Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: The Menagerie

(Note: This post is also viewable as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start. Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)

Original Air Date: November 17, 1966 and November 24, 1966

Crew Death Count: 0 (Pike did lose 3 crew members prior to his Talos IV mission)

Bellybuttons: 0 (note the carefully revealing cut of the Orion slave girl’s costume)

“The Menagerie” was the only two-part TOS episode. It was a clever repackaging of “The Cage,” the unaired first pilot that NBC rejected as too cerebral for network prime-time. Material from “The Cage,” featuring the originally planned cast, was framed with new material with the cast that viewers, by now, had become familiar with. The premise is simple: Fleet Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter in flashbacks, Sean Kenney in current scenes), a previous captain of the Enterprise, has been severely injured by a baffle plate failure (the same component blamed for the Antares destruction in “Charlie X”) during an inspection tour of a “cadet vessel.” (It’s nice that the cadets get their own vessel, as Kirk had to give them free run of the Enterprise during his inspection in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982); that inspection didn’t turn out so well, either.) Spock abducts Pike from Starbase 11 and hijacks the Enterprise, committing mutiny and disobeying everyone’s orders. Through flashbacks, we learn of a prior Enterprise mission, under Pike’s command, to Talos IV, where the inhabitants have developed extensive mental faculties while allowing their bodies to decay. The Talosians have the ability to create illusions so lifelike, they seem real, much as holodecks will do in later iterations of Star Trek. Spock’s “that’s-just-crazy-enough-to-work” plan is to return Pike’s useless body to Talos IV, where he can live the rest of his life in a mental world of physical vitality. It doesn’t hurt that Vina (Susan Oliver, subject of the fascinating documentary The Green Girl), who Pike encountered on his first Talos IV mission, is waiting there for him.

Image from Star Trek episode The Menagerie showing Spock walking in a stooped position on Starbase 11
Spock causes mayhem on Starbase 11, his duckwalk no threat to Chuck Berry

The story-within-a-story format of “The Menagerie” gives us two sets of characters and conflicts to analyze, along with how the past influences the present. Previous episodes have given us hints of how past actions can resurface in unexpected ways, such as Charlie Evans’ loss of his family in “Charlie X,” or Roger Korby’s disappearance in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” For the first time, though, “The Menagerie” vividly connects us to the past with Spock’s loyalty to two captains, and the Enterprise remains our faithful escort through both escapades. The differences in wardrobe and set design between the flashback scenes (“The Cage” footage) and the “current” scenes, filmed after the established cast was well into season one production, create a convenient, if accidental, distinction between the two time periods. If the original cast and TNG movies have taught us anything, it’s that Starfleet implements frequent uniform changes. (We’ll trust that the Federation’s post-capitalist society doesn’t have some ulterior motive. In The Pentagon of Power, Lewis Mumford writes of an economic incentive behind military uniforms as far back as the 1600s: “With an army of 100,000 soldiers, such as Louis XIV had brought together, the need for uniforms made no small demand upon industry. This was in fact the first large-scale demand for standardized, ‘ready-made’ consumer goods.”) The first flashback scene, what would have been the opening of the original pilot, is a dramatic tracking shot from the exterior of the Enterprise into the bridge, the kind of flair that shows up occasionally in TOS.

The Talosians’ physical decline is encouraged by the fact that war “thousands of centuries ago” forced them to live underground; this correlation of living on a planet’s surface with freedom and vitality was also explored in “What Are Little Girls Made Of.” Just as the Old Ones’ technology was a challenge to revive in that episode, Vina tells us the Talosians couldn’t repair the machines built by their own ancestors. She talks about the essential elements of life they gave up as a result of only developing their mental faculties: travel, building, creating. The need to exist in the wide open spaces above ground acknowledges the environmental movement that was just getting warmed up by the mid-1960s. The Orion slave girl’s green skin and textured green costume also bring to mind the greenery of nature lost to the Talosians.

Image from Star Trek episode The Menagerie, showing Vina and Pike on Talos IV with the Keeper
They lived happily…ever…after? I guess?

The Talosians made dreams, and the world of the mind, more important than physical fitness, a subject that was a public health priority throughout the 1950s and 1960s. President Eisenhower, disappointed by the fitness level of military draftees in World War II and the Korean War, established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in 1956. President Kennedy went even further, writing a Sports Illustrated article called “The Soft American” after his 1960 election. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy took a widely-publicized fifty-mile hike along the Potomac River to set an example for the country. Under JFK, the council launched a widespread publicity campaign and coordinated fitness programs with public schools. While it lasted, the program seemed to genuinely improve the physical fitness of America’s school children. The Talosians rejected this physical life of movement and activity, and paid a terrible price for it.

Another benefit of the story-within-a-story structure: “The Menagerie” is an opportunity to compare and contrast Kirk’s leadership with Captain Pike’s. Despite some similarities, the two clearly operate differently. Pike is so discouraged by the pressures of commanding a starship that he considers resigning after an experience that left three crew members dead. “I’m tired of being responsible…” he says. Pike sounds serious, making it seem odd that he would still be in Starfleet, as a Fleet Captain, thirteen years later. While Kirk often displays moments of anger, Pike’s anger seems more rooted in his personality, as he repeatedly contemplates assaulting the Keeper in vivid detail. Pike initially ignores the distress signal from Talos IV until he has confirmation of survivors; it’s true, Pike has injured crew members who need treatment, but it’s hard to imagine Kirk resisting a mysterious plea for help. Yet Pike, like Kirk, is a quick problem-solver, as he rapidly navigates his way through the Talosians’ abilities and limitations. Thankfully, Starfleet captains are well trained in hand-to-hand combat, demonstrated by Pike battling the Kalar warrior as effectively as Kirk would have (although without the two-fisted techniques of Kirk Fu). Also like Kirk and every other male in the TOS universe, Pike loses his mind over the first attractive woman to come along, in this case, Vina. Finally, Pike shares Kirk’s confidence that persistence always pays off, telling the Talosians, “There’s a way out of any cage, and I’ll find it.” (Pike delightfully connects us to a later Enterprise captain, addressing his first officer as Number One and setting his ship en route with, “Engage.”)

Image from Star Trek episode The Menagerie showing Pike in prison cell talking with two Talosians

Kirk is largely forced into a passive role in “The Menagerie,” and his character is poorly written in several scenes to serve the story. For example, during their early conversation, speculating on the mysterious circumstances that brought them to Starbase 11, Kirk is unreasonably hostile to McCoy, practically calling McCoy ignorant, and suspecting Spock, his most reliable officer, a little too quickly. He demonstrates no concern when McCoy is called back to the Enterprise for a “medical emergency.” Yet he fails to show suspicion when Commodore Mendez (a Talosian projection, as we’ll learn later) insists on pursuing the Enterprise in a shuttle craft, a decision that makes no sense, as Kirk himself acknowledges: “You had no right to come along.” He even fails to properly investigate the episode’s inciting incident, the fake order to report to Starbase 11, apparently having asked no questions or requiring any evidence.

Still, we get a few examples of the true Kirk. At the end of part one of “The Menagerie,” Mendez (again, a Talosian projection, but cleverly raising all the questions Kirk would ask, adding credibility to the illusion) wants to abruptly end the court-martial and pronounce Spock’s guilt. It’s the open-minded Kirk, always seeking to understand, who wants to continue. More profound is Kirk’s immediate acceptance of Mendez’ statement that, as captain, Kirk is responsible for everything that occurs on his ship, a policy that Kirk will faithfully respect in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), when he says, “I am responsible for the conduct of the crew under my command.”

Episode from Star Trek episode The Menagerie, showing court martial with Pike, Mendez, and Kirk, and video of Enterprise bridge on display screen

“The Menagerie” is somewhat a tale, not of two leaders, but three, as we also see Majel Barrett’s Number One in action during the flashbacks. During much of the original Talos IV mission, Pike is captive to the Talosians, putting Number One in temporary command during most of this event. This is the first time we see a woman in command of a starship in Star Trek, and the only time it happens in TOS. Pike refers to Number One as “the ship’s most experienced officer.” It’s encouraging to see her approach command calmly, using the same collaborative, conference room planning sessions as Kirk. When she assembles a landing party late in the episode, faced with the risk of beaming into solid rock, she only takes volunteers, and gives them the opportunity to stay behind at the last second. She also comes across as more analytical than either Pike or Kirk; while Pike debates whether or not Vina is real, only Number One does the math to determine if Vina’s presence is even feasible. As for Vina herself, she’s not entirely helpless – she takes up a weapon against the Kalar when Pike is nearly defeated. As always with TOS, for every step it takes toward equality, it seems to take at least one step back. Pike describes Vina as “a wild little animal.” Imprisoned with Pike, Vina is reduced to a possession, assuring the captain she can be “anything you want,” and begging him to “Let me please you.” It’s never clear if this is part of the Talosians’ illusion, or if Vina herself is desperate for human companionship. Either way, even the Talosians recognize some sort of gender imbalance. When Pike refuses to blindly accept enslavement with Vina, the Talosians offer up Number One and Yeoman Colt (Laurel Goodwin) as alternatives. The Keeper promises that the blatantly-named Colt offers “unusually strong female drives” – giddy up! In a reversed scenario, would they have provided a female captive a buffet of male partners to choose from? Notice how Vina’s Orion slave girl costume matches her skin color, a cleverly designed wardrobe that teases viewers but satisfies censors.

Image from Star Trek episode The Menagerie showing Number One leading meeting of officers on Enterprise
“I’m Number One!”

As for the Talosians, gaps in story logic make it difficult to evaluate them. This is a clear case of the corrupting effects of power, as they use their advanced mental skills to create a zoo. We get no real sense of the extent of that zoo, but they talk of “specimens from other planets,” as though additional sentient life forms, and certainly animals, are part of the menagerie that gives the episode its title. The Talosians’ impending extinction certainly gives them cause for desperation, but their powers have driven them to corrupt methods rather than trying to negotiate for assistance from the many inhabited worlds in the galaxy. They exploit the Federation’s life first philosophy of compassion; the Enterprise was “baited here so easily with a simulated message.” They imply concern for other species at the end, when they worry that their “power of illusion” will lead other species down the same self-destructive path; this seems less about empathy and more about the risk of losing their telepathic superiority.

On the other hand, the Talosians seem to lack a far-reaching understanding of the galaxy. They quickly decide humans are the most adaptable species they’ve encountered. When Number One risks blowing up the landing party rather than return to captivity, the Talosians’ evaluation of humans is that we are “violent and dangerous” because we value freedom more than life itself (much as civil rights demonstrators were labeled in the 1960s, and Black Lives Matter demonstrators are treated today). Clearly the Talosians have not met Klingons yet. Or, conversely, they’re not familiar with the consumerist ideology driving us to give up freedom today more eagerly than even the Talosians could have wished for.

Some of the Talosians’ actions become nearly nonsensical under close scrutiny. They project Commodore Mendez into the shuttle with Kirk and, later, on to the Enterprise. This raises awkward questions about the range of their powers, not to mention when this switch could have occurred without Kirk or anyone else noticing. (Wouldn’t the transporters have experienced a glitch when projection-Mendez was beamed aboard the Enterprise?) Perhaps Kirk, like everyone around him, is too distracted by the destination to remain fully aware of the journey. The Talosians’ treatment of Pike is even stranger. They project him back to the very event that inspired him to consider resignation, but without the associated trauma of dying colleagues; if their goal is to tempt him further into quitting Starfleet, they have entirely missed the substance of the experience. Also, it seems the Talosians’ big brains would have realized that the easiest way to study Pike would be to simply convince him he was back on the Enterprise. And the goal of building a slave race to disrupt the Talosians’ extinction, the entire motivation for the first Talos IV encounter, seems entirely forgotten thirteen years later. What, if anything, has changed on Talos IV?

Image from Star Trek episode The Menagerie showing Mendez and Kirk on shuttle
“Jim, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”

Starfleet’s attitude toward Talos IV doesn’t make much sense, either. General Order 7 prohibits any contact with the planet, upon risk of the death penalty. The Talosians are powerful, but the crew has, and will, encounter similarly threatening societies, without such far-reaching administrative action. The bigger question is, why does Talos IV remain isolated at all? By the end of Starfleet’s first encounter, the Talosians release their human captives voluntarily. Why not begin negotiations, as Pike suggests? Sure, there’s that mumbo-jumbo about infecting other planets, but between the Talosians and the Federation, safeguards could have been developed to protect humans while helping the Talosians rejuvenate their planet’s surface.

Ultimately, Spock is the central character of “The Menagerie,” and it’s Spock who demonstrates Star Trek‘s recurring theme of sacrifice. His motive for setting these events in motion is fuzzy. We’re led to believe that Pike’s debilitating accident occurred only a few months ago, so we understand the timing. But why does Spock create a Moby-Dick-like quest out of an action that Pike himself seems to oppose? Spock tells Pike early on, “I must do this. I have no choice,” all evidence to the contrary. Pike, able to communicate only in yes-or-no beeps, makes his opposition clear. Why does Spock think Pike wants to return to Talos IV? We can speculate: perhaps the two had some prior agreement, a sort of living will, to make their wishes known if the worst should happen. This still doesn’t explain Pike’s initial rejection of the plan. It’s a mystery that “The Menagerie” never explains. It implies an uncharacteristic presumption on the part of our highly logical first officer.

Image from Star Trek episode The Menagerie showing Spock and Pike
“Wouldn’t going to the shore leave planet in episode 15 be a lot easier?”

On the other hand, considering the discrimination we’ve already witnessed by this point in the series, it’s hardly shocking that Spock would have some disregard for Starfleet regulations. Just look at the report from the original Talos IV mission, which Spock was forced to sign as “Half-Vulcan Science Officer Spock.” Spock hijacks the Enterprise with ease, one of a series of examples of how poorly protected this ship is. (Security weaknesses are apparently never addressed, as Data pulls off a similar maneuver in “Brothers” in TNG, for entirely different motives.) Spock is rightfully questioned by his fellow officers when he refuses to explain his bizarre instructions, as this crew is accustomed to open-door leadership. As previously discussed, the logic behind Spock’s actions never fully adds up; discrimination aside, much of his behavior seems out of character. We’re at least relieved that he won’t let Kirk perish when the captain pursues the Enterprise in a shuttlecraft.

Most notable is the difference in Spock’s personality between the two time frames. Of course, this was unintentional, because Leonard Nimoy and the producers were still figuring Spock out when “The Cage” was filmed. But it’s a happy accident for us, as the distinction between Pike’s shouty science officer and the more settled first officer serving under Kirk links past and present beautifully. (Yes, I understand, shouty Spock appears in some of the early TOS regular-season episodes. Don’t care.) Our present-day Spock is a different person, not only in voice and mannerisms, but in proactive conduct that transcends duty and hierarchy. According to the socioemotional selectivity theory, as age or other experiences increase our awareness of pending mortality, we become less focused on planning for the future, and shift emphasis to qualitatively rewarding experiences in the present. Despite Vulcans’ long lifespans, even Spock thirteen years later might have more empathy for his human friends, and be better attuned to the significance of that friendship. Young Spock will certainly sacrifice for his crew out of a sense of duty, but current Spock seeks sacrifice, outside the call of duty, as a moral imperative.

Images from Star Trek episode The Menagerie with Spock in flashback on left and current Spock on right
Two half Vulcans make a whole officer

Thoreau wrote of his desire “to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” As preposterous as General Order 7 is, Spock risks his life to do exactly that, recalling the past, disrupting the present, in the hope of giving his friend a future. Spock trusts that not only can he deliver Pike safely to Talos IV, but that Kirk, and probably all of Starfleet Command, will support his decision once they learn the full story. We’ve been given hints of the depth of friendship between Kirk and Spock, but this event crystallizes the lengths Spock would go to for Kirk under similar circumstances. It no doubt inspires Kirk, who will take similar actions for his friend in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984).

Here’s another recurring TOS theme: we weren’t meant for paradise. As much as “The Menagerie” is influenced by the past, it also expresses our expectations that we can control the future. The young and vigorous Pike, a man who could no doubt complete the President’s Council fitness challenges with ease, rejects the Talosians’ multiple iterations of paradise because they aren’t real. He prefers a future that may or may not involve commanding a starship, but one that he at least believes he will help determine. Only later, his body a shell (unable even to communicate, the ability that enabled Franklin D. Roosevelt to continue his political career after being stricken with polio), with no future but sitting in a sterile room as an object of pity from Starfleet medics, does he yield to the fantasy. We can imagine even Spock making a similar choice faced with the same condition, denied the tactile pleasures of 3D chess and verbal banter with McCoy. None of our present-day crew even hints at wanting to join Pike on Talos IV; healthy and still anticipating their own futures, they all prefer the daily risks and limitations of reality over a life lived purely in the mind. Compare Kirk’s look of near-revulsion when he first sees the wheelchair-bound Pike, and his expression of joy when Pike and Vina are reunited on Talos IV, while Kirk remains securely where he wants to be.

Image from Star Trek episode The Menagerie showing Spock and Kirk in dress uniforms

Vina tells Pike, “A person’s strongest dreams are about what he can’t do.” Even Spock might agree with that logic; there’s no need to fill our dreams with the easily attainable. Unable to truly live, the Talosians thrive only in the dreams of others. Pike dreamed of leaving the life-or-death decisions of command, but apparently never did. He certainly never dreamed of being confined to a wheelchair, so instead settles for another life. How much of our future is determined by chance, and how much by the inner character that drives our choices? Throughout TOS, our crew will express yearning for the path not taken, but they always resume their duties. Perhaps, even in relative youth, they understand the unseen peril of dreams. Pike goes to a fractured paradise where the cost of dreams is higher than anyone would voluntarily pay. “Be careful what you wish for,” is how the old adage goes, and “The Menagerie” reminds us why. The present isn’t just a time to gather rosebuds, but to put idle dreams aside and roll up our sleeves. Maybe this is the real reason for Spock’s sense of urgency in taking Pike to Talos IV. It certainly explains why Kirk and Spock quickly put talk of mutiny behind them and patch up their friendship at the end. The future is just around the corner, and time will not wait.

Next: The Conscience of the King

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