Kirk: If we weren't missing two officers and a third one dead I'd say someone was playing an elaborate “trick or treat” on us.
Spock: “Trick or treat,” Captain?
Kirk: Yes, Mister Spock. You'd be a natural.
Kirk says this with one of his crooked smiles, glancing at Spock's pointy ears. Maybe Star Trek's producers were hoping that by the following year dressing up as a Vulcan would be one of the top choices for Halloween.
TOS' season two episode “Catspaw” was shot in May of 1967, but its airing was always meant to coincide with America's macabre costume and candy-themed holiday, Halloween. Adapted by Robert Bloch from his earlier short story “Broomstick Ride,” it aired on October 27, 1967, making it the only known “holiday special” in the franchise. (Though not the sole dalliance with the spooktacular – what was up with Dr. Crusher and those Irish ghosts again?) It's not one of the better episodes, I cannot lie. But, like the often mocked (and unfairly maligned) “Spock's Brain,” it is certainly a great deal of fun. If you need a quick refresher it goes like this:
The Enterprise is orbiting an allegedly lifeless planet. But a landing party of Scotty, Sulu and Private Redshirt are past their check-in time. Then the third guy (Jackson) shows up on the transporter pad, drops dead and a voice appears telling Kirk and Bones that “there is a curse on your shiiiiip. Leave this place or you will diiiiiie!”
The voice acting is about what you'd expect from an average Scooby Doo episode, but it gets even more preposterous when Kirk, Bones and Spock land on the planet (leaving Assistant Chief Engineer DeSalle in charge!) and out of the vapor appears three mangy-looking witches.
Witch One bellows “Captain Kiiiiiiiirk!” Witch Two bellows “Captain Kiiiiiirk!” And Witch Three, who may actually be a warlock, bellows, you guessed it, “Captain Kiiiiiiirk!” They then incant some rhyming threat, and when Kirk asks Spock for his opinion, he zings back “very bad poetry, Captain.” The look Shatner... er, Kirk, hits him back with is priceless.
After the curse and the witches they discover a castle in the fog with a hissing black cat. Someone is using Halloween tropes to freak out the crew of the Enterprise. In time, Spock will discover that their foes are using “racial memory,” tapping into the collective unconscious of the group. (And lucky for the show's producers, those communal fears can be portrayed with some really cheap sets.) As such, Kirk, Spock and Bones end up in a dungeon with a new friend: More Bones! For an episode that was likely advertised to kids back in the day, the image of a dangling skeleton probably freaked people out.
“Catspaw,” right up to the end, is an episode that feels a little more fantasy than science fiction. The line separating the two can sometimes be tough to find, but like Justice Potter Stewart said of another matter, “I know it when I see it.” The villains of “Catspaw,” the flamboyantly caped Korob and the feline shapeshifter Sylvia, seem to just have “magic powers.” They can turn members of Kirk's crew into mindless zombies and they can make a turkey dinner appear with a wink. Holding a totem of the Enterprise over a candle makes the actual ship start to heat up. Eventually we'll learn that their power comes from a “transmuter,” a stick with a crystal ball on it, which can amplify the powers of the mind. Okay, so there's a little headfake toward science in there somewhere.
Sylvia and Korob's motivations are a little tough to suss out, but basically they need Kirk's mind – for his passion, his humanity. And Kirk's got that in spades in this one. He's quick to realize his best bet is to romance his way to freedom with Sylvia. Again, for an episode no doubt targeted to kids more than most, there's a lot of raw sexuality. Bones discovers a powerful amulet around Sylvia's neck by staring at her chest. Sylvia later appeals to Kirk by appearing as “all women,” changing her form (and hair style!) multiple times. Later, Spock issues Kirk the ultimate warning: “Don't let her touch the wand, Captain!”
The final moments of the episode involve our heroes running for their lives from an enormous cat. This was shot in the most frugal way possible – by taking a regular ol' pussycat, placing it against dollhouse-sized corridors and shooting in extreme close-up. It's adorable. After Abraham Lincoln floating in space, it may be the silliest image in all of Trek.
And, like Halloween should be, it's more fun than scary. Indeed, the only thing truly scary about “Catspaw” is Chekov's wig. It looks like it just binged on a gallon of quadrotriticale.
Do you have fond memories of “Catspaw?” Were you frightened out of your wits when you first saw it? Do you plan on dressing as Korob or Sylvia this Halloween? Let us know in the comments below.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.