Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 1.1.11: Use Your Illusion I

The Menagerie, Part I

Star Trek The Menagerie Part I

When you’re one third of a tribunal deciding whether to have a man executed, but you also have boss Trivial Pursuit skills and want everyone to know.

What’s past is prologue, or so the saying goes. A saying, if you’ve noticed, that’s trotted out most often when the story spun from that prologue isn’t a particularly happy one.

Clip Art

As usual, I want to get the basic truths out of the way first: the first part of “The Menagerie”, despite its reputation, is not a clip show. It differs in both goal and approach, for several reasons. First of all, there’s the fact that almost no-one in America had seen “The Cage” at this point, rendering complaints about recycling it essentially moot. Additionally, the episode isn’t structured like a clip show. Not only do we not reach the first re-purposed material until we’ve passed the halfway point, there’s precious little sign of the thriftiness the clip show exists to allow. In fact, the amount of money spent here seems at least average,with the interiors of both a shuttle and a starbase appearing on-screen for the first time. Yes, both are in fact recycles from earlier episodes not yet broadcast, but that’s not relevant to how “The Menagerie: Part I” carries itself, which is what I’m ultimately more interested in.

The presence of Malachi Throne as Commodore Mendez goes further toward avoiding the impression of cheapness. Throne didn’t land his first role as a TV regular until two years after this episode, but he had an impressive CV of guest appearances and the odd recurring role. Compare this to what clearly wasStar Trek clip-show, TNG’s Shades Of Gray”, in which the only non-regular actor featured is Colm Meaney. No-one reading this needs me to tell them what an absolute steal Meaney turned out to be for both the show and franchise, but I call him a steal precisely because he cost next to nothing at the time. Throne is on a different level. He simply radiates easy confidence here, giving Shatner someone to bounce off of and responding in kind. His guest appearance gives “The Menagerie, Part I” depth that clip shows, fittingly enough, can only dream of.

Neither of these is what really puts the episode beyond the boundary of the clip show set, however. It’s the story’s underlying purpose that does this. The standard goal of a clip show is simply to save money. The choice is made to recycle footage, and is then followed by an effort – generally a desultory one – to provide an in-universe rationale. Dreams, visions, reviews of evidence, we all recognise the various iterations of the same basic dance. Let’s return to “Shades Of Gray” as an example. The TNG season two finale features an unengaging plot about watching Dr Pulaski full-on BFG Riker so he can survive an alien virus. It’s paper-thin, but then that’s the point. It only exists as a vector for a series of recycled clips, which itself is nothing more than an alternative to dead air. The story of “Shades Of Gray” isn’t just obviously forgettable, but deliberately so; an exercise in fulfilling contractual obligations that you desperately hope no-one will remember you dared to air.

“The Menagerie Part I” is something very different. It’s not just that its story is better than that of “Shades Of Gray”, though clearly it is. It’s the degree to which the show as a whole would suffer were the episode not to exist. The material repurposed from “The Cage” and that filmed for “The Menagerie” underline and elevate each other. This isn’t a clip show; it’s a flashback episode. We’re being shown the events of the past so that we can experience the present in a new context.

“…A Homo-Sapiens Only Club”

As the only regular to appear in both episodes, it’s not surprising that this new context is mainly applied to Spock. Indeed, this episode at least ties with “The Naked Time” for giving us the greatest amount of insight into the character to date. I’d be tempted to give “The Menagerie, Part I” the edge, actually. Both episodes explore Spock’s character by having him behave contrary to that character, but here Spock is acting counter to his nature through his own choice.

Well, OK. It’s a little more complicated than that. “The Naked Time” allows Spock himself to describe how the, ahem, mutated water molecules are preventing him acting in the manner he deems necessary to his own self-image. Here his essential personality, and the impossibility of him being able to countenance deviating from it, is discussed entirely in his absence. Usually this is an approach I would bristle at. Two white guys discussing how someone from another culture is supposed to behave? Do not want, as the kids used to say.

There are three things in this particular case which rescue that scene from an immediate binning. The first is the nice reversal of it being McCoy who defends Spock, despite how often they’ve butted heads already by this point. The second is the fact it’s Kirk and McCoy deciding to discuss Spock in his absence that actually allows Spock to pull of his plan. Had either of them bothered to try contacting him to get his input, they would have learned he’d gone off the grid in time to stop him.

Mainly, though, I think it works because of how well Kirk and McCoy’s argument fits into the larger theme of the episode. This is all about the degree to which Spock’s time in and experience of Starfleet is constrained by his identity. Up until now, we’ve only seen thumbnail sketches of this, through his interactions with crew-mates (most obviously Kirk, McCoy, and Uhura). This is expanded upon here, and not happily. Just hearing Commodore Mendez casually refer to Spock as a “half-Vulcan science officer” is bad enough, as though away missions are given greater context by knowing where the participants’ dads came from. Once we see the Talos report itself, though, we learn Mendez is simply quoting the file’s first page. “Half-Vulcan Science Officer” is literally given as Spock’s rank.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise. Starfleet has never been as egalitarian as it flatters itself as being. I’m reminded here of Tuvok’s criticisms of his human crew-mates in “Flashback”. Earthlings claim to welcome aliens among them, but in practice that only applies to aliens willing to act like humans. A Starfleet officer can come from any species, as long as they admit that being human is best. “The Menagerie, Part I” gives up this problem’s flip-side: Spock is constrained in how human he can act precisely because Starfleet has labelled him as Vulcan. As a minority of one within the organisation, Spock must be under tremendous pressure to play to other’s expectations of him. This isn’t an unfamiliar problem. Just ask any women and/or person of colour in a male/white-dominated profession to what extent they’re pressured to act certain ways so that they’re seen as being “one of the good ones”.

So sure. Climb aboard, Vulcan; just don’t rock the boat. Act the way we expect you to act, and we won’t have a problem. Starfleet has pushed on him a requirement to act as an ambassador for his father’s race. If he fails, he hasn’t just messed up as science officer. He’s messed up as a half-Vulcan, too.

(Note it’s half-Vulcan, by the way. Not half-human. Mankind has defined him according to what he lacks. By what renders him different.)

More than just Spock’s upbringing is putting pressure on his behaviour, then. It’s not only Vulcan culture that demands he not show emotion. Starfleet expects the same thing, whether it realises it or not. Spock is repressing his emotions for Starfleet’s benefit at least as much as his own.

It wasn’t always that way, thugh. As the Talosian broadcast makes clear, back when Spock was under the command of a different captain, he was far less unwilling to show emotion. Pike-era Spock appears entirely uninhibited. Hell, at one point, we even see him grinning uncontrollably.

Just after he glances at Pike.

The Way We Were

The actual reasons why Spock acts so differently in “The Cage” are of course both obvious and uninteresting. It’s not the change itself that’s important here. It’s Roddenberry’s willingness to highlight that change. That’s not something he had to do. I can see no reason why removing the shot of Spock’s delighted grinning would have constituted any real technical challenge; it’s just one small part of three separate establishing scenes as the crew explore the planet. Instead, though, not only is the shot left in, Roddenberry goes to great pains to remind the audience that Spock would be mortified were a human to see him express emotion of any kind. The incongruity isn’t removed or even explained away, but actively played up.

(This is another strike against the idea this is a clip show, by the way. We’re not revisiting the past here, we’re recontextualising it. By next episode, Roddenberry will up-shift into flat-out rewriting it.)

What did Roddenberry intend for us to learn through this juxtaposition, then? Well, clearly Spock wasn’t always averse to being seen acting like a human. There’s a degree of comfort here that Spock has never come close to exhibiting with Kirk. The reason for this seems fairly obvious. Spock might well be in love with Kirk, as is so often suggested. But he was definitely in love with Pike.

This is the key that unlocks the whole episode. This isn’t a story about a man torn between his loyalties to his past and present commanding officers. It’s about wanting to help your ex-lover in their hour of need, even though you know your current squeeze won’t be at all happy about the idea. When Spock tells Kirk “It’s your career, and Captain Pike’s life”, he’s justifying his apparent choice of his previous partner over his current one, and begging Kirk not just to accept his choice, but to help with its consequences. He’s asking for Kirk to stop throwing up roadblocks like the shuttlecraft gambit. Of course Spock will risk this mission if the alternative is letting Kirk die  – and I love by the way how Kirk is so certain Spock will turn back to save his life he doesn’t even feel the need to mention it out loud – but Spock is pleading for him to not put him in that position again.

In short, Spock is asking that, despite Kirk’s obvious stakes both professional and personal in this mess, that he doesn’t try to make all this be about him.

But how can we expect Kirk to rise to this challenge, after all that’s brought the two of them to this point? Being sure your lover won’t let you die is a long way from being happy you had to risk your life in order for them to stop ignoring you. Then there’s that smile. It won’t just be the viewer who noticed it. Kirk may already have intellectually known about Spock’s relationship with his former captain, but seeing on-screen how different Spock was with Pike must still be a savage gut-punch. Apparently the bond between Spock and Pike was strong enough for Spock to break out of the bonds that Starfleet tied him down with. Suddenly Kirk finds himself slapped across the face with the fact that he can’t say the same.

Seeing Spock and Pike’s connection must hurt like hell. Especially given how tempting it must be for Kirk to draw a parallel between what Pike has lost the ability to do, and what Spock has. I want to be careful here. There’s far too much in this episode that is uncomfortably ableist, and I certainly don’t want to make the same mistake myself. Without wishing to imply a quantitative similarity between Spock’s inability to express emotion and Pike’s total loss of bodily control, then, there exists a broad parallel in their shared experience of losing access to aspects of themselves.  Kirk might well be asking himself to what extent Spock sees the connection too, and to what extent his mutiny in response to Pike’s accident reflects his feelings about how his own options have narrowed since his days with Pike.

Sooner or later that all has to become too much, even before factoring the distinct possibility Spock has torpedoed Kirk’s career (which always seemed like a stupid development to me, but whatever; the next episode ignores this anyway). And so we reach that devastating cliffhanger, with Kirk refusing Spock’s plea to help save Pike, watching instead as Spock is taken from the court room. As a result, Kirk is left utterly alone. The camera lingers, drinking in his sadness and isolation, before he finally leaves the room. Kirk after all still has a job to do, at least until the waves from Spock’s betrayal sweep him overboard and away from the Enterprise. He still has a captain’s chair to sit in.

He just won’t have the man he loves standing beside it anymore.

To be continued…

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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