Once more unto the breach, dead friends! That’s right, cry havoc and let slip those hellhounds of horror! Ahehehehehehehe!
“Catspaw” (Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 2, Episode 7)
The Original Series was a remarkably cogent show for its time, especially in the context of being the progenitor of a franchise that would still be going strong 50+ plus years later. It presented a lot of iconic themes, plot devices, and imagery – some of them drawn from preexisting motifs, and others invented whole cloth. The aliens of the week in this episode do the same to trick Kirk and crew – draw upon existing themes and imagery while presenting some new, out-there ideas.
Even if it hadn’t spawned a decades-spanning franchise, TOS would be well-remembered for its strong internal mythology. A lot of the recurring motifs in this episode have entered pop culture as well-worn sci-fi cliches. They’re all part of the campy charm of the series – god-like alien beings, thematically specific Earth-like environments, sci-fi explanations of supernatural beings, Kirk seducing an alien babe, etc.
The plot of “Castpaw” seems almost like an afterthought to the visuals and setting. As covered before, the show often utilized existing sets and props to remain budget-conscious, which definitely feels like the underlining reason why the crew visits a haunted castle on an alien planet. But there’s also a nutty appeal to having a spoOoOoOoky episode in a sci-fi series like Star Trek. Trek has always been a cerebral sci-fi property, and part of the appeal of the crew encountering the supernatural is that they know there isn’t a supernatural. From the start, Kirk and Spock are disbelieving of what they’re seeing, and curious as to what the mechanisms and machinations are behind this scary stuff.
After beaming up a crew member from a landing party who instantly dies, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy investigate a planet where they find ghostly apparitions, foreboding fog, and a creepy castle (contained with the confines of this creepy castle is of course a curious cat). Arthur C. Clarke posited that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, and the episode uses that as a central theme. Spock postulates that Korob and Sylvia are essentially what ancient humans would have thought of as wizards/witches/warlocks.
Like a lot of TOS episodes, the story spins its wheels a bit with some extraneous fluff and repetitive scenes (Kirk and crew get chained up with Scotty and Sulu to retrieve them twice in the episode). Korob and Sylvia declare their general intentions to study the crew and gain knowledge from them, but their purpose and goals are pretty nebulous. Many of the god-like beings (GLBs) of Trek express fascination and curiosity in humanity, but what sets them apart from our Starfleet explorer heroes is their lack of respect for the beings they study. GLBs often share an arrogant contempt for humans which manifests in abusive, even deadly behavior. Korob and Sylvia want to learn… things from humans and draw upon their subconscious to create an environment to do so, but they kill a crewmember to start with, and mentally control several others to do their bidding.
A persistent theme of Star Trek is in the value of humanity, often exemplified in the iconic trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Their distinct personalities and worldviews allow them to perceive different facets of situations, and it’s always a pleasure to see them analyze a situation. As said, Star Trek is a cerebral show, and the episode involves Kirk and Spock doing a lot of surmising and theorizing about the dynamics of their situation. It’s part of the nerdy joy of watching the show, watching these smart characters use their smarts to outsmart a problem (smartly).
The motives of the two aliens are fuzzy, but the fact that Sylvia takes pleasure in her human form adds an interesting wrinkle to the story. There’s perhaps some sexism in the woman being the mercurial, irrational, treacherous one, but it does add some dynamism to the plot at least. The notion of an alien not only taking on human form, but all the sensations and complications involved is interesting and would be repeated in other episodes like “By Any Other Name.” According to her, the pleasures and sensations of being human are unlike anything they have in their native forms, and it becomes and intoxicating force for her. Kirk, adaptable as ever, plays on it and is able to obtain valuable information about the source of their power. It’s a little thin and reeks a bit of “women, amiright?”, but whatever movies the plot forward.
Predictably, Korob – fearing the shifting loyalty of his companion – betrays her to help Kirk escape and pays for it with his life in an unintentionally hilarious sequence involving a giant cat. Taking possession of his “transmuter” (aka magic wand, the source of their power), Kirk destroys it, and all the illusions it helped spawn. The sight of the tiny, bizarre, wilting true forms of Korob and Sylvia are one of my most memorable images of TOS. The show rarely had the budget to execute exotic aliens, so I appreciate whenever it did manage to cook up something otherworldly, and this is an ingenious solution. That they are in reality such tiny, delicate creatures that immediately die without their technology is ironic, considering the power and cruelty they wielded with it. Spock can’t help but be fascinated by the scientific value of studying them. However, Kirk’s less than interested in discoveries, and his parting thought is only the death of the crewmember the aliens mercilessly caused. Despite the promises the aliens offered, the otherworldly technology they wielded, and the alien biology they represented, a species that doesn’t value other life has no value of its own. True to his humanistic nature, Kirk feels that the loss of even a single life is unforgivable.
The mythologies of many cultures are replete with gods that are as vain, petty, and cruel as any person – if not more so. Star Trek has repeatedly shown that absolute power is a morally corrupting force; any being that considers itself above another is a serious threat. In probing the crew’s minds to find their deepest fears, perhaps it caused the aliens to become the ethically decadent beings a compassionate human would fear most.
- This is the first appearance of Chekov, and holy wigs, Batman. If this thing were any bigger, the Klingon Empire would commit a fleet of warships to destroy its home planet.
- For real though, those witches were kind of scary. I wish the episode could have maintained this level of creepiness throughout, but alas.
- I’m quickly starting a collection of silly, out-of-context images of characters creeping in barely-concealed places.