In 1965, television producer Gene Roddenberry presented NBC with “The Cage,” the pilot episode of his space Western, Star Trek. The show starred film actor Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike of the USS Enterprise, a stern starship commander with a chip on his shoulder and a faraway look in his eyes. Flanked by a pointy-eared alien named Spock and a stoic first officer known only as “Number One,” Pike confronts a race of telepathic aliens who can make his darkest thoughts or deepest desires indistinguishable from reality. “The Cage” provides the audience with a shortcut to intimacy with Pike, revealing that his front as the strong, silent type hides a great discomfort and dissatisfaction with himself. It’s a heady and heavy tale, and NBC’s executives were wary of picking up such an “atypical” adventure show as a series, but they were intrigued enough to shell out for a second Star Trek pilot. When Jeffrey Hunter declined to return, Roddenberry decided that, rather than recasting Pike, he would create a new lead character. The less severe Captain James T. Kirk, portrayed by William Shatner, would go on to become one of the most famous fictional characters of the 20th century.
Now, the character who could have remained a curio in the history of Paramount’s crown jewel franchise is instead returning, by popular demand, to the captain’s chair for a new spinoff series, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. No longer a relic of the 1960s, Christopher Pike has been resurrected as a poster boy for Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic future as we imagine it today, essentially emerging as a totally new character. But this opportunity might never have presented itself if not for one inconvenient fact: Making television is very expensive.
Early in the planning of the first season of Star Trek in March 1966, Gene Roddenberry suspected that a show this technically complicated would be likely to run over budget and behind schedule. To alleviate some of this pressure, he devised a way to reincorporate the first pilot into the ongoing series, essentially as a set of flashbacks. The resulting two-part episode, “The Menagerie,” established that Pike had been captain of the Enterprise before Kirk, and that Mr. Spock — the only character from the first pilot who made it to the series proper — had served under both.
Creating “The Menagerie” was a practical decision, allowing the production to squeeze two episodes out of the time and budget of just one, but it gave birth to Star Trek’s mythology, the sense that the Enterprise, its crew, and the galaxy they traveled had a history beyond the events of the show itself. Differences between the sets, props, and costumes in the old footage versus the new became evidence of the passage of time, giving fans license to obsess over the implications of any future aesthetic changes. The juxtaposition of the present of the show and a fully realized vision of its past was Star Trek’s first step from being a television show to being a universe.
Flash forward half a century, and Christopher Pike has become a central figure in that universe. In 2019, Hell on Wheels star Anson Mount took on the role of Captain Pike on Star Trek: Discovery, the flagship of Paramount’s new fleet of big-budget Trek series for streaming services. Like the feature films Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness (in which he’s played by Bruce Greenwood), Discovery casts Pike as an older, seasoned commander, a friend and ally to lead character Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). Pike’s one-season tenure as a regular cast member on Discovery proved so popular among Trek fans that a spinoff featuring himself and the reimagined Number One (Rebecca Romijn) and Spock (Ethan Peck) became inevitable. After the test balloon of three 15-minute episodes of Short Treks featuring Pike’s Enterprise, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds was officially announced in May 2020.
In some respects, Strange New Worlds is the series that Gene Roddenberry attempted to sell to NBC with “The Cage” back in 1965. It’s a deliberately old-school Star Trek show, returning the franchise to its roots as an episodic series that takes on a “problem of the week” and then boldly goes on to the next one. The cast includes younger versions of familiar characters from The Original Series, including Cadet Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) and nurse Christine Chapel (Jess Bush). Christopher Pike, on the other hand, is ahead of where we found him in “The Cage,” allowing Anson Mount to play him as someone who’s grown beyond the gruff, authoritative commander seen in the 1965 pilot. Thanks to the concerted efforts of both Mount and the Discovery and Strange New Worlds writers’ rooms, Star Trek’s original leading man has become a far more modern example of collaborative and empathetic leadership.
“Jeffrey [Hunter] gave us a very good rendition of ‘first act’ Pike,” says Mount. “He was a very young man, very self-involved. The writers wanted me to come onboard as ‘second act’ Pike, who’s a little more sure in his boots and knows the kind of leader and the kind of man he wants to be.”
“I think [Star Trek’s] values have been consistent across time, across shows,” says Akiva Goldsman, co-creator of Strange New Worlds as well as one of the producers involved in bringing Pike aboard Discovery during its second season. He cites inclusion, optimism, and curiosity as among Trek’s most enduring philosophical tenets. “I think the stylistic manifestation of those qualities are cultural, and shift as eras and cultures shift. I think that, today, the kind of leadership that Jim Kirk expressed would feel problematic. I think that you wouldn’t write a character that way today [who] you were trying to make appealing. Modern storytelling requires, happily, a somewhat more thoughtful and contemporary approach to how human beings interact, or how non-human beings interact.”
It’s easy to see what Goldsman means. While Kirk’s reputation as a serial womanizer is more a product of pre-internet memes than the actual text, the scale of his ego has been only barely exaggerated. Kirk is an executive — Spock and Dr. McCoy are his close friends and advisors, but the rest of the crew are more or less treated as instruments of his will. He burdens himself with the need to remain larger than life in the eyes of his crew, putting him under great emotional strain that he is also compelled to hide. Fellow Star Trek Captains Picard, Janeway, and Hunter’s Pike suffer from similar afflictions.
But Mount’s Pike has no such insecurities. When he first appears on Discovery to take temporary command of the titular vessel, he finds a crew who has recently been traumatized by the manipulation and betrayal of their previous captain, Gabriel Lorca. Sensing their apprehension, Pike attempts to put them at ease by admitting his own vulnerabilities, like his childhood asthma and failing grade in astrophysics at Starfleet Academy. When he takes roll call on the bridge, he tells them to leave out their ranks, a gesture toward flattening Starfleet’s military-inspired hierarchy. In the midst of modern-day conversations about the legacy of toxic masculinity and male privilege, Pike seems to have left these ugly influences in his space dust.
“I think there’s a built-in optimism in Trek,” says Anson Mount, “and the idea that we’re all headed towards a better tomorrow and a more enlightened future. It’s a future where we don’t just learn three-dimensional chess, but where our better angels have won out and now we do have the luxury of being able to explore and find this universe where ethics — maybe not the obeisance to ethics — but a sense of ethics is kind of universal.” For his part, Mount has never liked the expression “non-toxic masculinity.” “True masculinity,” he says, in contrast to insecure macho posturing, “is not toxic.”
“This Pike is a consensus-builder,” says Goldsman, and he attributes the evolution of this defining trait to the influence of Anson Mount. During the development of Strange New Worlds, Mount had a meeting with Goldsman and co-showrunner Henry Alonso Myers about the character, which resulted in the addition of a full kitchen to Pike’s cabin. “Anson’s like, ‘You know, the way I do it in my house is, I’m always in the kitchen,’ and there’s a free flow of information that seems to be facilitated by the collaborative, dare I say, enterprise of cooking. This [version of] Pike leads by gathering this extended family, this crew, around the table, sharing in the preparation of food and the expression of ideas.”
The second episode of Strange New Worlds begins with Cadet Uhura joining the bridge crew for dinner in Pike’s cabin, a meal which a few of the senior staff have helped him to prepare. But it’s not only the command crew who’s invited — so are junior officers and staff, who can keep him from falling out of touch with what’s going on aboard the ship. Whether around the conference table, on the bridge, or visiting an alien planet, Captain Pike is a listener, attempting to engage with each stranger, ally, or adversary with as open a mind as possible. He’s not infallible, but he is willing to admit fault and concede points. Akiva Goldsman sees Pike’s empathy as key to his appeal during this fiercely divided period in our history.
“He has grace,” says Goldsman. “He has a compassionate, forgiving view of his crew and the Federation, its enemies, its new friends and the galaxy itself. I think he is someone who’s led by compassion and the idea that what you don’t know is as important if not more important than what you do know.
“And by reaching into that metaphorical — or in our case, often literal — star-pinned darkness, we can learn, and if we learn, we will grow. And if we grow, we will be the better versions of ourselves, and each other. I think that is a tremendously humanistic and tremendously vital idea right now, in a time when empathy is sorely lacking and we see each other as the enemy because of any minor difference. Pike does not. He sees you as a potential friend and is open to connecting with you on your terms. I think that’s what we want today.”
Star Trek has always been aspirational television. Even its most grim stories are built on a foundation of optimism, a belief that humanity’s future is not only more technologically evolved but more socially evolved. While Star Trek has always aimed to showcase that growth by depicting a more diverse, equal, and inclusive future, there’s also great comfort to be found in the smaller changes in the relationships between individuals, and in their relationships with themselves. A character like Christopher Pike, who has been part of Star Trek’s aspirational future from the beginning, allows us not only to aspire but to measure the progress of what it is we are aspiring to become. In 1965, Captain Pike was a stone-faced adventurer hiding his heart behind a wall of authority. In 2022, he wears it on his sleeve, open and vulnerable. The Starfleet captain of today’s tomorrow is neither a boss nor a parent to his crew. He is, first and foremost, a friend.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds debuts on Paramount Plus on May 5. New episodes come out every Thursday.