I absolutely adore Halloween. It is easily my favorite holiday. See: This is Halloween: 25 years of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”…
I also love Star Trek (that’s fairly obvious if you’ve seen the rest of this site). Like Halloween, I’ve loved Star Trek since I was a kid. It is one of my all-time favorite entertainment franchises, in fact. In the last few years, I’ve pretty much become a fixture at the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas..
So what could be better than a merging of Halloween and Star Trek? Well… um, a lot of things, actually. In fact, Star Trek only took one honest stab at a Halloween-themed episode 51 years ago.
The 1967 Halloween episode of Star Trek TOS known as “Catspaw” was written by famed horror writer Robert Bloch (“Psycho”), directed by Trek veteran Joseph Pevney and originally broadcast on October 27th, 1967.
****GIANT CAT-SIZED SPOILERS!****
A landing party consisting of Mr. Sulu (George Takei), Mr. Scott (James Doohan), and a previously unseen (read: expendable) crewman ‘Jackson’ (Jay D. Jones) loses contact with the ship from the surface of planet Pyris VII.
Jackson manages to signal, is immediately beamed up, and promptly falls dead (in one hell of a fall) onto the transporter room floor. His ‘dead’ mouth opens as a spectral voice emanates from it, warning Kirk that there is “a curse” on this ship, and that they must “leave this place” or they will all “die!”
Naturally, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) don’t agree to those terms. They immediately beam down to investigate. Once on the surface, their contact with the ship becomes intermittent. Soon Fog rises from nowhere (on a planet where fog shouldn’t even exist), and contact with the Enterprise is lost altogether.
In the creepiest moment of the entire episode, the Enterprise trio are then confronted by three “witches” (Rhodie Cogan, Gail Bonney, Maryesther Denver) who warn them to “Goooo back,” followed by the cryptic warning; “winds shall rise, and the fogs descend, leave here or you’ll meet your end.” They cackle and disappear.
I won’t lie; when I was a kid, those three witches scared the piss out of me.
As the landing party presses on, they’re hit by nasty but brief winds (as forecast by the witches’ “bad poetry”), and soon encounter a Gothic castle. Inside, they meet an ill-tempered black cat which leads them to a collapsible spot in the floor, and they fall through…
Awakening moments later inside of what appears to be a dungeon, the Enterprise officers find themselves chained to the wall, right next to a foreboding skeleton (“Bones?”).
Feeling disoriented, the three attempt to suss out their situation when a zombie-like Scott and Sulu (zombie-acting, not looking) enter the dungeon, wordlessly releasing the trio from their chains in order to meet their ‘hosts’, Korob (Theodore Marcuse) and the shapeshifting cat/woman Sylvia (Antoinette Bower).
The two use illusions and various unsuccessful lures (precious gems, a delectable banquet, etc) to try to seduce the Enterprise officers in a way that is very similar to how the Talosians promised Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) anything he wanted in TOS’ pilot episode, “The Cage.”
Failing with corruption, Sylvia soon escalates to threatening the men to gain their cooperation in her ‘experiments.’ She concocts an amulet of the Enterprise and holds it over a candle, using ‘sympathetic magic’ to give the actual Enterprise one hell of a heat wave. Kirk concedes, she stops, and the temperature on the ship returns to normal. To ensure no further interference from their ship, the two aliens encase the amulet Enterprise in a block of translucent material; effectively trapping the starship in a forcefield.
Back on the ship, Russian navigator Chekov (then-new cast member Walter Koenig, wearing a ridiculous “Beatles” wig) works with ranking officer/assistant engineer DeSalle (Michael Barrier, returning from season one’s “Squire of Gothos”) and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) to wear down the forcefield using directed heat from the ship’s impulse engines. Barrier does a poor man’s John Wayne-style delivery and macho swagger that is actually kind of amusing. It’s really too bad his character of DeSalle is never seen again after this episode (then again, he was wearing a red shirt…maybe he didn’t survive the five-year mission?).
Back on Pyris VII, Kirk and Spock are returned to the dungeon, as McCoy is chosen by Sylvia to remain. Sylvia and Korob soon quarrel amongst themselves regarding the treatment of their ‘specimens.’ Korob favors sharing their knowledge with the curious Starfleet officers, while Sylvia prefers tormenting them instead, relishing her ‘new’ sensations of sadism and power.
Back in the dungeon, Spock and Kirk theorize that the aliens attempted to read the first landing party’s minds, but missed; reading only subconscious impressions of terrifying Earthly images (witches, black cats, etc). This explanation seems more of a writer’s reach to explain the Halloween trappings than anything else, and how the subconscious mind would be easier to access than the conscious mind is never really explained.
Soon, McCoy is returned to them in a zombie-like mental state as well, just like Scotty and Sulu. The zombie-McCoy holds Kirk at phaser-point and takes him to see Sylvia.
Kirk quickly comes to realize that Sylvia, despite her human appearance, is a creature starving for sensation and new experiences, which Kirk naturally exploits. Seizing on this, Kirk shamelessly pours on his unique brand of alien-woman seduction technique.
Sylvia cannot resist Kirk’s smarmy charms, and in return, she tempts him with a weird little fashion show, in a scene that reminded me (once again) of what Vina (Susan Oliver) tried on Pike in “The Cage”; appearing as multiple versions of the same woman. Sylvia then scans Kirk’s mind and realizes he is merely using her. In her anger, she vows to unleash holy hell on Kirk (and the entire Federation, apparently) as payback for his faux seduction, and he is sent back to the dungeon with Spock.
At this point Korob enters the dungeon with ‘the transmuter’ (a magic wand-like device that focuses the alien’s power; allowing them to create substantive illusions; like a portable holodeck). Korob then frees Kirk and Spock, telling them that he’s released the Enterprise from the forcefield, and that he apologizes to them for their treatment. He confides that he can no longer control Sylvia because she is obsessed with sensation and experience to the exclusion of compassion and empathy. Korob gives Kirk the transmuter, and tries to ward off Sylvia, who has morphed into a giant version of the black cat form we saw earlier in the episode (shades of 1965’s “Village of the Giants”).
Giant Sylvia-cat breaks down the door of the dungeon, crushing Korob. Kirk and Spock hotfoot it the hell out of there. During the escape, Kirk and Spock get into some fisticuffs with the zombified Sulu, Scott and McCoy, easily overcoming the nearly catatonic officers. Kirk has a final confrontation with Sylvia (back in humanoid form), who is desperate to regain the transmuter. She reiterates her offer to ‘join’ with Kirk in a shamelessly transparent effort to get the device back. Kirk doesn’t buy it and, in a very cool Kirk-moment, smashes the device to bits in a flash of sparks.
The flash quickly clears, and everything is gone; the castle, dungeon, the fog, everything. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott and Sulu look around the rocky landscape and see two tiny withering creatures that vaguely resemble newborn bird hatchlings crossed with tiny squid. Without their transmuter, the tiny fragile creatures are powerless and utterly helpless. They die and vanish into smoke. Kirk and his men beam back up to the ship.
“What happened, Jim?”
The writer of this episode, famed horror novelist Robert Bloch, had done far superior work. Bloch’s 1959 novel “Psycho” was the basis for the 1960 same-named legendary Alfred Hitchcock thriller, released 7 years before this episode aired. “Psycho” is generally regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made. Bloch also wrote two other far superior Star Trek episodes; the atmospheric, Ted (“Lurch”) Cassidy-starring android thriller “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and “Wolf in the Fold,” which sees no less than Jack the Ripper (a body-hopping energy being that feeds on fear) reincarnated into the 23rd century.
Both “Catspaw” and Bloch’s previous “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” make reference to ‘the Old Ones.’ Since Ruk is clearly humanoid in form and since Sylvia and Korob aren’t, one can assume they’re not referring to the same race; reinforced by the fact that Ruk was native to our galaxy (planet Exo III), while Sylvia and Korob were not. Bloch’s later episode “Wolf in the Fold” would cover more familiar Bloch territory, as Scotty stands accused of being a latter-day Jack the Ripper. “Wolf…” is a far more subtle and suspenseful example of a Star Trek horror episode.
Despite the talent behind the writing, “Catspaw” feels less like a new story and more like a substandard retread of TOS’ pilot “The Cage” with a few memorable Halloween trappings, thrown in like so many pieces of candy corn, to help it go down.
I have vivid memories of enjoying this episode as a little kid, but as I got older I found the middle act is quite talky and more than a bit dull. The beginning and ending are the best parts; everything sandwiched in-between feels like a poor retread of TOS’ pilot, “The Cage”, with aliens wielding illusions and telepathy to entice and seduce the Enterprise officers. Most of what I’d enjoyed of the episode as a kid were the trappings; the three witches, the skeletons in the dungeon, and the surprise reveal at the end. But in-between is just a whole lotta talk, and not particularly engaging talk either. Such a shame, especially with Robert Bloch penning the thing; though I’m guessing the TOS writing staff took a few turns at redrafting his script in order to make it ‘safe’ for network TV consumption.
Despite my mad love for Halloween, the holiday just doesn’t fit within the Star Trek format, I’m afraid. However, a modified Captain Kirk Halloween mask made for one hell of an iconic image in the “Halloween” horror movie franchise; etching into the collective psyche as the preferred face of serial killer Michael Myers.
Perhaps “Catspaw” is one of the reasons that Star Trek (past or present) doesn’t really do holiday themed episodes anymore.
I would cringe at imagining the Enterprise being led through a dense nebula by a flying horned creature with a red, glowing snout. That said, an episode of Star Trek: Voyager (“Death Wish”) did see the titular ship turned into a Christmas tree ornament.
Despite its flaws (mainly in the middle act where the pacing grinds to a halt), there are some very enjoyable aspects to this unique Star Trek holiday offering; the atmosphere of the episode is effective. Fog, chains, skeletons, and an effectively realized (TV-budgeted) Gothic castle make for some memorably over-the-top elements. Prolific and talented Star Trek veteran director Joseph Pevney (“Arena” “City on the Edge of Forever” “Amok Time” “Journey to Babel”) effectively ladles on both the camp and the atmosphere in equal measure for this episode.
As stated earlier in the synopsis, the three witches were genuinely terrifying when I was a kid. Kudos to the legendary makeup artist Fred Philips, his team, and the three actors for a job well done.
The regular actors also do some nice bits for this episode. DeForest Kelley‘s wide-eyed stare as ‘zombie-McCoy’ remind me of his drug-addled look from “City on the Edge of Forever.” George Takei shows off a bit of martial arts skill in a combat scene, but is quickly felled (in his defense, Sulu isn’t supposed to be firing on all thrusters in the scene). The humor of the episode helps it go down a bit easier as well; Kirk notes that his slightly satanic-looking science officer Spock would be ‘a natural’ when it comes to Halloween. After first noticing the chained skeleton in their dungeon, Kirk looks to McCoy and blurts out, “Bones–er, Doc?”
Antoinette Bower, as the seductive ‘catwoman’ Sylvia, is allowed to indulge in some serious overacting in this episode (“It’s here! Like words on a page…you are USING meeee!”). Her costar Theodore Marcuse lets loose as well, with his bulging eyes and agape mouth. I still remember Marcuse as a Khrushchev-like Russian ambassador in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man.”
Sylvia and Korob’s surprisingly big reveal as tiny, fragile creatures is also intriguing, even if the strings supporting the tiny, birdlike marionettes are quite obvious at times (even in the 1970s, on a small, cathode-ray TV screen). It’s one of the few times we see genuinely non-humanoid corporeal life forms on the show, like the Horta of “Devil in the Dark” or the Excalbian ‘Yarnek’ from “The Savage Curtain.”
“You’d be a natural…”
I’ve seen some creative cosplay inspired by this episode at the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas; most memorable were two cosplayers dressed as human-sized Sylvia and Korob (in their natural bird-like appearance), as well as a Sylvia/Korob marionette-wielding cosplayer, and a humanoid Sylvia holding the miniature Enterprise to practice her ‘sympathetic magic.’
I remember speaking to a Sylvia cosplayer in Las Vegas who was about my age, and it turned out she and I had the exact same nostalgic, ‘warm-fuzzy’ feelings for the episode. That we may never see another Halloween-themed epode in Star Trek ever again is perhaps all the more reason to enjoy it. In my childhood, Star Trek’s “Catspaw” was almost as much a Halloween tradition as Rankin-Bass’ “Mad Monster Party?” or Peanuts’ “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”
It’s perhaps in that vein that “Catspaw” is best remembered; as a nostalgic piece of Halloween kitsch enjoyed as high camp.