Star Trek N00b, Episode 1: The Cage (of Forced Heterosexuality)

Welcome to the first installment of Star Trek N00b! I have never watched a Star Trek episode all the way through. My family members weren’t huge sci-fi fans, and they’d flip the channel whenever Star Trek came on. I am embarking on an epic nerd rite of passage, chronicling my reactions to every episode of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS). I also want to start further dialogue about the queer elements in Star Trek. I understand that this series pushed mainstream boundaries of race, religion, species identity, gender and sexuality. Re-capping Star Trek seems like the perfect place to discuss the queer perspective in nerd culture. Watch along here and offer your own nerdy queermo thoughts!

Header by Rory Midhani

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Episode 1: The Cage (of Forced Heterosexuality)

Pilot Confusion

I turned to Netflix to start my journey through The Original Series. I figure this is where many new Star Trek viewers might start, since we’re all immersed in our mobile devices and computers.

The first episode listed is “Pilot: The Cage,” which seems pretty straightforward, right? Well it turns out that Netflix episode #2, The Man Trap, was actually the first Star Trek episode to air on television in 1966. NBC scrapped “The Cage” because its subject matter was considered “too cerebral.” Which is hilarious, when you consider the prodigious brains of the Talosians, the antagonists of this episode.

Look at that badonk-a-donk!

Look at that badonk-a-donk!

Footage from this pilot has a convoluted history, reappearing again in episodes 11 and 12. “The Cage” wasn’t aired on television until 1988 during a two-hour Star Trek special. Since most of us are accessing Star Trek via current DVDs or Netflix, I’ve decided to jump into the “The Cage” as the FIRST episode in my glorious Star Trek expedition.

Gender Tensions on the Bridge

The pilot opens inside the USS Enterprise. We are introduced to Captain Christopher Pike and his crew. They are a diverse group – “Number One” is the female First Lieutenant, a Vulcan-human hybrid named Spock, and officer José Tyler. It’s interesting how “Number One” is never named – she is only referred as her role on the Enterprise. Kind of like “Potter” or “Shoemaker,” I guess.

Number One asserts herself as an outspoken leader, asking if they should take evasive maneuvers when the Enterprise experiences space distortion. The interference ends up being a distress call from the Talos star system. At first, Pike decides to skip the investigation, since they have wounded people on board who need medical help. This was my cue to get curious about their previous adventures.

However, Spock announces that the distress call is a recent cry for help, identifying eleven survivors on the surface of Talos IV. Pike decides to visit the planet and provide assistance.

The Bridge Lineup – José, Number 1, and Spock

The Bridge Lineup – José, Number 1, and Spock

This is when the gender weirdness kicks in. Another woman, Yeoman Colt, appears on the bridge to deliver her report. Twice throughout the episode, she almost crashes into Captain Pike, in a klutzy and intimate way. It’s so forced I had to wonder if this was an odd attempt to get some sexual tension going on screen.

Awkward sexual tension and an unhappy guy in the background

That guy in the background is almost as unhappy about this sexual tension as I am.

Pike seems flustered by the Yeoman’s appearance, and Number One tries to do some damage control. “She’s replacing your yeoman, sir,” his first officer explains. Then Pike says something pretty backwards for a leader of a futuristic starship:

“I just can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge!” Oh snaaaap!

Of course, Number One gives him a death stare. Pike blurts out a backhanded complement, saying “No offense! You’re different, of course.” Awkward!

The Captain decides to ride off with his bros, beam down onto the surface of Talos IV, and assess the situation.

Preparing for an epic manly battle!

We’re MEN, MEN, MEN, MEN, MEN!

Number One’s body language shows that she’s pretty disappointed by being excluded. Just look at that sullen expression! Let her beam down, Captain! Pike tries to excuse leaving her behind, saying he needs his most experienced officer on board. *Pat pat.*

Guess I'm sitting this one out. Again.

Guess I’m sitting this one out. Again.

Meeting the Survivors

The Talos IV terrain is strange – desolate, and rocky with random quivering blue growths (heh) that make a loud humming noise until Pike and Spock hold the leaves still. For how serious Spock has been during this episode, it was great to see this smile. Based on what little I know about Spock, this is super rare, like witnessing the transit of Venus between the Sun and Earth.

Blue vibrating plants? Is this a Georgia O'Keeffe painting?

Blue vibrating plants? Is this a Georgia O’Keeffe painting?

The Enterprise party stumbles across a shanty town inhabited by haggard old men. They claim to be survivors of the crashed Columbia starship. Suddenly Pike goes silent, staring in awe as a young woman parts the crowd, bedecked in Wilma Flintstone couture and wearing a ton of makeup. Her name is Vina, and she snares Captain Pike with her womanly wiles, leading him away from his landing party. Stranger danger, Captain!

I don't know you, and this is crazy. But – hey! How does a marooned lady get blue eye shadow?!

I don’t know you, and this is crazy. But – hey! How does a marooned lady get blue eye shadow?!

Vina exhibits insta-attraction to Captain Pike, calling him a “prime specimen” like he’s some kind of livestock. I loved this scene, since it reverses mainstream depictions of sexism and objectivity. Vina’s eyeing him like a steak, urging Pike to follow her so that she can reveal “our secret.” How worrisome.

“Alien” Identity Politics

Next, we meet the Talosians, a species with gigantic throbbing brains. Ain’t gonna lie, Mars Attacks flitted through my mind. These beings are watching Vina on a digital screen as she lures Captain Pike away from his party. Thinking about other species brings up some interesting questions about identity politics.

Is the term “alien” really PC, since it establishes non-humans as something foreign, bizarre, and unknown? Once humans jump into intergalactic space travel, I think it would be haughty to privilege humans as “normal” and deem other species as “alien.” For the sake of these reviews, I’ll try to minimize and omit the term “alien” as much as possible.

How do we approach identity politics with new species?

How do we approach identity politics with new species?

In a flash of action and special effects, Vina pulls Pike through a secret doorway in the rocks and kidnaps him. It turns out that the survivors are just an illusion projected by the Talosians! The human survivors disappear, and the Enterprise party tries to run after the captain. They shoot at the door to no avail; it is too strong to be destroyed! Perhaps it’s made out of Amazonium of Wonder Woman lore.

Wheee, this is so much fun!

Wheee, this is so much fun!

Silver glitter sheets totally set the mood

Silver glitter sheets totally set the mood

The captain wakes up in a cage, some kind of zoo containing multiple species. The Talosians appear in front of his cell, communicating via telepathy. Their veiny brains quiver as they laugh and make fun of his inferiority. They reveal that their abilities allow them to create illusions out of people’s desires. Well that sounds dangerous and fun?

Bonus question (leave your answer in the comments): What illusions would appear to YOU on Talos?

Pike enters an illusory world based on past battles. We’re getting a sneak peek into Pike’s psyche! He must fight to protect Vina from burly attackers.

What is this, a Lisa Frank folder?

What is this, a Lisa Frank folder?

Pike tries to resist the fantasies, growling “I’m not an animal performing for its supper.” Vina gets creepier, insisting that she exists purely for his pleasure. Yikes.

Rescue Efforts

Number One goes on a mission to save the Captain using an über-laser! She leads the new landing party in the rescue attempt. Unfortunately, the high-powered weapon fails to drill through the door.

Number One, finally in charge of a mission!

Number One, finally in charge of a mission!

 

If a small laser doesn't work, just blast it with a giant one!

If a small laser doesn’t work, just blast it with a giant one!

The Straight Zoo

Here’s the kicker – Vina is using her sexual wiles because the Talosians have imprisoned them in a Noah’s Ark of sorts. No wait, it’s like the Christian creation story – she’s meant to be “Eve” and Pike is her “Adam.” They’re expected to reproduce and make more human specimens. At this point, I imagine the Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriwether from In Living Color screaming, “Ewwww hated it!”

Clutch your pearls and RUN!

Clutch your pearls and RUN!

The Talosians thrive on reading minds and learning from other species’ experiences. “You’re better than a theater to them,” Vina tells Pike. Sounds to me like the Talosians are filthy voyeurs.

In some interesting power play, Vina ends up trying to coerce the unwilling Pike into a sexual encounter while perpetuating subservient female roles. Yikes!

"I can become anything. Any woman you've ever imagined ...let me please you."

“I can become anything. Any woman you’ve ever imagined… let me please you.” Now excuse me while I strip my skin off and wash the women in sci-fi tropes off it, kthx.

The pair dives into another Pike fantasy, which is a bizarre vision of futuristic domesticity. Vina urges him to stay, referring to herself as his “wife” and talking about their upcoming “children.” But Pike isn’t ready to settle down with Vina and his favorite horse.

An accurate portrayal of hetero domesticity!

An accurate portrayal of hetero domesticity!

The Talosians realize that Pike isn’t sold, and try to seduce him with a bizarre harem illusion with Vina as a green exotic dancer. Dayum, Pike. You’ve got some weird fantasies.

Oooh, baby, does my weird body paint make you feel like reproducing now?

Oooh, baby, does my weird body paint make you feel like reproducing now?

 

creepers-1-and-2

“Funny how they are on this planet. Actually like being taken advantage of!” GROSS.

The most disturbing part about this scene is the misogynistic conversation the other men have. Creepers #1 and #2 say some really disgusting things as they gawk at the dancing Vina. It seems as if Pike’s internal sexism and misogyny are manifesting themselves.

I find it interesting how Star Trek reveals humanity’s baser desires in the FIRST EPISODE, but Pike doesn’t cave into them. Instead, he runs away from the illusion in a rage. He discovers that the Talosians cannot read his mind when he is feeling intense, primal emotions like rage. Pike focuses on his hatred, trying to block the Talosians from controlling his mind. What a hacker!

Rescue Attempt Two

Here we come to save the DAAAYYYY!

Here we come to save the DAAAYYYY!

Spock decides that the remaining Enterprise crew should flee, but the Talosians disabled the ship, making it impossible for the crew to control it. This seems like somewhat of a stretch to me – nothing has indicated that the Talosians have this type of far-reaching affect on tech. Seems a little overpowered for intergalactic zoo keepers. The officers prepare to beam underground to retrieve the captain. Spock warns that they could materialize inside of rock, indicating the level of danger this mission holds.

The Talosians hack the beaming technology, teleporting Number One and Yeoman Colt into the cage. Pike is informed that he can now choose one of the three ladies to breed with. Vina defends her captor’s motivations (ahem, Stockholm Syndrome much?) insisting “They don’t mean to be evil!”

Pardon, you want us to do what? Breed for your human zoo?

Pardon, you want us to do what? Breed for your human zoo?

The Escape

The weapons Number One and the Yeoman have don’t seem to work. A Talosian tries to sneak into the cage and steal the phasers. Pike wrestles him to the ground and points the phaser at the Talosian’s head. The crew realizes that the weapons are actually functional – but the illusions make them seem ineffective. Pike takes the Talosian as a hostage. Remember Number One’s kick-ass, gigantor laser? Turns out it DID work, and the team climbs out of the smoldering exit together.

The Talosians access the USS Enterprise library files and discover the humans hate captivity and can be a violent species when subject to slavery. Surprise! So they decide to let the crew go, how wonderful!

They reveal Vina’s true from. She’s actually a scarred and deformed older woman – the sole survivor of the Columbus crash. The Talosians patched her up, but didn’t know what a human was supposed to look like. Since the Talosians saved her life, Vina feels indebted to remain with them.

Illusions did wonders for her skin!

Illusions did wonders for her skin!

Pike is horrified by this tragedy, and he asks the Talosians to give her back the illusion of beauty. They immerse Vina in a dream world where she is young and pretty again. And they give her a fantasy Captain Pike copy to run away with. How strange.

Pike doesn’t know how to feel about this. And neither do I.

The crew returns safely to the Enterprise and they leave the Talos star system. The Yeoman asks who Pike would have chosen as “Eve.” The on-board doctor tries to plumb for the same information, and Pike remarks, “All ships’ doctors are dirty old men.”

While this episode contain some very worrisome depictions of gender and sexism, I do admire the captain’s composure when faced with these scenarios. He refused to participate, turning his back on recurring sexist fantasies, coercion, and objectification. Pike’s refusal to identify “Eve” demonstrates his strong feelings of respect toward the women in this episode, although we never get a final word on whether Pike now feels comfortable with “a woman on the bridge.”

Avatar of Loraine Kanervisto

Loraine is a queer tech writer who is inspired by gadgets from all points in time. She is conjuring up a collection of sci-fi and horror short stories. Find her at lorainekv.com or @lorainekv.

Loraine has written 22 articles for us.

44 Comments

  1. Thumb up 2

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    I was also incredibly confused when I decided to start watching Star Trek from the beginning, because nobody agrees on what the beginning is. I watched this one first, and was promptly so weirded out that I didn’t continue. But I might pick it back up for this! Which means I will have to stay my Fringe rewatch…

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      Haha yes, there is certainly a lot of issues to unpack. However, I felt compelled to go through with this particular series because it holds so much weight in our cultural consciousness for revolutionary ideas and change. I would be thrilled if you started following along – we can pick apart the hilarious and problematic parts together!

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    I recently got into Star Trek too! I’ve been watching Next Generation, but I think I’ll start watching TOS now because AS recaps are always awesome and I want to join the party. I’ll come back and read this after I get a chance to watch the first episode!

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    I watched some of TOS before, but I never started from the beginning. I feel like I must have missed out because I was too pissed off by the sexism in the episodes I did watch. There is some subtle and sometimes-awkward resistance of sexist and misogynistic cultural attitudes present in the series, apparently, and I overlooked it. I loved this recap! Will definitely watch some more of TOS and give it a chance this time.

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    Ooh, I haven’t seen ToS in a few years, so this is a nice refresher.

    My number one feeling about this episode was that I wanted Vina’s silver sparkly dress, followed by “woman portrayed as a manipulative jerk after a baby, nice writers… real nice” but then “fuck Pike, she’s watching her own back.”

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    As someone decently well-versed in the Trek universe (I grew up in a family of Trekkies and have seen fair bits of all 5 series), this is actually a pretty painful read. While it’s a nice gesture to start at the pilot, it would be incredibly misleading to someone who hasn’t seen the show before, as the main cast is completely different (Pike is not -the- Captain of this series, Kirk is). And while it’s also a good idea to recognize that referring to non-human life forms as ‘alien’ within the context of the show is not exactly PC, that is in fact how they are referred to on many occasions, so some hoop-jumping will probably be required to avoid using the term in writing. (I also get annoyed by simply tossing it generic terms like “internal sexism and misogyny” without making an actual discussion of it.)

    I’m glad that there is starting to be more geek-centric content on Autostraddle, but I hope we can get a bit more of a clean execution, moving forward.

    (But I really am glad of it!)

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      I really struggled with how to approach the first episode – which is why I wrote “Pilot Confusion” section. I landed on “The Cage” because I felt like a true newbie accessing TOS on Netflix would wind up starting with this episode, since that’s how the series is currently arranged for online audiences.

      I didn’t want to get too wrapped up in research before watching the show and recording my reactions, since I felt like it would dilute the “n00b” newness of it all. With that said, I did go back after my analysis to fill in the historical blanks regarding NBCs airing decisions.

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      When it comes to the term “alien,” I admit that I personally handle identity terms gingerly, especially when it comes to the topic of exploring new regions and cultures. Moving forward, I’d like to try and name species with specificity and a respectful intent (especially if the people in question identify themselves with a specific term). Not sure how easy that will be with the upcoming episodes, so we shall see!

      As a Native Hawaiian-mixed person who grew up on O’ahu, I can’t help but think of how it was the norm for newspapers to refer to native peoples as “savages” and “heathens” at one point in history – rhetoric that was used in public calls to ban hula and Hawaiian language. This is certainly a extreme example – the derogatory charge of “savages” is nowhere close to “alien.” But it was a term to establish a feeling of “otherness” between explorers and the people they were visiting (or colonizing).

      I do like to imagine the types of terminology issues that could arise in a future, if we interact with species that are unfamiliar to us! And when that happens, I hope that our media can handle it with proper sensitivity by then.

      Anyhow, I greatly appreciate you for reading this. I love to see feedback from both seasoned fans and fellow newbies!

  6. Thumb up 13

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    Maybe to ease your noobian mind, the term ‘alien’ is referred to any species that is unfamiliar to the speakers. This means that a number of times (at least in later series), the Federation crew are referred to as aliens by other races. Note that Spock as a Vulcan is not called an alien by the human members of his crew. It’s not an othering term for non-humans but is used appropriately to refer to unfamiliar peoples.

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    YESSSS so excited to have a TOS column on Autostraddle!!! My favorite things coming together, yay!

    Also, this pilot is not really representative of the series. It’s really more of a prototype. Having said that, I must defend the whole fantasy thing. Because if these really are fantasies pulled out of Pike’s own subconscious, I really don’t think it’s fair to judge him. Fantasies are supposed to be safe spaces in which we can explore things we wouldn’t be comfortable with in reality, so the fact that his fantasies are sexist or problematic when made reality is not surprising to me. He was obviously incredibly uncomfortable with it.

    And about Vina… I do think she had a form of Stockholm’s, and probably did feel indebted to her rescuers. Also, seeing as she’d been there a long time alone, she was probably achingly lonely, and when a handsome, polite captain suddenly showed up, it totally makes sense to me that she’d want to do everything she could to make him want to stay, both to please her rescuers and to FINALLY have some human company. Even thinking about being apart from other humans like that for so long on a strange world makes my heart hurt. The way she goes about it is extremely awkward and cringe-worthy, but I understand it, I think.

    ALSO ALSO look for “Number One” in the rest of the series as blonde nurse Christine Chapel. :)

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    I AM SO EXCITED FOR THIS. I’m a huge trekkie (I own the original series and the all the movies). Take comfort in knowing that the show does get better with some of the gender stuff (the cage is one of the worst episodes that I remember) and it’s basically a breading ground for homogay subtext between…basically everyone.

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    im hella exited to watch/read along with you! its been forever since i watch tos (and long before my ~gay awakening~ ) and i cant wait to see what its like watching such an essential part of my childhood through a more politically conscious and exceptionally homo lens.

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    I’m very excited about this column! My mom grew up watching TOS and I grew up watching TNG, so we’re both big Trekkies. It’s always fun for me to see someone discovering that world for the first time.

    Also, what fantasy would I see on Talos? Calorie free chocolate cake and bagels. I’m very boring.

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    Wonderful article.

    The only thing i could say to people knocking Trek is – look at yourself, the world you have created around you isn’t better. And no Loraine i don’t see you as knocking Trek – all the cringeworthy awfulness is no doubt there, but you didn’t make the step to get on the high horse to make it ‘criticism’.

    And i so much love how the compulsory hetero idyll comes across as a total creepo nightmare.

    As for Vina – if it was a real life situation, i wouldn’t class it as Stockholm’s, just legit real life gratitude to folks who rescued and repaired her and extended her life, slipping into a spectrum of stronger feelings, possibly child/parent (i may or may not have firsthand knowledge how that works & hereby officially deny any knowledge to that effect. consider this a hypothesis :P )

    But what illusion would they create for me? I would be a war criminal guilty of genocide – driving the entire Talosian race into suicide from boredom by having them imagine aeons and aeons of a spaceship on a straight course with no particular destination – my skeleton still plugged into the throne-chair on the bridge and my mind one with the ship, sleeping, never even waking up only drifting slightly closer to the surface of wakefulness to adjust the course for whatever reason.

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      Bwahaha, that’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to write about this series! When I looked into the history of slash fanfic, this ship is mentioned without fail. Can you imagine traveling back in time to one of those early conventions and giving fans the gift of Tumblr? The Internet would break.

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      lol this is why Kirk/Spock is the UR SHIP. It is mentioned in literally every historical account of the evolution of slash I have ever read. Holmes/Watson was technically earlier, but K/S was the first “slash as we know it” I guess, with the fanzines and the explicit sex and the idk I don’t know much about Victorian fan fiction.

      Appropriately, K/S was also my first slash ship and OTP. May still be, although Dean and Cas are giving them a run for their money.

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    I realize I am very late to this party, but a bit of information to consider. According to W. Shatner (in his book about making the show), the original costumes seen in this first pilot were preferred by both creators and cast, but the network demanded many changes, most notably the putting of the women into mini-skirts, and Roddenberry having to choose between the “demonic” Spock or the “woman as 1st mate”. Roddenberry couldn’t imaging giving up Spock, so he had to can his own wife, who played No. 1 (and then Christine Chapel in the re-cast series). The increased “sex appeal” was one of many compromises made in order to get the show onto the air at all.

    This unaired pilot was not made in vain but was cleverly reused, as you will see when you get to the episodes “The Menagerie, Pts. 1 & 2″.

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