Here’s a bit of old school nerd trivia for you: three TOS episodes were nominated in the 1967 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation: “The Naked Time,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” and “The Menagerie,” the latter of which was a two-part episode that won the big prize.
Now, you may remember that “TNT” and “TCM” have easily been my favorite episodes thus far (or you may not–it has been a while), so it’s kinda cool to see they both got nods. Honestly, I don’t know how I would’ve picked between them, had I been alive in 1967: logic tells me that “The Corbomite Maneuver” is easily the better episode, but my heart reminds me that “The Naked Time” had both Bare-Chested Sulu running around with a sword and Angsty Vulcan Tears (clearly, my newest band name). It’s a hard call.
I can tell you one thing, though: I definitely would not have chosen “The Menagerie” over either of them.
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably the Star Trek franchise in general. You’ve been warned.
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
The Enterprise diverts off course to Starbase 11 because Spock supposedly got a message from Captain Pike. (Yes, the same Captain Pike from the unaired pilot, albeit portrayed by a different actor.) However, Spock totally didn’t get any such message; he’s a lying liar who lies, even though Vulcans supposedly don’t do that. Spock also commits treason by kidnapping Pike, stealing the Enterprise, and heading off to Talos IV, a planet so off limits that visiting it is punishable by death, like . . .
Kirk and Commander Mendez, left behind on Starbase 11, chase after the Enterprise in a short range shuttle that quickly runs out of fuel. Spock, unwilling to let them die, rescues their sorry asses and gives himself up, but not before locking the navigation controls and forcing the Enterprise to go to Talos IV.
At this point, you may reasonably be wondering why the hell Spock is so hellbent to get to this goddamn planet. Well, we’ll spend the better part of two episodes, a handful of extremely lengthy flashbacks, and one court martial hearing figuring that out, but the basic facts are these: years ago, Captain Pike was horrifically injured while saving kids from a fire, or something. He’s now badly scarred and only capable of moving or communicating through the use of a wheelchair, one which allows him to answer yes or no questions with a blinking light. Spock wants to take him to Talos IV because there he can live “unfettered by his physical body,” AKA, he can spend the rest of his life in an alien illusion where he’s a fully able-bodied man in the company of a beautiful woman.
After spending two episodes denying that he wants any part of this, Pike abruptly decides he wants to stay on Talos IV after all. Meanwhile, it turns out that Commander Mendez never actually left Starbase 11 and is, in fact, another Talosian illusion to keep Kirk preoccupied from successfully regaining control of the ship. Luckily for Spock, the real Mendez sends a quick and anticlimactic message that Starfleet will wave the death penalty this one time and take no disciplinary action whatsoever against our favorite Vulcan first officer. Everyone wins! (Except the audience, that is.)
Well. It started out good, anyway.
Like, the first twenty or so minutes? I was into it. Intrigue! Drama! What is Spock up to? Why all these sneaky shenanigans? Look how Kirk trusts him implicitly, only to be completely wrong about everything his first officer has done. Look how Bones is still defending Spock even when Kirk has become suspicious. I mean, in terms of character relationships and audience expectations, that’s a fascinating shift, right? Seriously, I was ALL ABOUT the first twenty minutes of “The Menagerie Part I.”
But then we get to the court martial hearing, and everything just falls apart.
“The Menagerie: Part I” and “The Menagerie: Part II” aren’t so much actual episodes as they are a giant framing device for “The Cage,” which is broken up into long chunks and aired in its entirety here as Spock’s testimony. Of course, original viewers may have been fine with this because as the pilot was never aired, this was all new material for them; whereas I felt like I was watching the most boring clip show of all time. (Obviously, it didn’t help that I didn’t like “The Cage” the first time I saw it.) It may or may not surprise you to learn that Mekaela and I ended up fast-forwarding a lot through these two episodes.
Now, I could probably forgive “The Menagerie” if that was my only problem with the episode; unfortunately, I take serious issue with the story’s conclusion, too. For one thing, the twist that Mendez has been an illusion all along feels silly, unearned, and random. For another, Spock really should suffer some kind of consequences, like, sure, I didn’t want the dude to get executed, but to build up STAKES, SO MANY STAKES for two hours, only to realize that Spock’s not even going to receive a disapproving note in his permanent record? Come on. That’s just poor writing.
But what I really can’t get past is how fucking ablest this happy ending feels. I mean, just some the language alone: “unfettered by his physical body” is the Star Trek equivalent of all those supposedly inspirational drawings of the late Stephen Hawking walking away from his wheelchair, like . . .
And yeah, it’s extremely difficult for me to imagine living with a condition like Pike’s, incapable of speaking or otherwise communicating with anyone except through a blinking light. That being said, I’m deeply uncomfortable with this episode’s implication that this condition is obviously and universally a fate worse than death, or, at the very least, a fate worse than living in an illusion for the rest of your days on an alien planet, forever separated from your friends and family and anyone else that presumably loves or cares or even vaguely knows you.
None of this is helped, mind you, by how Pike’s change of heart at the end of the episode feels so entirely unsupported by the script. Because of this, I never really bought into the idea that Pike actually wants this, not after two hours of him essentially blinking “no, stop, take me home.” Which, yeah, that’s a serious problem for me, particularly in this kind of storyline. Maybe many people would choose to stay on Talos IV, which is fine, but I’m relatively sure that just as many people wouldn’t want to–yet this ending reinforces the idea that a) this is the only happy ending a person with Pike’s condition could hope for, and b) that it’s up to us able-bodied people to save someone like Pike by making his decisions for him, even though he’s perfectly capable of choosing for himself.
So, yeah, IMO? This isn’t one of TOS’s finer moments.
Another big problem I have with this episode is just how ridiculously classified and illegal Talos IV is, like, you get the death penalty just for crash-landing on the world? What the fuck even is that? I don’t know what annoys me more: that Starfleet still has the death penalty at all or that it’s only used for something so goddamn dumb. I can’t buy into any of this.
I also wish “The Menagerie” spent a little more time on that whole “Spock can’t lie” thing because, honestly, I’ve always been a little bit unclear about that: Bones certainly makes it sound like Vulcans are physiologically incapable of telling lines, even half-Vulcans, but that’s obviously not the case here. So, does he mean, like, culturally? Is Spock’s human half literally or figuratively completely submerged? Either way, I want to hear more about it, like, biological and cultural variations are fascinating, people. Let’s discuss them in more detail!
I know “The Menagerie” happened in the first place because the creators needed more time to produce new episodes, and I do think it’s theoretically clever, turning an unaired pilot into what’s essentially a prequel, taking place 13 years prior to the events of TOS. For instance, it helps explain a lot of the discrepancies in, say, staff and uniform and such, which is pretty cool. Although. Spock really styled his eyebrows and bangs differently 13 years ago, didn’t he? Maybe it was a part of his youthful Vulcan punk phase. Man. You know what really should be a bigger part of Trek but isn’t? Eyebrow fashion trends. I need to see more of them.
First Time We’ve Encountered: A shuttle. At least, I don’t think we’ve seen one yet. I specifically remember thinking it was weird shuttles didn’t seem to be an option in “The Enemy Within.” Anyway, this particular shuttle seems rather squat and unimpressive.
Majel Barrett as Ship’s Computer sounds much more, well, computerized than she has in previous episodes.
I really feel like no one makes a particularly serious effort to communicate with Pike. Like, I’m not saying it’d be easy. I’m just saying it definitely feels to me like all the characters here easily write Pike off, when he actually has all the answers that Spock’s enigmatic ass will only reveal in the proper time. Like, come on, people. Put in some work. Talk to the guy. Maybe you might actually get somewhere!
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“Mr. Spock, when you’re finished, please come back and see me; I want to talk to you. This regrettable tendency you’ve been showing lately towards flagrant emotionalism–”
“I see no reason to insult me, sir. I believe I’ve been completely logical about the whole affair.”