Written by: Robert Bloch (teleplay), Gene Roddenberry (creator)
Directed by: Joseph Pevney
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You were saying something about trick or treat?"
There’s a case to be made that Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is the most imaginative television show to ever hit airwaves. Even watching it now, over 50 years since its premiere and with the full awareness that it was essentially a low-budget programmer meant to draw in younger viewers for NBC, you can’t help but marvel at just how brilliant, bold, and weird this show often was. The Enterprise’s 5-year mission to “explore strange new worlds” doubled as the show’s own mission statement to transport audiences to the 23rd century, where Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew encounter bizarre planets, species, and scenarios.
However, the show was often careful not to stray too far from the familiarity of Earth: whether via time travel or via an alien species with some connection to Earth history, Star Trek frequently—and cleverly—confronted contemporary culture. Often, as was the case in “The City of the Edge of Forever,” it did so in the service of the cerebral moral and philosophical quandaries that came to define the series. Sometimes, though, it did so in the service of spinning a fun little yarn just in time for Halloween, which brings us to “Catspaw,” a 2nd season episode penned by Robert Bloch that aired on October 27th, 1967.
It begins as so many classic episodes do, with Kirk beaming down to a seemingly uninhabited planet (Pyris VII) along with first officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and chief surgeon McCoy (DeForest Kelley). They’re looking for a landing party that’s gone missing, only to discover the planet holds some familiar sights and sounds, at least to the humans. Vuclan Spock is perplexed by it all: the trio of spectral trio of witches intoning them to turn back; the foreboding, fog-shrouded mansion lurking in the distance; the black cat that prowls its grounds, luring them into a dungeon. Kirk and McCoy recognize it for what it is: an elaborate trick or treat staged by a mischievous host, who is likely responsible for holding the missing landing party captive.
Their suspicion is confirmed when they meet Korob and Sylvia (Theo Marcuse & Antoinette Bower), a pair of humanoids with unreal powers. It’s the stuff of magic, or, more pointedly, witchcraft: the ability to shapeshift or crafting familiar totems to do them harm, as Sylvia does when she dangles a model Enterprise over a candle flame. They’re apparently capable of telepathy, allowing them to not only create these stock, Halloween-tinted projections of human fears but to also ply them with their greatest desires. It soon becomes apparent that Korob and Sylvia’s intentions might be driven more by curiosity than outright malice, a familiar turn of events the series often resorts to. Star Trek often strove to keep this perspective: just as Kirk and his crew were explorers, even conquerors of “the final frontier,” they were also be the conquered, mere trophies pinned to the board of some unfathomably ancient beings like Korob and Sylvia.
Obviously, Kirk finds himself in this position in “Catspaw,” forcing him to rely on his wits to uncover vital information about his two captors. Trek was at its best when it resorted to this kind of plot, where a problem couldn’t simply be overcome by brute force or physical strength. Shatner’s interplay with Bower comprises the bulk of the episodes second half, where Kirk subtly manipulates Sylvia into revealing her fascination with him and his crew. Her answer is also a familiar one: like so many alien species in Star Trek, she simply longs to understand and share the emotions of humans. Hers is an especially twisted desire for companionship, though, as she’ll do whatever it takes to keep Kirk against his will, going so far as to defy the will of “the Old Ones,” a suggestion that hints at a sort of Lovecraftian terror lurking at the edges of “Catspaw.”
While that suggestion is confined to a single line of dialogue, it’s indicative of the horror vibes subtly guiding the entire episode. Likewise, Korob and Sylvia’s haunted mansion amounts to literal window dressing, yet it allowed the show’s production designers to imagine a beautifully gothic landscape all the same, one whose technicolor hues, otherworldly fog, and oversized cat rampage would have felt at home in one of Roger Corman’s AIP efforts from the same era. “Catspaw” is a great reminder that even those Trek episodes that feel like trifles are just bursting with the kind of creativity that continues to capture the imagination of audiences several decades later. Halloween may be a place where many have gone before and since, but few approached it as boldly as Roddenberry and company did here.
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