Catspaw takes place on a planet out of my dreams. It has everything I love: wicked witches, creepy castles, clawing cats, freaky fog, Stygian skeletons and dank dungeons! What more could we want? It’s an episode perfect for Halloween, which in fact it was. The episode is written by noted horror author Robert Bloch, probably best known for writing the classic thriller Psycho. From the moment the crewman collapses, cursing the crew, (you can tell I’ve been listening to Jago and Litefoot) while barely moving his lips, I was hooked. (But boy did that actor take a plunge, huh?) Everything that followed this was a dream-come-true for me… For about 15 minutes. After which, it drops into this slow, plodding, when-will-it-bloody-well-end story that I found myself looking around my room trying to get an idea of how many days had passed. How did it go so wrong for me?? I mean, for the love of the Federation, this started so well!
Look, if this is a Halloween episode, it covered both sides of the coin: trick and treat. I would have preferred it starting with trick and ending with treat, but hey, if Charlie Brown can get a rock, so can I. Let’s open that Halloween bag (mine had a Federation logo on it) and see what we have. Ah, the treats…
- The planet appears to be in black and white. Notice even the scenes of the castle when viewed from outside; all the black and white one recalls with such glee from our youth, watching Bela Lugosi in Dracula, and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Well… at least my youth had those treasures! (This, in fairness, may only be on the remastered version; I don’t have the original to watch at the moment to see if that’s the case, but it sure is a nice feature on this version!)
- The comedy: Kirk looks at McCoy and says “Bones”, then realizes he’s next to a skeleton and calls him “doctor”.
- Spock’s expert assessment of the witches warning: “Very bad poetry, captain!”
- The cat and the use of shadow to create the illusion of size. While it would never work today, for 1967, I not only accept; I admire!
Oh, the tricks… Well, basically everything else, but let’s try to be fair…
- Kirk is the most belligerent captain around; he automatically starts from a place of entitlement. He was this way with Apollo and now these creatures with the “sympathetic magic”, whatever that is! He clearly doesn’t like beings with more power than he has!
- These guys have a “duty to the Old Ones”. Are they Cthulhu’s people or the same ones from What are Little Girls Made Of in season one? Or just a bunch of old people in a castle?
- “Tell me about power captain. How does it feel?” It feels like squeezing a shoulder apparently. (I keep trying… it’s not working!)
- Korob gets some wacky fish-eyed camera shots that fail to convey eerie and instead convey comedy.
- “A woman should have compassion.” Thanks Captain Chauvinism. Men shouldn’t?
- And while Sylvia is one of the least attractive femme fatales in Trek history, she goes from witch costume, to sexy seductress, to … WHAT?! Pajamas? Curtains? She even moves back and forth to demonstrate how comfortable they are but they are more alien than the actual aliens!
And the misses don’t stop there, but what more do I need to say? Do I comment on Chekov’s pet that he keeps on his head and calls hair? Or the fact that his shirt has no stripes on the sleeves? Or do I ask if DeSalle is the only guy left in command because he’s been in more than one episode? (Or because he used to be in a different department and is now in Engineering? Cross training is a good thing, I guess!) And I don’t know if I liked or hated the line “Logic is only black and white.” On the one hand, it’s clever but the black and white place Kirk and crew find themselves in is far from logical. However, when the go inside, it’s colorful and… actually far less logical so yeah, maybe logic is black and white.
In the end, Kirk breaks their magic wand of power, like he always does – he’s damned good at breaking stuff – and the aliens revert to little muppets. I can’t help but wonder if, when Kirk kissed Sylvia, did he notice anything… feathery about her? The creatures might be the best thing about the episode only because in the end, they are weird, and remind us that what we see isn’t always what we get. Sort of like seeing a great horror themed episode and getting a talky nightmare of boredom. ML
The view from across the pond:
This was supposed to be the debut of Chekov, but got delayed so that the broadcast could coincide with Halloween. I’m not quite sure why they bothered, because this wouldn’t even scare my cat (if I had a cat). Just about the most frightening thing about the episode was Chekov’s outrageous Beatles hairstyle.
“There is a curse on your ship. Leave this place or you will all die.”
Writer Robert Bloch was presumably trying hard to make this scary, with a lot of the usual nightmare images. I got confused for a second and thought the Terrahawks had turned up, until the three Zeldas starting singing everything. Bananarama clearly haven’t aged well. Then we had Dracula’s castle, complete with flaming torches and cobwebs, so that had me thinking the Enterprise had arrived at the Festival of Ghana. There’s one for the Who fans.
“Someone knew what terrifies man the most on an instinctive level.”
What, too much dry ice?
Things take a very different turn when Kirk and his crew meet Korob and Sylvia. Oh, and by the way is it really wise for so many of the command staff to leave the ship? This week, Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Sulu and Scotty all end up on the planet, leaving the writer to invent a new guy to take charge of the Enterprise. On the planet, Kirk is offered some temptations. Firstly, he is served up a feast of gemstones, and decides that he would rather have had a pie.
“They mean nothing to us.”
McCoy is on hand to verify that “these look real”, so what happened to “I’m a doctor, not a jeweller”? That man has quite a talent. He can identify genuine gemstones in seconds, almost as affectively as he can diagnose a dead patient with a quick glance. I’m not sure Kirk has realised that McCoy has probably built a career on lucky guesses. I doubt he’s even medically trained. He probably wandered onto the Enterprise by accident when they were building it, and bluffed his way from there.
After bribery fails to work, Sylvia tries threats instead, with a nifty bit of voodoo with a little Enterprise on a chain. I wonder what happened to that. It would fetch a few quid on Ebay. I was a little confused as to why he didn’t just snatch it off of her immediately, and when he eventually does exactly that he says “you’ve won”. Looks like he’s won, to me. But maybe Kirk wanted to play things a different way. You see, he had identified a key weakness in his enemy: she’s a woman.
“What I want is a joining.”
That was clearly music to Jim’s ears (not Bananarama), and he set about slobbering all over her face. Did they really kiss like that in the 60s? Maybe he was just hungry because he never got that pie he was hoping for.
“You excite me, why?”
“For the same reasons you excite me. You’re a very beautiful woman.”
Kirk thinks he’s a beautiful woman too? Then Sylvia starts playing dress up for him, although I’m not sure he’s too interested in her clothes at that point. Eventually, the penny drops.
“You are using me!”
I loved that look of “yeah, you got me”, on Kirk’s face. After a run-in with the shadow of a cat, Kirk of course gets the upper hand, leaving Sylvia to try out some Whitney Houston lyrics in desperation, but she doesn’t know the words:
“Look at me, I’m a woman. I’m all women.”
That’s supposed to be “I’m every woman”, Sylvia. But then this is an episode that never quite gets things right. It’s skirting around the edges of scary and exciting, without ever being something you would actually want to watch at Halloween. When two plant muppets show up at the end, that sums things up pretty well.
Why do we always come here
I guess we’ll never know
It’s like a kind of torture
To have to watch the show
For a Star Trek story that can work for Halloween, Catspaw is an interesting comparison to all the Doctor Who, X-Files, Sapphire & Steel and Buffy episodes that deserve Halloween binging. But for Star Trek of course, it still works and rightfully so for the serious dialogue as Kirk and Spock in all their intelligence navigate through the adventure. For Chekov’s originally intended debut here, it was particularly impressive with Walter Koenig’s adorable delivery of “I can do it sir. I’m not that green.” To this day I don’t know what actual meaning for the word ‘green’ was intended there.
Antoinette Bower as Sylvia will be recognized from Prom Night, where she played the devastated mother of the accidentally slain girl who sparked a vengeful killer’s wrath. I remember her from some other roles including the classic Twilight Zone’s “Probe 7, Over And Out”. She was superbly cast as Sylvia for demonstrating the worst of feminine evil for the Star Trek universe. It was also another opportunity for sexualization in the classic Trek through the drives of Kirk of course. So we’re indeed faced with how problematic that could be for women and men in the audience who find that repugnant. It’s good that Picard handled it much more appropriately in Devil’s Due.
The obviously simplistic effects for the giant cat were okay for me. Even when they didn’t have a visual effect for Sylvia’s unseen metamorphosis into the cat and vice versa, it works better for the specific impact that a most unique Trek episode like Catspaw could have. The CGI update for the external look of the castle though is as fitting as the CGI for the exploding castle for Doctor Who’s The Time Warrior.
I would recommend Catspaw for Halloween. Thank you both for your reviews. 🎃
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We may differ of course on whether Catspaw is watchable enough for Halloween. Even if it’s just what the beginning of the story has to offer, as with the first two episodes of Doctor Who: The Stones Of Blood before the rest of the story changes everything, that mix can often be the excitement that draws fans in. And the deconstruction of mythological horror in the dialogue between Kirk and Spock in the dungeon can be good for if you like educational benefits about Halloween traditions. Trekkers probably would, as they can be attuned to how such dialogue can drive a Trek episode. On Halloween, if you just want to try something different enough, I can always give Catspaw points for that.
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