Freedom in Choice, TOS: S1E11-12 “The Menagerie”

From the first grunt of spoken language, human beings have been telling stories.  In essence, we have been creating new worlds.  Whether it is a heroic epic showing how we can surpass our limitations, or a starship exploring new possibilities, these fantasies help us understand ourselves and the world around us.  Or, they can offer an escape from suffering.  It is often the case, that when we feel trapped in this world, we look toward others.  This approach may seem cynical, but it could also be the future for improving our quality of life, like it was for Captain Pike in “The Menagerie”.

The former captain of the Enterprise, Christopher Pike, is now completely incapacitated as a result of an unfortunate radiation accident.  Confined to a chair, and only able to communicate via simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, Pike is trapped under the weight of his crippling disability.  But far from being helpless, he has a viable plan to escape…

Pike’s disability was his cage…

In collusion with Pike’s scheme, Spock commandeers the Enterprise, taking Captain Pike and a bewildered crew to the mysterious planet Talos IV.  Facing court martial charges, Spock confesses the story of Pike’s journey to Talos IV thirteen years prior, culminating in the reason why they must return.

With its excellent use of footage from the first Star Trek pilot “The Cage”, this episode recycles the entire events of Gene Rodenberry’s original script in the form of ‘historical records’.  The footage shows the entire original version of Star Trek, with Captain Pike commanding the Enterprise, his female first officer, and the crew’s first alien adventure, before the show was retooled and recast.  In retrospect, it seems a shame, given that “The Cage” was well-written, but it was received as too progressive for its time.  For example, the studio disliked the idea of a female first officer.  In contrast, “The Menagerie” seems like a weaker re-hash in my opinion, mainly because Spock’s reason for taking such drastic action to transport Pike seems forced.  We are told that the sickened captain is kept under 24-hour security, and his life is closely controlled, but surely he should have the freedom to choose where and how to live his life?  Starfleet even admits that they didn’t have the heart to remove him from the duty roster completely.  As a result, Pike becomes an active participant in the aforementioned trial, where his input is snubbed and overshadowed by an officer who only respected Pike’s dignity as a formality, unable to distinguish the former captain’s agency from his disability.

The historical records/rejected-pilot footage reveal that Captain Pike and his away team discovered that the SS Columbia crashed onto Talos IV eighteen years prior, leaving what appeared to be a colony of survivors.  The survivors suddenly vanish, and Pike is abducted by bulbous-headed aliens with psionic powers.  These aliens are able to create any form of illusion, trapping a young woman, the real sole survivor of the SS Columbia, in a prison of unlimited fantasy.  It seems peachy at first, a virtual Garden of Eden, but of course, it was a cage…and Pike fought with all his resources to escape.

In a profound observation, one of the aliens discovers that even when the captivity is joyful, humans would still rather die.  The difference is choice, and for the currently incapacitated Pike, the new choice was made clear by his circumstance.  The former Starfleet captain chose to return to the fantasy world created by the Talos IV aliens because it was the only way to escape his broken body.

Today our stories are more sophisticated than those told around the fire centuries ago.  We make images move, have them leap off the screen, and someday we endeavor to enter them.  We long to create a fantastic playground where we will tell our own stories, and live them.  Just like Captain Pike, we will leave our broken bodies and take part in a world of our own making.  The virtual paradise became his menagerie, releasing him from the disability that was his cage.

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