Episodes 10 and 11- “The Menagerie” and making big stories little and then big again.

I feel like one of the most enduring contributions “Star Trek” made to pop culture is the idea of Starfleet, a governing/police body that has essentially become short hand for any sort of ruling space group in fiction. However, until now, I hadn’t seen anything of it, and hadn’t really heard anything about it. In fact, I think this two-parter, “The Menagerie, may include the first mention of the organization.

And they don’t just mention Starfleet, we directly see its influence and powers throughout the episode, both on Starbase 11 as well as during Spock’s court martial. Like in “The Corbomite Maneuver” the world is greatly expanded by these additions and we see the ideas of the influence that humans have in the galaxy and the way that Kirk and his actions on the Enterprise affect many others.

I'm unironically a fan of space government.

 

This sort of theme is required for “The Menagerie” to work, with actions of the past needing to be dealt with and a desire to correct wrongs and take solace being important to everyone affected. The Enterprise receives a call from Starbase 11 to see Captain Pike, the last captain of the Enterprise and Spock’s former commanding officer. However, it is quickly revealed that this is all part of a scheme by Spock to take the now wheelchair bound Captain Pike to Talos IV, a forbidden planet, for undisclosed reasons. He abandons Kirk at the base, seizes control of the Enterprise, and locks the planet’s location in, intent on reaching the site of one of Pike’s mission on the Enterprise.

"If only this highly advanced civilization could make a decent chair. I mean, BEEP."

 

Of course, Kirk catches up to the Enterprise, Spock surrenders the ship and petitions for a  court martial, and shows a tape in his defense of Pike’s mission to Talos IV that he hopes will shed light on the affair. The stakes are high, with Spock’s career and Kirk’s life hanging in the balance, and the episode is as tightly wound as can be. The tape that is shown details Pike’s actions on Talos IV and shows the danger that the super-powerful Talosians have with illusions and mind control, and both stories start to really click. But of course, it all sort of falls apart.

It’s pretty clear that this episode was a money saver more than anything. Spock’s video is the original pilot that Gene Roddenberry filmed, “The Cage,” a rejected episode featuring an almost entirely different cast. Trying to absorb the cost of creating that must-have-been-expensive (check out the giant cannon prop, all the costume changes, and the massive sets and paintings) episode by having it form the backbone of not one but two additional episodes is by no means a bad idea, and the episode is good, but there are a variety of problems that really hold it back and most of them have to deal with Kirk’s Enterprise.

A scene that probably cost more than the first 5 episodes of the original series combined.

 

It’s not that the trial is bad. It has high stakes and is interesting, but nothing really rings true. Here’s Spock, who just last episode reminded everyone “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” putting the whole crew in danger to take Pike to the world’s greatest nursing home. It just doesn’t really work for the character that well, but Spock isn’t really the only one that suffers from some poor writing.

Pike’s condition also is pretty questionable within the context of the story. I understand that for the story to work with Spock continuing to be able to logically rationalize his actions, Pike’s condition needs to be bad enough that the Spock is willing to risk his and Kirk’s life and well being, but the good captain’s condition is a logical mess. I understand that he has been subjected to the mysterious “delta waves” while rescuing children from a space-schoolbus or something, but his wheelchair and condition seems like something a highly advanced society should be able to do a little more with. Are they really only able to allow him to communicate in nothing but yes and no? It seems like they could do a lot more with a person who we are told is still able to think extremely clearly and is very cognizant of his world. So, we’re supposed to think he can barely communicate and do nothing but “move forward a little, and backward a little” would still be a ranking captain and would be able to serve on a jury? It just doesn’t really work to well. I understand why he’s there at the trial thematically, but it doesn’t stand up to even the barest amount of skepticism.

Think about the “Breaking Bad” episodes, “Grilled” and “Bit by a Dead Bee.” Walter and Jesse are initially held hostage by their crazed distributor, Tuco, and as they plot their escape, Tuco’s invalid uncle tries to undermine their attempts by ringing a bell attached to his wheel chair. There’s not a lot he can actually communicate, but he manages to say a lot both there and when he takes a shit on the floor of the police office in the next episode. Ok, maybe not as much there, but it still works for the character. It makes sense that he would not be able to communicate because he obviously does not have the resources to afford technologically advanced speaking programs, and he can’t have a fancy wheel chair because he isn’t in fucking space, yet he still manages to have more of a presence and character than the wheel chair bound Pike.

Kirk suffers some as he tries to play it both ways, as Spock’s friend and ally, as well as a strict disciplinarian and government official and wronged man. He’s had his ship stolen by his second in command, he’s presented by odd information, and he has to serve on a jury that he admits is “the most painful moment in all my service.” It’s understandable that he would be conflicted, but the episode is devoted to not letting him really maintain a single emotion of any sort. He’s stuck being a doing whatever the script really required him to do.

This is really the problem with both of these episodes. There are two really interesting stories going on here, and they would work ok on their own, and combining them initially seems to work really well, but it feels like no one really thought about all of the holes that combining the stories would expose.

There are of course problems with the Talos IV story to level as well, namely with the extent of the Talosian’s powers. We’re led to believe that they can create any illusion that they desire, and they do it well, particularly when they trick the landing team into believing that they failed to blow up the door while there is actually a massive gap in the cave system, but believing that they can project Mendez both onto the Enterprise for the trial as well as put him in the transporter with Kirk all the way from Starbase 11.

I'm sure they can see it from their Flintstones TV. The future is pretty great like that.

 

Also, it brings up odd questions about communications with Spock. Were the Talosians working with Spock? That seems like what we were supposed to believe, but it most definitely seems like that would be illegal and probably noticeable by someone who is in charge of communication, like I don’t know, maybe Uhura.

"What, huh, I mean, hailing frequencies open. Uh, wait, never mind..."

 

The ending is also really odd, but you were expecting that. After Spock has taken out Starbase officials, stolen a space ship, led the crew to a forbidden planet and put himself and his captain in grave danger, he is let off without any charges. It seems like there would be some kind of penalty for all these crimes, regardless of how good the intentions were. It of course, just ends up being more proof that this episode could have used just one more proofreading.

There are really good moments of these episodes though as well. Spock manages a great acting moment when he requests the information on the transporter’s gas, showing that despite his intentions, he knows that he needs to rescue his friend, despite hoping that Kirk would have turned back to Starbase 11. Also, Pike has one of those parts I always like in his cabin in the video where he just wishes to go back to his space-ranch to live out the rest of his space-rancher days.

It's the best parts of a domed city with the fun parts of picnics with ranch hand Rita Sue.

 

With an episode like this, it’s inevitable to think about what “Star Trek” would have been if “The Cage” (the original pilot that is mostly shown during the trial) had been accepted. It is a pretty solid episode, but it is unbelievably cold. Pike is pretty dismissive, and he doesn’t have that warmness that Kirk exudes effortlessly, but some of that may just be that this is the first episode. The characters are obviously not fleshed out that well (check out Spock’s ear-to-ear smile when he touches the blue vibrating leaf), so there are going to be some problems, but most of the characters are hard to connect with in a way that makes the show just off putting. It is interesting to see a woman in the second in command spot, and it’s nice to see a yeoman who doesn’t look like a space pin-up. With some time, the show would have probably become an endearing piece of pop culture, but “Where No Man Has Gone Before” manages a sense of warmness and camaraderie in it’s first moments of 3D chess that “The Cage” couldn’t match in it’s entire running time. It really drives home how nice it is to have characters like Spock, McCoy and Sulu, who really end up being a lot of the sense of family that the show is famous for that the original pilot really lacks. It certainly doesn’t help that “The Cage” has been cut to shit for “The Menagerie,” but I can’t imagine that we are missing anything that would really redefine the way that the characters are viewed.

It’s nice to see where the show came from and how it became the “Star Trek” that is known and loved, and it’s a really neat idea for an episode, but it just falls apart as soon as it’s looked at in the slightest. It’s a shame, but it is what it is. And I’m glad it’s over.

Random Notes

Pike’s fight in the coluseum fits into my classic hatred of fantasy fights that end with someone having a thrown sword stab into them. It’s so “Krull” bad that it’s embarrassing for everyone.

The costuming for the Talosians is pretty solid, namely with their pulsing brains and comic-book style jewelry. Actually this whole episode is really good for old classic sci-fi trappings, particularly for the paintings in all of the backgrounds.

I’m glad that this is the first appearance of the dancing green alien girl. If Kirk were here, totally different episode, let me tell ya’.

Sulu is gone. I’m keeping track now.

I think this is the first time we hear Spock’s actual Starfleet title. He’s a science officer, which I guess makes sense, although I haven’t really seen him do anything scientific in particular.

Next Up: “The Conscience of the King” which I assume will be rabble rabble nobility rabble rabble duty rabble rabble honor.

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One thought on “Episodes 10 and 11- “The Menagerie” and making big stories little and then big again.

  1. This really is an awfully sloppy review of a Hugo award-winning pair of episodes. And while there are certainly holes in the story (though nowhere near as bad as the 2009 J.J. Abrams abomination that probably cost about 5,000 times as much to produce), the examples you cite actually aren’t. thanks for taking a crack at this subject–but next time, please try harder.

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