Episode 35: “Catspaw” and horror done catastrophically wrong

One of my biggest pop culture weaknesses is sci-fi/horror. I love derelict freighters, loose killer aliens, science experiments gone wrong, unexplained phenomena, invasions, and time travel mishaps. There’s something intriguing about the way the future presents constant new situations for how the unknown is going to murder the hell out of us.

That being said, there has to be a solid foundation in realism for the premise to hold true. There’s a reason people remember the “Alien” series but not the misguided and mostly terrible “Pandorum;” one features a thoroughly realized world with a loose, near unstoppable threat that picks off people in a comforting but fresh way, while the other features a bunch of poorly explained barbarians shooting poison darts at that freshly unthawed douche bag from “Six Feet Under.”

Horror only works when there’s a solid sense of place. We have to believe in the very real so that the unreal elements have impact. The world of “Terminator” is extremely familiar to our own, but the appearance of the Terminator makes him a violent and unstoppable force that feels innately foreign and wrong. This sense of world building is what separates good horror from bad.

It’s also what separates “What Little Girls are Made of?” and “Catspaw,” the two true horror one shots we’ve had so far in The Original Series. Both penned by Lovecraft acolyte Robert Bloch, “Catspaw” fails in both the realm of horror as well as creating an intriguing story for the series.

Only one of those episodes features this.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are set to be on a rescue mission from the start, as Sulu and Scotty have gone missing on a previously charted planet. Communication is blocked, so the triumvirate is left with no choice but to beam down to the planet to hunt for their compatriots. From the landing, things are bad. Smoke seeps through the bottom of the frame, and Spock and the Enterprise are getting conflicting readings on what life forms are on the planet. There’s some conflict, but the group decides to press onto a mysterious castle in the distance, but first they have to run across a trio of what appear to be straight-out-of “Macbeth” witches who warn Kirk about a curse that’s affecting the ship.

It is all downhill from here.

The thing is, the atmosphere for all of this works pretty well. It’s a dark and shadowy opening with hints of old school horror and just the necessary expected shocks that make this kind of b-list schlock work. All of that successful atmosphere work changes when the group gets to the castle, where everything quickly turns into an interplanetary episode of Scoobie Doo.

Long story short, Kirk, Spock and McCoy are led down a trap door by a cat where they are held hostage by a space wizard named Korob who is mind controlling Sulu and Scotty and communicating psychically with his cat, who’s also a foxy shapeshifting lady demon. How much of this makes sense? Hardly any. We are told that the wizard and his familiar are recent invaders to the planet and that they are somehow projecting traditional Earth images in an attempt to frighten Kirk and McCoy, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense. Can they read minds? It’s hinted that they have researched Earth extensively, but their information refers to the times before star travel.

Maybe the scariest part of this episode is how odd this perspective shot is.

So, it all comes down to the ultimate writer short cut, where it all ends up being a test. Sylvia and Korob seem to have a plan of some sort and after imprisoning McCoy and Spock in the dungeon, Sylvia does what all foxy women of the Star Trek universe do and tries to seduce Kirk. There are hints of her and Korob’s service to the Old Ones (another callback to “What are Little Girls Made of?”), but the woman seems more intent on experiencing sensations, particularly love. In typical Kirk fashion, the captain manages to get her to reveal her plan, involving stealing something called the transmuter from Korob and escaping with Kirk.

In case you didn't know, this show was made in the '60s.

Knowing that Sylvia is dangerous, Korob breaks the landing party out of the prison and is immediately trampled by a giant cat. Kirk, Spock and McCoy try to escape but are stopped by the still mind controlled Sulu and Scotty. They’re stopped and once again halted by the giant cat. Kirk grabs Korob’s wand and tries to fend the animal off, when, of course, Sylvia appears. Spock warns Kirk that she wants the wand, which is probably the transmuter. Sylvia and Kirk struggle over the wand and Kirk ultimately breaks it, making the castle disappear and revealing Korob and Sylvia to be a pair of small space lobsters that quickly die in the atmosphere.

And that’s it.

Actually, I kind of liked this too.

It feels strange that Bloch was unable to pull together a horror episode for the show, particularly after how successful “What are Little Girls Made of?” was at balancing those two needs. While his first entry feels like a smart sci-fi horror story, Catspaw” would only work for Star Trek, and as such, the episode vastly begins to fall apart when the characters can’t support it. “What are Little Girls Made of?” feels universal, like it could work regardless of what show did it because the story vastly works. “Catspaw” has that sense of very specific content that when the story begins to fall apart and isn’t interesting to begin with, the whole episode suffers as a result.

Random Thoughts

So, is Sylvia also the cat? We never see the two of them together, and we know that she can shapeshift, but that just seems really silly.

“Spock, comment?” “Very bad poetry, Captain.” “A more useful comment, Mr. Spock.”

Next Up: “I, Mudd” and oh shit, he’s back.

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