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Star Trek | Opening 'The Cage': The Time for Captain Pike is Now

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When I was invited to pitch for Gold Archive, my first thought was to run at the entirety of Star Trek and try and hug it all into 27,000 or so words. Fun as that would be, it wasn’t practical and my previous book for them, on ‘The Day of the Doctor’ for their Black Archive series, taught me how hard it was to cover all the ground even for a single story.

So, my second thought was this; Past or Present?

The future has been happening in Star Trek for six decades now. In that time we’ve seen one massive geopolitical shift, a global pandemic, quantum leaps in technological innovation, and vast steps forward in equality, diversity, and inclusivity which have in turn showed how far we still have to go. Star Trek is like any piece of popular culture; reflective of and reflecting on its time but there’s an important wrinkle that marks it out as unique.

Star Trek is a utopian ideal and its longevity has meant it has become a franchise in dialogue with that concept and driving its evolution. The original Trek had an Asian and a Russian officer on the bridge crew. Its successor pioneered discussion of everything from parental rights and mortality to some very brief dalliances with exploration of the gender spectrum and PTSD.

Alasdair Stuart is the author of The Gold Archives’ volume on Star Trek: Discovery ‘Through the Valley of Shadow’.

He has plenty left to say on the subject, so take a look at this and the other deeply researched titles in Obverse Books’ stable. 📚

Deep Space Nine, widely beloved as the best of Treks, is an analog for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Discovery is intimately concerned with the pressures of family, the collision between duty and moral duty, and how we look after each other when the world is actively hostile to us all. Star Trek has always, always painted its future with the palate of the present and while that palate has changed, the show has not.

That led to my final thought; Why not both?

Coming Out of ‘The Cage’ and I’ve Been Doing Just Fine

The current iteration of Star Trek is intimately concerned with how the past and future connect and Discovery was very much at the head of the original charge. Never more so than in its second season and never more there than in the episode ‘Through the Valley of Shadows’ (S2, Ep12). That episode brings the narratives of the show and its one-season captain, Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), in line and also shows just how strange Pike’s journey has been.

‘Through the Valley of Shadows’ especially brings his journey through Discovery to a head and sets him on a course for the last time we see him, in ‘The Cage’, made decades before ‘Through the Valley of Shadows’ in 1965 as a pilot for Star Trek: The Original Series.

Pike has been played by three men in the core timeline, a fourth in the Kelvinverse, and he’s always been a still point in a series defined by change. Chris Pike is Starfleet’s King Arthur, their Captain America. So much so Discovery makes it a feature; Enterprise being kept out of the Klingon War so the best of Starfleet would survive. An ideological seed vault, capable of high-speed warp and led by a man with a permanently open mind, a deep reservoir of compassion and curiosity, and a real fondness for horses. How the show evolves around him, and how he himself shifts, was a perfect entry point for the book. Through him, we see how the future keeps changing, why Pike is such an ideal example of this, and where it leaves the show.

Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) in ‘The Cage’, the pilot episode of StarTrek: The Original Series. | CBS, 1965

The future keeps changing because, well, linear time is a thing. The first time we see Pike is in 1965 in the pilot episode to Star Trek: The Original Series, ‘The Cage’. Jeffrey Hunter’s version is a different man for a different time. It’s easy to forget that when we first meet Pike, he’s half-seriously considering resigning. An away mission has gone catastrophically wrong, people have died and while it’s no one’s fault, he’s the captain. Everything, good and bad, falls on his shoulders.

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Le Morte d’Christoper

Hunter is remarkably good as this knight in dented armor; a man furious at himself and the world for the situation he’s in but resolutely unable to walk away from the biggest of chairs. That trauma, the way he’s tempted throughout the episode and the price he pays later on are two of the fundamental elements of the story and the man. They also tell us an awful lot about how times have changed.

The simple fact that Pike is functionally offered a breeding partner by the Talosian speaks to the sort ‘MARS WANTS OUR WOMEN!’ panic that drove early Western B-movies. The fact two of these women are subordinates, one of whom is praised for ‘unusually strong female drives’ tells you a lot about how they’re written. The episode’s cheerily unpleasant attitude towards physical differences is the other note that rings off-key these days and its joined by the depiction of Pike in ‘The Menagerie’ (S1, Ep11-12). The franchise’s first two-part story, it repurposed footage from the original pilot in a narrative following Spock (Leonard Nimoy) hijacking Enterprise for his old aptain, now trapped in a horrifically maimed body and a horrifically 1960s mobile iron lung,

Kirk (William Shatner) confronts the husk of his predecessor, Christopher Pike (Sean Kenney) in ‘The Menagerie – Part 1’ – S1, Ep11. | CBS, 1966.

Its the show’s weakest point and arguably one of the franchise’s lowest points, especially from where we sit in linear time. Now, the  injured Pike (Played by Sean Kenney after Hunter didn’t return) plays as window dressed, a living version of Munch’s The Scream with no agency or character except suffering. At the time, he was a production problem to be solved more than a character which isn’t an excuse but is intended as context. Its also intended to show just how fundamental, and how protean, Pike is to Star Trek. For him to be so injured that his life is over is for Starfleet to be injured and when viewed that way it places some interesting extra pressure on the shoulders of James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner) and the captains that follow him. No ideal is stronger than a wounded one, after all.

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To Be Continuity

Fundamentally, then, Pike is the Captain beneath the Hill, but he’s also different every time we see him and arguably never more interesting than his current incarnation. From the moment Anson Mount’s version of Pike comes aboard the show and the ship, he’s disarmingly open and charming. He uses a low grade at the Academy to reassure the profoundly traumatized bridge crew he’s just inherited that he won’t abuse them like his predecessor.

He owns his own issues with Tyler (Shazad Latif) and with the survivor’s guilt he feels from the war. He’s old-fashioned, folksy even and the show does some wonderful invisible mending to explain just why Discovery looks so different and what changes to keep it in line with an established history. 

Best of all though, the trauma Pike feels in his original appearance is key to his appearance here, as is that survivor’s guilt. This version of Pike has, to borrow a beat from the new Batman movie, learned his scars help him endure. More resonantly, they help him to help others, and that’s exactly what the Discovery crew desperately need. The season is peppered with moments of gentle humor (‘Where’s my damn red thing?!’ springs to mind) and kindness but this one is what stays with me:

“Starfleet… is a promise. I give my life for you; you give your life for me. And nobody gets left behind. Ensign Sylvia Tilly is out there, and she has every right to expect us. We keep our promises.”

Christopher Pike, ‘Through the Valley of Shadows’ (S2, Ep12)

Pike doesn’t leave people behind. He can’t. He’s so desperate to get involved, so desperate to help that he sacrifices everything to do that for a little while longer. Starfleet’s King Arthur, never more so than when he thinks he knows how his story ends.

So where does that leave the franchise? Boldly going in about fifteen directions. Time for Star Trek has become less the fire in which we burn and more the field in which it grows its crops. Picard‘s Season 2 opening episode references Rutherford from Lower Decks, now a senior officer. Both those shows feature several cameos from everyone’s favorite jazz-playing pizza enthusiast and Starfleet’s best counselor. Discovery, now so far in the future it’s on a blank page has touched base with the events of Picard, the original series, The Next Generation, and the original movies.

Starfleet has become just that; a fleet, one that endlessly moves forward, staggers under every loss but never, once, stops moving. By itself that’s inspiring. When you combine it with the growing narrative audacity and kindness of the current incarnation, it becomes essential.

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Life’s Too Short

That narrative audacity is reflected in the Short Treks series which we now see was the pilot season for the current phase of Trek. Criminally buried by Netflix in the ‘Trailers’ section these were in fact Star Trek short stories from various eras. They’re available on a single Blu-ray and it’s an incredibly worthwhile purchase, so much so it’s difficult not to spend 3,000 words rhapsodizing about them and the fact that thanks to them H. Jon Benjamin is now a Starfleet officer.

Number One (Rebecca Romijn) and Spock (Ethan Peck) size one another up in the Short Treks episode ‘Q & A’ (S2, Ep1). | CBS, 2019.

However, ‘Q & A’ (S2, Ep1), ‘Ask Not’ (S2, Ep3), and ‘The Trouble with Edward’ (S2, Ep2), the three Pike-adjacent episodes are especially worth your time. The first is Spock (Ethan Peck) and Una (Rebecca Romijn) bonding in a stuck turbolift, the second sees Pike apparently turned mutineer and facing off with an ensign at a besieged Starbase and the third is… H.Jon Benjamin and Tribbles. Say no more.

I mention them here because they’re all deeply compassionate and speak to the core of why Pike is the heart of Starfleet. ‘Q & A’ is the two smartest people on Enterprise working out if they’re going to be friends orbiting the same, horse-loving star. ‘Ask Not’ is a fiercely tense and ultimately intensely sweet exploration of Starfleet as an idea under stress with Pike as a stand-in for the organization itself. Finally, ‘The Trouble with Edward’ is a deceptively nuanced origin story for the Tribbles, which opens with one of the captain’s rare words of caution.

All of them paint Starfleet officers as flawed, real, untidy people doing their absolute best. All three of them act as foundations for Pike-era Enterprise and this latest incarnation of Pike himself. Here is Starfleet’s King Arthur, Starfleet’s high-warp Camelot, the cornerstone of everything that comes after it reimagined in a way that honors all of that but finds a new final frontier. 

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Stranger Things

That brings us to Strange New Worlds, a show that promises to tie Star Trek’s love for its past to its eternal reverence for its future. Strange New Worlds provides Pike with a second act that he never got before and, through Mount’s nuanced and compassionate performance, makes clear he never expected he deserved. There’s an echo to him now of Captain Scarlet of all things; a man who knows when he’s going to die and is increasingly tempted to push that envelope.

Pike confronts his tragic end in ‘Through the Valley of Shadows’ – S2, Ep12. | CBS,

Once a test pilot, always a test pilot and if any early Starfleet captain had The Right Stuff, it was surely Chris Pike. 

What makes this so compelling, aside from how deeply likable this new Pike is, is that we know what he doesn’t. Chris Pike thinks he has an expiration date. We know he has a next chapter and it’s a rare treat to be one step ahead of a character at this stage in the 21st century.

That’s also where kindness comes in. Mount’s version of Pike has always been affable, witness his disarmingly likable roll-call back in ‘Brother’ (S2, Ep1). But that kindness has also always been grounded in Pike’s twin faiths of science, and, well, faith. He’s an idealistic pragmatist, a man who faces his darkness every morning and turns it into a tool to make other people’s lives better while he still has his own. If that doesn’t resonate in the third year of a pandemic and the seemingly never-ending chaos of the ‘20s I don’t know what will.

I learned a lot writing this book but most of all I learned that Star Trek is exactly where it needs to be and always has been; showing us the way. The struggle to do the right thing in the face of impossible difficulties isn’t new but certainly feels like it has added resonance these days and Strange New Worlds looks set to do what Pike himself does on a larger scale; re-examine the ideals at the heart of Starfleet, and Star Trek, and show us what they mean for an exhausted, traumatized decade. To boldly go and, best of all, to show us that we in all our imperfections are essential to the voyage.

As someone who has spent the last two years engaging with physical, emotional, and psychological challenges that aren’t just welcome it feels positively therapeutic. Not to mention fun as all Hell.

Maybe I should write a book about it…

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Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, and writer behind the award-nominated weekly newsletter, The Full Lid. He is a Hugo finalist, and co-owns the Escape Artists Podcast Network. 

Follow him on Twitter @alasdairstuart

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