Tuesday, July 21, 2020

He Can Say Yes Or No: Star Trek, episode 15, "The Menagerie" Part I

I was somewhat conflicted about what format to use in posting my review/reviews of "The Menagerie."  It is, obviously, a two-parter, and the temptation to cover the entire thing in a single go is certainly present.  Then, too, it is necessary to contend with the notion that I've already written extensively about "The Cage."
Ultimately, I've decided to follow my gut, and my gut says it is both more interesting and more accurate to my own interests to cover the episodes separately.  After all, they are separate episodes; one could debate that point in some ways (they were filmed simultaneously by the same director and crew, so the splitting into two episodes is more an editorial convention than a production reality), but my stance is that they are separate episodes.  Therefore, it makes sense to cover them separately.  Either way, that's how it's happening.
That decision necessitates some alterations to my normal format: namely, I'll be deferring coverage of the behind-the-scenes aspects until the post on Part II.  Also, there will be no Blishful Thinking component, since his adaptation of "The Menagerie" is purely based on "The Cage," which I covered in my post on that episode.
I also confess that I'm not sure what to do in the way of discussing the repurposed scenes from "the Cage."  That, I haven't figured out yet; I'll make it up as we go.  Speaking of which, let's get to gettin'.

Two things to keep in mind: (1) this episode was, as much as anything else, designed to put the existing footage from "The Cage" to use so as to save money; and (2) for the vast majority of viewers, all of the stuff with Pike and the earlier Enterprise would have been brand-spanking new.  Any assessment of "The Menagerie" must be viewed through both of those lenses.

And on both counts, I think it was a smashing success.  Sure, its impact is blunted somewhat if you've seen the uncut original version of "The Cage" and have that in mind as the true origin point for Star Trek.  But nothing in "The Menagerie" alters the quality of "The Cage," all it does is make those repurposed elements of the original pilot seem a bit repetitive.  And if you view only "The Menagerie," I think the peek at an entirely different era of the Enterprise is thrilling.  Not only that, but the character dynamics -- especially as relates to Spock's surprising outlaw streak -- are very engaging.
Let's consider where we are in the series.  There are, of course, two ways to look at it: the order in which the episodes were broadcast and the order in which they were produced.  My feeling is that the production order is by far the more satisfying.  Here (excluding "The Cage") is what came before "The Menagerie" going by production order:
  • "Where No Man Has Gone Before"
  • "The Corbomite Maneuver"
  • "Mudd's Women"
  • "The Enemy Within"
  • "The Man Trap"
  • "The Naked Time"
  • "Charlie X"
  • "Balance of Terror"
  • "What Are Little Girls Made Of?"
  • "Dagger of the Mind"
  • "Miri"
  • "The Conscience of the King"
  • "The Galileo Seven"
  • "Court Martial"
And here's what preceded it going by the broadcast order (which might not be the way I choose to view the series, but IS the order in which its original audience saw the episodes):
  • "The Man Trap"
  • "Charlie X"
  • "Where No Man Has Gone Before"
  • "The Naked Time"
  • "The Enemy Within"
  • "Mudd's Women"
  • "What Are Little Girls Made Of?"
  • "Miri"
  • "Dagger of the Mind"
  • "The Corbomite Maneuver"
Whichever order you are considering, I think it is beyond question that Spock's actions in this first episode must seem surprising.  Even when drunk on a space virus ("The Naked Time"), he'd basically remained a by-the-book type.  So for him to suddenly be stealing a starship and confessing to McCoy that he'd committed an act of mutiny is highly intriguing.  Even at this early point in the series, we know Spock better than this; we trust Spock, probably at a near-implicit level.
What this means for "The Menagerie," I think, is that the intrigue level shoots all the way up to 10.  It's an interesting situation to begin with: the Enterprise is summoned to a starbase under mysterious (and possibly nonexistent) circumstances, where we meet the ship's former captain, a man who is cataclysmically injured and confined to a high-tech wheelchair, with no means of communication other than the most basic.  "He can say yes or no," Commodore Mendez sums up; and that, only via a flashing light.  Otherwise, it is a life of slack-jawed immobility, an uncommunicative living purgatory from which Captain Christopher Pike will never escape.  As soon as we've learned that, we see that Spock is up to shenanigans of some sort, and those shenanigans become evident soon enough: he has come to the starbase to kidnap Pike and take him on a return voyage to a planet called Talos IV, which is so off limits for Starfleet personnel that to visit it carries a death penalty.
I mean, what's not to love in that setup?  Nothing, unless you're wack as hell.  Maybe even if you are.  But let's not just thumbs-up it and move on, let's stop and consider it a bit.  Let's go back the essential fact of the existence of "The Menagerie" (which I'm sure we will cover in more detail in discussing Part II): it was a budgetary move designed to save a lot of money.  The series was well over budget by this point, and taking the existing footage of "The Cage" and turning it, with a smallish additional outlay, into not one but TWO episodes likely proved to be of tremendous overall value to the first season.  That's it.  That's why "The Menagerie" exists.  That being the case, if the end result had been a shabby clip-show-level embarrassment, I think it would have been understandable. 
Instead of that, Roddenberry scripted a two-parter that grew Spock's character by demonstrating the lengths he would go to in remaining loyal to his former captain, even if it meant damaging his relationship with his current captain.  The episode also provided ample opportunities for both Kirk and (somewhat surprisingly) McCoy to stick up for their half-Vulcan friend; they are incorrect in the specifics, at least initially, but their overall belief in the man is borne out in the end.
In other words, what could (and very well) have been a complete disaster turned instead into "The Menagerie," a two-parter that planted seeds of devotion between the primary characters that would still be echoing decades later.  One of the morals of the overall story of Star Trek: these folks will do damn near anything for each other.  And one could argue that it is "The Menagerie" where that aspect of the series gets properly underway.
I don't know that there's anything much deeper than that to discuss in relation to Part I itself; in many ways, it is just setup.  So let's move on to a set of screencaps, after which we'll break and then reconvene with a discussion of Part II.

Here's Miss Piper, who is, I suppose, a space secretary; perhaps whatever you call a Commodore's yeoman, even.  I wonder if she's related to Dr. Mark Piper, the Enterprise CMO from "Where No Man Has Gone Before"?  Probably not, but it's a small universe, so who knows?

Shatner is great throughout, but I especially like his gentle insistence with Mendez that they did receive a signal.  When the Commodore tells him it's impossible, Kirk asks "Why?"  Shatner's delivery is unique; who else would phrase it the way he does?  Almost as though he's pleading with a lover who is going back home in the middle of the night rather than saying in bed.  It's a tiny and relatively unimportant scene, but Shatner's performance in it is subtle and fascinating.

The revelation of Pike's appearance is pretty gnarly.  We're all used to it now, but audiences tuning in in 1966 must have been fairly taken aback by it.

"It's only six days away at maximum warp," says Spock, "and I have it well planned."  Pike blinks no at him, but no matter; the game is afoot.
I love that matte painting.

The futuristic cityscape outside Mendez's window is, if I am not mistaken, a reuse of the sets for "Court Martial."  More money saved!

Piper tells Kirk that her friend, Helen Johansson, described him to her.

For the record, I assume this description included a detailed and accurate inclusion of both length and girth.  And judging from Piper's expression, it is considerable in both respects.

Who's this Lt. Hansen cat?  He's evidently important enough that while Kirk and Spock are away, he's in command.  Fuck that!  That should be Sulu, or maybe even Uhura!

Speaking of Uhura, Nichelle Nichols' legs are something else in this episode.

Pay attention to the way Nimoy works the computer banks during the scene in which Spock sends the false signals to the Enterprise.  He makes those controls feel real (and the disks as well).  This is the kind of thing one might not notice until a 25th viewing, but it is terrific.

"A Vulcan can no sooner be disloyal than he can exist without breathing," Kirk asserts.  Is this the first time Spock's people have been referred to as "Vulcan" rather than "Vulcanian"?

We have to talk about this death penalty thing.  It makes no sense within the broader scope of Star Trek, which by the time of this writing now encompasses not merely the original series, but an animated series (with another about to debut), three seven-season spinoffs, a four-season prequel, thirteen feature films, and two current hourlong streaming series (with at least one more on the way).  Ah, but remember: none of that had happened yet.  In a very real way, Roddenberry and company were still figuring out what Star Trek was.  And in 1966, the death penalty was a more accepted thing than it is in 2020.  It's still a fact of life in 2020, and while it's probably not all that popular, it does still happen without that much fuss.  From a 1966 perspective, it was that but exponentially so.
Therefore, while it does nowadays seem like an incongruous thing to pop up as a practice of Starfleet, it would have seemed less so within the context of its times.  And indeed, the way it is used here is quite progressive: this Talos IV thing is apparently the only thing that can get you sentenced to the death penalty anymore.  Think about that and what it implies: these humans of the future have either eliminated murder or they have come up with an effective means of dealing with it, to the point where the death penalty literally no longer exists for people who commit it.  That's rather a promising future, wouldn't you say?  So if that's the implication, then how astonishingly serious must a visit to Talos IV be in order to carry such a primitive penalty?
This is awfully intriguing, and for 1966 audiences, who would have been less prone to raise an eyebrow at it, doubly so.

How can the shuttle even get close to keeping up with the Enterprise?  Even if it was a warp-capable shuttle like the Delta Flyer or one of DS9's runabouts, it couldn't pace a starship.  But, again, it was the early days of the series; none of that had been figured out yet.  So this is one of those things where the experienced Trekkie has to either lose sleep worrying about it or has to just let it go and chalk it up to evolving world-building.

A stunned McCoy asking Spock if confining him to quarters is sufficient is pretty great, as is McCoy's prompting the security officers to get on with confining him.
When Scotty learns that Spock has the computer running the ship, and access is locked out to anyone except him, he mutters some sort of gobbledygook under his breath and strides purposefully from the room.  I cannot for the life of me understand what James Doohan says in this moment; it appears to be the same sort of fake profanity built from nonsense words that Fred Flintstone used to employ.  Here's what the subtitles say:
SCOTTY GRUMBLES.  Indeed he does.  (Had to take a photo of that; when I ripped my Blu-rays to my hard drive, I neglected to include the subtitle tracks.)

"Mr. Spock," huffs Mendez, "no vessel makes record tapes in that detail, that perfect."  I mean, except for in the previous episode, "Court Martial," but why get bogged down in details?  Granted, it's in many ways best to pretend that "Court Martial" doesn't exist, so I'll allow it.

The transition from watching the current crew watch the former one on a screen to watching it for ourselves via direct means is nicely accomplished: the camera dollies forward, moving closer to the screen; then, as Pike's Enterprise passes through one of the radio waves, we jump into that viewpoint.
It's kind of an interesting device, and there's probably something to be made of the episode's feelings on objective reality versus perceived reality that could be supplemented by a consideration of these scenes.  I'd love to do just that right now, but my brain doesn't feel up to the task.  So I will merely hint at it, and maybe some future version of Bryant will pick the baton up and run with it.

For the record, there are only about fifteen minutes from "The Cage" presented here, so about two thirds of "The Menagerie" Part I is original.  That's more than I would have thought if you'd asked me about it a month ago; I wonder if the same is true of Part II?  I'll find out soon enough.

At one point, we the audience are watching on television Kirk watching on a screen a Talosian watching on a screen Pike meeting Vina.  Layers upon layers!
I took fresh screencaps of this stuff from "The Cage" for this post, because why not?  I have not looked at my screencaps taken directly from "The Cage" to compare them and see how many of them are identical.  I bet more than a few are.  'Salright, I ain't got shit else to do.

I love this one, and the next.

Spoiler for Part II: Mendez turns out to be a Talosian creation.  It makes no sense; nothing about him in Part I allows for this to be the case, unless the entire starbase was an illusion.  Shit, is Pike himself even real?  I'll probably have more to say about this in the next post, but I don't think it's a knot which can be untangled.

Part I culminates with a cliffhanger in the Pike storyline (the Captain being kidnapped by the Talosians), and then delivers another in the Kirk/Spock storyline (the revelation that the images are coming from Talos IV and that Kirk has been relieved of command).  It's a good cliffhanger on both fronts.
And a very good episode, in general.
We're almost done, but before we sign off, here are some shots of the updated effects in the Remastered version of the episode:

See you next time!  It won't be as lengthy a wait as is typical, I hope/plan.


  1. (1) Whenever I think of what a clips show / flashback-framed-device can do vs. what it usually does, I think of "The Menagerie." That should be a basic bar to clear. Not always easy to do, but it should at least be the goal.

    (2) I always liked these glimpses of other lieutenants or people in charge. I don't think Hansen shows up again, though I could be wrong I should look it up before throwing around such statements.

    (3) Uhura's hotness slowly revealed itself to me over my four decades of watching TOS. I'd say somewhere as late as 2008 or so it suddenly dawned on me in one episode "Good lord - has she always been this hot? What's going on?" I have no explanation for this, it's like I was saving my more stereotypically teenage reaction to her presence for later in life. Now I have trouble concentrating on anyone else on screen when she's on it. (shrugs)

    (4) " (Had to take a photo of that; when I ripped my Blu-rays to my hard drive, I neglected to include the subtitle tracks.)" It's the extra mile that we appreciate about this here blog!

    (5) Is it that Mendez's presence in the shuttle on is an illusion, right? Like the illusion starts at the starbase but Mendez stays there, unbeknownst to Kirk? It's a little uneven. The Talosians' mental powers are a little erratic, but we'll let it all slide.

    (6) Looking forward to pt. 2! I should give it a watch, it's been long enough between viewings.

    1. (1) I'm looking forward to reading the chapter on these episodes in "These Are the Voyages" to find out the behind-the-scenes on the whole thing. My guess is that Roddenberry -- or maybe Coon, or both -- simply refused to allow the whole thing to reek of clip-show. Whatever the case, they really made some fine lemonade out of those lemons.

      (2) Yeah, I like those, too. It's like a peek into an alternate universe or something, or a look at what goes on between episodes.

      (3) Honestly, I've never been super-duper drawn to Uhura in that way. Nichols was obviously a gorgeous woman, she's just not the type of gorgeous that makes me want to run around hollering. But something about her legs in this particular episode, man. Hoo-whee.

      (5) If I recall correctly, none of this is ever made terribly clear. I mean, there has to be a real Mendez somewhere, right? There's no way the entire starbase was an illusion, because then there'd be no Pike, at which point ... what the fuck is this episode if that's the case? I just don't know that any of the actions fake-Mendez takes make any sense if he's a mere Talosian illusion. So my feeling is that that was some sort of late-stages addition to the screenplay to add one final little twist, and just nobody noticed it didn't work. I look forward to finding out how I really feel about this when I rewatch Part II. (Which I'd planned to be tonight, but that's been delayed until tomorrow by a surprise dive into the films of Whit Stillman.)

    2. (3) Like I said, I was a late bloomer when it came to Uhura. I always could tell she was pretty - like you say, that she's a gorgeous woman is no great revelation; it's pretty in your face - but then (I want to say it was a viewing of "Gamesters of Triskelion" which I'd seen a million times before) something changed. Like I say now I have trouble concentrating on anything else in frame in some scenes. But, as I age, I think I'm getting more and not less adolescent.

      (5) You could be right, I look fwd to what you find out. Interesting about Whit Stillman! I was just thinking about Barcelona the other day. ("What is it you call the stuff, like, ABOVE the subtext?" "The text." "Oh.") Good movie, good director, very 90s.

    3. (3) I hear ya. I think of it as refined adolescence, at best.

      (5) Yep, very enjoyable; glad I saw it.