51 years ago, give or take a couple of days, the original Star Trek participated in a venerable television tradition that crosses all genres and generations: the Halloween episode! It was . . . probably not the best idea. The writer of this story, Robert Bloch, based this episode on his short story from a decade previous. The basic idea of that story is that a deep space exploration team discovers that old tales of witches are based on an alien race. Aliens being the basis of mythology is a tried and true trope that has been done dozens of times now in Star Trek (throughout the multiple series it turns out that everyone from the Greek gods to the Mayan pantheon are actually aliens). It’s just as well that aspect of the story was jettisoned from the aired episode, since it is so over-used at this point, but what remains barely hangs together as a coherent story.
In the episode, entitled “Catspaw,” the gang of three (Kirk, Spock and McCoy) beam down to a planet and encounter witches. Yes witches.
To go along with the witches, they find a nice medieval castle. As one does on an alien world. One night in a dungeon later, they come face to face with what passes for the local Dumbledore in this interstellar Hogwarts. The sorcerer’s name is Korob, and Kirk has the best line in the script when he asks the being “why all the mumbo jumbo?” He never gets a clear answer.
Why the occult motifs on this distant planet? Spock’s theory is that the aliens were trying to replicate earth and were just really bad it. But let’s be honest, it’s just a flimsy premise to make a haunted house. It’s all random and mismatched, like Party City decorations on clearance.
Korob has a partner named Sylvia who can turn into a cat. This is something else we’ll see again in Trek. Sylvia pretty much explicitly says their power comes from MAGIC, and I’m sure she means some telekinesis bs, but basically we’re supposed to just treat it like actual sorcery. They even have a magic wand. In the end, Kirk seduces Korob (ha ha, no he seduces Sylvia. Wouldn’t that have been a cool change of pace though?) and they get away before ever getting a clear answer about what the hell is going on. Oh, but first Sylvia realizes Kirk doesn’t actually love her (gasp!). Korob joins forces with the other men against Sylvia, explaining that after taking the form of a woman she was bound to go nuts, what with all the emotions. She turns into a giant cat and chases them around in what is an especially unconvincing special effect in a series known for unconvincing effects.
In the end, Sylvia and Korob end up being tiny blue shrimp puppets and our intrepid explorers leave their dead bodies on the bare rocky surface of a desolate world.
So that’s Star Trek’s attempt at a halloween episode. But I forgot to mention the scariest thing about this episode is that Chekov has the worst hair day in existence.
There are other Trek episodes that try to do spooky. There’s Voyager’s “The Haunting of Twelve.” And of course there’s the infamous, amazingly bad TNG episode “Sub Rosa.” Sub Rosa is quite possibly the only other Star Trek episode to live up to Catspaw in that it so ambitiously swings for the fences when it comes to spookiness and so spectacularly flounders.
In it, Doctor Crusher goes to Space Scotland, where she is seduced by a space ghost who it turns out has been boning every woman in her family for the last several centuries, down to Crusher’s now dead grandma. In order to save Crusher, Data and LaForge dig up the old lady, who the ghost possesses and turns into a space zombie.
Crusher defeats the space ghost by destroying his magic space candle. She ends the episode reading the diary entries of her grandmother and decides that maybe the space ghost who spent centuries deceiving and controlling women was maybe a nice guy after all.
I didn’t even get into the TAS episode “The Magicks of Megas-Tu,” where Kirk and company go to a world where magic is real and Lucifer is a pretty cool dude.
So, yeah. Star Trek is a sci-fi show. They shouldn’t do magic. Or at the very least they shouldn’t get swept away in it. Trek works best in episode’s like “Devil’s Due,” where magic is exposed to be fraud and misdirection. Bringing anything resembling real magic into that universe breaks too many rules and comes across as poorly thought out. Even godlike creatures (like Gary Mitchell, Thasians, The Squire of Gothos, Gorgon, the wormhole aliens, Apollo, the Platonians, Lucien/Ludifer, Kukulkan, and Q) have to be used carefully or else they risk erasing all risk and rules, thus destroying suspense and stakes. If things are too random, it is impossible to gain interest in a plot.
Godlike creatures are definitely not rare in the trek universe. There are so many of them, in fact, you have to think they are constantly running into each other on some kind of extra-sensory plane. But since most of them are TOS, maybe by TNG the Q continuum took power and neutered or banished everyone else (not counting the wormhole prophets and probably some other exceptions I’m forgetting).
So Trek is very rarely spooky, but it is sometimes spoopy (spooky and funny at the same time, not always on purpose). Are there any occasions of this that I’ve missed? What is your favorite instance of Trek trying to be scary or suspenseful but failing so unambiguously it is funny? It can be supernatural stuff, or body terror stuff like “Genesis” — the episode that tries to make being chased around by a devolved Worf into an Alien movie. Or, alternatively, has Star Trek ever succeeded in being legitimately spooky or scary? Did maybe the Borg hit that balance right at some point? Or is Halloween just not Trek’s forte?
And now, a random image from memory alpha.