May 24 2012 6:00pm

The Phenomenology of Star Trek: Experiencing the Cage

The Phenomenology of Star Trek: Experiencing the CageThe problem any cultural critic faces when attempting to say something definitive about a television show like Star Trek or a pop song like “I’ll Melt With You” is precisely the problem pop songs and science fiction television programs usually aim to solve. That is, how are we to know the world, to stop it and take a good look, once we realize that all we can ever have is “an imaginary grace”? How can we be sure of anything if the certainties that define the human race are “long gone by,” as the song says? The meanings and definitions we find in this televised and now digitized world are just a variety of fictions. All we find are accumulations of problems and a variety of pitches, hooks, slogans, and lyrics that only promise to make us feel good about them. So maybe we should start with that. We should start by looking at the problems and how we usually enjoy them.

We all know that Star Trek was just a television show, a fiction. And fictions are really all about setting up problems so that viewers or readers will enjoy them. The writer constructs a hook so the reader will keep on reading, and we know this, but what’s confusing is just how this is done. In a world like ours, a world that thrashes around our face without us ever really knowing it, a world where the norms and rules are in flux, a universe full of strange new world, how does one know what problems to pose? Just what kind of questions will be serviceable as hooks?

BOYCE: Chris, you set standards for yourself no one could meet. You treat everyone on board like a human being except yourself, and now you’re tired and you—

PIKE: You bet I’m tired. You bet. I’m tired of being responsible for two hundred and three lives. I’m tired of deciding which mission is too risky and which isn’t, and who’s going on the landing party and who doesn’t, and who lives and who dies. Boy, I’ve had it, Phil.

BOYCE: To the point of finally taking my advice, a rest leave?

PIKE: To the point of considering resigning.

BOYCE: And do what?

PIKE: Well, for one thing, go home. Nice little town with fifty miles of parkland around it. Remember I told you I had two horses, and we used to take some food and ride out all day.

BOYCE: Ah, that sounds exciting. Ride out with a picnic lunch every day.

PIKE: I said that’s one place I might go. I might go into business on Regulus or on the Orion colony.

BOYCE: You, an Orion trader, dealing in green animal women, slaves?

PIKE: The point is this isn’t the only life available. There’s a whole galaxy of things to choose from.

The very first episode of Star Trek, the pilot episode that was never aired, starts with posing the problem, the hook, of an exhausted Captain who is reconsidering who it is he really wants to be. He doesn’t really know if he can ever solve the problems he’s posed for himself, and this dilemma, his question of whether he should go on reading the story he’s in, is the hook that moves the reader through the plot.

And yet, if we take the time to watch and consider the episode, if we take our own enjoyment into account, we’ll notice that it’s a rather weak hook. Or, at least, upon repeated viewings this first question, and the way it’s posed, seems to me to be a bit stale. I’m not convinced that the answer to this question will really quench my thirst or resolve anything. Tastes differ, but for me a narrative hook only works if the problem posed is one I invest in, or if I really want to see the problem solved.

PIKE: Why are you here?

VINA: To please you.

PIKE: Are you real?

VINA: As real as you wish.

PIKE: No, no. No, that’s not an answer.

The story really gets going when Christopher Pike’s initial problem moves from his personal quarters to the planet’s surface. That’s when what started as a weak hook turns into titillation. Pike falls into a trap. He’s caught by telepathic aliens and forced to confront himself, to confront the possibility that the world he knows, all the problems that he finds to be immediate and certain, are in fact only illusions, and it’s at this point that the possibility of sex enters the picture.

In “The Cage” the love interest, the blonde survivor of a spaceship crash, appears once the question of how to pick out a life for himself becomes a material problem for Pike. Once it is no longer just his own personal problem but is a problem in the world, that’s when the promise of real satisfaction can appear as a sexual fantasy. And what makes this promise of satisfaction so compelling is how the woman on offer, the possible solution, refuses to vouch for her own authenticity.

VINA: Don’t you have a dream, something you’ve always wanted very badly?

PIKE: Or do they do more than just watch me? Do they feel with me, too?

VINA: You can have whatever dream you want. I can become anything, any woman you’ve ever imagined. You can have anything you want in the whole universe. Let me please you.

Let’s go through this again:

At the beginning of “The Cage” Christopher Pike is tired of being responsible for setting the course of his life and for the lives in his community, the lives of his crew. He isn’t infallible and knows that he’ll do nothing but make more mistakes in the future.

The villains that Christopher faces off against, however, have the opposite problem. They have chosen the life of the mind and transcended the usual limits. For them life is nothing but a series of choices or selections and there are no responsibilities, no ties to the world, that guide their dreams.

PIKE: So the Talosians who came underground found life limited here and they concentrated on developing their mental power.

VINA: But they found it’s a trap. Like a narcotic. Because when dreams become more important than reality, you give up travel, building, creating. You even forget how to repair the machines left behind by your ancestors. You just sit, living and reliving other lives left behind in the thought record.

PIKE: Or sit probing minds of zoo specimens like me.

VINA: You’re better than a theatre to them. They create the illusion for you, they watch you react, feel your emotions. They have a whole collection of specimens, descendants of life brought back long ago from all over this part of the galaxy.

The Talosians have mastered the realm of thought, of illusion, or of ideology. What they need, however, is a race of simpletons who they can trick into doing real things like planting crops and building structures on their planet’s surface while they go on choosing. It turns out that they have become so wrapped up in the power of their own minds that they’ve forgotten how to operate the ways of their ancestors and can no longer take care of themselves.

While Captain Pike is exhausted by his responsibilities and wants to be able to
choose to be somebody else, while he longs to trade in the life of a Captain with responsibilities for a simpler life on his family’s farm, or maybe he could be an adventurer and maverick who “trades in Orion Slave girls,” the Talosians have the ability to change themselves, to pick just who or what they want to be, but as a consequence they can no longer sustain themselves. They need the Captain in order to start the process over again.

[Vina changes into a scarred, misshapen older woman]

VINA: You see why I can’t go with you.

MAGISTRATE: This is the female’s true appearance.

At the end of “The Cage” the answer to the initial question is unappetizing and a little ambiguous. It is, in fact, no answer at all. We’ve been taken through a story wherein the Captain is convinced and restored in himself, given the power to go on asking the same question, but he is only able to do this once he’s been confirmed in the impotence and disfigured quality of the world beyond him. It seems likely that Pike, without any support beyond himself, will soon be exhausted again. Need the Captain in order to start the process over again.

And, in fact, we know that Pike doesn’t last. He disappears after this initial episode and is replaced by a much more cocksure Captain when Roddenberry tried again.

Douglas Lain is a fiction writer, a “pop philosopher” for the popular blog Thought Catalog, and the podcaster behind the Diet Soap Podcast. His most recent book, a novella entitled “Wave of Mutilation,” was published by Fantastic Planet Press (an imprint of Eraserhead) in October of 2011, and his first novel, entitled “Billy Moon: 1968” is due out from Tor Books in 2013. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.


Eugene R.
1. Eugene R.
It seems as if that "impotence and disfigured quality of the world beyond" is a central motivating factor for Star Trek (at least in the Original Series). Kirk rationalizes the escape from "This Side of Paradise" as humanity's instinctive need to struggle, claw, "scratch for every inch of the way". "Maybe we can't stroll to the rhythm of the lute," he muses, "we must march to the sound of drums." Kirk may be cocksure, but seemingly only in opposition to an imperfect environment. Give him Paradise and the impotence rebounds onto him as the fear of losing his ship (the extension of his self). "Man stagnates if he has no ambition, no desire to be more than he is," he argues. A completed Universe, a Paradise, has no room for ambitions or need for the "desire to be more than he is". The internal existential struggle must be externalized.
Eugene R.
2. Observation
I like it when they blow stuff up with photon torpedoes!
Michael Poteet
3. MikePoteet
A great analysis of "The Cage" - I love that story - but I take a little issue with the flat assertion that Pike was "replaced by a much more cocksure Captain." I know this is the popular conception of Kirk (and, yes, I get the pun); and, for sure, we never see him express the same amount of self-doubt that Pike did. But, in those earliest first season episodes, Kirk has plenty of moments of doubt, too. In "Balance of Terror," he, like Pike, worries about everyone looking to him to make critical decisions ("...and, Bones, what if I'm wrong?"). In "Court-Martial," he has a moment of doubt regarding whether he jettisoned the ion pod during red or yellow alert. And the Psi 200o virus in "The Naked Time" brings all of Kirk's latent self-doubt to the surface with a vengeance - at least temporarily.

It's a minor nitpick, I know, but I do think Shatner turns in a far more nuanced characterization of Kirk in the first season of Trek than most people give him credit for. Certainly, it's removed from the swaggering Kirk of later seasons and the films (save ST II - one reason it remains the best of the movies, 30 years on), but it preserves Roddenberry's honoring of the insight that anyone capable of commanding a starship must be possessed not only of courage and decisiveness but also introspection and self-reflection and even, yes, healthy doubt. (For whatever reason, Roddenberry abandoned these insights when creating the nearly perfect humans of TNG's 24th century - as much as I love TNG, those characters are not going to stand the test of time the way Kirk, Spock, McCoy and others will.)
Douglas Lain
4. douglain

I agree that Shatner's Kirk is fundamentally as introspective and fragile as Jeffrey Hunter's Captain Pike, but his fragility is different. Maybe I'll take a look at that later on. I plan on comparing Spock's Brain, The Apple, and The Cage sometime soon because I tend to view these three episodes as variations on the same mythic story.

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