Where would the Star Trek franchise be today if the original cast that starred in "The Cage" had never been replaced? More than 50 years after warping onto television screens, the world of Star Trek is as popular and visible as ever. After a rebooted series of blockbuster movies, CBS are now in the process of developing an array of new Star Trek TV adventures to sit alongside the currently-running Star Trek: Discovery. While the future certainly looks busy, Star Trek's past has not been forgotten, and Star Trek: Picard is set to bring back Patrick Stewart's Enterprise-D captain after a lengthy hiatus. Reaching even further back, the days of William Shatner's Kirk and Leonard Nimoy's Spock retain a lofty status within popular culture.
After developing the concept for Star Trek in the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry wrote "The Cage" as the pilot episode for his brand new undertaking. Noticeably different from what would now be recognized as old-school Star Trek, "The Cage" was rejected by TV networks and Roddenberry was sent away to try again. The visionary returned with "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and the rest is science fiction history. But how would Star Trek have been different if the cast of "The Cage" had stayed on and the first pilot was used as the starting point for the original series?
The biggest and most obvious change would've been Jeffrey Hunter's Christopher Pike taking over the role of Star Trek's Enterprise captain instead of William Shatner's James T. Kirk. The two protagonists have much in common: bravery, a strong moral compass and the respect of their crew mates, but Kirk and Pike were very distinct personalities. Hunter's Pike was characterized as the straighter captain - less of a maverick than the brash and hot-headed Kirk. Without those qualities in its leading man, Star Trek's weekly moral conflicts would've lacked a key, combustible element.
William Shatner's unique acting style could also be considered a key part of Star Trek's early success. Jeffrey Hunter is patently a very capable actor, but played his Starfleet captain in a straighter, more serious fashion. Shatner's exuberant and fun approach might not be the finest example of the theatrical arts, but his charismatic performance helped Star Trek carve a legacy none the less. Another major element of that legacy is the holy trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy - something that no other trio could've replicated.
The Enterprise's captain isn't the only position that would've been vastly different with the cast of "The Cage." Leonard Nimoy's Spock is the only character carried from the original cast into the full series, but his performances differ greatly between the two. In "The Cage," Spock is more excitable and human, free of the cold, hard logic so closely associated with the character today. Instead, the more robotic emotions are saved for Number One, the second-in-command on Pike's Enterprise. In rejigging the Star Trek setup, the Number One character was amalgamated into Spock, but if the cast of "The Cage" had remained in place, the Vulcan couldn't have developed the same iconic persona that Nimoy portrayed so well for half a century.
The primary reason for "The Cage" being rejected was its more intellectual storytelling approach compared to other sci-fi offerings of the era. Roddenberry returned with a more even blend of science fiction and action, and this formed the basis of the early Star Trek formula. Since finally airing in full in the 1980s, "The Cage" has been consistently labelled one of Star Trek's strongest ever episodes, and this suggests that the original series would've still found a loyal, core fan base, even with the cast seen in "The Cage." By pitching at a more cerebral level, however, Star Trek would've lost mainstream appeal and lacked an entry point for younger fans. It could also be argued that Star Trek's more complex storylines only gained appreciation after the series was already established.
Evidently, the landscape of the Star Trek franchise would've been very different if "The Cage" cast had stayed in their roles, and it's also very likely that Roddenberry's creation wouldn't have found the same level of success and may been a little too ahead of its time to find success in the 1960s.
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