Boldly Rewatching the Voyages: Catspaw

(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)

Original Air Date: October 27, 1967

Crew Death Count: 1 (Jackson, a crewman wearing a different color than red for a change, dies in the prologue)

Bellybuttons: 0 (but one of Sylvia’s wardrobe changes is a near miss)

It’s hard to imagine a dumbed-down version of “The Squire of Gothos,” but here we are with “Catspaw,” written by Robert Bloch, who also wrote the far superior “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” This week, while the Enterprise orbits the supposedly uninhabited Pyris VII, a landing party with Scott, Sulu, and Lieutenant Jackson (Jimmy Jay Jones) has failed to report in. Finally, Jackson beams up, dead, with a spooky-voiced warning that they should leave because the Enterprise is cursed. When Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to investigate, they encounter a trio of witches who repeat the curse warning. Amid fog, a castle, and random gusts of wind, the landing party finds a zombified Scott and Sulu under the control of the wizard-like Korob (the great character actor Theo Marcuse, who sadly died one month after “Catspaw” first aired) and a black cat that later transforms into Sylvia (Antoinette Bower), a seductress with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo. Sylvia and Korob turn out to be visitors from another galaxy who want something from the crew, but can’t make up their minds exactly what.

Given the air date, “Catspaw” is an obvious attempt at a Halloween episode. The castle, witches, black cat, and the dungeon where the landing party is confined, are all horror story tropes, but more suited to children’s stories than entertainment for grown adults. Kirk and McCoy both mention Halloween and trick-or-treating. Halloween, sometimes under different names, has been observed in many western countries for centuries, but was not universally celebrated in the United States until the early 20th century. Or are the three witches a Macbeth reference? Macbeth turned his witches’ prediction into a self-fulfilling prophecy, which has no bearing on this episode. None of this makes much sense in the context of the story, because our landing party finds the various Halloween elements more confusing than frightening. At any rate, it’s hard to believe Halloween would be observed by a multi-planet federation in the twenty-third century. I half expected a commercial for Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

A rare glimpse of the NBC censors

Like Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos,” Sylvia and Korob appear to be working with outdated information; Korob almost identifies his source, saying, “I read-” but never gets to finish. The pair claims to have extensive knowledge of humans, or at least the Enterprise crew, yet they are surprisingly ignorant of human behavior and motivations. The episode’s most interesting moment occurs when Kirk demands an explanation; Korob responds, “Where did your race get this ridiculous predilection for resistance? You examine any object. You question everything. Is it not enough to accept what is?” Indeed, “Catspaw” would have been far more interesting as an exploration of that topic. Instead, we’re subjected to Spock’s bizarre speculation: “I refer you to the psychological theory of the racial subconscious. The universal myths, symbols… They all belong to the twilight world of consciousness…” Oh, dear, I hope Spock is referring to species-wide genetic memory, the theory that a species can genetically “encode a readiness to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli.” Research has shown that fear can be inherited in mice, leading to speculation that phobias and post-traumatic stress might be similarly passed on to later generations in humans. This theory seems unlikely to apply to superstitions regarding black cats and cobwebs, which Kirk bluntly describes as “mumbo-jumbo.”

The tragic outcome of McCoy’s fad diet book: Transform Your Thighs from Saucers to Nacelles

Equally disorienting is Spock’s later comment on Sylvia’s black cat form: “The cat is the most ruthless, most terrifying of animals, as far back as the saber-tooth tiger.” Why would Spock, having been raised on Vulcan, make this outlandish statement about earth history? Ancient cultures of central and south America worshiped certain cat species; there’s even evidence that Mayans kept jaguars as pets. Gods in ancient Egypt were depicted as having feline features. Large predatory cats are sometimes portrayed as threatening in popular entertainment, but we humans haven’t spent all these centuries trembling in fear of cats. In fact, when Kirk, Spock, and McCoy first encounter Sylvia’s cat form, they appear relieved to find a cat, rather than an actual threat.

Spock from “Assignment: Earth” isn’t buying it.

The entire episode suffers from this lack of reason, meandering almost as badly as “The Alternative Factor,” which at least had a clearly-defined motivation. All we learn about Korob and Sylvia is that they originate from another galaxy, rely on a power source known as a “transmuter,” and were originally sent, for reasons not specified, by the Old Ones. Are these the same Old Ones from “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” That would also have made a more interesting episode. Instead, the pair talks first about wanting Federation technology, but later Sylvia tells Kirk, “You have knowledge which I lack,” and, “Tell me about power, Captain. How does it feel?” Kirk’s responds by attempting to seduce Sylvia; is that his idea of power, or is he simply trying to get information from her? We may not want the answer to that question. Near the episode’s end, Sylvia changes direction again, telling Kirk, “We need your dreams, your ambition. With them I can build.” Huh? This makes them sound more like the Talosians from “The Menagerie.” Sylvia and Korob become increasingly divided, with Korob telling Sylvia she has forgotten their duty to the Old Ones, but that duty remains unspecified.

How Hallmark got the idea for Star Trek Christmas ornaments

We never even learn why Sylvia and Korob are on Pyris VII, instead of some other planet. For that matter, why is the Enterprise there? They are explorers, so visiting a planet “just because” is fine, but we deserve to hear the explanation. Why did the initial landing party consist of Sulu, Scott, and Jackson? That’s an odd combination of skills for exploring a planet believed to be uninhabited. We at least learn the motive behind the various trials Kirk, Spock and McCoy are subjected to in trying to retrieve their colleagues: pursuing the search in the face of fear (such as it is) indicates loyalty, and they have integrity to resist the stash of jewels Korob offers them (also pointless, as these jewels have no value to 23rd century spacefarers). But why test the crew at all? Or, to rephrase the question: WHY??? The entire episode lacks motivations or any kind of overall theme.

The only question satisfactorily answered is why Scott, Sulu, and Jackson were manipulated. “You kept Scott and Sulu as catspaws,” McCoy says, “to lure us down here.” Never mind that the whole point of the “luring” is never justified. Even the “catspaw” reference is on shaky ground. The term “catspaw” originated in the 17th century fable The Monkey and the Cat. Variations of the fable have been told over the years, but in the original version, a monkey seeks to remove chestnuts roasting in a fire. He persuades a cat to retrieve the chestnuts, promising to share the loot. The monkey quickly takes the chestnuts for himself, leaving the cat with a burned paw. One might wonder why the cat accepted all the risk for only the promise of a fractional reward, but if you work for an employer, be it a person or an organization, presumably you already know the answer. Benefiting from the work, and suffering, of others is the entire pyramid scheme upon which human society is founded. All of us – or, 90% of us, at any rate – are catspaws to some extent.

“Trust me, you’re better off sleeping through this.”

While the landing party stumbles their way through this puzzle box, the crew on board the Enterprise doesn’t fare much better. Uhura and Chekov are portrayed as quick to give up and borderline panic-stricken, largely subordinating themselves to Assistant Chief Engineer DeSalle (Michael Barrier), in command of the ship in the absence of the four senior-most officers. Putting Uhura in command would have been a better choice, but perhaps NBC decided 1960s audiences weren’t ready for that. DeSalle is a bit of a jerk, barking orders and only once addressing Chekov by name, otherwise referring to him only as “Mister.”

Uhura, Chekov, and DeSalle tune out in favor of Lost in Space reruns

Sylvia and Korob’s abilities are another misstep. Their entire source of power seems to be the “transmuter,” which Sylvia claims has the ability to reshape matter. The transmuter is nothing but a flimsy wand held by Korob through most of the episode and easily smashed by Kirk in the end. Why wouldn’t such a vital component be protected, or have a duplicate backup? The idea of redundant components was certainly understood in the use of computers and space vehicles by the 1960s. Sylvia describes killing Jackson by simply “thinking” him dead in a process she calls “sympathetic magic.” Near the end, when the landing party is on the verge of escape, Sylvia threatens that “your worlds” will be swept away, despite the transmuter’s apparently limited range. And why does only Sylvia change form? Her rampage, in the form of a giant cat, traps Korob when she knocks open a heavy door. Why doesn’t Korob change form at that moment to free himself?

Spock’s actual dialogue: “Don’t let her touch the wand, Captain.”

As with all the TOS episodes, I appreciate the Mission Log Podcast’s discussion of “Catspaw.” They speculated that Sylvia’s behavior might be an accidental indictment of feminism, and it’s a compelling argument, given the series’ history of misogyny. Sylvia rejects the old customs (literally called “the Old Ones” and represented by the nagging Korob) and dares to behave independently: “I live by my own decisions,” she says. As a consequence of assuming human form, Sylvia soon loses control to pleasures of the flesh. Kirk resists Sylvia’s wiles and tells her, “A woman should have compassion, but I forget you’re not a woman.” She tempts him further, rapidly changing into a variety of female forms, to no avail. Sylvia’s descent into emotional abandon drives the conflict with Korob, leaving Korob, as the rational male, to free the landing party when Sylvia finally goes mad with power. This final plot development is the only connection to any of the series’ primary themes – power corrupts, and the more power (independence) Sylvia has, the more she wants. A counter-argument to the anti-feminism interpretation is that Kirk, as the “star” of the series, needed a worthy foil, and making Sylvia his primary nemesis allowed for smooching scenes that might attract a female audience.

“I am woman, hear my wardrobe.”

That’s a considerable stretch in logic, but it’s all “Catspaw” really leaves us. Overall, this episode is TOS’ biggest disappointment for me so far. Even the laughable “The Apple” had a thoughtful premise. “Catspaw” doesn’t even seem to have a core idea. In the final scene, Sylvia and Korob are revealed in their true form, small and helpless, quickly dying without the transmuter, lost to history. Kirk, for a change, remains appropriately grim, reminding his colleagues that this was no Disney park ride: “Jackson is dead.” The captain’s sorrowful expression describes how we viewers feel after sitting through this bumbling story. In a universe lacking an intelligent designer, we’re sometimes beset by random events that defy reason. Journalist and author Jeffrey Kluger (whose works include Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, the basis for the 1995 film Apollo 13), wrote, “What people fear most about tragedy is its randomness – a taxi cab jumps the curb and hits a pedestrian, a gun misfires and kills a bystander. Better to have some rational cause and effect between incident and injury. And if cause and effect aren’t possible, better that there at least be some reward for all the suffering.” In this case, our reward for watching “Catspaw” may simply be moving on to the next adventure, because next week, Harry Mudd returns.

Next: I, Mudd