Star Trek: The Original Series had one “Halloween” episode: Season 2 Episode 7, “Catspaw,” originally aired on October 27, 1967. Set on Stardate 3018.2, the story sees the crew of the USS Enterprise under Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) encounter a pair of aliens on Payris VII. However, the extraterrestrials originate from a distant galaxy. Using a “transmuter” device to control matter, the aliens can alter their appearance and control the Enterprise. They use these abilities to create a spooky castle, a trio of witches and adopt the guise of wizards and black cats.
Some have maligned “Catspaw” for being a holiday-themed episode. For the most part, the holidays of our present-day seem to have been replaced by the 22nd century. That’s true of Halloween, too. However, examining the details more closely, it becomes clear that “Catspaw” is an almost archetypical Star Trek episode. Furthermore, it fits very neatly into a tradition of perception-warping stories, which can be exemplified by nearly every Trek series.
Witches of Payris VII
In “Catspaw,” Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Bones (DeForest Kelley) mince no words in describing the castle and its accompanying spooky set dressing. “Dust, cobwebs. Halloween is right.” says Bones. Kirk agrees: “Dungeons, curses, skeletons and iron maidens. They’re all Earth manifestations.” But why would aliens from another galaxy know about Halloween?
By the end of the episode, the answer is revealed. The aliens didn’t know about Halloween! At least not at first. They glean the information by using their transmuter to pull information from the minds of the Enterprise crew. Because these humans know of the historical Earth holiday “Halloween,” the aliens can manipulate matter into illusions that mimic spooky elements of the autumnal celebration.
With this explanation, “Catspaw” joins the ranks of many Trek episodes that fall into this archetype. In these episodes, our protagonists encounter circumstances that cause them (and/or their surroundings) to be “warped.” These transformations are often based on information pulled out of a crew member’s brain. This means that they may be surreal or incredible.
Several recent Trek episodes can easily be placed in this category. In Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1 episode 8, “The Elysian Kingdom,” the USS Enterprise encounters a space entity (“Deborah”). This entity uses information from the mind of Rukiya (Sage Arrindell) to transform the crew and ship into a Midsummer Night’s Dream-style kingdom. Just like in “Catspaw,” this means that ideas become reality. However, because the information is coming from Rukiya’s mind, the story is molded to her narrative desires.
Another recent example appears in Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 Episode 3, “Mining the Mind’s Mines.” In this episode, the USS Cerritos must visit Jengus IV, where glowing green orbs are causing people’s fantasies to manifest. While this would be enough to draw a comparison, the episode goes even further. We soon discover that when the orbs break, they unleash manifestations of people’s nightmares. A Klingon clown? A Borg snake? These spooky subconscious remixes are no more or less plausible than the illusions in “Catspaw.”
And another recent example appeared in Star Trek: Prodigy Season 1 Episode 4, “Dreamcatcher,” and episode 5, “Terror Firma.” In these episodes, the crew of the USS Protostar visits an uncharted “M-Class Planet” in the Hirogen System. However, the circumstances they find there cause Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas) to not unreasonably declare it a “Murder Planet.” In these episodes, the Protostar crew faces off against a sentient planet that creates exactly what each of them desires. The planet’s motivation? Consuming the life forms! Fortunately, our heroes learn the truth and escape (just like “Catspaw”).
Royale (with Cheese)
It isn’t just the current shows that feature this episode archetype. There are also examples throughout the shows from the second Star Trek renaissance during the 1990s.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 2 Episode 12, “The Royale,” the USS Enterprise-D investigates the wreckage from a 21st-century human spacecraft. When they discover a structure located in a pocket of hospitable air on an otherwise uninhabitable planet, William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Data (Brent Spiner), and Worf (Michael Dorn) beam down. There they find an uncanny replica of a 20th-century Earth casino. Ultimately, they learn this is a manifestation created by an alien, based on the poorly written Earth novel Hotel Royale. Like the hotel in “Catspaw,” the casino represents an alien attempt to re-create something human.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is filled with these types of manifestations, thanks in large part to the “wormhole aliens.” Called “The Prophets” by the Bajoran people, these aliens repeatedly interact with Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) by adopting the guise of his late mother, Sarah Sisko (Deborah Lacey). However, Sisko isn’t the only one to experience these “visions.” In DS9 Season 3 Episode 16, “Prophet Motive,” Quark (Armin Shimerman) enters the wormhole and encounters the aliens. In this episode, they adopt the guise of Quark’s personal associates on DS9. This is another instance of aliens using internal familiarity to communicate.
The Black Mountain
In Star Trek: Voyager Season 3 Episode 15, “Coda,” Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) experiences a vision of an ersatz afterlife. During this nearly episode-long illusion, she is visited by an alien entity that adopts the guise of her late father. This alien wants to lure Janeway into its “Matrix.” It attempts to accomplish this by telling her he is here to escort her to the “next life.” Fortunately, Janeway can deduce that the alien needs her to come voluntarily. When she refuses, it is dislodged from her cerebral cortex, and she returns to reality.
It isn’t just aliens who can create a false reality on Star Trek. In Star Trek: Enterprise Season 2 Episode 10, “Vanishing Point,” Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) is involved in a transporter malfunction. As a result, she experiences a strange hallucination involving interloping aliens and her disappearance. However, at the end of the episode, Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating) reveals she was only inside the buffer for less than 10 seconds. The events she experienced throughout the episode were merely an illusion.
These are not the only Trek episodes that feature the crew’s subconscious minds being used to create illusions or manipulate matter. However, they demonstrate that the seemingly fantastic events of “Catspaw” are in no way an outlier for the Franchise. Furthermore, the presence of “Halloween” elements in TOS is an appropriate inclusion, just as the “Easter Bunny” is in TOS Season 1 Episode 15, “Shore Leave,” or the Christmas scene in Star Trek: Generations. Even if these celebrations no longer occur on Earth, they could be remembered.
There are other reasons the episode “Catspaw” is also notable. It is the first episode filmed with Ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig). While most of the Season 2 episodes occur in the same period, the “Catspaw” Stardate places it amid the chronology of TOS‘s Season 1 episodes. Plus, it was written by Robert Bloch, based on his 1957 short story “Broomstick Ride.” You may know Bloch best as the author of the 1959 novel Psycho.
But while “Catspaw” may be an appropriate Halloween episode, the stakes are still very real. “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,” states Kirk. But there is still levity to be found, as in the next line when Spock questions what his Captain meant by “trick or treat.” Kirk responds, “You’d be a natural. I’ll explain it to you one day.” Maybe on a Lower Decks Halloween special!
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