Star Trek “Menagerie” Predicted Today, the Time When We Could Live in Our Own Dream Worlds

Joseph Serwach

When life feels like an illusion, think of this classic episode The original Star Trek goggles. Fair use generic image courtesy of DavityDave via Flickr.

The latest example of “Star Trek,” predicting today’s addictive relationship with tech-enhanced stories:

Former Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike is disabled by radiation. Technology saves — and traps him, allowing the old hero’s scarred head to do nothing but blink “yes” or “no” from his futuristic wheelchair.

First Officer Spock risks the death penalty to get Pike back to Talos IV, a planet where rulers can return Pike to a dream world: where all fantasies seem real.

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel but there have been no societies that did not tell stories”- Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Menagerie,” an award-winning two-part story, builds on the original, previously unaired “Star Trek” pilot, “The Cage,” weaving two stories into one. During Spock’s court-martial trial, we learn that Pike visited Talos IV about 13 years earlier, experiencing the Talosian power to make any memory or fantasy seem real.

At the time, an angered Pike immediately resists the danger:

“But we’re not here, neither of us. We’re in a menagerie, a cage,” Pike tells his fellow captive, the stunning (but similarly trapped) earth woman Vina.

Ultimately, Pike learns how to escape the cage (tapping into his primitive angry emotions Talosians can’t deal with). The Talosians eventually realize humans resist any form of captivity (even when it’s pleasant) and allow him to escape their “zoo.”

But the Talosians also let Pike see why Vina doesn’t want to leave captivity and why she told him “they own me.” Through “the narcotic” of illusions, we learn, Vina is actually old and deformed. She’s learned to enjoy the illusions the Talosians give her of being forever young and beautiful.

After Pike’s accident in “The Menagerie,” Pike himself is also aging, deformed, and disabled. He now accepts their offer to allow him to return to the “dream world” where Pike and Vina are young and in love all over again. Perhaps it is a cage, but a cage they both freely choose to accept.

Fast forward to 2021

The Cage/Menagerie episodes came back to me when an old friend texted me some videos and wrote “New technology.’’ Attached were three “deep fake” videos made to appear that idols from our childhood were stars of these clips.

Of course, we immediately know they are fake, that the actresses (who were in their “prime” decades ago) didn’t really make these films, that someone else is actually in the clip and the more famous faces have been seamlessly (almost) Photoshopped on top of the other actress's faces.

  • My first reaction was just like Captain Pike’s in “The Cage,” that this seems evil (or at the very least, a time-waster), a big and total lie, faking something to make an illusion turn into a “dream world” we might have imagined when we were hormonally-challenged teenagers.
  • My second thought was to remember a series of William Shatner sci-fi novels called TekWar. Shatner imagined a 22nd century ruined by the worst drug yet, “Tek” — an illegal, addictive, mind-altering digital drug, administered through a microchip: creating a simulated reality dream world.
  • My third thought went to “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” where crew members could “live out their fantasies” entering “the holo-deck,” where whole worlds of characters would come to life to let them live out a new story.

All build on radio, television, and video games' original goals: stories to help you escape your life to enter an alternate reality. Except technology increasingly makes it easier to feel you yourself are entering this alternate reality.

After three “Star Trek” references, I shifted right back to 2021…

According to recent studies, only a quarter of U.S. adults can fully distinguish the difference between fact and opinion in news stories.

Father Lou Madey, a great philosophy professor who died just before Christmas, focused his research and teaching on truth, arguing that just 5 percent of Americans are capable of the level of critical thinking required to differentiate between discerning the real truth from simply repeating what they hear from their trusted cultural sources (mass media, political activists, relatives, memes, etc.).

For more than four years, we’ve been warned about “deep fakes,” being used to manipulate or alter public opinion by altering videos to make fantasies and illusions seem real.

Education, long seen as the key to the American Dream, is simultaneously losing its luster: Gallup found 56 percent of all Americans (including 67 percent of Republicans) now only have “some or very little’’ confidence in higher education.

All forms of media, including TV viewership, newspapers, magazines, movie attendance, and the music industry, have seen sales tumble.

While trust in the media hit a low of 32 percent, nearly two-thirds of Americans, 64 percent, say they trust the Google search engine. Unfortunately, there are whole industries focused on getting information to the top of Google searches.

“All you have to do is fool Google — because if you can fool Google, you can fool everybody,” Wellesley College computer scientist Panagiotis Takis Metaxas explained.

Back to Trek: The choice we all must face

“The Cage,” the original pilot for “Star Trek,” was rejected for being “too cerebral.” Only Spock’s character made it to the second pilot and eventual series. But including “The Cage” within “The Menagerie” was brilliant.

The older original gave deeper meaning and purpose to the series, showing one sprang from the other. And that is actually part of why we need to “dream” and “play,” to imagine different scenarios and possibilities.

The Talosians, like our own God, were far more advanced and able to sense and see everything. They cared about Pike and Vina, wanting them to find each other.

As Vina tells Pike: “Don’t you see? They read my thoughts, my feelings, my dreams of what would be a perfect man. That’s why they picked you. I can’t help but love you, and they expect you to feel the same way.”

Pike answers, “If they can read my mind, then they know I’m attracted to you.”

In “The Menagerie,” they present their perfect “Cage,” now freely chosen, as a kind of Heaven, with the Keeper telling Pike’s successor, Captain James T. Kirk, “Captain Pike is welcome to spend the rest of his life with us, unfettered by his physical body. The decision is yours and his.”

Kirk asks Pike if he wants to go to Talos, Pike flashes “yes.” Spock thanks Kirk for agreeing. And Pike flashes the light for “yes.”

The video screen comes on, showing the youthful Pike and Vina walking together hand in hand toward happily ever after. Kirk beams, and we hear the Keeper say:

“Captain Pike has an illusion, and you have reality. May you find your way as pleasant.

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