“Trick or Treat/Trick or Treat/Trick or Treat for Halloween”: Catspaw

(6 comments)

Little known fact: Back in the day they used to have Enterprise moon pendants.

Well, to start things off I'd like to say that coming off of Raumpatrouille Orion and The Prisoner it's rather exasperating to tune in for the brand new season of Star Trek and see Captain Kirk stomp around the bridge in a huff and bluster about people failing to follow landing party procedure. It would have been very nice to be able to open this post with a hearty declaration that the show has finally turned a corner with the first story produced for the new year, especially with a premise as tantalizing as the one this episode has. But no, “Catspaw” is aggravatingly business as usual.

Which is really rather puzzling, because it has the makings of something incomparably bizarre and interesting to talk about. First of all, this episode has the single most bonkers pitch in the history of the franchise: It is literally a Star Trek holiday special. I'm not even kidding-The only reason “Catspaw” exists is because somebody, most likely at NBC, decided Star Trek really needed to have a Halloween special. So, we get fifty minutes of Kirk, Spock and McCoy wandering around a stereotypically spooky haunted castle with witches, skeletons, black cats and evil wizards. There are any number of reasonable, plausible reasons for this premise to go hilariously and catastrophically off the rails but, in a moment of genuine insight, Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon make the actually sane and sensible decision to give the story to the only person on staff remotely capable of taking this quite literal nightmare pitch and turning into something other than an unmitigated disaster: Robert Bloch.

Bloch only had one other Star Trek script to his name at this time: “What Are Little Girls Made Of”? early on in the first season, an episode that could charitably be described as not going quite according to plan. However, before we run to the hills screaming, it's worth pointing out Bloch was actually an extremely respected and influential author, penning a little novel called Psycho, so perhaps the failings of the previous story can and should be laid once again at the feet of Gene Roddenberry, who decided he needed to rewrite the whole thing in the middle of primary filming. Thankfully Roddenberry seemed to see no need to do similar micromanaging here, so with “Catspaw” we get a better glimpse into the sorts of things Bloch is actually interested in talking about, which seems to be pretty clearly “horror”. Not just any kind of horror, though: The type of horror Bloch seems to fancy the most, especially when it comes to writing Star Trek, is descended from the works of US novelist H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a prolific early 20th century writer with a particular interest in uniquely mystical and cosmic variety of psychological horror. In Lovecraft's works, the universe is really the domain of vast, incomprehensible ancient monsters who exist so far above and beyond the realm of human comprehension that to even glimpse one or speak its name would drive a person to complete and inconsolable madness. These beings, often referred to as either Eldritch Abominations or the Old Ones, represent what Lovecraft saw as humanity's ultimate insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe, and they have the power to wipe out reality as we know it without so much as a thought. This is a line of thinking that very much interested Bloch as well, having written a number of stories set in the Lovecraft mythos and actually corresponding with Lovecraft himself regularly while he was still alive. Interestingly, both of Bloch's Star Trek scripts so far make mention of Old Ones, being both the creators of Ruk in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and the people whom Sylvia and Korob apparently have a “duty” to in “Catspaw”.

So naturally, we ought to read Korob and Sylvia, who are already, as Spock remarks “utterly alien” and beyond human comprehension, able as they are to transmute thought into reality, as some kind of Lovecraftian horror come to match wits with the Enterprise crew, out on a mission of exploration in places they don't belong. Except this doesn't really work in practice: If it was Bloch's intent to make Korob and Sylvia Eldritch Abominations he failed pretty spectacularly, as they're dispatched laughably easily when Kirk smashes the transmuter at the end of the episode, revealing their true form and distinctly not driving the landing party out of their minds. Perhaps they're servants of a larger Lovecraftian power, but one does get the sense these beings are not so much grand, incomprehensible cosmic horrors from the dawn of space and time and perhaps just the standard-issue hyper advanced beings the crew comes into contact with every once in awhile.

It doesn't help the actual horror motifs “Catspaw” works with are less magickal paths toward enlightenment and more kindergarten Halloween decorations. Depressingly befitting the episode's status as a holiday special for network television, we get the most stereotypical and stock out-of-context tropes you can think of. It's all here, from wailing witches with a predilection toward what Spock somewhat aptly dubs “very bad poetry”, big medieval castles with dungeons and shackles, black cats, skeletons witches and warlocks. There are no Jack-o-Lanterns or dudes running around with bedsheets over their heads, but they honestly wouldn't look too out of place.

I'm not sure whether or not I should commend Bloch for trying to get this theme park of family-friendly scares to cohere together, because what he comes up with is a somewhat confusing, and really not especially convincing, explanation of “race memory”. Apparently, Korob and Sylvia were trying to scare Captain Kirk as part of his aptitude test to find out whether or not he could teach them about sensations and emotions (concepts that are alien to them), so they read up on what was supposedly frightening to all humans (though Spock also says, flagrantly contradictory, that Korob and Sylvia were looking for a setting to make humans comfortable but were only able to tap the subconscious and found primal genetic fears instead). This is ludicrous on several levels, not the least of which is that watered-down Gothic horror isn't going to be scary to anyone, let alone all of humanity. Why would someone from a culture completely removed from modernist Europe, either because they exist so far in the future so as the imagery has become meaningless or, heaven forbid, they come from a place that isn't Europe or the United States, have these sorts of images in their shared consciousness anyway? This is hegemonic provincialism, plain and simple.

Perhaps a better approach, if the show absolutely *had* to go the kindergarten Halloween decoration route (instead of, you know, an actually intelligent and thoughtful analysis of pre-Christian Celtic and Northern European mythology and spirituality), would have been to look at the specific genre of generic horror story that sort of setting fits into and turn that into a kind of critique. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, which is only two years out from debuting as of this episode's airdate, handles this sort of thing effortlessly and that's ostensibly a brainless kids' show for 7-10 year olds (largely because Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is fundamentally neither horror nor a horror pastiche, but rather German Expressionism). One would think the supposedly grown-up, mature, intellectual and thought-provoking science fiction show airing as a primetime drama on NBC could do this in its sleep. But no, Star Trek prefers to have Kirk blunder around a third-rate harvest festival attraction punching things.

This isn't the only problem “Catspaw” has either. A really big one is Sylvia herself, for pretty much exactly the reasons you'd expect. Apparently, her species is incapable of feeling sensations and emotions, and, since using the transmuter to assume human form has become what can best be described as drunk on sensory overload, lusting for both power and the things one usually seeks when the word "lusting” is involved, and perfectly willing to browbeat and manipulate both Korob and Kirk to get what she wants. Of course, having the alien presenting as a woman be the one to turn traitorous and evil is hideously sexist. How many ways is it sexist? Well, just to name a few, women are often seen as weaker and more fickle than men, there's a tradition of ambitious, power hungry, manipulative women in Western literature dating back to at the *very* least Lady Macbeth, and furthermore women are seen as more sensual and sensuality is seen as a Bad Thing in the pop Western manifestations of Christian thinking. So we have Sylvia, a cruel and heartless Lady Macbeth (Kirk even tells her she lacks compassion which “all women must have”, apparently) tempted away from the path of righteous Intellect and Reason by the sins of the body. I don't think I really need to go the next step and point out what the symbolism is of her being a witch implies.

I could carry on ripping this episode to shreds, and I will, but I'd be remiss if I didn't take some time to mention this episode makes the first appearance of the last regular to join the cast of Star Trek: The famous and beloved Ensign Pavel Chekov, played by Walter Koenig, who, while a science officer here, will soon take his familiar post next to Sulu as navigator and the seventh member of the bridge team. Chekov is, let's be honest, a profoundly weird character. Supposedly he was created to serve as yet another example of Star Trek's enlightened future and to show how even people who were staunch enemies in the present could be friends and co-workers in the future. Also, he was created to cash in on the success of The Monkees by giving the Enterprise Russian Space Davy Jones as a senior staff member. Predictably, Gene Coon disagreed with this official story, claiming instead Chekov was going to be English before Roddenberry received a letter of complaint from Soviet fans arguing the hypocrisy of a show depicting a future with a united Earth didn't have any Russians, especially as they were, at the time, ahead in the Space Race. However, this time he's contradicted by Koenig himself, who has the really rather plausible theory this letter more than likely didn't exist, because no Soviet television stations would be airing US programming at the height of the Cold War. Koenig claims making Chekov Russian was always Roddenberry's idea, due to him wanting to acknowledge the USSR's aforementioned dominant space programme.

Regardless of whose idea the character ultimately was (and not to play favourites necessarily, but I am for various reasons more inclined to side with Gene Coon) the fact is Chekov, much like a lot of this show at this point in time, frankly doesn't work all that well. He's an endearing enough character and will only continue to become more so as the series goes on, but in terms of what he was actually intended to do? He's a disaster. The attempt to pay lip service to The Monkees is ridiculous and transparently a bit of cynical pandering, not to mention far too little too late given what the show's done to youth culture so far. Furthermore, having a Russian member of the Enterprise crew is a nice idea in theory, but not when he's portrayed as the most skin-crawlingly caricatured stereotype of the funny foreign blinkered, Mother Russia-praising comrade imaginable. This isn't really noticeable in “Catspaw” per se, but it becomes an irritatingly defining part of the character as he develops over the next two years. Chekov is basically Yakov Smirnoff 25 years early except unironic and not funny.

Even on Raumpatrouille Orion at least, while Eva Pflug wasn't Russian she at least played Tamara Jagellovsk as a real person instead of a bad cartoon character and didn't feel the need to engage in a borderline offensively fake (and inaccurate) accent. But this has always been a problem for Star Trek: I hate to say it, but James Doohan's Scotty is no different, and the fact Uhura and Sulu are spared the same theme park approach to ethnicity is something of a miracle. Speaking of Uhura, Sulu and Scotty, they're once again barely in this episode. Nichelle Nichols gets to do her usual “frequencies are jammed sir! I can't compensate!” routine on the bridge, but James Doohan and George Takei don't even get to speak any lines in this episode. At least with Takei there's an excuse, as he spent the majority of the second season filming a movie so he wasn't available on set as frequently as he had been in the past, but to see a noted and respected character actor like Doohan, who was it must be stressed supposed to be playing a major role here, treated this way is appalling.

Nevertheless, in spite of everything that's wrong with “Catspaw” and there is a frightening amount of things wrong with it, there is one thing it manages to do that saves it from the dregs of irredeemable, reactionary rubbish. A magic spell, if you will, that gives it a certain power to stand out in the mind. See, there are a few lines near the end of the episode, not all that many, but enough, that just about change the game for Star Trek forever. While Sylvia and Korob's transmuter allows them to channel their abilities, it's not the source of them. As Sylvia says, the true power is the ability to see inside minds and join with them, and once again we get that very Star Trek motif of mental unions being described in sexual language. This is magic, actual magick. Not the juvenile waving-of-the-wand and book-of-spells silliness one might expect given the rest of the episode, but real, symbolic, spiritual magickal power. In one scene Sylvia basically becomes a voodoo priestess, making a voodoo doll of the Enterprise, which she can do any number of conjurations to and have it affect the real ship as well. This is also alchemical, as the symbol and the object are considered one and the same: She even calls it “sympathetic magic”.

And crucially, the rest of the show can't explain this away. Spock makes some attempts at hand-waving Korob and Sylvia's powers by saying they're the result of telepathy and telekinesis and other “mental abilities”, much like the “mental sciences” of Foundation and other Asimov-style Golden Age science fiction, but none of them take. This may or may not be hyper-advanced technology from a race of super evolved extragalactic beings, but it's also magick. This is exactly what magick is and how it works, and Korob and Sylvia are explicitly, overtly magicians. Really rubbish magicians, but magicians nonetheless. And no matter how intolerable this episode may have been and how dangerously unstable Star Trek may be, this remains a revelation. Star Trek may be nowhere near as symbolic and mystical as something like contemporaneous Doctor Who, blessed as it was by the combined talents of wizards Patrick Troughton and David Whitaker, but colliding the world of magick into Star Trek is still unbelievably fascinating, and there's no point from here until the franchise finally sails away for good when this will cease to be a part of what it is. The door hasn't just been opened, but blown off its hinges. The course to take has never been more clear.

Comments

Adam Riggio 3 years, 11 months ago

I'm pretty sure this was the first episode of Star Trek I ever saw, about at age three. Appropriate for the explicit premise and setup of the episode.

The point you make about Catspaw's Lovecraftian elements are particularly interesting to me, because I have a similar take in my novella coming out later this year, Under the Trees, Eaten. I take a Lovecraft premise, mysterious aliens that live in a pocket dimension under a secretive small town. Entering the space where the aliens live has the Lovecraftian effect of driving the humans mad, at least temporarily. But I blow the premise apart from several directions. The aliens are radically different, but far from being empty eldritch horrors, they have their own daily concerns. The protagonist is an everywoman whose progressive (but implicit) knowledge of the genre conventions of the story she's in give her the power to take control of the narrative from the people of Innsmouth-in-a-forest. And the biggest actual threat to the protagonist isn't the aliens themselves, but a group of townspeople who decide to enforce their isolation policy with petty violence: a posse armed with cheap rifles, crowbars, and steak knives.

Link | Reply

Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 11 months ago

Your story reminds me in more than several ways of Alice in Wonderland, and not at all in a bad way: I love the idea of using the fairy realm to deconstruct and subvert the Lovecraftian trappings and the fusion of this with tropes from media studies. It sounds like it'll be quite interesting!

Link | Reply

K. Jones 3 years, 11 months ago

I knew two TOS episodes featured mention of Old Ones, but it never even occurred to me the same writer might be behind it. It baffles me now that Bloch wasn't behind "By Any Other Name" because those aliens were totally Eldritch Abominations, and the "sensory overload" theme was expounded upon tenfold in that one.

Any episode which doesn't feature Doohan in a sort of "the fourth musketeer" role is typically a missed opportunity. I think he elevated well past his caricature the same way Shatner elevated beyond his own role, and in no small part because he could elicit boundless sympathy. Scotty's instincts and feelings are always good ones.

It's more a topic for another time, but Scotty's sensible, slightly sensitive everyman who you never want to see bad things happen too even if he can handle it, is easily the prototype for what Miles O'Brien became (somewhat unoriginal, but man, they really mined that character type for all it was worth).

Link | Reply

Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 11 months ago

I agree: I think James Doohan was a remarkably skilled and professional character actor and the warmth and humanness he brings to Scotty is the primary reason the character is as beloved as he is. In that sense he is very comparable to Colm Meaney, it's just sad the writers of his show weren't able to respond to and accommodate his performance the way those on Meaney's shows did.

Link | Reply

Daru 3 years, 11 months ago

Great essay - thanks Josh! Interesting to hear your thesis about the appearance of magick on the Star Trek narrative. I really look forwards to reading how that journey grows...

Link | Reply

Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 11 months ago

You won't have to wait long: I pick it up in the next story and becomes a major aspect of at least one more episode after that.

And once I get to the 1980s all bets are off...

Link | Reply

New Comment

required

required (not published)

optional

Recent Posts

Archive

Tags

Authors

Feeds

RSS / Atom