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Star Trek – Catspaw (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Catspaw was the first episode to enter production for that second season of Star Trek. However, it was not the first to air. Amok Time served as the season opener. Instead, Catspaw was produced as something of a rarity – a Star Trek holiday special. Produced in May, it was eventually broadcast during the last week of October. Given the subject matter and trappings of the episode, that seems highly appropriate.

We are, after all, looking at what amounts to a Star Trek Halloween Special.

Bones joins the cast...

Bones joins the cast…

That seems rather surreal, given how the franchise had developed in the years since. After all, Star Trek imagines a secular humanity, one that has moved past traditional holidays anchored in religion. So it’s rather disconcerting to hear Kirk reference “trick or treat”, even in passing. Just in case we needed further conformation that we’re pretty far from Gene Roddenberry’s socialist and atheist utopia, there’s a casual reference to “credits” thrown in for good measure.

Still, Catspaw stands out as a rather odd duck. Unless one chooses to read Mortal Coil – broadcast in mid-December – as something of an “anti-Christmas Special”, then Catspaw stands as the only holiday-specific episode of Star Trek ever produced. This would immediately mark it as a departure from form, even if its themes and content weren’t decidedly outside of what is generally deemed to be Star Trek‘s comfort zone.

Haven't the foggiest...

Haven’t the foggiest…

Holiday specials are a fixture of the viewing schedule. They remain so even in this day and age. The Simpsons produce an annual Halloween Special. The television networks are flooded with thematically appropriate episodes at certain junctures. Even one-off animated specials have become part of the rich tradition, with Peanuts producing both a Christmas and a Halloween Special that have become standard holiday viewing. Let’s not talk about The Star Wars Holiday Special.

In the UK, things go a step further. British broadcasters will produce special episodes of particularly popular shows to air on holidays. Christmas Eve, Christmas itself, St. Stephen’s Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are traditionally stuffed with holiday specials of popular shows like Call the Midwife, Doctor Who or Downton Abbey. The broadcasters will occasionally even conspire to reunite the casts of classic comedy shows for one-off celebratory specials.

Chekov is wigging out...

Chekov is wigging out…

Catspaw feels like it definitely belongs to that tradition. Featuring the vast majority of the senior staff on the planet surface, the episode even feels like a celebration – it’s worth noting that the addition of Chekov means that this is the first time all of the “big seven” characters appear together. This is the first time that the show featured the seven actors who would be considered the quintessential Star Trek crew when the series transitioned into feature films.

That said, the cast outside of Kirk and Spock aren’t given too much to do. Sulu and Scotty (and later Bones) get to serve as henchmen for the bad guys, which seems more like a budget-saving effort than a demonstration of Korob and Sylvia’s power. Indeed, Sulu doesn’t even get a line. Still, it could be worse. In These Are the Voyages: Season Two, author Marc Cushman notes that Bloch rather casually killed Sulu off in an earlier draft of the episode.

Wow, Shatner's right. Kirk can do anything in this show...

Wow, Shatner’s right. Kirk can do anything in this show…

While Chekov and Uhura remain on the ship, they don’t get much more to do. Command of the ship is given over to DeSalle, rather than to Uhura, which might have been a better precedent. Chekov doesn’t get a chance to make an impression, beyond reminding the viewers that he is new. “I’m not that green,” he protests to DeSalle at one point. However, he is fitted with a rather dodgy wig that serves to date the production of Catspaw in the same way that the uniforms date the early episodes of the first season.

Keeping with the theme, Catspaw is packed with all sorts of low-rent Halloween imagery. Kirk and his crew find themselves tackling haunted castles, creepy skeletons, rogue fog machines and giant cats. The three witches from Macbeth even show up to offer a prophetic scare – just so the show never seems too lowbrow. Still, Catspaw remains very silly and very goofy. Even among Robert Bloch’s other weird episodes of Star Trek (What Are Little Girls Made Of? and Wolf in the Fold), this seems rather surreal.

Bewitched...

Bewitched…

In a way, it’s a nice reminder that Star Trek is a pulp action adventure show. It is also a lot of other things – thoughtful allegory, bold science-fiction, daring thought experiments – but it is just as much a very pulpy piece of television. The first episode of Star Trek broadcast was The Man Trap, a show about a salt vampire. Arena is a compelling exploration of cultural relativism and territoriality that features a lumbering dude in a green lizard suit. Errand of Mercy introduced an analogue for the Communists by creating a race of space!Mongols. Star Trek is goofy. That’s part of what it is.

Catspaw is ridiculous, but so is a lot of Star Trek. There’s a sense that the episode tends to get dismissed or brushed aside because it is just pure pulpy nonsense, lacking any of the sophistication or maturity associated with Star Trek as a franchise. This doesn’t seem entirely fair. For one thing, it presupposes that Star Trek only has worth if it’s being thoughtful and profound. It’s an approach that tends to lead to the franchise taking itself far too seriously. No spin-off could do an episode like Catspaw, after all.

Korob likes to watch...

Korob likes to watch…

However, it also dismisses the idea that anything particularly surreal and goofy could have something worth saying. Catspaw is a very strange piece of Star Trek, but it does have an interesting thing or two to say about how Star Trek views the universe. There are other episodes that arguably touch on the same ideas and themes in a more insightful and clever manner, but that doesn’t diminish the more interesting aspects of Catspaw.

As one might expect from writer Robert Bloch, the script to Catspaw feels decidedly indebted to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Bloch’s script explicitly references “the Old Ones”, but Catspaw is also a story that plays on ideas of perception and comprehension – the sense that the universe is not all we understand it to be. Lovecraft is a writer whose work seemed to have a significant impact on the early years of Star Trek, but the franchise drifted away from his ideas in later shows.

A hidden gem?

A hidden gem?

While Bloch was very much a disciple of Lovecraft, his own contributions to Star Trek aren’t the only ones that acknowledge Lovecraft’s sense of the horrific and incomprehensible unknown. Shades of Lovecraft are found in scripts as diverse as The Man Trap, Operation — Annihilate!, Obsession and The Immunity Syndrome. The early seasons of Star Trek suggested that the universe was an absolutely horrific place, haunted by the ghosts of civilisations truly alien and long-thought dead.

Naturally, that changed over time. The early episodes of Star Trek seemed to take place in an eerily empty universe, suggesting mankind had stumbled into a graveyard occupied by races that had either died out or were preparing to move on. Eventually, that universe came to be populated with alien species and empires and space ships, but the earliest episodes of Star Trek seemed to suggest that all mankind would find outside our solar system would be horror in one form or another.

"I think I read some slash fiction that started like this..."

“I think I read some slash fiction that started like this…”

As such, Catspaw feels almost like a throwback to those earlier episodes, a show that would probably feel less out of place occupying a similar slot in the first season. This is probably no coincidence. According to Bloch, this was the first script he was invited to write for Star Trek:

How did you come to work for Star Trek?

I received a phone call from Dorothy Fontana and she said they wanted a story for Halloween. My arrangement with my agent is that I never solicit an assignment. They called me up and told me what it was that they needed.

Didn’t you do What Are Little Girls Made Of? which guest starred Ted Cassidy as a monstrous android, first?

No. I did the episode for Halloween first.

Catspaw seems like an episode that might have worked better before viewers knew that the universe was populated by Klingons and Romulans, when it seemed like planets existed solely to crash on or to excavate.

"Thank goodness they thought to kill the expendable extra rather than the recurring guest stars!"

“Thank goodness they thought to kill the expendable extra rather than the recurring guest stars!”

As one almost expects from a Robert Bloch script, Catspaw feels highly derivative. It owes a significant debt to his earlier short story Broomstick Ride. This would not be the only time that Bloch would borrow rather heavily from his own work to produce a script for Star Trek. His later script for the second season, Wolf in the Fold, built off his earlier story Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper. Of course, the stories were his own to use in this manner, and episodes like Tin Man and The Slaver Weapon have seen other writers doing the same sort of thing.

However, Catspaw doesn’t just feel like it’s covering ground familiar to Bloch himself. Marc Cushman’s These Are The Voyages: Season Two suggests that the early drafts borrowed quite a bit from The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before. Even the broadcast episode feels like it owes a bit too much to The Squire of Gothos, as if the show is treading on familiar ground. The familiar planet set contributes, but there are other similarities at play.

It's a kind of magic...

It’s a kind of magic…

In both stories, reality warpers build an incongruous structure from ancient human culture on an alien world, failing to realise that they’ve drawn from the wrong source to properly impress Kirk and his crew. Trelane didn’t adjust from the light years between Gothos and Earth, while Korob did not distinguish between the conscious and subconscious mind. Both “collect” members of the crew – Sulu in both cases – and misunderstand Kirk. Trelane insists that Kirk is a warrior, over his objections; Korob tries to bribe Kirk with jewels. When Kirk informs them that those jewels have no value, he replies, “Valueless? I don’t understand. I read–“

This is a rather significant flaw with Catspaw, rather like the show’s struggling special effects. Star Trek looked fantastic for its time and its budget, but Catspaw is a spectacle-heavy script that seems unable to appreciate the practical limitations of television budget. The “giant” cat is a particularly dodgy special effect, looking like the giant rat that would appear at one of the more infamous Doctor Who cliffhangers in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The final reveal of Korob and Sylvia is undercut somewhat by the fact that the strings holding the puppets are clearly visible.

They didn't break the kitty on this one...

They didn’t break the kitty on this one…

As quoted in These Are the Voyages: Season Two, Robert Bloch was understandably disappointed by these production limitations:

Of the end result for all the hard work from hose involved, writer Robert Bloch said, “I do have some quibbles about the way in which things were done. It wasn’t their fault, but they just didn’t have the budget. Catspaw cried out for the use of opticals in post-production effects. Shooting a cat’s face in tight close-up is not exactly any substitute for having a giant cat. Running down a few feet of cardboard corridors isn’t the same thing as having your characters trapped in a labyrinth of frightening proportions.

The production team on Star Trek always did the best that they could with the budget and time available, but Catspaw is held back by these issues.

Nimoy had warned Shatner about antagonising the supporting cast...

Nimoy had warned Shatner about antagonising the supporting cast…

Of course, this was inevitable. As Marc Cushman notes in These Are the Voyages, the show was brought back for a second season with a reduced budget:

With the new season came a new budget — a smaller one. It was bow down from $195,000 per episode to $187,500. So far, only four episodes had been made for less than the first season cap of $195,000: The Man Trap, The Naked Time, Charlie X, and Tomorrow Is Yesterday. Only four out of 29. The new streamlined budget seemed impossible.

The attempts to realise the story on the limited budget are obvious in a number of ways. Tellingly, Sylvia doesn’t transform on screen, with a sound effect doing all the hard work. The giant cat appears mostly in silhouette. Catspaw would have been an ambitious episode under any circumstances, but particularly with a cut budget.

Even the series' model budget was cut...

Even the series’ model budget was cut…

Still, despite all that, Catspaw is an intriguing episode on its own terms. It’s a show that rather consciously challenges the rational underpinnings of Star Trek. As Darcee L. McLaren and Jennifer E. Porter suggest in (Re)Covering Sacred Ground, the franchise has tried to ground itself in a pseudo-scientific  theory of the cosmos:

Rationality in Star Trek is conceived of in terms of an empirical understanding of the universe in which all things can be seen to operate according to natural laws. All events have a rational explanation; it is not necessary to resort to supernatural forces to understand the universe. The rationalism of the New Age and of Star Trek is experiential, based upon natural laws and coupled with the conviction that humans can know the truth about the universe.

There are obviously exceptions to this general principle. Episodes like Shore Leave feel more deeply rooted in fantasy than in science-fiction. Even creatures like Trelane in The Squire of Gothos challenge a strictly rational approach to the universe, although the show does work hard to try to dismiss these challenges with a line here or a shrug there.

Reach out and touch faith...

Reach out and touch faith…

Catspaw pushes the characters by forcing them to confront something that doesn’t make any sense according to the scientific principles of the universe. Trying to account for the away team, Uhura observes, “They just disappeared.” DeSalle is having none of this. “Nobody just disappears,” he insists. “They may have encountered a magnetic field or some other obstruction.” The ship is burnt by dangling a model over a candle, and trapped in a transparent box through “sympathetic magic.”

Sure, the Enterprise crew work hard to rationalise this. DeSalle and Checkov come up with a suitably techno-babble attempt to break out of the hold. “Maybe we can’t break it,” DeSalle admits, “but I’ll bet you credits to navy beans we can put a dent in it.” It seems like Chekov has managed to do that, right before it is revealed that Korob himself actually just released the ship. It seems like the Enterprise crew have encountered a force against which their technology is worthless.

"Hm. These guys normally don't even get line when they are alive..."

“Hm. These guys normally don’t even get line when they are alive…”

Kirk tries to threaten Sylvia with the phaser he stole from Scotty. However, he discovers that it was depleted. This sequence prevents us from ever discovering whether a phaser would be effective on Sylvia or Korob. That said, the fact that Scotty was able to deplete the phaser’s entire battery without doing any palpable damage to Sylvia or Korob suggests that perhaps the pair exist on a plane where such mortal instruments cannot directly affect them.

For his part, Kirk tries to offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for everything. “This is the source of your power,” he insists, brandishing the wand. It’s not that simple. Sylvia clarifies, “Not the source. It’s an amplifier. The mind is the source.” This would seem to fit quite comfortably with Aleister Crowley’s suggestion that magic is “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”

Takei vs. Shatner, round 2!

Takei vs. Shatner, round 2!

While on the subject of Crowely, it is worth noting that the occult was undergoing a revival in popular culture during the sixties. As Philip Jenkins explains in Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America:

Occult and esoteric themes, which had developed strong roots in the counterculture, now gained a broad national audience. At any point in the twentieth century, believers in reincarnation, psychic powers, channelling, or lost continents could always be found, but they were generally concentrates in limited areas, all above southern California. During the 1960s and 1970s, such ideas went national.

Aleister Crowley even appeared on the iconic cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Magic and occult thinking had begun to bleed into the mainstream. Catspaw can be seen as an example of this.

Storming the castle...

Storming the castle…

In the end, Kirk defeats Sylvia by smashing the wand, a symbolic gesture. He doesn’t defeat the aliens by firing a phaser or speaking some techno-babble or twisting some knobs. His phaser useless, Kirk has to use a magical object to defeat his adversaries. That said, it is worth noting that Sylvia does threaten him with a phaser – as he threatens her with a symbol of her magical powers, she threatens him with a symbol of his technology and science.

When Spock refers to Korob and Sylvia as “something totally alien in all respects”, he seems to be talking about creature fundamentally alien to the nature of Star Trek. Korob and Sylvia seem to represent something that undermines one of the most fundamentally rules of Star Trek. They are a question that cannot be answered, a riddle than cannot be solved. When DeSalle asks Chekov to analyse the wave form, Chekov replies simply, “It will not analyse, sir.”

"What's an entity like you doing in a place like this?"

“What’s an entity like you doing in a place like this?”

Korob taunts Kirk, “You examine any object. You question everything. Is it not enough to accept what is?” Of course it isn’t. Kirk and his crew are on a mission of discovery and exploration. With Korob and Sylvia, they seem to brush up against something that cannot be entirely explained or rationalised. Sure, this isn’t the first time that the Enterprise has encountered anything strange or surreal, and it won’t be the last. However, Catspaw puts a heavy emphasis on it.

“You seem to do with your mind what we do with tools,” Kirk offers, somewhat feebly. “You alter matter, move it about by telekinesis.” It’s a nice attempt to make it all make sense, but it doesn’t make Sylvia and Korob conform to the rules of reality as the crew understand them. They seem to come from “outside” the galaxy – but the show is never clear on what exactly “outside” means. Is it simply another galaxy, or another universe, or perhaps even another story? Are they invading Star Trek from a horror story?

Un-phased...

Un-phased…

Despite this rather interesting central idea, there are a number of problems here. On top of the production issues and the sense that we’ve seen a lot of this before, there is Sylvia. As with What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Kirk uses his raw sexual energy to overwhelm something inhuman that made the mistake of appearing in human for. Whether an android or a strange reality-bending alien, Kirk is perfectly willing to harness his masculinity for the greater good of his crew and the wider universe.

The problem, of course, is that this is all horribly sexist. Korob is alien, but he seems reasonably trustworthy and curious. Sylvia, on the other hand, is completely psychotic. Catspaw rather heavily implies that this is because Sylvia is in the form of a woman. While Korob can resist the temptations of the flesh, Sylvia lacks that restraint. Indeed, in the middle of one of her hyper-emotional and irrational rants, the script has Sylvia declare, “I am a woman. I am all women!”

"I'm shipping out tomorrow..."

“I’m shipping out tomorrow…”

Bloch’s scripts don’t exactly feature strong female guest stars. However, as quoted in These Are the Voyages, it’s worth noting that Roddenberry himself encouraged the development of this storytelling angle:

Page 44, Kirk begins to use his masculine charms on Sylvia. Good, at least he is trying something. It could even be logical, i.e., if she has taken on a perfect female human form, perhaps one of the costs of this is inheriting all the female emotions and illogic which go with it.

It would appear that Korob does not have to worry about any of the “male emotions and illogic” that come with taking a masculine form. This is another irritating example of the show’s tendency towards casual sexism.

The episode's issues with gender are not resolved by Sylvia's ability to hypnotise men with her breasts.

The episode’s issues with gender are not resolved by Sylvia’s ability to hypnotise men with her breasts.

There are problems with Catspaw. Indeed, there are some very serious problems with Catspaw. It is probably the weakest of Bloch’s three scripts, the production cannot realise the visuals as well as it might, and it’s tainted by the show’s unthinking and unflinching sexism. The episode doesn’t get the second season of Star Trek off to a promising start, and certainly doesn’t illustrate where the show should be at this point in its life-cycle.

However, the episode is weird enough to remain interesting – and it’s unique enough to merit a look from any curious souls. A “Star Trek Halloween Special” is a concept that is off-the-wall enough to justify the existence of Catspaw. However, more than that, it touches on some interesting ideas about how the show sees the universe, and the assumptions underpinning the franchise. It offers a subtle challenge to the underlying philosophy of Star Trek, even if it never hammers it home as well as it might.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

Catspaw is a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

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5 Responses

  1. Once you set aside the rose-tinted nostalgia of people who grew up watching the original Star Trek (and that includes myself) you will very quickly realize that many of the episodes were extremely goofy and have not aged especially well!

    • Well, I may sound harsh in places – and that’ll become more apparent as we go on, I think – but I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love the show.

      • Oh, I love Star Trek, as well. I think it was groundbreaking and imaginative and fun. But I certainly am not going to, um, whitewash its faults. I’m also going to give credit where credit is due. Gene Roddenberry may have creaded Star Trek, and been its driving force, but he certainly was not solely responsible for it’s success. I may have said this in an older comment, but I think he was a great “idea man.” But it fell to writers such as Gene L. Coon, D.C. Fontana, Robert Bloch, David Gerrold and Harlan Ellison to really flesh out those ideas, give them detail and nuance, turn them into a cohesive universe. That was even more the case with the movies and The Next Generation.

  2. Re: “Catspaw” being the only holiday-related TOS episode… I always thought “Friday’s Child” was a Christmas- related episode.

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