Tuesday, November 18, 2014


A few months ago, I was contacted by Jason DeBord, President & Editor in Chief of the Original Prop Blog, LLC. He had been contacted by Julien's auction house regarding a Star Trek original series (TOS) piece that had been offered for consignment: a Cage Laser Pistol. They were looking for any kind of background information that could help them authenticate or debunk the piece. Knowing of my love for early Trek, Jason asked me if I might be able to help. I thought I might so I agreed to aid them in whatever capacity I could. This is the story about my findings. Details about the auction can be found HERE.

First pilot: the intrepid Capt. Pike wielding a Laser Pistol.
There's an alleged piece of Star Trek history on the auction block. Julien's is offering one of the rarest Trek props ever: a Laser Pistol prop from "The Cage", Star Trek's first pilot film. Everyone knows that Star Trek firearms are Phasers. But in the original pilot (before Shatner was cast as Kirk) there were Laser pistols, not Phasers, and, apart from them being a sidearm, they had nothing in common with each other. After Star Trek was bought as a series, a lot of changes and updates were made, especially regarding the pistols. By the time the first actual episode was filmed – "The Corbomite Maneuver" – the Lasers were forgotten in favor of Phasers and became just another prop in inventory that would show up in later episodes as a generic gun. The Phasers took their permanent place on board the Enterprise and the rest is history.

Second Pilot: Spock sports a modified Laser Pistol.
But, despite them being sidelined, those Lasers played an important part in early Star Trek. They were used in the first two pilot episodes as THE standard Starfleet weapon. Spock himself carries one in both pilots. Captain Pike and most of his landing party pull one out in several scenes. They get quite a bit of screen time in "The Cage" and are actually pivotal to the plot – their power could make the difference between imprisonment or freedom, but for the ability of the alien Talosians to mask their effectiveness. There's even a nice close-up of them – unheard of for a prop!

The Lasers show up in later episodes.
They later showed up in a few episodes like "The Man Trap" and "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" as a basic gun. But after those few appearances, they were never heard from again.

So what happened to these props? That's the question asked of just about every prop ever made for the original Star Trek: where'd they all go? For most pieces, we'll never know, unfortunately. They left the Paramount lot in a variety of different ways. Some were undoubtedly stolen from the studio, either during production or after production ceased. Others were simply gifted to the various production people (or taken by same) at the end of the run in 1969. Some of the greatest pieces to ever hit the collecting market came from insiders like producer Bob Justman, Art Director Matt Jefferies, SFX guy Jim Rugg, and set decorator John Dwyer. Some stayed on the lot for quite some time and were in the possession of Dick Rubin who worked as property master on The Motion Picture in 1979. Keep in mind that, back in the day, no great value was given to these props. The idea that a phaser rifle might someday fetch nearly a quarter of a million dollars would have been a ludicrous notion.

On a side note, I'd like to address an issue that has come up time after time in regards to these Lasers. The creation of these pieces is almost always attributed to the great Ming Wah Chang, the creative mind who gave us the Cage Talosians, the Romulan Bird of Prey spaceship, the Salt Vampire from "Man Trap, the Tricorder and much more. The trouble with that supposition is that there's no evidence out there to substantiate this claim. In all the great books about the making of Star Trek, Wah Chang is given credit for all the aforementioned concepts, no one – not one single time – ever mentions him working on the Lasers. "The Art of Star Trek" says that he did, but that book got so many things wrong (and it cites no source) that it simply cannot be relied upon. And to repudiate the concept, according to an interview with Chang, himself, that occurred later in life, Chang "disavowed any involvement in their creation, pointing out the clumsiness of the design." So, until I hear some specific, provable claim to the contrary, I for one have grave doubts about the Chang attribution.

So, anyway – lots of pieces – like the Laser Pistols – got out in unknown ways. Theft? Gifts? Recovered trash? Who knows? The bottom line is that we know that SOME of these Lasers got out because there are two documented specimens that can be used for reference. Did more get out? Maybe.

First, there's a specimen owned by famed Trek prop maker Greg Jein. If you don't know who Mr. Jein is, shame on you! You can educate yourself by clicking HERE. According to various sources, Mr. Jein was able to purchase several TOS props from one of the aforementioned insiders. His version has been shown at some sci-fi shows over the years and has been the single best known example of a known Laser.

Propmaker Greg Jein's example of an original Cage Laser prop. Note the typewriter keys! Photo by Karl Tate.
The Jein Laser shows the piece in a modified configuration that is slightly altered from its original use. Between the two pilots, the producers apparently felt that the Lasers were too bland, so they had some metallic details added – typewriter parts! – to the give the effect of high-tech details. Since the pistols would never be seen in close-up, this crude modification was actually quite effective. It gave some visual interest to what had previously been a plain black body. The fact that the detail was achieved through typewriter parts would never be known to the viewer. They were simply shiny things that added some zip.

There's a lot of shots of the Jein Laser that we can use for reference, many of which were taken by Star Trek prop fan and Space.com contributor Karl Tate. Other shots were taken by Trek prop enthusiast Steve Dymszo. Thanks to them, we get a glimpse of one of the most enigmatic of all Star Trek props.

Here's what we know about the Jein Laser:

The Jein Laser courtesy of Steve Dymszo
The Jein Laser courtesy of Steve Dymszo

1. It apparently lit up at the tip.

2. The trigger is practical and the piece is wired, though no longer functional.

3. The rear body was originally cast in clear perspex plastic.

4. The side has two protrusions which could be magnets.

5. The barrel is a hollow brass tube with two steel rings that can move. Screws on the barrel limit the rings' movement.

6. A steel cap is on the end with three plastic "emitters". Originally, they were clear but were later painted black.

7. Crosshatching on the handle is crude and shows signs of having once been painted.

The second known example is not remotely as good. This specimen probably went home with a staffer and got played with. To say it's in rough shape is an understatement. Basically, the entire front assembly is gone and it's nothing but the rear body. And even that is in terrible condition.

Original Auction Catalog shots.
It's impossible to know anything about this piece due to its severe condition. In the episode, "What Are Little Girls Made Of?", the character of Brown can be seen holding a Laser that has bold cross-hatched details on its handle, similar to this piece.

Blu-Ray screen cap from "What Are Little Girls..." Laser shows bold crosshatching on handle.
Does this mean it was used in that episode? Not at all. It might have been but there's no way to make a conclusive screen match, IMO. The Jein version shows signs of that same type of paint, but it's either worn off or partially removed. This version also shows some signs of having had the typewriter parts attached in the style of the Jein. Because of its state, I'll refer to this in the future as the "Chopped" version.

In Part 2, I'll get into more details regarding the Laser's use and how the auction version stacks up to the known facts.

That's FACTS. Some out there need to look that word up.

Back soon.



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