matter, was Number One, the cool, unemotional female commander. Spock was not yet distinguished from the other crew members; I had not yet found his niche.”

Neither had Star Trek, though it would when NBC okayed a second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” — Edward Gross

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