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This episode is the original pilot of TOS. In TOS history, Captain Pike was the captain of the Enterprise prior to Captain Kirk (as we learn in the first season's two-part episode "The Menagerie"). The Enterprise is heading back to starbase of after a grueling mission where a surprise attack killed several crewmembers and injured even more.
The ship receives a distress call from Talos IV, a remote and unexplored planet. However, the call is from a ship that was lost 18 years ago, so it's unlikely that even if there were survivors that they are still alive now. Pike decides to keep on course and pass the information about the distress call onto Starfleet.
Pike retires to his quarters and soon the chief medical officer, Dr. Philip Boyce, shows up to fix him a drink and talk. Pike is obviously irritable and depressed. The deaths on the past mission are weighing on him heavily, and he is tired of deciding "who lives and who dies". Boyce suggests a rehabilitation leave, but Pike says he's thinking of resigning. Boyce makes no bones about rejecting that idea - as he says, for a man like Pike, there's nothing else he'd rather be doing.
This is a nice scene that gives us a bit of background on the ship, its missions, and Pike. Pike is by no means old, but he's clearly had a lot of experience (some of it bad) with the risks of space exploration. Even though Pike allows himself to be tired in front of Boyce, we did not see that in front of the crew on the bridge. The chemistry between Pike and Boyce is not great right off, but I get the impression that this is because Pike's character is much more private and reserved than we would later see with Kirk.
A follow-up message from Talos IV confirms that there are survivors, and so Pike orders the ship to Talos IV. In retrospect, we can see that this is the first action by the Talosians: they are sweetening the bait when the Enterprise was not initially lured in.
Pike, Boyce, Spock, and others beam down to Talos IV, leaving Number One in command of the ship. They find a perfect survivor scenario: older men in tattered clothing and jury-rigged shelters and other items made from the crashed ship. One oddity is that one of the survivors is a beautiful young woman named Vina; Pike is captivated by her on sight. One of the older men said that Vina was born at about the same time as the crash, and her parents died in the crash.
Presently, Vina takes Pike aside to show him their secret. Vina disappears, and some humanoids appear from an underground compound, knock Pike out, and take him underground. When Vina disappears, so do all of the other survivors and all their equipment. The other crewmen realize the trap that has been sprung and rush to find Pike, but they are too late and only see the end of him being taken underground. They blast at the doors to the compound with their lasers, but cannot break through. They report back to the ship.
Pike awakens to find himself in an enclosure; there are many other enclosures around him holding various alien beings. Some Talosians approach and communicate with each other telepathically, which Pike can also hear. The Talosians are impressed by Pike's adaptability and say they are ready to begin the experiment. Pike realizes that the survivors must have been an illusion created by the Talosians, but they refuse to answer any of his questions.
Pike suddenly finds himself inside the fortress on Vega where his previous mission went so badly wrong. Events are proceeding just as he remembered, leading up to the fight between him and a native warrior. However, Vina is also there, albeit with different hair and dress. Pike knows that this must all be an illusion, but Vina beseeches him to fight, saying that it will all feel real. Pike eventually fights and kills the warrior. The illusion vanishes and Pike and Vina are back in Pike's cell.
Pike thinks that Vina is also an illusion, but nevertheless tries to question her about the Talosians. She resists, trying instead to get him to choose a fantasy to play out with her. Eventually she says she'll answer his questions if he will choose a fantasy afterward. We learn that the Talosians had a horrible war thousands of years ago, which ruined the surface of the planet. They moved underground and began to develop their mental abilities, leading to the power of telepathy and illusion. However, now they are overcome by boredom and use their imprisoned beings for amusement: they create an illusion and then watch and feel how their specimens react.
Some of Vina's answers make Pike realize that they Talosians will want to perpetuate humans in order to keep their entertainment coming; to do that, they will need a female human - Vina must be real. Pike is upset by the idea of generating a race of specimens, but Vina tries to tell him it's not so bad. Apparently the Talosians aren't happy with Vina, because suddenly she shrieks and disappears. A Talosian shows up and "speaks" to him, basically confirming his suppositions.
On the ship, Boyce and Spock have pieced together the evidence and realized that the Talosians must have powers of telepathy and illusion. Boyce in particular tries to emphasize how dangerous the Talosians can be, because one never knows what is real and what is an illusion. Nonetheless, the crew is hot on rescuing the captain. Number One orders the ship's power to be used to try to break into the underground compound.
On the surface, the crew rigs some kind of gun; the ship's power is transferred to the gun, and it will fire at the door. The attack commences, and Number One says the top of the hill should have been blown off the first second, but they don't seem to make any progress. The equipment is nearing failure, so Number One calls off the attack. Boyce points out that maybe they did break into the compound, and it's just an illusion that they didn't.
Pike is put into a new illusion, in a location he mentioned at the beginning of the episode: home. He's on a picnic lunch with his horses and his "wife", Vina. Vina tries very hard to direct the conversation away from the Talosians and onto normal, family topics. Finally she gives in and tries a new tactic. First, she arouses his sympathy by explaining how after so many years of punishment and illusion from the Talosians, they have completely broken her. The she tries to tempt him with the possibilities. She can be any kind of woman he wants. They can live at "home", or anywhere else he can imagine. Pike admits that he's attracted to her, and Vina becomes more bold. She suggests that since he's always had to be so proper as a ship's captain, he might like to try something more improper.
The illusion shifts to another scenario Pike mentioned at the beginning of the episode: he's an Orion trader. He deals in "green animal women", and presumably other goods. He's dining at a sumptuous table, and several crewmembers are in various garb with him. Vina now appears as a green Orion woman, very scantily clad, and dancing to exotic music. One of Pike's guests comments that Vina is worth a man's soul, and Pike gets more and more desperate as he realizes he's weakening against the temptations of the Talosians. He flees, but Vina stalks him.
On the Enterprise, some magnetic sources have been detected underneath the planet's surface. A landing party of Number One, Spock, Yeoman Colt, and others is assembled. However, only the two women beam down, directly into Pike's cage. Pike and Vina are frozen in their illusion, but the Talosians end it. Vina is frustrated because she thinks she had almost won Pike over, but now he has other women to choose from. The head Talosian arrives and tells Pike to choose, listing the assets of each woman. (An interesting side note is that Number One says there was an adult named Vina on the lost ship, which would make Vina rather old at this point. Clearly her "real" appearance is actually an illusion.) Pike decides to try a tactic he learned from Vina: the Talosians cannot read his mind through primitive emotions like strong anger. Pike rants about wanting to kill the Talosians.
On the ship, Spock is now in command, and he has decided it is time to cut their losses and save the rest of the crew while they can. But before the ship can get underway, all systems lose power. It's obvious the Talosians have something to do with this, but the crew tries to effect repairs. Later, the Talosians remotely scan the entire database of the ship's computer.
In Pike's cage, the prisoners all seem to have gone to sleep. The head Talosian tries to sneak into the cage to take the laser guns Number One and Colt brought - the guns appeared to have been out of charge, but clearly that can't really be the case if the Talosian wants to take them away. Pike was faking sleep and jumps the Talosian, beginning to strangle him. The Talosian projects an illusion that he is a monster, but Pike is undeterred. The Talosian threatens to destroy the Enterprise, but Pike decides to risk it.
Pike uses the laser gun to blast through the cage wall, but they can only see the damage once he threatens the Talosian to stop the illusion that the gun doesn't work. They go up to the surface of the planet. The Talosian claims that this is part of their plan: now Pike will choose a woman to start a family with and begin rebuilding civilization on the planet's surface, with the Talosians' help. Pike counteroffers to stay with Vina if the Talosians will allow the other women to return to the ship and the ship to leave.
Number One shows her response to this idea by setting her laser gun to overload, saying it's wrong to create a slave race. Pike offers to let the Talosian and Vina to go underground where they will be safe, but Vina decides to stay and die so the Talosians can't try their project again. Pike tells Number One to stop the overload for the moment when two other Talosians arrive to tell the head Talosian what they learned from the Enterprise's computer banks.
The head Talosian assimilates the information with a look of horror. He says that humans always fight captivity to the death, even when it's benevolent; because of this, the Talosians cannot use humans for their purposes. Pike is unimpressed by their lack of remorse, but the Talosian said that humans were their last hope, and now they will certainly die out. Pike offers mutual aid, but the Talosian is convinced humans will learn their mental powers and also wither away.
The humans are free to go, but Vina says she wants to stay. While Number One and Colt beam back to the ship, Pike finds out why: Vina's true appearance is old and incredibly disfigured. She survived the crash, yes, but she was a "lump of flesh". The Talosians rebuilt her and all of her organs function correctly, but they didn't know what a human looked like, so her appearance is pretty hideous. She knows she will never fit into human society now and prefers her illusion of beauty. In addition, Pike sees that the Talosians have given her the illusion that he has chosen to stay with her and watches the young, beautiful Vina and himself head back underground.
When he returns to the ship, all systems have returned to normal. Despite the difficulty of his capture, Pike is obviously reinvigorated. The ship heads for its next destination.
I have to say that this is a pretty amazing episode. The writing is excellent, particularly the dialog. The portrayals of Pike, Vina, and the head Talosian are great (the other acting is so-so). The weak point of the episode is that the effects are exceptionally awful. I don't know how much this is because the episode didn't receive the "polish" of the regular episodes, and how much it's just because it is in fact the oldest one to be filmed, and they didn't have the money or the skill to do better.
The Talosians in this episode are the most convincing examples of superior alien beings that I think we saw in all of TOS. They carefully manipulate all of the events and even Pike's actions and emotions all the way until Number One's decision to overload her gun. Actually, I'm not sure that every single aspect was planned, but they very convincingly made things up as they went along if they didn't.
For example, we saw how they sent a second "distress call" when the first wasn't a sufficient lure. When they needed more women to beam down, they created signals that they knew the ship's sensors would detect to lure them in. On a individual scale, they had obviously studied the reactions and emotions of many beings for so long that they knew what Pike was going to do before he even did it. The Talosian's calm analysis of how Pike would do things like throw himself against the cage wall, or rush to defend Vina, was devastatingly effective in demonstrating their superiority and control. Frankly, the Talosian could have been faking some of this, since his analysis was after the fact, but it would have still been intimidating for Pike.
The idea that the power of illusion that the Talosians have caused them to ignore more mundane problems of maintenance and technology is believable. Certainly there are people today who would rather keep watching TV than fix the leak in their roof or vacuum the floor. It is also believable that if you go over the same memories and illusions over and over again, it would get boring. The creativity can run out.
The character of Vina was fascinating, and the portrayal of her by the actress Susan Oliver was excellent. Oddly, I really liked the actress's enunciation of many words, although I don't know why. At any rate, while Vina was obviously beautiful, her affect was often just a little bit off. This seemed very appropriate, given her years of manipulation and abuse at the hands of the Talosians.
Vina also presented a bit of a puzzle, which worked itself out through the episode. Initially, we believe she was a baby at the time of the crash, so she'd be about 18 years old, fitting her appearance. Even when the rest of the survivors turn out to be fake, we continue believing what we know about her. But then Vina talks about trying to resist the Talosians and having been ground down over the years. If the Talosians raised her from infancy, why would she resist them? She shouldn't know of any other way of life. Also, why would the Talosians find her interesting, when she doesn't have any non-Talosian memories to draw upon? This doesn't fit the previous story.
We do know that she has been with the Talosians for years, because she's not only used to them observing her at all times, but she took advantage of it at least twice. At the beginning of the episode, Vina remarked aloud twice that Pike was a good specimen, which was cuing the Talosians to prepare for Pike's kidnapping. Later, when she and Pike are picnicking, she muses about Pike's fantasies, again cuing the Talosians to switch the illusion and take them to one of his dreams.
The solution to the puzzle of Vina is presented when we learn from Number One that Vina was an adult at the time of the crash. That means she has spent 18 years as an adult in the hands of the Talosians. Certainly she would resist them when she realized what was happening. As an adult, she would be much more interesting to the Talosians, with her lifetime of memories for them to experience. She would also have given the Talosians a better idea of the potential of humans for their purposes.
This leads me to another question: just how powerful is the Talosians' power of illusion? Initially, we are asked to suspend our disbelief when Pike is dropped into past memories and places. Then we move on to a novel situation, which is Pike as an Orion trader. We get a glimpse of how the illusion works when this one is broken: Pike and Vina are simply standing in Pike's cage. This would seem to imply that all the moving around that one does in an illusion doesn't actually happen - the person is stationary. OK, I can go with that.
But then we find out that the entirety of Vina's appearance has been an illusion, and so every time we saw her, there must have been some illusion involved. How would that work? When Vina was present, was everything we saw an illusion and the actual motions of the people didn't happen? I'm thinking in particular of the scenes after Number One and Colt beamed into the cage. Were they all in reality just standing there imagining the subsequent events?
For that matter, why would the Talosians need a real cage for Pike? Why not just give him the illusion of a cage? We could even take that a step farther and say, why would Pike need to be taken underground? Or even off the ship? Presumably the answer to some of this is that the reach of the Talosians' illusions is limited, although Vina implies that it could extend as far as the ship. We also have to assume that it takes effort to project the illusions, so it would be easier to have an actual, physical cage for Pike.
We saw in this episode that even when Pike is disillusioned (pardon the pun) with his life, he is still an extremely strong-willed person with well-defined principles. He is also very intelligent, quickly seeing into how the Talosians' illusions worked and what their motivations were. Pike's character is more nuanced, moody, and intellectual than the straightforward, go-get-em Kirk we have for the series. I enjoy Kirk in TOS immensely, but Pike would have also been interesting.
We don't really get a very good look at the other characters. I am pleased to see a female second-in-command, although we really don't get to learn much about her. The state of women in Starfleet seems to be poor in general, with Pike's remark about not being used to women on the bridge. I suppose that makes the series itself look pretty good, since it does have women all over, even if they aren't generally in high-ranking positions.
Similarly, we don't get much of a look at Spock. While he has the physical characteristics of a Vulcan, he seems too emotional. Probably the Vulcan non-emotion philosophy hasn't been developed yet (by the series). In fact, he seems down right volatile. Despite what we learn in the first season two-part episode "The Menagerie", we don't see much of a connection between Spock and Pike; perhaps that developed later.
Overall, this episode was excellent on its own merit. Comparing and contrasting it to later TOS episode merely increases the enjoyment in watching it.