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Star Trek: "Catspaw" / "I, Mudd"

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Space… the final frontier. These are the voyages of the star ship Enterprise, whose ongoing mission is to visit a bunch of strange planets which are invariably done up like amusement park themelands. Here's the wild west world! Here's killer kiddie world! Here's a planet where apes evolved from men! And this week, in "Catspaw," we've got Halloween Town. No Jack Skelington, of course, but there's a spooky castle, a mass of white fog, and the inevitable path-crossing black cat.

Oh, and witches! Maybe Scotland is more appropriate. But whatever the right metaphor is, this is a weird one, make no mistake.

Hell of a hook, too. The Enterprise is doing the usual survey of a new planet; the landing party, which includes Scotty and Sulu, hasn't reported back and Kirk is getting worried. (Why the hell would you send your helmsman and your chief engineer on this kind of mission? I guess Sulu has some training in biology, but Scotty doesn't make any sense at all. Maybe he's looking around for minerals the ship's engines could use.) Uhura gets a hail from Jackson, the party's third, more expendable member, and when Jackson beams back onto the ship, he dies on the transporter pad. After he dies, a voice comes out of his mouth delivering a strange message: "There is a curse on your ship! Leave us or die!"

I like spooky things. Always have, always will. And the first act of "Catspaw" has spooky in spades. When Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam to the planet surface to try and rescue Scotty and Sulu, they run into the afore mentioned bank of fog, and the witches, three translucent phantoms that cackle and call Kirk by name. Like always on the series, the effects are cheap, and if you don't approach them with the right frame of mind, you're not going to get much out of them. But in a charitable light, there's definite atmosphere being generated.

That atmosphere lasts long enough for our trio to make it inside a castle, where they run into a cat, and fall through a stone floor. They wake up chained in a dungeon, with a real skeleton on the wall and everything (check out the wires). Scotty and Sulu show up, and wouldn't you know it, they've got the mind control whammy on 'em. They unchain Kirk and the others to lead them to the head bad guy, and when Kirk makes his move to escape, everybody's instantly transported to a throne room. The place has a certain "community theater King Arthur" vibe (sort of Middle Eastern as well), and there's a chubby bald man with a goattee. His name is Korob, and he tells Kirk that they've "passed" some test, and now the real fun can begin.

The atmosphere goes away at this point. I like the writer behind "Catspaw," Robert Bloch, well enough (he wrote the novel Psycho is based on, and while it's not as good as the movie, it's not half-bad), but when he doesn't have a good central idea, he tends to flounder. And he flounders here. It has a few striking images, but there's no real momentum or suspense, and in some ways, it just seems like a rehash of old ideas, with a little new spice for flavor. Korob and his partner Sylvia (who switches between human and cat form as the moment requires) are two more in a long line of god-like beings, but fortunately, they've got some limits to their power. Plus, when it comes to people, they're just not that bright.

It's been a while since Kirk had to seduce somebody to save the day, hasn't it? Thankfully, the wait is over. Korob and Sylvia have abducted the Enterprise crew because they want to know more about modern science; they're both wickedly powerful sorcerers (with a wand that serves as a "transmuter" of their power), but they don't cotton much to warp drive or phaser tech. 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. The motives are never hugely clear, although we're given to believe these are emissaries of some other race, and that they're supposed to bring something back. "The Old Ones" is all we hear (given that Bloch was a protege of H.P. Lovecraft, I kind of wonder at the choice of words here); like much of the episode, this is under-realized.

Whatever her ultimate motive, Sylvia has one far more immediate need: in order to deal with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, she's made herself a woman, and, as she explains to Kirk, she is all woman. She wants some lovin', and who better than our own hunk of man-meat to provide it? Again, this is sort of familiar, and while you definitely get a sense of the differences between Korob and Sylvia (he's something of a worrywart, and not as strong as she is), you never get caught up in either their struggles or in Kirk's attempts to save everyone's lives. McCoy is mind-controlled, Kirk does his pheromone thing, and there's a falling out between the two villains that has Korob trying to get Kirk and Spock out of the castle to freedom. Scuffling enuses, and Sylvia becomes a giant cat that eventually crushes Korob under a steel door, before making one last desperate plea to Kirk to join her. But Kirk has the magic wand now, and as is his way with things he doesn't entirely understand, he's gonna smash the hell out of it. The instant the crystal's broken, the castle disappears, and the day is saved.

You'll pardon me if I don't get too in-depth with this one. I like the trappings, but the whole thing is half-assed, blandly enjoyable on the surface, but with little to recommend it upon further reflection. The story's too loose, with a good ten minutes devoted to Chekov and the others struggling in vain to get the Enterprise free, and Sylvia's problems aren't developed enough to matter. But it's not a total waste. The idea that the aliens' attempts to communicate on a "human" level is based off antiquated notions of humanity is neat, although it doesn't really go anywhere.  There are some striking camera angles, like the two odd close-ups we get of Korob, and as clumsy as it is, the awkwardness of the giant cat stuff has a definite charm. And the final reveal of what Sylvia and Korob really are… 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.

So Sylvia and Korob, despite their remarkable powers, wanted something from the Enterprise and its crew. And wouldn't you know it, the androids that make a mess of things in "I, Mudd," want something from the Enterprise, too. But while Korob and Sylvia were content to just wait till somebody showed up that they could assault, the robots of planet Mudd are pro-active. They've got an agent aboard the ship before the episode even starts. Sure, McCoy doesn't trust him—we get a rare conversation here where Spock is actually wrong for once—but his instincts don't stop the 'bot, a guy named Norman, from taking control of the ship and effectively commandeering it back to his home planet.

And guess who's waiting back at home: a couple hundred thousand androids, and our favorite campy smuggling bastard, Harcourt Fenton Mudd, is lording over them all. Norman arranges for Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Chekov, and Uhura to beam down, where they find Mudd apparently ruling over a harem of cybernetic hotties. Mudd is fine form, having escaped from his last felonious escapade relatively unscathed (the scene here, with Mudd telling his story and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy translating, is fun), but while he's grateful to all the androids he's designed—including an ill-advised copy of his shrewish wife that he can ignore at his leisure—he wants to move on.

Only problem, the robo-buddies won't let him. Their creators are long gone, having built the androids as help-mates only for their race to stagnate and die, and without anyone to serve, the machines are at a total loss. Harry Mudd was a lucky break for them, and they're not in any mood to let him go; that's why Harry arranged for his old friends on the Enterprise to come take his place. Give the robots hundreds of new masters, and provide himself with an exit strategy? Sounds like a win-win.

And hey, who wouldn't want to be pampered by a hundreds of attractive, willing servants who can provide you with anything you desire? As the androids beam down the ship's crew, Kirk becomes concerned as to how his people will react to being offered their heart's desire. (This seems to have happen with surprising frequency to the Enterprise; either the crew is so loyal that mutiny never even occurs to them, or else Kirk's got whole rooms full of compromising photographs.) McCoy's entranced by the medical equipment, Chekov is infatuated with the various hotties on display, and even Uhura is tempted at the thought of having her brain put into a robotic body that will stay forever beautiful. What has Kirk got to offer than can compete?

Thankfully, this question becomes moot once the androids' full plan is revealed. Having decided that humanity is too sick to keep running its own business, Norman and the others want to get pro-active; they're going to leave their planet, and stop sentient life from destroying itself. Now it's not just the Enterprise that's at risk—it's a universe unprepared for a race of highly intelligent, extremely determined nannies. But Kirk and Spock have figured out the androids' weakness—they don't do so well with irrationality. Time for a full on attack of the crazies!

After "Catspaw," "I, Mudd" is a comparatively tight fifty minutes of TV. If you liked Harry Mudd from his first appearance (and I did), you'll like him here; Roger Carmel is as flamboyant as ever, clearly having the time of his life, and there is substantially less upsetting neck hair this time around. Even better, the androids are a believable, clever threat, and their decision to take a hand in the affairs of the people they're supposedly serving is a good twist. Writer Stephen Kandel is taking some cues from Isaac Asimov here, and there are definitely worse sources to steal from.

And how about that climax? To defeat the machines, Kirk and the others engage in a series of bizarre, nonsensical skits, confronting the androids with impossible to resolve contradictions and lies. It's goofy, but charmingly surreal, like Spock's famous, "I love you. And I hate you." scene or the crew's heretofore unexplored talent for mime. We've had computers broken up by illogic before, but this is the first time everybody's gotten in on the act. There's something infectiously silly about all of it. The acting isn't exactly brilliant, but it's a hoot in its own way. I can see somebody watching the last ten minutes of "Mudd" and being put off the series for life; or else I can see somebody getting turned into a Trek fan for the rest of their days. Me, I lean towards the latter.

Not that "Mudd" is flawless. While its great to see Uhura getting to do more, its lame how her happiness revolves around staying pretty forever and ever. (At least, that's the part of the robot's pitch she acts most interested in. You'd think getting your brain stuck in a perpetually powerful android body would have a lot of benefits beyond being physically appealing.) It's odd that the entire crew of the Enterprise beams down to the planet but we only ever see the usual gang of misfits. Budgetary concerns aside, a few extras in Starfleet uniforms wandering around all blissed out in the background would've been nice.

The ending bugs me, too. Once the robots are defeated, Kirk and the others reprogram them to get to work cultivating the planet. As punishment for his crimes, Mudd is left behind with the 'bots, which is reasonable; only Kirk has let Harry's robot wife out of captivity to torment him, which is slightly less justified. Worse, Kirk has made copies. It's supposed to be funny—ha-ha, the lazy man is getting stuck in the Land of the Shrews!—but it's not. It kind of wrecks the charming vibe of the rest of the episode. Harry is legitimately horrified, and as nagging harpy after nagging harpy floods the room, you can't help but feel bad for the idiot.

Overall, though, "Mudd" is a hoot. Campy without being insulting, and just as smart as it needs to be, it's pretty much for fans only; but for fans, it's a treat.

"Catspaw": B-
"I, Mudd": A-

Stray Observations:

  • After the witches do their verse—Kirk: "Spock, comment?" Spock: "Very bad poetry, Captain."
  • It's too bad the "trick or treat" stuff gets dropped so quickly in "Catspaw"; the ep could've used stronger focus.
  • Sylvia changes her form, but it's always the same actress. Just different wigs.
  • Speaking of wigs, thank god Chekov loses his between "Catspaw" and "I, Mudd."
  • I'm getting my wisdom teeth pulled next week, so we're going to take a brief break. But be back here June 11 for "Metamorphosis" and "Journey To Babel."