Captain's Blog pt. 97: Catspaw

This is the last of my desert island TOS episodes. Like Trek itself did back in '67, I'll exploit the holiday for occasion - Happy Halloween!

October 27, 1967

Title (1) I actually quite like the title and should rate it higher. Except I'm confused. Here's Eugene Myers from Tor:

“I had never heard the word “catspaw” before (...) McCoy directly refers to the title of the episode when he says You kept Scott and Sulu as catspaws to lure us down here. I looked it up and discovered that the term, which means a person unwittingly used by another as a dupe or tool, originates from a fable called The Monkey and the Cat by Jean de La Fontaine. In it, a monkey tricks a cat into plucking chestnuts from a fire, burning its paw while the monkey eats them all. I wonder how common this term is, or was back then.”

That’s interesting. The Monkey and the Cat? Not the nautical term? Here's that definition, which is what I'd always assumed was the reference:

"A light air of wind perceived at a distance in a calm, sweeping the surface of the sea very lightly, and dying away before it reaches the ship. "

It also refers to a deceptive wave, one that resembles the white underside of a cat's literal paw raking the underside of the sea and gives the false impression of a huge tidal push that never comes.

But let's say the nautical term came into usage as a result of this Monkey and the Cat story. Does it make any sense as a title for the story we get? Not really. It's an odd detail of the story to hang a hat on; it makes more sense for something like "Whom Gods Destroy" or "The Mark of Gideon." But mainly, the problem is that the story doesn't make much sense, either.

Script and Theme (5 / 4) It's my last chance to bitch about the Tor and AV Club re-watches, and bitch I shall, but first, there's pretty much wide consensus on what is wrong with this episode. First, here's Mr. Myers:

“The whole episode is a mess of conflicting information, which perhaps ties in with Sylvia’s own confused impulses:

"Though it only flirts with an idea that is explored more in a later episode, this is a story about an alien seduced by the flesh.

“We never find out what the aliens really want, and I’m not sure the aliens or the writers do either. The most interesting conclusion we can draw is that these creatures are Lovecraftian invaders, with the reference to the “Old Ones” and their true forms resembling tiny Cthulus.”

The Lovecraft reference makes much more sense here than it does in "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" Right down to the octopus beards.

Of these creatures, Zack Handlen writes (and I very much agree:) "Look, I'm sure most people saw that and laughed. They're these ridiculous contraptions made of what looks like shrimp and blue fur, and you can see the hundreds of strings holding the damn things up. They can't be more than a few inches tall each, and they're goddamn absurd.

"I dig it, though. There's something freakish about those damn things, something that makes them truly alien, in spite (or maybe because) of the tackiness of the design. 'Catspaw' isn't all that strong, but those few times it works, it's like nothing we've seen on the series before.

Both reviewers are correct to point out the various ideas of the episode are under-realized. Bloch does his customary blend of traditional genre with sci-fi, but perhaps he needed to stir a bit more. It's a slight episode, hardly one of the best. I include it mainly for its successful creation of mood, its visuals, and its ending lines:

"All of this, just an illusion."
"No illusion. Jackson is dead."
I love that. I don't think it's too much to say that this unexpected recall of the crewman who dies at the beginning (the one who falls from the transporter and through whom the curse on the ship is uttered, aka the one who is not mentioned again from beginning to end) has a Roy Lichtenstein quality to it. Really, if "Jackson is Dead" was the name of this episode, its reputation would be much improved. It would be lifted into the realm of the Pop Art Surreal.

Visual Design (3)

Good use of dry ice. TOS was often so theatrical. It could easily be recreated as a series of stage plays by some Max Fischer Players-esque company. (And should be.) Though, as was discussed in the entry for them, I guess Star Trek Phase II is that already, somewhat.
“It's odd--Sylvia is strong enough to make a voodoo-type mini-Enterprise, endangering the whole ship at her whim, but all she really wants is to know the mysteries behind a digital watch."

Guest (2.5) Torie Atkinson: “It was interesting to see what appeared to me as an entirely random redshirt commanding the Enterprise (yes his name is LaSalle but how often have we met him?)”

Three times:

"The Squire of Gothos"
"This Side of Paradise"
And great crikes, that's not his name. I know that Torie represents the first time Trek viewer side of that Tor re-watch, but come on. I'm more disappointed that no one called this out in the comments. Hey, more power to her/ everyone.

As for Sylvia and Korob.
Korob is played by Theo Marcuse. The subject of an impassioned Outer Limits screed here.
And Sylvia by Antoinette Bower.
Just one of her many other television appearances: Eve Norda from the classic Twilight Zone episode "Probe 7, Over and Out."

Kirk and the Gang (20)

I'm kind of surprised this didn't already exist out there on the interwebs.
"We're... burning up..."

Memorability (3.5)

 Total Points Awarded: 40

There'll be a wrap-up entry or two (and of course the DS9 blogs, when I get those) but here endeth the five year mission (done in only eight months) for yours truly. Three months of TOS, one on the movies, one on TNG, two for all the others, and one for asides and what-ifs = a sabbatical from all * things Trek until Halloween 2014 at the earliest.

* Well, most


  1. I'd never given much thought to the title; probably, I just assumed that it was a reference to the danger that would be inherent in the swipe of a room-sized cat's paw. I didn't even know the word had actual meanings apart from the literal one!

    That said, I wholly endorse the changing of this episode's title to "Jackson Is Dead." Where can I go to sign a petition to that effect?

    As with "What Are Little Girls Made Of?", I had no idea that there was a Lovecraftian element to "Catspaw." That's going to make me look at those darling little shrimp-aliens in an entirely new context from now on.

    Kudos on the BONES image. Sometimes, it's the things you'd most think the Internet would have done that it has utterly failed to do.

    Not now, though!

    1. I'm quite partial to that Bones pic, myself.

      I seem to have only started captioning the pics in-picture over the past week or so; wish I'd thought to do so at the beginning. Ah well. Hindsight.

  2. Oh, and I forgot to comment on how incredibly wiggy that wig on Chekov looks. Yikes!