In which TOS boldly goes where Charlie Brown had gone before and many, many others have gone since: the Halloween special.
Alas, the voyage goes poorly.
There will be SPOILERS for this episode and probably the Star Trek franchise in general. You’ve been warned.
WHAT GOES DOWN, BASICALLY
An away mission has gone badly, again. Sulu and Scotty are missing, while rando red shirt Jackson beams back to the ship, only to immediately kick the bucket. Even more alarming: a strange voice starts speaking through Jackson’s dead mouth, warning that the Enterprise has been cursed, and that they must leave this place or die.
Kirk, Spock, and Bones ignore this warning, of course, and immediately beam down. They encounter a lot of weird shit: mysterious fog, a trio of witches, a gothic castle, a mysterious black cat running around, etc. According to their tricorders, however, none of what they see is real. Eventually, they get themselves locked up in a dungeon. (Along with a skeleton, for ambiance.) Their captor is a bald alien dude named Korob, whose information on humans seems a little out of date, and–more importantly–seems to be taking orders from his cat. The cat soon transforms into Sylvia, a beautiful alien woman who uses a transmuter (AKA magic wand) to hold the Enterprise hostage. This is also how Sylvia created all the gothic illusions, as well as brainwashed Sulu, Scotty, and–later–Bones.
Long story short: Korob and Sylvia are tiny little aliens from another galaxy here to do . . . something . . . only Sylvia has become power-hungry and enamored with her human body and the sensations she experiences. She and Kirk try to seduce each other, to no real avail. Eventually, Korob defies Sylvia by helping our heroes escape. Kirk manages to smash the transmuter; this easily (way too easily) shatters all the illusions and frees everyone from mind control. Korob and Sylvia also revert back to their normal forms and die.
“Catspaw” starts out so wonderfully, beautifully cracktastic. I was entirely here for Dead Jackson Radio, the super cheesy skeleton in the dungeon, the random trio of witches. (“Wait, is this Macbeth?” I asked Mek. “Are we doing Macbeth? What even is this episode?”) I wouldn’t have called “Catspaw” good, exactly, but at least it was wacky fun.
Unfortunately, the wacky fun dissipates halfway through the episode, about the time Sylvia (as a human) comes into the picture. And not just because the seduction scene is terrible–though it is–but cause we now (sorta) know what’s going on, and what’s going on just isn’t that interesting. The aliens have no real agenda. They’re here under instructions of the Old Ones, I guess, but we’re given no indication as to who these Old Ones are or what they even want; despite their name, there’s nothing particularly Lovecraftian about this episode. Cosmic horror, this is not.
Also, we get a lot of very 20th-century psychological terms that are just sort of painful to listen to, particularly coming from Spock. Stuff like “racial memory” and “racial subconscious” and the “twilight world of consciousness.” (Dear God.) Spock actually refers to dungeons, castles, and black cats as “universal” symbols and myths, which, like, that shit wouldn’t be universal even if this show was only about humans. The basic idea here seems to be this: Korob and Sylvia created illusions based on images they drew from our heroes’ subconscious minds, mistakenly assuming that such images would accurately reflect reality. Which is kinda neat, in theory, but in execution? Holy lord, it’s a mess.
For starters, if the aliens really didn’t mean to create a nightmarish scenario to scare Kirk and company . . . like, why did we kill Jackson and spin that bullshit about a curse? Misconstruing the symbolism of a black cat is one thing; killing a dude and using his corpse as a megaphone is quite something else. Also, these “racial subconscious” images? Are these supposed to be genetic fears passed down the bloodline or something? Because everything in this episode is old as shit, like, where are our modern, 23rd-century subconscious fears? And even if the aliens are somehow tapping into this collective inherited horror, like, why is it such a cliched and white, Western, human horror? Budget issues aside, the lack of imagination on display here is just depressing. You’re telling me that between the various subconsciousnesses of Scotty, Sulu, Dead Jackson, Bones, Kirk, and Spock–Spock, a Vulcan, FFS–the aliens only managed to come up with . . . a vague medieval castle? Some fog? This is predictably, unforgivably dull.
Besides, come on: a cat is the most ruthless and most terrifying of all animals? A fucking cat? Sure, that sounds like something Spock would say.
Occasionally, SF will sing the praises of humanity when the human characters in question have not yet earned such admiration. Case in point: Korob says that humans are insatiably curious, refusing to accept anything without questioning it constantly. Humans, he insists, have a “ridiculous predilection for resistance.” Cool, except that thus far, all the humans have actually done is A) briefly tussle with their mind-controlled crew mates, and B) point out basic ass shit like, “Huh, those women appeared out of nowhere, said a bunch of nonsense, and then disappeared. That seems weird.” I mean, I get it: Korob is supposed to think all this is normal, or whatever. I don’t care. It’s like watching The Maze Runner all over again, where Thomas is considered so brave and so special because he questions the stuff that literally anyone in his situation would ask.
Mekaela and I both snorted when the alien dude had a standard alien dude name, but the beautiful alien cat-woman was named Sylvia. Of course, she’s Sylvia.
The terrible seduction scene: Kirk opines that women–specifically women–should have compassion. (Oh, fuck off.) Sylvia, enthralled by all her newfound sensations, doesn’t understand why Kirk excites her and why she can’t bring herself to just kill him. (Sigh.) Sylvia declares she can be many beautiful woman and promptly proves that by shapeshifting into different wigs and progressively weirder and weirder outfits. (LOL.)
FASHION REPORT: I mean, I can’t imagine why this sexy look didn’t properly seduce Kirk over to the Dark Side, but I guess he’s just stubborn that way. Also, this is some fucking cosplay gold right here.
Also, dear God, what happened to Chekov’s hair?
Sure, dude’s cut has never been great, but this wig is especially abominable. This is a wig I will see in my nightmares. This is a wig made from synthetic fibers and despair.
Kirk pronounces telekinesis as something like “tell-uh-KEN-eh-sis.” Which is, uh. Certainly not how I pronounce it or how anyone I’ve ever heard pronounces it. I wonder if it’s a regional variation or just a pronunciation shift over time.
Spock Says What: I might make this a new category for all the weird human junk Spock says when it would make more sense for almost any other character to explain it instead. Like, seriously, why is Spock the Carl Jung groupie? I could possibly get on board with him explaining the theoretical concepts, but he’s also the one providing the human context, and, like, what? No. I definitely can’t take it seriously when Spock starts dropping exposition about ancient Earth legends; like, when he defines familiars as “demons in animal form sent by Satan to serve the wizard.” (This, BTW, is a hilariously baffling definition of the concept if you’re primarily familiar with, er, familiars because of pop culture and fantasy tropes. Like, clearly I need to reread The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, again. Morwen, you covert servant of Satan, you.)
Sulu Watch: I’m sad to report that if someone made a yearbook for the Enterprise, Sulu would almost certainly win Most Likely to Get Brainwashed. Pretty sure it’s happened three times now. (To be fair, Bones has also been brainwashed three times, I think? But Sulu usually gets brainwashed first.) On the upside, Sulu’s actually in this episode. On the downside, he doesn’t speak even once.
What’s Up, Uhura: to my great joy, Uhura has returned! Mostly, she’s here to try and fail (through no fault of her own) to reach the away team over the radio. But she also nearly gets cooked alive (along with Chekov and that one Random Dude in Charge) when Sylvia raises the internal Enterprise temperature by, uh, a lot.
To my very great shock, Kirk not only remembers but is still upset about Jackson’s death at the end of the hour.
I almost gave Line of the Episode to Korob, who hilariously dismisses Bones by saying, “I do not understand that reference. Therefore it is of no importance.” Forget black cats; this is the most universal sentiment of all time. Still, since I’m a sucker for banter, and since Spock speaks the truth here:
LINE OF THE EPISODE
“Very bad poetry, Captain.”
“A more useful comment, Mr. Spock.”