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A Captain Called Pike

At the very opening of Where No Man Has Gone Before, Kirk is there and ready, fully defined as a Starfleet officer whose first duty and best destiny is to be one of Starfleet’s greatest captains. Captain Pike, by comparison, was only ever intended to be a foot-note in Star Trek lore, a character who was abandoned in favour of another.

This is my first article for Trek This and it’s with gratitude that I thank my editor, David, for the opportunity. Much of my previous professional writing elsewhere about Star Trek is, I wholeheartedly admit, laced with a sense of reflectiveness, melancholy even, looking on the past while embracing the future. I think that’s natural for someone who grew up with the series, who only ever knew the Holy Trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy for many years. I embrace all of Star Trek: some of it I adore, some I like, none of it I detest. And that brings me back to Pike, and the reason I chose to write about him as my first piece here.

Pike is the one character who would have an entire behemoth of a franchise built upon his shoulders…and he never even realised it. He was, bluntly and obviously, where it all began.

There is naturally the desire to compare Captains Kirk and Pike. While Pike was a proto-Kirk, he was by all accounts his own man, but his characterisation was polished and further evolved to become Kirk.

I remember watching TOS on BBC2 back in the distant pre-TNG era. I never watched it avidly, I confess, so I wasn’t aware of the history of the series and many of the 79 episodes I never knew existed, let alone didn’t see. I collected, however, a few of the James Blish adaptations (and recall being slightly confused in 1982 that his ‘Star Trek 2’ wasn’t the same Star Trek II I had just seen in the cinema). On reading ‘Star Trek 4’ (oh, where are you, George and Gracie?), I was captivated by an intriguing short story called ‘The Menagerie’ which told the tale of Captain Pike of the United Spaceship Enterprise and his adventures on a mysterious planet called Talos IV. Spock was there, too. But where was Bones, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and, most of all, Kirk?

My curiosity was piqued. In those days, there was no Google to help me find out more about this pretender to the Enterprise throne, no websites like this one you’re on now to satiate my thirst for Trek knowledge. It was just Blish’s mighty collection (and an occasional fanzine advertised in a newspaper somewhere that you tentatively sent off for, only to find it was an A4 piece of paper or two, badly printed and stuffed full of grammatical mistaks).

Then in 1986, CIC Video started releasing the entire run of TOS on video: two episodes to a cassette, one cassette per volume, one volume per month. It took forever to build a collection. But the very first volume was of something called The Cage. It was introduced by some guy called Gene Roddenberry and it was creaky, part-colour/part-black and white, reconstructed from footage that had been used in the original TV version of ‘The Menagerie’ and rediscovered footage of the unseen pilot episode that had probably been unearthed in Paramount’s stationery cupboard (I’m being sarcastically obtuse there). Again, my curiosity was piqued.

We all know Kirk’s brashness, his dalliances with the fairer sex and the ability to make a computer self-destruct. Just by talking. Passionately to. It. We know his rapport with Spock and Bones. But it was Pike who made me want to know more about Starfleet before we knew it. How did Kirk become captain of the Enterprise after Pike (apart from the fact that we’re told in the Mirror Universe Pike was assassinated by Kirk)? Why did Pike resign his commission? The idea that this beautiful and majestic spaceship that Kirk loved and cherished (“My God, Bones…what have I done?”) belonged to somebody else before him was a revelation! (Let’s not get started on Captain April, for now.)

Beyond The Cage, there wasn’t much of Jeffrey Hunter’s Pike to be discovered. Yet what kind of captain was he? (I’ll stick to using past tense for the moment.) He looked after his crew, put them first, thought about everyone apart from himself…but he was tired, weary, apparently coming to the end of his career as a Starfleet captain – and that was just in his first appearance. The conflict on Rigel VIII seemed to have knocked the passion from him. He had a close relationship with the ship’s CMO, sharing his worries and doubts with him. He never seduced Vina. He was always wary of her, of why and who she was…but he became very fond of her. Was this because he saw his Starfleet career as coming to an end? He seemed alone, lonely even. And that made him far more complex than Kirk.

But by the end of The Cage he seemed to have a renewed sense of purpose, that there was more for him to do – and sadly, we never got to see it.

He did pop up in the occasional spin-off book, most prominently in ‘Vulcan’s Glory’ by DC Fontana that revealed Spock’s first mission aboard the USS Enterprise. He was seen in flashback in Michael Jan Friedman’s ‘Legacy’ and in full in the more recent ‘Child of Two Worlds’ by Greg Cox. In Vonda N McIntyre’s ‘Enterprise: The First Adventure’ we were treated with witnessing the handover from Pike to Kirk. Now books may or not be canon, depending on your own personal opinion (me? Well, as far as I’m concerned, they’re canon until a TV episode or movie contradicts and overrides events).

We know that Pike, as commodore and as played by Sean Kenney, suffered an appalling accident that left him paralysed and mute, encased in a life-support machine. But through an impassioned mutiny by Spock, returned to Talos IV to regain his pride (as Jeffrey Hunter again) and renew his acquaintance with Vina.

And that was that…until those sneaky chaps over on the Discovery series brought Pike back with a bang and made him a fully-rounded, bona fide Starfleet captain. Discovery has its nay-sayers and it took me a while to warm to it, but that’s for another time, another article. No one can argue (well, yes, they probably can and probably will) that Discovery’s injection of Pike into the equation raised the series into the echelons of great Star Trek.

Pike, as portrayed by Anson Mount, is bold, brave, mischievous and, by the end of Discovery’s second year, acutely aware of his impending accident that will leave him horrifically crippled. (We’re now in present-tense.) It’s this that has given us a fully-formed character: we know him now since the Talos IV incident and we see him in action, his crew around him. Now he knows what we’ve known for 54 years, he has, perhaps, a new sense of devil-may-care about him. He was told on Boreth that his future is set so he has nothing to lose. This does, however, detract from the drama in the upcoming Strange New Worlds series. We know his character’s fate (we’ve seen it played out) so where will the danger and the conflict spring from? That said, seeing him in action throughout an entire season was utterly riveting, so I, for one, am very much looking forward to all the strange new worlds he, Number One and Spock will be visiting.

And now we come to the other Pike.

I’m still on the fence about the Kelvin timeline. I like very much that the Romulan-centric events it portrayed triggered the Picard series, but there’s something about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Therefore, I may be unnecessarily unfair regarding Bruce Greenwood’s competent but underdeveloped portrayal. This Pike is Kirk’s mentor, teacher, commanding officer. But I don’t see the history, the depth of this man who we can put our trust in. He could be any number of senior Starfleet officers: the fact that he’s called Christopher Pike (and ends up in a wheelchair prior to dying) is simply lip-service to the fans. Call him John Smith and the audience will still have no more allegiance to him.

I’m relieved then that Discovery, and in particular Anson Mount, has gone back to the seeds of Star Trek and formulated a very recognisable but naturally progressive Pike. He offers much in the way of drama, fun and enjoyment, something that Discovery desperately needed. While he may now no longer be part of the Discovery line-up and that is sadly to the show’s detriment (Michael Burnham is far too serious, far too earnest, far too much of the time), Pike having his own series is something that we long-term fans would never have dreamed of.

Ironically, Mount’s Pike is the new Kirk of our time – far more than Chris Pine’s Kirk ever was.

Hit it.

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