James T. Kirk wasn’t the first captain of the Enterprise.
Before William Shatner ever smirked his way onto the bridge of the pride of Starfleet, a square-jawed hero named Christopher Pike held down the center seat for years, boldly going where no one has gone before. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, covering Pike’s tenure as Captain, is coming to Paramount+, with a second season already on the way.
A pretty impressive turn of events for a show that got rejected nearly 60 years ago.
In 1965, Gene Roddenberry put the finishing touches on his visionary sci-fi epic, Star Trek. The pilot episode—called “The Cage,” and cataloging the missions of the USS Enterprise—fired off to NBC. It was an epic pilot, over an hour long before commercials; it cost $600,000 and marked a huge gamble for Desilu Studios, the home of Lucille Ball.
After watching the pilot, NBC said “No.”
Why they rejected the pilot is up for some debate. Gene Roddenberry said that the network thought Spock’s pointed ears made him look “demonic,” and that it’d cause problems for them in the Bible Belt. Further, Pike’s second-in-command, known only as “Number One,” was a woman; Roddenberry says the network chafed at the thought of a lady in a position of authority, but as this version of the story makes him sound like a cool, feminist visionary, it’s probably exaggerated.
And as Christopher Pike in this lone outing, Jeffrey Hunter was downbeat, stoic, occasionally angry. He wasn’t setting a fun tone for the series.
Normally when a pilot flops, that’s it. Everybody boxes up their pointy rubber ears and goes home. But unusually, NBC greenlit a second-chance pilot for the series, possibly because they recognized how much good stuff was already there, or because they wanted to get on Lucille Ball’s good side.
Roddenberry fought to keep Spock, and removed the “Number One” character entirely, recasting actress Majel Barret as a more-traditional nurse character named Christine Chapel. Jeffrey Hunter decided in the interim that sci-fi was “beneath” him, so he departed the show, leaving the production free to create an entirely new captain. William Shatner came on board and brought a playful hang-out energy to the show. The sets and costumes were redone to be more colorful, and they were off to the races.
Watching “The Cage” now, it’s very recognizably Star Trek, with little differences that feel surprisingly jarring. It’s weird seeing a Captain other than Kirk in that center seat. Uhura, Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, and McCoy are absent as well, making the bridge feel a lot blander (and whiter) than we’re used to. The ship travels at “Time Warp Factor 7,” instead of “Warp Speed.” The uniforms are subdued tones of beige and navy.
Worst of all, Spock smiles. Yes, in “The Cage,” Vulcan logic and emotionlessness had yet to become part of the character, and with both Captain Pike and Number One playing cold, buttoned-down stoics, Leonard Nimoy felt like he had to bring some energy to the proceedings. So he smiles, he shouts, he feels. It’s weird.
The plot is pure Star Trek, though. Responding to a distress call, Pike ends up getting captured by psychic aliens who want him to breed with a human woman, Vina, they already had in captivity so they can repopulate their planet. They use their psychic powers to put him into a variety of fantasy scenarios: she’s a princess in need of rescuing on a planet full of castles. She’s his wife and he’s back home on Earth having a picnic lunch. Most famously, she’s a green “Orion Slave Girl,” dancing seductively for his amusement.
Naturally, our hero doesn’t fall for any of this, and breaks free. The Talosians are surprisingly chill about their plan failing and let Pike go willingly, though Vina refuses to leave. Apparently, when Vina crash-landed on their planet 20 years ago they were able to save her life, but they’d never seen a human before, and the results of their ignorant repair job aren’t pretty. Respecting her wishes, Pike leaves her behind and warps away to cancellation. It’s a script equal parts cerebral and horny, the spot on the Venn diagram where Gene Roddenberry built a house.
And that would have been the end of things. “The Cage” would have gone into a vault somewhere and ended up a DVD special feature way down the line, except later that same year, Gene Roddenberry ran out of time and money.
The special effects on Star Trek were expensive and time-consuming, and completed episodes were getting turned in later and later. The solution was to write a two-part episode that would only take a week to film, so the production could catch up. Better still, the episode would harvest all that unaired footage from the original pilot and put it to use as flashbacks.
In “The Menagerie,” Spock steals the Enterprise to save his former Captain, Christopher Pike, who the show explains was the old Captain before Kirk took over. Spock gets court-martialed, and the footage from the old episode gets used as “evidence” in Spock’s defense. Thusly, an episode that would have never seen the light of day, an episode that NBC shot down, became an inextricable part of Trek canon.
In JJ Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), Bruce Greenwood plays a Christopher Pike who recruits Chris Pine’s Kirk into Starfleet, and eventually hands the Enterprise over to him. Back over on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Captain Benjamin Sisko receives the Christopher Pike Medal of Valor.
And, just a couple of years ago, Anson Mount stepped into Pike’s uniform on Star Trek: Discovery, the flagship new Trek show for Paramount+. Discovery was set, at the time, about a decade before the original Star Trek, and so Pike is midway through his term captaining the Enterprise. Anson Mount’s version of the character is seasoned, but playful, landing somewhere on the spectrum between William Shatner’s cowboy diplomacy and Patrick Stewart’s tenured-professor vibes.
It’s Mount’s version of the character who will be starring in this spinoff, but not alone. Ethan Peck, Gregory’s grandson, will be playing the younger Spock. Rebecca Romijn is playing Number One, though nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush) will also be around, vindicating both characters Majel Barrett originated for the series. Babs Olusanmokun will play Dr. M’Benga, the ship’s Chief Medical Officer, a Black character who occasionally appeared in the Original Series as a backup doctor when McCoy was unavailable.
Bringing back those original (and originally cast-off) characters and augmenting them with a whole slew of new representation (including Star Trek’s first character to be played by a blind actor) all suggests that maybe “The Cage” wasn’t really a bad pilot when it was put together in 1965. Maybe it was just a pilot that took 60 years for the rest of the world to be ready for.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds premieres Friday, May 5th on Paramount+.
Sean Kelly is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. For more nerdery, find him on Twitter @StorySlug
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