Star Trek: The Original Series Revisited: “Catspaw”

Catspaw aired around Halloween in 1967, and was meant to celebrate the holiday. A spooky Halloween special written by Robert Bloch—the author of the novel Psycho and a protegé of H.P. Lovecraft—seems like a good idea in theory.

In practice… eh. Bloch doesn’t dig in to either psychological or cosmic horror, but instead opts for a bunch of hoary retro clichés—skeletons, black cats, mysterious castles. It’s neither interesting nor frightening. But it’s not over-the-top enough to be amusing. either.

It doesn’t help that the script defaults yet again to that Star Trek favorite, the all-powerful aliens with seemingly magical powers. We’ve already seen this twice in the first seven episodes of the seventh season—once in “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and again in “The Apple.” Those are both about Edenic paradises, and the gothic trappings here offer a slightly different vibe. Not different enough though.

Trick or Treat or Tedium

Our adventure into horror-lite starts with the USS Enterprise circling Pyris VII for obscure reasons. The planet is lifeless and of no particular interest. But Captain Kirk (William Shatner) has sent a landing party down to the surface consisting of Chief Engineer Scott (James Doohan), Lt. Sulu (George Takei) and crewman Jackson (Jimmy Jones.)

The landing party fails to check in, making Kirk nervous. Finally, Jackson calls up saying he alone is to beam aboard. Static makes it impossible to learn more details. But when they transport him up, he immediately falls over dead. Then an echoey voice comes from his mouth, intoning, “There is a curse on your ship. Leave this place or you will all die.” Spooky!

Captain Kirk is not so easily spooked. He beams down to the planet with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy). That leaves Assistant Chief Engineer DeSalle (Michael Barrier) in charge of the Enterprise.

Wouldn’t you leave Spock behind? Why does the Captain go on these away missions where he could get killed anyway? Many have asked, but in the vast cold of space there is no answer.

Anyway, they are on the planet. There is fog though there should be no fog, and the landing party’s instruments are all wonky. Also, they encounter three ghostly witches who have snuck out of a Macbeth production to warn them again to go back. But they aren’t ready to end the episode yet, so they follow confusing life-readings to a medieval castle.

Inside they see a black cat with a diamond pendant. They follow the cat because cats are cool. But cats are also fickle. This one leads them into a trap; the floor gives way, knocking them out. When they wake up, they are chained to the wall. Kirk wakes first, and uses McCoy’s nickname to try to wake him. “Bones?” Then he sees a skeleton chained to the wall and looks very perturbed. That’s probably the best joke of the episode.

All Powerful Alien Invaders? Again?

Spock muses that horror tropes they’re seeing have been pulled from humanity’s collective unconscious. Kirk replies that the writer just isn’t very inventive. Or, okay, he doesn’t. But he should.

Scott and Sulu enter, but they are unblinking and mind-controlled. They unchain our heroes and take them to a bald guy with a staff named Korub (Theo Marcuse). He is hanging out with the cat, who eventually turns into a woman, Sylvia (Antoinette Bower.) They demand information about Federation science.

Kirk and Spock disarm Scott and hold Korbu and Sylvia at phaser-point. Sylvia responds by dangling a model of the Enterprise over a candle. Thanks to her powers of sympathetic magic, the real Enterprise starts to heat catastrophically. Kirk surrenders, and she takes the Enterprise out of the fire. But then she encases it in a block of some substance so no one can beam down to the rescue. Kirk and Spock are led back to the dungeon while McCoy is brain-zapped like Scott and Sulu.

Eventually Kirk is brought back to see Sylvie. She tells him that she and Kolub are from outside the galaxy; they are invaders. She also says she is into the sensuous sensations of being human, and tries to seduce Kirk.

Kirk, of course, tries to seduce her right back. He gets her to tell him her power comes from a transmuter. But then she figures out with her mind powers that he is just using her. Back to the dungeon he goes.

Then, unexpectedly, Kolub shows up and frees Kirk and Spock. Kolub is upset because Sylvie is into sensation and sex and sadism. Sylvie takes the form of a giant cat, mostly seen in shadows and close ups. She knocks a door over on Kolub. Kirk takes Kolub’s staff, which is the transmuter, and destroys it.

The castle disappears, the hypnotized crew members return to themselves. All that’s left are two little vaguely humanoid blue and yellow puppet things, the real form of Sylvie and Kolub. They disintegrate anticlimactically.

Invasion is Sensuous

The episode fails in part because the aliens’ motives and powers aren’t very well explained. We never learn what exactly they want from Kirk and company. The plot just stands there, a mannequin on which to hang unconvincing gothic trappings.

Interestingly, Sylvie seems to agree that the aliens’ motives are unclear and uninteresting. Whatever Kolub’s mission, Sylvie thinks it’s silly and pointless. She casts it aside, and instead embraces her role as witch, seductress, and villain. When Kolub protests, “You’re cruel. You torture our specimens,” she responds,  “And that too is a new sensation. I find it stimulating.” She stretches with the luxurious unconcern of a cat.

Sylvie is dangerous in part because she’s a woman. Thanks to sexism, women with power are often portrayed as eerie and frightening, like that skeleton bolted to the wall. Kolub, a man, is unaffected by human form. But Sylvie becomes power mad, drunk on sadism and control. You can’t trust the women with the transmuters.

Sylvie isn’t just a woman, though. She’s also an invader. Kolub gestures at the kind of imperial high-minded platitudes that the United States was using at the time to justify the Vietnam War. “You’re discarding everything we live by!” he exclaims. Sylvie, for her part, is more honest. Control and power are desirable in themselves. “I can squash you and that would be an interesting sensation, yes. I find I like these new sensations,” she admits, with relish.

Sylvie revels in the kind of colonial sex tourism you see in Full Metal Jacket, as well as in the pleasures of deploying superior weaponry. Heating the Enterprise till the crew burns up recalls, in context, napalm, which was being used in Vietnam when this episode aired.

Traveling to new places, forcing the people there to do your will, and torturing them if they don’t, is exciting, empowering and fun. That’s an insight that is a good bit more chilling than the fog. “Catspaw” mostly focuses on the latter. But a better, scarier episode occasionally sparkles there behind Sylvia’s cat eyes.

4.5/10 SPECS

All episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series are currently streaming on Paramount+.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.