Star Trek Re-Watch: “Catspaw”

Written by Robert Bloch
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 2, Episode 7
Production episode: 2×01
Original air date: October 27, 1967
Star date: 3018.2

Mission summary

Kirk is worried because the landing party surveying planet Kyris VII missed their scheduled check-in. Neither Scotty nor Sulu respond on communicators, but finally crewman Jackson contacts the ship with a request for transport—alone. He ignores Kirk’s questions about the people he really cares about, so they beam Jackson up. As soon as he materializes on the transporter pad he falls over, dead. Another transporter accident? No, because a cheesy voice trying to be scary emanates from Jackson’s mouth:

Captain Kirk, can you hear me? There is a curse on your ship. Leave this place or you will all die.

A threat like this is tantamount to inviting the captain over for tea. Now Kirk has a mysterious murder to solve, and two of his favorite employees are still missing. He beams down to the planet with his last two senior officers, Spock and Dr. McCoy, leaving Assistant Chief Engineer DeSalle in charge. They materialize in an unnatural, improbable fog and Spock picks up some life form readings. Kirk confirms that the Enterprise is not reading any lifesigns aside from him, McCoy, and Spock before losing contact with the ship. Then they hear wailing from the thick mist and three witches appear, a la Macbeth. They warn Kirk to “Go back! Remember the curse!”

WITCH 1: Wind shall rise.
WITCH 2: And fog descend.
WITCH 3: So leave here, all, or meet your end.

They disappear amidst cackling, leaving the three officers more puzzled than frightened.

KIRK: Spock. Comment?
SPOCK: Very bad poetry, Captain.
KIRK: A more useful comment, Mr. Spock.
SPOCK: What we’ve just seen is not real.
KIRK: That’s useful.

They decide to follow the very real life form readings on Spock’s tricorder, but a wind rises and blows them back. (Well, they were warned.) The odd weather brings them to a castle that appears in the clearing fog. The door opens invitingly and since the life form readings are inside, they enter. An angry black cat with a crystal on its collar is waiting for them at the entrance then runs off. Kirk comments that their experience so far feels like someone “playing an elaborate trick or treat” on them. On the Enterprise, the crew is alarmed because Kirk and the others have disappeared from sensors, just as the previous landing party did.

The door slams behind Kirk, Spock, and McCoy so they begin wandering the endless corridors of the castle, which are tastefully decorated for Halloween with dust and cobwebs. Abruptly the floor collapses beneath them and they fall into a dungeon. They wake up chained to the walls along with some skeletons and try to figure out what’s going on.

MCCOY: You were saying something about trick or treat.
KIRK: Dungeons, curses, skeletons and iron maidens. They’re all Earth manifestations. Why?
SPOCK: I do not know, Captain, but these things do exist. They are real.
MCCOY: Could this be an Earth parallel development of some sort?
KIRK: None of this parallels any human development. It’s more like a human nightmare.
SPOCK: As if someone knew what it was that terrifies man most on an instinctive level.

The missing crew walks in, Scotty armed with a phaser and Sulu holding a ring of keys. They seem hypnotized or drugged and only respond to Kirk’s questions with head nods and shakes. Sulu frees them and Scotty herds them to the door. Kirk attacks him to get the phaser, and they’re instantly transported to a much nicer room, where a strange bald man in wizardly robes introduces himself as Korob. He claims to know everything about Kirk and his crew and says he warned them to stay away. Korob dismisses their many questions as “of no importance,” though he does admit that they aren’t native to the planet. After conversing with his black cat, he waves his magic wand to create a banquet.

Kirk demands to know what Korob wants. When they refuse to eat, he tries to bribe them into leaving by turning their food into jewels. Kirk assures him the gems are worthless because they can replicate them easily, and Korob changes his tactics, claiming they have “passed the tests”:

Our analysis of you may have been in some small way in error, but you were warned to stay away and yet you came to save your comrades. That proves loyalty. Your bravery was tested and you did not frighten. And despite my failure with these bright baubles, I perceive that you cannot be bribed. In many ways you are quite admirable.

So what do they win? The cat meows and Korob sends it out of the room. A moment later a raven-haired woman in a flowing black dress enters the room. Curiously, she wears the same crystal pendant that was on the black cat’s collar. Korob introduces her as Sylvia. While Spock distracts her into delivering exposition, Kirk grabs Scotty’s phaser. He passes it to Spock and demands their weapons, equipment, and answers. Sylvia responds by holding up her pewter Star Trek Hallmark Christmas ornament, a model of the Enterprise dangling from a chain.

Sylvia explains that she used sympathetic magic to kill Jackson and has similar control over their ship. She demonstrates by returning Kirk’s communicator so he can contact the Enterprise while she holds the miniature model over a candle flame. DeSalle reports that the ship is burning up. Realizing he’s met his match, Kirk immediately surrenders, pulling the model out of the candle and relinquishing the stolen phaser.

Korob starts questioning Kirk about their science, while Kirk questions him about magic, but no one is willing to budge and give any answers. To prevent anyone else from attempting to rescue the rescue party, Korob encases the model of the Enterprise in a Lucite block, which places an impenetrable force field around the actual ship. Chekov claims that it “will not analyze,” but DeSalle is determined to dent it. Kirk and Spock are sent back to their room while Dr. McCoy is questioned. Once again chained, Kirk and Spock have nothing better to do than talk about their predicament some more. Spock conjectures about “psychological theory of the racial subconscious” suggesting that in their attempts to read their minds, Korob and Sylvia only tapped into the subconscious. They agree that their captors are “totally alien,” likely invaders from another galaxy.

McCoy returns under the same mind control as the others and Sulu unchains Kirk. Before they bring him in to see Korob and Sylvia, the two aliens bicker:

KOROB: You forget what we were sent here for.
SYLVIA: I forget nothing. I’m not a puppet, Korob, like you.
KOROB: You’re a traitor.
SYLVIA: You are a fool. We have nothing like this and I like it. To touch, to feel to understand the idea of luxury I like it. And I don’t intend to leave it.
KOROB: We have a duty to the Old Ones.
SYLVIA: What do they know of sensations? This is a new world.
KOROB: You’re cruel. You torture our specimens.
SYLVIA: And that, too, is a new sensation. I find it stimulating.

Stimulating? That’s Captain Kirk’s cue! Sylvia sends everyone away so she can be alone with him and Kirk gamely makes his move. Korob spies on them while Kirk caresses her, and she seems to enjoy it. She says she wants a “joining” between them… so they can share their information completely. She responds to his compliments by telling him she can “be many women” for him, transforming into two garish women in hideous outfits before resuming her previous shape.

He keeps asking her questions about herself and her people. She slips that when they come to this planet, her people are “like feathers in the wind without the transmuter.” Kirk becomes much more interested in the transmuter than in her, and she tells him that it’s the source of their power. “It gives only form. You’re teaching me substance,” she tells him, but when he asks whether she’ll reconsider going home, she realizes that he’s just using her. “And why not?” he says, “You’ve been using me and my crew.” Uh oh. Sylvia’s pissed and she has a transmuter-thingey! She promises, “You will be swept away. You, your men, your ship, your worlds!” But for now she’s just going to put him back in the dungeon.

Which is where Korob finds them and frees them. He understands that Sylvia is out of control, so he has also freed the Enterprise and wants them to go away as quickly as possible. But Kirk won’t leave without his men so Korob says he’ll take care of Sylvia. They’re stalked through the corridors by a giant black cat and take shelter back in their dungeon. Korob is killed when the cat knocks the door down onto him, and Kirk takes his wand: “Korob seemed to think this was important. Said something about a transmuter.” They suddenly remember the hole in the ceiling from when they fell into the dungeon and use it to escape to the upper floor.

McCoy and Scott promptly attack them with spiked maces. Kirk knocks out the doctor, Spock uses his Vulcan neck pinch on Scotty. Sulu fights with his racial subconscious, but Kirk easily fends off his clumsy martial arts. When Sylvia arrives, Spock warns, “Don’t let her touch the wand, Captain.” Presumably he’s referring to the transmuter in Kirk’s hand. Sylvia transports the captain and herself back to the main room of the castle. She tries again to convince him to join her, then threatens him, then tempts him: “I am a woman. I am all women.” She resorts to pulling a working phaser on him and Kirk smashes the wand against the table.

In a flash of light, Kirk and the rest of the landing party are standing outside, the transmuter’s illusions vanished. On the ground are two tiny blue marionettes with tentacled faces waving their little stick figure arms. Spock wants to study them, but they collapse and their bodies begin to smoke.

MCCOY: Too late. All of this, just an illusion.
KIRK: No illusion. Jackson is dead.


“Trick or treat,” indeed, but which is it for viewers? As you can tell from the original airdate, this is Star Trek’s attempt at a Halloween episode. As silly as it is, the premise is interesting: a race of aliens using our subconscious to frighten us, just as the Scarecrow does in Batman. But aside from the fun haunted house decorations, the plot is muddled. We never find out what the aliens really want, and I’m not sure the aliens or the writers do either. The most interesting conclusion we can draw is that these creatures are Lovecraftian invaders, with the reference to the “Old Ones” and their true forms resembling tiny Cthulus.

I like the idea of truly alien aliens—non-humanoids for a change—and the fact that no one may ever find out what they want or where they came from, but the half-hearted attempts to explain everything were just teasing and annoying. What was the Enterprise doing there in the first place? If Korob wanted them to leave so much, why didn’t he and Sylvia just draw the blinds and pretend no one was home instead of kidnapping Scott and Sulu and killing poor Jackson? The whole episode is a mess of conflicting information, which perhaps ties in with Sylvia’s own confused impulses. Though it only flirts with an idea that is explored more in a later episode, this is a story about an alien seduced by the flesh. In a human body, Sylvia is exposed to new sensations that consume her mind. There’s also the now-familiar idea that even advanced alien races, for all their power, need something that humans have in spades; Korob admires their character traits, and Sylvia tells Kirk, “We need your dreams, your ambition. With them, I can build.”

Fortunately, the light tone of the episode (aside from Jackson’s death) salvages the story and we have some fun character moments. The best of them is when Kirk first wakes in the dungeon and turns to McCoy. “Bones,” he says, then corrects himself when he sees the skeleton shackled beside the doctor. “Doc!” he amends, and refers to McCoy as Doc for the rest of the episode.

Nothing highlights the questionable practice of the captain leading an away mission than the fact that they have to leave an assistant chief engineer in command while the rest of them are on the planet. DeSalle has a stiff military manner (“credits to navy beans”?!), but he’s not bad in that chair, and it’s always interesting to see a different command style, particularly on a ship named Enterprise. I don’t know about you, but I was slightly distracted by Chekov’s tribble wig in those Bridge scenes, spoiled by seeing later production episodes first, I guess. Another idle observation: the white flashes that accompany Korob’s and Sylvia’s use of the transmuter reminded me of Q’s power in TNG, so I wonder if this episode inspired that visual effect.

I was surprised that before this episode, I had never heard the word “catspaw” before (and I must have missed the usage when I watched it before). McCoy directly refers to the title of the episode when he says, “You kept Scott and Sulu as catspaws to lure us down here.” I looked it up and discovered that the term, which means a person unwittingly used by another as a dupe or tool, originates from a fable called “The Monkey and the Cat” by Jean de La Fontaine. In it, a monkey tricks a cat into plucking chestnuts from a fire, burning its paw while the monkey eats them all. I wonder how common this term is, or was back then.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: I really wanted to like this episode. I love Halloween, and it was silly and campy enough to satisfy that much. But aside from the mess of plot issues Eugene mentioned, this episode made a whole slew of assumptions that made me wince. First of all, “racial subconscious”? Uh, no. Black cats and cobwebs are not some Jungian collective unconscious—they’re entirely constructs of culture, as evidenced by the fact that none of this stuff seems to frighten Kirk or the others at all, having never grown up with it! I liked the idea that they created this haunted house because they thought it’d be scary, but that’s the explanation? Really? Why not just say they picked up The Addams Family broadcasts or something?

Who else thought that the witches in the beginning were about to tell Kirk to beware Macduff?

It was interesting to see what appeared to me as an entirely random redshirt commanding the Enterprise (yes his name is LaSalle but how often have we met him?). His no-nonsense approach was a sharp turn from the familiar commands we’ve seen so far (Kirk, Spock, Scotty), and it felt uncomfortable to have him in charge, like he didn’t belong there. Anyone have trivia on-hand of how many times we see someone not in the main cast in charge of the ship? I’d like to do a compare and contrast of their commands at some point. Not that I’m a nerd or anything.

The sexism fairy has definitely visited this episode. The fact that Sylvia’s spirit animal is a black cat is a blatant symbol of aggressive female sexuality (think Manet’s Olympia). Her newfound sensuality overwhelms her delicate female form, driving her absolutely mad with desire. Yeah, yeah, big surprise there. But she’s a dangerous creature: manipulative, even cruel. When she tells Kirk that she is “all women,” I grimaced. So all women are witches? Or just manipulative sex-crazed aliens? Bad Star Trek! In the corner!

If it had told a good story, I might have been able to let it go. But it was such a mess of ideas. What is Karob’s relationship to Sylvia? Where do they come from and what do they want? Why are they trapping these guys? To get them to stay? To leave? Or just to bat them around like cats do with dead birds and mice?

Unintentionally hilarious lines: the bit about cats being the most ruthless of animals (when they aren’t napping like there’s no tomorrow!), and Spock shouting at Kirk “Don’t let her touch the wand!”

Torie’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: Spock: “Very bad poetry, Captain.”

Syndication Edits: After Jackson calls for transport, Kirk orders McCoy to the transporter room and leaves the Bridge with Spock; Kirk tries to contact the Enterprise before they enter the castle; as Kirk, Spock, and McCoy explore the castle, DeSalle and Chekov try to figure out where they disappeared to; McCoy examines the jewels on the banquet table and comments that they look real; Korob outlining the tests they’ve passed; reactions shots of the ship model over the candle and Kirk’s suggestion to supplement the heat dissipation units; Chekov reports that the temperature has returned to normal and Uhura tries to contact the landing party; a shot of McCoy staying behind for Sylvia’s interrogation and DeSalle and Chekov discussing the force field; two lines of dialogue between Kirk and Spock about what’s happening to McCoy; bits around a shifted commercial break, when the giant cat stops Korob, Kirk, and Spock and after Kirk hits McCoy.

Trivia: Robert Bloch loosely based this script on his short story “Broomstick Ride,” which was published in Super-Science Fiction in December 1957. He also wrote the episode “What are Little Girls Made Of?” which also references Lovecraft’s the Old Ones. This is the only episode of any Star Trek series to be themed around a holiday (thank goodness!). Gene Roddenberry donated the prop of the metal Enterprise model in the Lucite block to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. With this episode, DeSalle seems to have switched to engineering from command, appearing in a red uniform instead of the gold he wore in “The Squire of Gothos” and “This Side of Paradise.” The aliens in this episode are called “Ornithoid lifeforms,” and are mentioned in several episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Other notes: Theo Marcuse (Korob) died a month after this episode aired.

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 6 – “The Doomsday Machine.”

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 8 – “I, Mudd.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.