Leonard Nimoy Gene Roddenberry

The Cage: The Star Trek Pilot That Wasn’t (Quite)

Gene Roddenberry
Gene Roddenberry on the set of “The Cage”

“The Cage” was the original Star Trek pilot that later became part of the double episode “The Menagerie,” first broadcast in November 1966. “The Cage” received the green light in September 1964. Months of preparation had gone into it. Gene Roddenberry had rewritten the story again and again, obsessing over every detail. Production costs were estimated to be in excess of half a million dollars — an extraordinary high amount for a television series pilot at the time, especially for a small studio like Desilu.

By the time the episode was completed, costs had actually soared to $630,000. Roddenberry admitted that it was an “abnormal amount” but argued in The Making of Star Trek (1968):

We had to realize that we were building the interior of a spaceship, doing complex opticals of ships in flight and transporter effects and so forth, all props had to be built from scratch, all costumes had to be designed from scratch. To be quite honest, I don’t think the “powers that be” at the studio were aware of how much we were spending until after it was spent. But we spent it making a good product.

The Cage cast
Leonard Nimoy, Jeffrey Hunter and Majel Barrett on the set of “The Cage”, December 1964 (steersman3)

The network’s executives were less sure. When they watched “The Cage” in February 1965, almost ten months after they had first expressed an interest in Star Trek, they rejected it.

Not because they didn’t like it, though. To the contrary, NBC was impressed with Roddenberry’s work, but they felt the show would go over the heads of most television viewers. Star Trek, they argued, was “too cerebral.”

“Looking back,” Roddenberry recalled in The Making of Star Trek, “they probably felt that I had broken my word.” He had pitched Star Trek as a “wagon train to the stars” but “The Cage” lacked much action and adventure.

I had known the only way to sell Star Trek was with an action-adventure plot. But I forgot my plan and tried for something proud.

Casting

Roddenberry’s casting choices raised some eyebrows. Not everyone was sure if the audience would accept a female first officer and a racially mixed crew. But Roddenberry stood his ground. “This approach expressed the ‘message’ basic to the series,” he wrote in The Making of Star Trek. “We must learn to live together or most certainly we will soon all die together.”

Leonard Nimoy Gene Roddenberry
Leonard Nimoy and Gene Roddenberry on the set of “The Cage”, December 1964 (Bird of the Galaxy)

The character of Spock was particularly unappealing to NBC. “They were afraid his satanic appearance would repulse people,” according to Roddenberry. He was adamant about keeping the Vulcan, however.

My own idea on that was, in a very real sense, we are all aliens on a strange planet. We spend most of our lives reaching out and trying to communicate. If during our whole lifetime we could reach out and really communicate with just two people, we are indeed very fortunate. And this is exactly what Spock is trying to do. Literally tens of thousands of letters have come in to Spock, saying, “Yes, I understand. I’ve had the same problem all my life.”

Keeping Spock was clearly the right choice as he became the most popular character of the franchise by far.

In part, that’s because Roddenberry did relent and give up his woman “Number One”. Her role was deemed “too domineering” by viewers and her cold and logical attributes were given to the alien science officer instead.

Shooting The Cage
Filming of “The Cage”, March 12, 1964

The decision to eliminate “Number One” wasn’t the network’s, wrote producers Herb Solow and Robert Justman in Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996). NBC supported a strong female lead but didn’t think Majel Barrett was able to pull off such a role.

Other female actors you may not have noticed played the Talosians (they voices were dubbed by men). The episode’s director, Robert Butler, reckoned it would lend the Talosians an alien-like androgynous quality while Roddenberry suggested that the lighter builds of females might suggest that the Talosians had allowed their bodies to atrophy while choosing to concentrate on advanced brain development.

Costumes and makeup

Majel Barrett
During pre-production for “The Cage,” Majel Barrett tested a variety of costumes and makeup. No one character would have looked like this: the hair and eyebrows were for Number One, the green skin was for the Orion slave girl.

“The Cage” introduced two of Star Trek‘s most iconic alien looks: the green Orions and the pointy-eared Vulcans. Both were the creation of makeup artist Fred Phillips, who would stay with Star Trek for many years.

Click here to learn more about Phillips himself; here to learn more about the Orions, and the trouble they had keeping keeping the girl green; and here to learn more about how Spock’s look was created.

Another Star Trek regular who came on board for “The Cage” was costume designer William Ware Theiss. Click here to learn more about him and his creations.

Production design

Click here to learn more about Matt Jefferies’ creation of the Enterprise and here about the design of the ship’s interiors.

One thought on “The Cage: The Star Trek Pilot That Wasn’t (Quite)

  1. Another interesting piece of this story is that “The Cage” had largely been lost in the 60s and 70s. I saw Gene Roddenberry speak in the late 70s/early 80s, and one of the high points of his talk was a screening of a black-and-white version of the cage which was apparently the only full version they’d found at the time. In the mid-80s, I purchased a VHS version of the cage that switched between color and black-and-white, with the parts that had been used in the Menagerie episodes in color and the other parts in B/W. Of course now the full episode is available in full color, though I don’t know whether that means they eventually found a color version of the whole episode, or if they colorized the black and white version.

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