Star Trek Animated Series Re-Watch: “The Slaver Weapon”

The Slaver Weapon
Written by Larry Niven
Directed by Hal Sutherland

Season 1, Episode 14
Production episode: 22011
Original air date: December 15, 1973
Star date: 4187.3

Mission summary

Spock, Uhura, and Sulu, commanding the shuttlecraft Copernicus, are delivering precious cargo to Federation Starbase 25: a Slaver stasis box recovered from the planet Kzin. The long lost Slaver Empire scattered these time capsules across the galaxy, which either contain perfectly preserved artifacts from the billion-year-old civilization or booby traps; apparently the Empire fell due to its unhealthy addiction to the game show Let’s Make a Deal.

One stasis box provided a flying belt which led to the development of artificial gravity fields on starships, thus they’re potentially very valuable, dangerous, and incredibly rare–the only way to detect a stasis box is with another stasis box or dumb luck. As it happens, Spock’s box unexpectedly points the way to another one on planet Beta Lyrae. Spock is skeptical that a stasis box could go undiscovered there for so long, but they can’t pass it by without investigating.

They beam down to the icy Beta Lyrae to search for the stasis box and are promptly ambushed by Kzinti pirates. These space cats, long-time enemies of the Federation, have violated a treaty by kidnapping Spock, Uhura, and Sulu. The situation will become much worse if the Kzinti discover a powerful weapon inside the stasis box they have confiscated. But fortunately the Vulcan scientist is well-versed in Kzinti culture.

SPOCK: The lean, bedraggled one is a reader of minds.
UHURA: I’ve heard all Kzinti telepaths are unhappy neurotics. He fits the description.
SPOCK: There is no sure way to guard our thoughts from him. Mr. Sulu, he is not likely to deal with me or Lt. Uhura. She and I are inferior beings to them. But the Kzinti are meat eaters. If you sense him reading your mind, think of eating a raw vegetable.
SULU: Yes, sir. Maybe I can goad them into revealing their purpose.
SPOCK: Lt. Uhura. This may be crucial. In the presence of the Kzinti, do not say anything, do not do anything startling. Try to look harmless.
UHURA: Any special reason?
SPOCK: Are you forgetting Kzinti females are dumb animals? In an emergency the Kzinti may forget a human female is an intelligent creature.
UHURA: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Sure enough, the Kzinti Chuft Captain of the Traitor’s Claw addresses only Sulu, divulging that he needs a powerful Slaver weapon to set himself up for life. The feline aliens open up the Slaver Cracker Jack box and discover three prizes inside: what may be the only Slaver portrait ever discovered, a hunk of SPAM that turns out to be poisonous protoplasm, and a green ray gun.

Since the gun didn’t come with an instruction manual, the Kzinti bring their prisoners to the surface of Beta Lyrae for target practice. The odd weapon has several settings, each of which transforms it into a different configuration: a harmless-seeming sonic gun, a telescope, a laser beam, and a personal rocket. The latter manages to knock Uhura free of the police web immobilizing her and her crewmates, allowing her to run away. She is quickly apprehended, as it’s surprisingly hard to run in snow with high heels on.

So far, none of the device’s settings have revealed the devastating Slaver weapon that Chuft hopes for–the technology is barely on par with the Federation’s. But the next setting turns the Slaver Army Knife into an “energy absorber,” which deactivates the police web and enables the prisoners to make another escape attempt. Spock zigs and Sulu zags, but Uhura travels in a straight line and is shot down easily again. The science officer manages to knock Chuft down in the scuffle and nabs the ray gun, so that’s something.

SULU: They’ve got Uhura, and subspace radio. They can call for help from the Kzin planet if they think the weapon’s worth it.
SPOCK: No, they cannot. Or rather, will not.
SULU: Why?
SPOCK: Because I kicked Chuft Captain. Consider. Chuft Captain has been attacked by an herbivorous pacifist, an eater of leaves and roots. One who traditionally does not fight. And the ultimate insult, I left him alive. Chuft Captain’s honor is at stake. He must seek personal revenge before he can call for help.

Indeed, Chuft calls Sulu to offer an exchange: the weapon for Uhura and challenge Spock to single combat. The Vulcan calculates the odds of defeating the injured Kzinti at less than favorable, so they decline. Then he and Sulu set to work unlocking the secrets of the Slaver device. Sulu, a weapons expert, deduces that it belonged to the Slaver equivalent of James Bond. So they reason that a spy’s toolkit also must have a self-destruct setting, which might be accessed through its “null setting.”

This setting reverts the device to a form that resembles a green globe with a handle. They discover that twisting it reveals another mode: a matter-energy converter more powerful than anything in the Federation. Jackpot! They set off an atomic explosion from a distance; a few moments later the blast wave reaches Spock and Sulu and knocks them out.

They revive back in Kzinti custody. Now that the catmen have witnessed the destructive power of the Slaver thingey, they’re even more eager to learn how it works. It has resumed its globe shape, and Chuft triggers yet another mode: an interactive voice interface.

CHUFT: How long has it been since you were turned off?
WEAPON: I do not know. When I am off, I have no sense of passing time.
CHUFT: What is the last thing you remember?
WEAPON: We were on a mission. I may not tell you of it unless you know certain code words.
KZINTI: If you could describe the positions of the stars in your sector, we would know how much time has passed since then.
WEAPON: Without certain code words, I may not describe our location.
CHUFT: One of the settings on this weapon was a total conversion beam. We saw it. Tell us how to find it.
WEAPON: Twist me widdershins until you reach the null position.

Sulu and Uhura are certain they’re all hosed, but Spock is oddly unconcerned because the Slaver weapon transformed into a new shape that didn’t look at all like it’s previous matter-conversion mode. He figures the Slaver weapon, assuming itself captured by the enemy in the midst of a war, would take a defensive measure… Such as tricking the Kzinti into triggering its self-destruct mode. Spock also knows that curiosity always kills the cat.

When Chuft activates the weapon, it explodes and blows open part of the Traitor’s Claw. Spock, Sulu, and Uhura are able to escape, protected by their life-support belts. Sulu laments that the destroyed Slaver weapon belongs in a museum, but Spock ruminates that it was too destructive, too tempting a weapon to be allowed to exist:

SPOCK: Strange, how the past sometimes breaks through into the present. That ancient war could have sparked a new war between man and Kzinti.
UHURA: Didn’t you say the Kzinti have legends of weapons haunted by their dead owners
SPOCK: Yes, an ancient superstition.
UHURA: At this rate, they’ll never get over those old superstitions.


Perhaps owing to its origin as a non-Trek Kzinti story by SF master Larry Niven, “The Soft Weapon,” this animated episode isn’t a perfect fit for the Star Trek universe but stands as interesting SF story in its own right–while still managing to be more faithful to the characters and franchise than many original scripts. It’s an odd, brilliant blend of what makes for good SF and what makes for good Trek, which aren’t always the same qualities.

It’s a delight to see Spock and second-string characters like Uhura and Sulu on a mission together. They work surprisingly well as a team, and the first officer’s command skills have come a long way since his ill-fated trip on the Galileo in season one of the original series. I especially liked the acknowledgment of Sulu’s weapons expertise and Uhura’s intelligence, and Spock himself shines because he understands Kzinti psychology so well.

The core of the episode is, of course, the Slaver weapon, which is an intriguing puzzle that kept me engaged throughout. I love the idea of these unpredictable time capsules; the history of the lost Slaver civilization, as well as the Kzinti wars, adds more flavor to the overall Star Trek history–whether or not these elements are considered canonical. Though I am utterly unfamiliar with Niven’s Kzinti stories, which I plan to remedy, I wish they had reappeared in Star Trek so we could learn more about them. I finally understand why they’re considered such a highlight of the animated series: Even though they’re mildly ridiculous space cats, glorified pirates really, they’re an interesting race that settles easily with the Star Trek rogues’ gallery. I was especially intrigued by their superstitious belief in weapons that are haunted by their dead owners.

Speaking of weapons, I was struck by something that might have been unintentional or could be significant: Sulu being the one to discover the weapon mode that amounts to an A-bomb. His panicked outcry “We can’t give them that!” and Spock’s later opinion that some weapons are simply too powerful for anyone to own may be commentary on the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb; the threat of mutual assured destruction in nuclear war preoccupied many minds in the early 70s, when this episode first aired. Considering that the Slavers perished in wars, and the Federation and Kzinti came close to repeating that mistake, this episode offers a sobering look at the consequences of destructive technology and imperial ambitions–mature fare indeed for an animated show, and the most successful and Star Trekish aspect of this episode.

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

Torie Atkinson: This is such a weird mix of genres. Part Indiana Jones (“It belongs in a museum!”) with some Battlefield Earth backstory to boot, “The Slaver Weapon” is hard to place. It’s a reasonably good science fiction story but not much of a Star Trek one. Take away the character names and the Federation and nothing changes. It stands alone without the ST trappings and as a result seems out of place.

I wasn’t a fan of the Kzinti. A lot of their characterization evoked (or more likely, were recycled for) for TNG-era Klingons (they are obsessed with honor! and war! and manliness!), and I didn’t like it then, either. Their motivations were entirely obscure, and they came across as a race of shallow neanderthals, not formidable enemies. Sulu mentions that the Federation has bested them in war four times, which undermines any potential threat they pose. Why should we be afraid now? And if you’re going to go with cat people, why not a race that actually acts like cats? Vernor Vinge nailed that with the dog-like Tines that think and operate in packs. I just don’t see anything about them that’s particularly cat-like but the fur, and if that’s the case, what’s the point? There has to be some reason they evolved to look like that. It felt arbitrary and poorly thought-out.

There are so many cool things here–the puzzle boxes, the idea that weapons could be possessed by their former owners, the potentially hilarious interactions with a spy’s personal computer, the possibility of toying with a telepath by thinking salad thoughts–and yet in the twenty minutes, none of them were fleshed out and most were merely hinted at and dropped entirely for the rest of the episode.

I liked getting a story that wasn’t about Kirk, for once, but Uhura is basically a throw-away (her escape attempts are embarrassing) and Sulu and Spock never wind up doing anything intelligent or resourceful. They discover the atomic bomb setting, which only gives the Kzinti something they want; and they only escape because the Kzinti are stupid to figure out that a reasoning computer weapon formerly owned by an alien spy that specifically instructs them it will not give them anything useful isn’t going to just spill its secret. Honestly the three of them could have been nameless ensigns and it would have worked–or not–just as well.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3

Best Line: SPOCK: We are not tourists here, Lieutenant.

Trivia: D.C. Fontana approached Larry Niven to write an episode of the animated series, and Gene Roddenberry suggested he adapt his 1967 short story, “The Soft Weapon” (republished in the collection Neutron Star). The original story takes place in his Known Space universe, and he chose to include the Kzinti to see what others might do with the race in the Star Trek universe. In the adaptation, the original characters were replaced with Spock, Sulu, and Uhura, and the weapon was created by a race called the Tnuctipun that rebelled against the Thrintuns (Slavers). Niven was given permission to leave Kirk and other Star Trek characters out of the episode, and this is the only animated episode that doesn’t take place on Enterprise.

Once again, Hal Sutherland’s color blindness led to inappropriate pink coloring: in this case, the Traitor’s Claw, which D.C. Fontana didn’t notice until the episode aired. The trademark Kzinti stripes were left out because they were too difficult to animate.

James Doohan voiced all of the Kzinti.

This is the only animated episode to show characters killed on screen. But they had it coming.

Other notes: The Kzinti return to the Star Trek universe in the comic strip “The Wristwatch Plantation.”

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 13 – “The Ambergris Element.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 15 – “The Eye of the Beholder.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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.