Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Catspaw" (October 27, 1967)

Stardate 3018.2

In orbit of Pyris VII, the Enterprise becomes involved in a horrifying mystery. Mr. Scott (James Doohan) and Mr. Sulu (George Takei) disappear on the planet surface, while a security officer, Jackson (Jimmy Jones) is beamed back aboard.  However, he returns dead.  Aliens speak through his corpse as though he is possessed by spirits, warning Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to depart.

Kirk disobeys the ultimatum, and with science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) beams down to the mist-enshrouded surface.  There, three witches attempt to warn them away, but Spock notes that they are not real.

The landing party soon finds a dark castle on a craggy mountain.  Inside, Scott and Sulu are the zombie servants of aliens Korob (Theo Marcuse) and Sylvia (Antoinette Bower), who appear to be a warlock and witch, respectively.  The strange duo is served by a familiar -- a black cat -- and Sylvia and Korob attempt to bribe the Enterprise crew to leave.

Kirk refuses, and learns that Sylvia and Korob have assumed human form. In doing so, they have made themselves susceptible to human emotions such as lust, and envy.  Kirk attempts to use this new-found humanity against the aliens, who have attempted to look “fearsome” by co-opting the old Earth symbols and figures of “trick or treat,” or Halloween.

Kirk realizes that if he can seduce Sylvia, he may be able to retrieve her power source: a magic wand of sorts called a “transmuter....”

“Catspaw” is a hokey and not entirely successful episode of the original series. It shares many story elements with another Trek, “The Squire of Gothos,” from the first season.  There, Kirk and Sulu (again!) are transported to a castle by a super being, Trelane. 

Similarly, in both stories, the key to resolving the crisis involves Kirk’s destruction of the alien power source, which can re-arrange energy and convert it to matter.  In “The Squire of Gothos,” Trelane had a mirror which could accomplish this, and which Kirk shattered.  In “Catspaw,” the transmuter, the magic wand, is the device of great power that must be destroyed.

Also, both stories involve alien beings of great power who misunderstand some aspect of human history.  Trelane looked through his scope and saw the Earth of Napoleon’s time.  He tailored his world to this primitive era, in an attempt to make the humans comfortable on his world, not realizing his error. 

In “Catspaw,” the aliens seek to keep Captain Kirk away and to do so mine the human collective unconscious for “spooky” imagery.  They also fail to realize that humanity has outgrown its irrational fears of witches, black cats, iron maidens, and so forth.

Even the episode conclusions are similar, as aliens are revealed to possess surprising forms.  Trelane is but a alien child, ordered to come home by his pure energy parents. And Sylvia and Korob are tiny bird/insectoid aliens.

“Catspaw” also relies on two familiar and formulaic Star Trek tropes. The first involves the idea that Captain Kirk must seduce some alien woman of tremendous power in an attempt to save the Enterprise.  Naturally, this alien female finds him irresistibly attractive.  In “Catspaw,” this plot-line requires Shatner to have his hands and lips on Antoinette Bower quite frequently.

Secondly, this story involves aliens from another galaxy who assume human form, and find that the “sensations” that go with human existence are over-powering, uncontrollable.  A better, more coherent version of the same story, replete with aliens from another galaxy, is the second season’s “By Any Other Name.”  That story features both a Kirk seduction of an alien woman, and emotionally arrested beings.  What “By Any Other Name” possesses -- and that which “Catspaw” lacks – is a sense of knowing humor about itself and the characters.

Known as the “Halloween” episode of Star Trek, “Catspaw” is probably as close as the series gets to Lost in Space (1965-1968) territory. In that series, as you may recall, aliens appear who have one human trait or occupation. The Robinsons encounter a space “knight,” a space “thief,” a space “pirate” and even a space “department store manager.”  There isn’t much rhyme or reason to these particular encounters, but Hollywood studio stock costumes and sets can be re-used and re-purposed, instead of invented.  “Catspaw” feels very much like a story of that type. Kirk and his crew encounter witches and warlocks in a castle, and get thrown in a dungeon.

The reason I mention Lost in Space is that the series makes no point of really explaining why aliens look like “types” from either 20th century Earth, or historical Earth.   Here, we have a reason: Sylvia and Korob are explorers getting a foothold in our galaxy and they try to scare Kirk and co. away with symbols of human superstition and terror.

The only problem is that this idea isn’t consistent. The aliens try to scare Kirk off with Jackson’s corpse, and they try to bribe him with rare gems.  But they must understand that as long as they hold Scotty and Sulu hostage, the Enterprise isn’t leaving.  So while they are urging Kirk to leave them be, they also continue to hold his crewmen, literally forcing his continued involvement.  The obvious answer would have been to use the transmuter to hide, not interfere with the crew, and send back Scotty and Sulu.

Still, even in the campiest of Star Trek episodes, there are nuggets of greatness, both in terms of character interaction and series philosophy.  In terms of the former, Spock gets a great line about the MacBeth-style witches reciting bad poetry. It’s a perfectly Spock-ian line. Fear is an effective tool only where emotion is present, and he feels none.

In terms of the latter, there’s the aforementioned -- and remarkable scene -- in “Catspaw” during which Sylvia and Korob attempt to bribe the landing party with rare gems and jewels.  Kirk points out that the Enterprise could manufacture such minerals with very little difficulty.

What this means in practice is that the pursuit of wealth is not a motivating factor in the 23rd century.  Rare gems are not even something that catches Kirk’s eye. Mankind has finally outgrown the need to be “rich.”  Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) takes this idea and runs with it, but “Catspaw” is an important piece of the puzzle.

Also, hokey or not, I absolutely love the scene in which Sylvia uses magic to “curse” the Enterprise, first floating a necklace of the ship over a candle’s hot flame, and then encasing it forever in a small lucite block.  It’s irrational and silly, sure, but strangely effective.

In two weeks: “I Mudd.”


  1. John excellent review of this “Halloween” episode of Star Trek. You are correct that this episode is the closest that Star Trek:TOS got to a second or third season Lost In Space episode.


  2. John,
    I have a certain fondness for this episode (could it be the Lost In Space connection you mentioned?). I remember watching it as a kid around Halloween time, which gave it a special kind of magic. Also, the musical score for "Catspaw" is quite outstanding.
    I know I've made my feeling clear regarding the updated effects, but here they really compliment the episode; particularly the final shot of Sylvia and Korob in their true forms. They were clearly puppets in the original version, with visible strings really taking away from the illusion. The animators of the new effects did a truly superb job re-constructing this and other effects throughout.

  3. Sheri1:21 PM

    I always had a soft spot for "Catspaw". It was just a Halloween episode done for fun. I do like, though, some of the character interactions, as when Kirk in chains turns to McCoy and says "Bones...", notices the skeleton hanging there, and quickly revises it to "...Doc."

    One minor them running through "Catspaw" and other episodes you compared it with, John, is the idea that impersonating humans effectively is not as easy as alien beings seem to think it will be. Sylvia is so shocked!... shocked!...to discover Kirk is using her as she is using him! Turns out humans are crafty little buggers capable of depth, who do and think surprising things and intuit suspicious behavior. I appreciate that undercurrent countering the more common sci-fi theme that we humans are stumbling simpletons who will contribute nothing until we learn from inevitably superior aliens. There's no reason to assume that aliens would be any better or more perfectible than humans are, and I like that Star Trek shifted between these equally likely points of view.