“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 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 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 turned it down.
Not because they didn’t like it. 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” was light on 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.
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. On this, 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.”
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. He became the most popular character of the franchise by far.
Roddenberry did relent and give up his female “Number One”. Her role was deemed “too domineering” by viewers and her cold and logical attributes were given to the alien science officer instead.
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, Roddenberry’s girlfriend at the time, was able to pull off such a role.
Other female actors you may not have noticed played the Talosians. Their voices were dubbed by men. The episode’s director, Robert Butler, reckoned it would lend the Talosians an alien-like androgynous quality. Roddenberry suggested that the women’s lighter builds might suggest that the Talosians had allowed their bodies to atrophy while concentrating on the development of their brains.
Costumes and makeup
“The Cage” introduced two of Star Trek‘s most iconic alien looks: the green-skinned Orions and the pointy-eared Vulcans. Both were the creation of makeup artist Fred Phillips, who would stay with Star Trek for many years.
Another Star Trek regular who came on board for “The Cage” was costume designer William Ware Theiss. Click here to read his story.
Sources for this story include: Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, The Making of Star Trek (1968) and Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996)