We take a look back on the pilot episode of Star Trek, “The Cage”, and what lessons we might learn in the wake of the events of Charlottesville.
It’s ironic that, for a site titled Red Shirts Always Die, my first article here is centered around an episode featuring no red shirts. I’m speaking, of course, of the pilot episode of Star Trek: “The Cage”.
The crew we come to know and love, save for Spock, are absent aboard the USS Enterprise. Instead, we follow Captain Christopher Pike who, after receiving a distress signal, leads a small party down to an alien planet in search of survivors from a scientific expedition that went missing 18 years earlier. However, rather than survivors, Pike and his crew are met with an alien race that possesses advanced mental capabilities that enable them to create lifelike illusions.
So, now that we’ve got the summary out of the way, let’s just cut straight through the metaphor: “The Cage” in question does not refer to the physical cage Captain Pike is imprisoned in, but rather the mind.
As I write this article, Charlottesville is still an open wound in our nation’s scarred and pockmarked history.
A mob of white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and the KKK took to the streets, while counter-protestors were attacked, beaten, and one young woman, Heather Heyer, even lost her life. “#ThisIsNotUs” trended on twitter as many bewildered Americans asked themselves, “How could this happen?”
But the unfortunate truth is that this is us. The abhorrent events of Charlottesville occurred because we as a nation created for ourselves a “perfect illusion”, much like the Talosians in “The Cage”, and refused to acknowledge the harsh reality of the world we live in. Of the nation we live in.
The United States of America is a nation built on “equality” only in words, but not in action. In action, the United States is a nation founded through the genocide of the native people and built by slaves.
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“Manifest Destiny” was the illusion created to justify the relocation and genocide of America’s native people, claiming it was America’s “destiny” to “span coast to coast”. Specifically, the destiny of Anglo-Saxon Americans.
In regards to slavery, Ron Chernow details in his 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton (yes, the one that inspired the musical) how Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, created the myth of the simple, moral farmer versus the corrupt, greedy businessman as a way to curry favor for the slave-owning South. It’s a stereotype that persists to this day.
These are just two examples. Trust me, I know there’s so much more.
And when it comes to Nazis, we’ve created an illusion around them too. We’ve reimagined them as fictional, cartoon villains. Just look to titles like Indiana Jones and Call of Duty, where Nazis are presented as identifiable “bad guys” who are easily dispensed with by the All-American hero.
Captain America’s primary antagonist is HYDRA, a Nazi-affiliated group. Following the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014, “Hail Hydra” became a meme. This phrase, echoing a real life evil, became nothing more than a joke.
I hope no one’s laughing now.
The integration of Nazis into fictional works has done nothing more than create a dissociation from a very real event, one that isn’t so far in the past. There are still living Holocaust survivors. Though they were young at the time, they can still provide us with first-person accounts of the atrocities. But we allowed ourselves to fall for the illusion of Nazis as fictionalized villains.
But it wasn’t just Nazis marching the streets in Charlottesville, chanting racist epithets. Home-grown terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were present as well. Similarly, there are still living Americans who experienced some of our nation’s darkest moments. Civil Rights activists from the 1960s, such as Representative John Lewis, continue to fight for equality. Star Trek’s own George Takei was interned in a prison camp for Japanese-Americans following the events of Pearl Harbor.
We caged our minds, all the while terror festered and grew on our own home soil.
So where do we go from here? There was one quote from the episode that really jumped out at me. Speaking to Vina, Captain Pike says:
“You either live life – bruises, skinned knees and all – or you turn your back on it and start dying.”
To me this means: we need to wake up. We need to take a good look at the world we live in, see its flaws and its dark spots, and then do something about it. If you’ve remained silent, if you’ve looked the other way and said “this doesn’t involve me” or “there’s nothing I can do”, it’s time to stop.
Admitting there’s a problem is the first step to recovery.
I know, I know it’s hard. And I know the hypocrisy that I, a Star Trek blogger, am imploring readers to not live in a fantasy world. What I’m saying is, it’s okay to sometimes indulge, to lose yourself in a book or movie or comic book. But you can’t let it consume you. You live in this world; you have to do your part to make it better.
The Talosians were so wrapped up in their illusions that they forgot how to exist in the real world, and as such their world was weakened. They were dying.
And if we remain complacent, if we refuse to face our reality, then we will suffer the same fate.