Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fans Won A Second Season Of Star Trek To Start With "Catspaw?!"

The Good: The actors manage to take it seriously
The Bad: Terrible plot, No real character development, Horrible effects, Some campy acting
The Basics: Star Trek attempts a Halloween episode with lame, sadly lame, results.

As many people know - in the general populace as well as in science fiction fandom - Star Trek was never NBC's flagship series. Always on the verge of cancellation, Star Trek relied on its fans to support it and keep it going. After the first season concluded, it looked as though Star Trek might be sunk, but a writing campaign convinced the network to renew it. I wonder how many fans wanted their letters back when "Catspaw," the first second-season episode produced, aired.

Star Trek did not do many tie-in episodes with holidays. There was, for example, no Star Trek Christmas Special nor an easter event, nor a Passover sader, nor even a Valentine's episode. And yet, when "Catspaw" aired, it was pretty solidly a Halloween episode and to this day, that may be its albatross.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is in orbit around Pyris VII, a lifeless planet where Kirk has lost a landing party consisting of Sulu, Scotty and another officer. Crewman Jackson is beamed up to the Enterprise where he promptly dies and an alien voice speaks through him, warning Kirk and his crew to stay away. Unphased, Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down where they are warned away by three witches, whom they ignore. The trio discovers a castle and they enter to meet sorcerer Korob and his black cat/woman companion Sylvia. They reveal that they've turned Scotty and Sulu into zombies and they proceed to imprison the three officers. Sylvia and Korob bribe, threaten and attempt to seduce Kirk into leaving, even trapping the Enterprise and using voodoo magic on it. When Kirk rejects Sylvia's advances and realizes the source of Sylvia and Korob's power, Sylvia gets angry and threatens to kill them all.

This is a pretty obvious Halloween themed episode and it does very little in the larger canon of Star Trek, save make our heroes seem ridiculous and silly. After all, the images Sylvia and Korob use to attempt to frighten Kirk and his people away supposedly come from deep inside the fears of the officers present. That Kirk, McCoy, Sulu and/or Scotty might on some level be afraid of mythical creatures and Halloween-type settings is beyond ridiculous, it's just dumb.

Indeed, it is tiring to try to even describe the plot because it is so repetitive and simple. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to try to find missing officers and run into lame attempts to scare them. Of course, most of us know this is not going to be Star Trek's finest hour from the teaser. When Jackson beams aboard and begins to speak from the dead, the voice has to be one of the most hokey disembodied voices of all time! It's silly and beneath Star Trek, yet they went with it anyway! It's a ridiculous audio effect and the melodrama starts the episode out on the wrong foot.

Star Trek frequently explores such abstract ideas as fear throughout the course of the franchise. The original series would tackle it only a few episodes later with "Wolf In The Fold" and Star Trek: Voyager personified fear as a psychotic clown in "The Thaw." Episodes where such abstracts are tackled work to varying degrees, but neither "Catspaw" nor either of the other two yield good results. The reason for this is because it's hard to make a story where the point is to explore a fundamental emotion either universal or in a way that it may be broadcast on television. The unfortunate aspect of "Catspaw" is that it chooses some of the most ridiculous methods to explore fear, opting for things no reasonable adult would actually be afraid of.

Similarly, "Catspaw" holds up poorly in the larger franchise because Korob tries to bribe Captain Kirk with, no joke, plates of gems. Kirk acknowledges that these are all easily replicated, which nicely establishes Star Trek as something of a collective or socialist economic model without any currency. It also means, though, that when anyone from the Federation encounters anything like wealth, it ought not to be tempting (because even the trappings of wealth may be replicated). Here it just seems silly because the plates of jewels are so obviously glass baubles (like the type one buys by the pound at craft stores!).

And yet, the principle actors play along. Recurring guest stars George Takei and James Doohan do their best at not looking like they were offended to be asked to play completely mindless and they trudge through the parts without any affect. This is also the debut of Walter Koenig as Ensign Chekov, an eager character who bounces from the Navigation station to the Science console throughout the episode. He is characterized as young, eager and Russian such that his pride in Russia overcomes the facts (Russians, in his view, did everything first and better). Chekov begins the series somewhat ridiculously with a giant head of hair and an accent must make all true Russians shudder.

But this is an episode devoid of any real character development. We learn nothing new about any of the principle characters and we do not see them act or react in any way that is significantly different from how we've seen them act before. Kirk seduces a woman, McCoy acts crotchety, Spock walks around with the affect that he is better than both while claiming to not understand it all.

The principle actors are not stretched in any way, save that they have to work to maintain a straight face in the face of overwhelming ridiculousness. Guest actress Antoinette Bower is roped into playing Sylvia and one wonders how Star Trek managed to attract such decent performers to play such ridiculous roles. She is joined by Theo Marcuse as Korob and the two have no real chemistry on screen. Indeed, Marcuse plays Korob as over-the-top and laughable.

The only thing more silly than his performance is the special effect of the Sylvia in cat form. Yes, to pull off this feat of special effects, the director used footage of a black house cat shot very close up. Set in frames opposite life-sized characters, the cat looks immense, but it's a truly poor fit and looks more disturbing in a laughable way than genuinely frightening.

I don't know who would enjoy this episode of Star Trek, because as a fan of the series, I know I did not. There are better Halloween specials out there as well, so even Halloween enthusiasts are unlikely to be wowed in any way by this one. Avoid it! After all, Kirk and company did not and they got stuck in a ridiculous setting, heed my warning and you won't have to witness the same!

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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