April was the centenary of the birth of one of horror’s most important, and often underrated, writers–the much loved Robert Bloch. Although I’m two months late in celebrating this momentous date in the horror calendar, I still thought I ought to do something to mark the occasion.
Bloch’s contribution to the horror genre is incalculable. He was part of H.P. Lovecraft’s inner circle of correspondents and it was Lovecraft who first encouraged the teenage Bloch to write. Bloch’s first efforts were short stories set within the Cthulhu mythos, he added much to early Cthulhu lore and even appeared as the character ‘Robert Blake’ in Lovecraft’s story ‘The Haunter of the Dark’. He soon outgrew Lovecraftian fiction however (though he was not averse to returning to it from time to time throughout his career), and became an early pioneer of psychological horror.
One of his most famous early stories, ‘Yours Truly Jack the Ripper’, might be one of the earliest examples of serial killer fiction, a sub-genre he perfected some sixteen years later when he wrote the novel Psycho, that was so famously adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who later created The Outer Limits). Around the same time as Bloch sold the rights to Psycho he was invited out to Hollywood by his old friend Sam Peebles to try his hand at writing for the television show Lock Up about a crime solving attorney (an episode of which featured a young Leonard Nimoy as a thug). These first assignments led to work with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Boris Karloff’s Thriller (‘The Hungry Glass’, a first season episode of Thriller adapted from one of Bloch’s very best stories, stars a young William Shatner), by which time Bloch had begun to make a name for himself as a screenwriter.
After seven years producing some excellent work for television, Bloch was approached by a former secretary of Sam Peebles called Dorothy, an excellent writer in her own right, she had worked her way up to the position of script editor on a new show that Desilu were producing. The show was described by its creator, a former cop turned script writer, as: ‘Wagon Train to the stars’. Though he was mainly known for his work on suspense and horror shows, Bloch had occasionally written for the science fiction pulps like Fantastic and Amazing Stories, so Dorothy though he’d be a good fit for the show.
All of which brings us to the subject of this month’s column. Dorothy is better known as D C Fontana, the show runner is best known as Gene Roddenberry and ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’ was eventually dubbed Star Trek. All in all Bloch wrote three episodes for the show, one in the first season and two in the second and they’re among some of the most memorable episodes of the original series.
It may seem strange to be writing about an iconic sci-fi show like Star Trek on a horror site, but it’s my assertion that these episodes aren’t sci-fi at all, in fact Bloch is staying true to his roots and writing pure horror in deep space where, as Ridley Scott would later tell us, no-one can hear you scream. In fact Bloch had been using sci-fi tropes and backgrounds to tell traditional tales of terror for quite some time in the pulps. His 1957 story ‘Broomstick Ride’, which first appeared in Super-Science Fiction and was later collected in The Best of Robert Bloch, tells of a landing party who discover a world populated by humans who appear to have come from the seventeenth century, they practice witchcraft and claim to worship a version of Satan, even believing themselves to have travelled to the planet magically from Earth, centuries ago, to escape persecution. It reads very much like an episode of Star Trek but manages a very nasty twist at the end. Bloch was to continue this approach with all three episodes that he wrote for the series.
The first episode that Bloch wrote for Star Trek was ‘What Are Little Girls Made Of?’, which was also the episode that began the tradition of killing off the poor Red-shirts, what else would you expect from a horror writer? It was substantially rewritten by John D. F. Black and Gene Roddenberry, who held up the shooting schedule with his constant amendments. Despite all the tinkering by other hands, the episode is unmistakably Bloch’s work, making subtle reference to many strands of classic horror, from Frankenstein to the Cthulhu mythos.
The Enterprise travels to the planet Exo III to help scientist Christine Chapel find her missing fiance the brilliant scientist and archeologist Roger Korby. When they land on the planet Kirk and Chapel find that Korby has been hiding in the ruins of an underground civilization, one that discovered the secret of converting organic life into near immortal androids. Korby wants to use the Enterprise to found a colony of androids on an uninhabited planet so he can build a superior world, and to this end he murders all the landing party, apart form Chapel and Kirk and creates a perfect android replica of Kirk that he sends back to the Enterprise to take control of it.
Right from the get go we can see shades of not only Baron Frankenstein, but also Herbert West in Korby’s attempts to reanimate the dead members of his own party as androids. Particularly in the memorable scene where a naked Kirk is replicated. According to Sherry Jackson, in an interview for the Sci-Fi Channel in 1998, Shatner complained a lot about Roddenberry’s insistence that he shave his chest for this scene. In his 1993 book Star Trek Memories, Shatner is in turn very appreciative about the amount of flesh that Jackson had on show in the costume that William Ware Theiss designed for her, all very daring for 1966.
As well as Herbert West there are other shades of Lovecraft in this episode, Korby refers to the former inhabitants of Exo III as “the Old Ones”, and the transfer of consciousness into the android bodies also recalls the eerie penultimate scene of ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’. Finally, like all great horror stories ‘What Are Little Girls Made Of?’ has a magnificent monster in the form of the seven foot android Ruk, played by Ted Cassidy who is better known as Lurch the butler in The Addams Family.
When I first saw this episode in a rerun, as a young child in the late 70s it really scared me, but at the same time it totally fascinated me and viewing it was one of the seminal moments that really sparked my interest in horror. When I saw the episode again, in a later rerun, as a young teen, I had by that time discovered Bloch’s work. It came as a huge delight to me, when the closing credits rolled, to see that the episode that got me interested in visual horror was written by the same man who, a few years later as a precocious twelve year old, had gotten me interested in literary horror, and in an episode of a classic sci-fi series no less.
Bloch’s next outing, ‘Catspaw’, came in the second season of Star Trek and this time he was quite consciously writing horror, at the request of the show’s producers. In an interview with Randy and Jean Marc Lofficier in Starlog 113, Bloch recalls: “They wanted a Halloween story. I wanted to do something that would involve changes in appearances. So, I decided that instead of having the usual Jekyll and Hyde transformation, I’ll have a female who was capable of chameleon-like adaptations, and the rest just fell into place.”
A landing party on Pyris VII go missing and only one member beams back aboard, he tells Kirk the planet is cursed and then dies. Kirk decides he must go in search of his missing crewmen – Lieutenant Sulu and Chief Engineer Scott. On Pyris VII Kirk, Spock and McCoy encounter fog, witches and an old spooky castle, where they are captured and imprisoned in a dungeon with the skeletal remains of its last inhabitants. From here they are taken by their zombie like former crew mates to meet the wizard Korob and his black cat Sylvia, who is a shape changer. It turns out that Korob and Sylvia are also alien visitors to this planet, aliens who practice magic and want to be left alone to rule Pyris VII, what’s more they prove they’re capable of destroying even the Enterprise with their arcane abilities.
‘Catspaw’ is perhaps the least accomplished of Bloch’s three Star Trek episodes and suffers from very poor special effects, so poor that some of them, such as the appearance of the three witches at the beginning, couldn’t even be tidied up in the 2006 digitally remastered version. The appearance of the aliens in their true form at the end (spoiler alert) as marionettes made from blue fluff, pipe cleaners and crab claws, calls on the viewer to use a lot of their imagination to overlook the lack of production values and it looks as though the crew of the Enterprise were being menaced by the cast of the 1970s BBC children’s programme The Clangers.
Bloch himself complained: “I do have some quibbles about the way in which things were done. It wasn’t their fault, but they just didn’t have the budget.” He does add later though that: “Otherwise, ‘Catspaw’ was shot pretty much as I had written it.” Budgetary quibbles aside, this is still a very enjoyable episode and, by taking what were, even in those days, rather time honoured horror tropes and placing them against an interstellar backdrop, Bloch manages to create something fresh and really quite scary in places, from what could, otherwise, have been quite hoary material.
Bloch’s last jaunt aboard the Enterprise is both his most celebrated and his most criticized episode. It was an update on his second most famous story, the aforementioned ‘Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper’. As Bloch himself tells it: “That was their suggestion. They wanted me to do a Jack the Ripper story in the future. So, I said: ‘alright, let’s put him into a computer or something instead of having him skulking around with a knife on shipboard’. There were a number of changes made to that script because I knew very little about computers, I still do.”
The story is wild, it starts while Kirk, McCoy and Scottie are on shore leave on the pleasure planet of Argelius (a sort of giant hippie commune where all the women are into free love and don’t mind entertaining interstellar-wayfarers), Scottie picks up a semi naked belly dancer and invites her for a walk in the fog (amorous guys these engineers). Next thing you know there’s a scream and Scottie is found standing over her dead body with a blood soaked knife in his hand. Kirk and Scottie cooperate with the local authorities in investigating the case, but they aren’t helped by the fact that Scottie can’t stop stabbing people. Every five minutes it seems there’s another scream and Scottie is standing over yet another brutally murdered woman. The worst things is he “cannot remember” whether he actually committed any of these murders or not.
Eventually, after Scottie has seemingly slaughtered his way through every female member of the cast, Kirk talks the Argelian Prefect Jaris and investigating officer Hengist into continuing the investigation back on the Enterprise. In a courtroom on the ship, in what is the single longest scene set in one location in any Star Trek episode, Kirk and Spock, discover, through a series of bizarre deductive leaps, that Scottie is innocent and the real perpetrator is Jack the Ripper. Jack is now an immortal, disembodied spirit that feeds on fear and is actually possessing the body of Hengist.
Once he is rumbled, Jack leaves Hengist’s body and takes control of the ship’s computer where he plans to wreak havoc by terrifying the crew to death and feeding on their fear. To counter this McCoy gives everyone a sedative injection to get them all off their faces. As Sulu quips: “With an armful of this stuff … I wouldn’t be afraid of a supernova.!” Jack is then forced to jump back into Hengist’s body and they teleport him and Hengist out into deep space where he dies a hideous death.
And no, I really didn’t make any of that up.
Dangerous Minds called ‘The Wolf in the Fold’: “without a doubt the most insane episode of Star Trek that ever made it to the screen. It is actually even weirder than I remembered. A space seance is involved.” However Torie Atkinson on Tor.com’s Star Trek Re-Watch criticized the episode for it’s “offensive orientalist set pieces” and it’s inherent sexist assumptions. “Women aren’t murdered because, say, this man or creature has a deep resentment towards women, because something about him is broken–no, it’s women’s fault for being easily and deeply scared and that’s just part of their nature, you see? How shallow and offensive.” I think she has a very good point, one that should be taken into account when viewing this episode but, for all it’s faults, it’s still, perhaps, the single most entertaining episode of Star Trek I’ve ever watched.
I mean how often do the see the whole crew of the Starship Enterprise take industrial quantities of drugs, after visiting a free love planet, in order to defeat the spirit of Jack the Ripper when he possesses the ship’s computer? As Kirk himself comments, before the credits roll: “Well Mister Spock, for the next five or six hours, we’re going to have the happiest crew in space!” And some of the happiest viewers at home I’d warrant.
According to Bob Justman, one of the producers on the first two seasons of Star Trek, after Desilu was bought by Paramount, just before the third season, the studio cut the budget from $187,500 to $178,500 an episode and this was after giving the cast a big pay rise. This meant that standards began to slip significantly for the third season. Seeing this, Bloch was not tempted to write for the third season. As he says himself: “The original concept had become so eviscerated that I would just rather stay away, Not that I’m a purist, but when a show reaches that point, that’s trouble. When the people in charge don’t know enough about a particular genre, or are indecisive, that means story conferences, changes, explanations, hassles and life is too short. I don’t thrive on controversy.” So sadly he never returned.
All the same, in three highly memorable episodes, one of the most influential writers in the history of horror took one of the most iconic science fiction series on television and subverted it just enough to give us three of the best hours of horror you’re likely to see. These episodes stand up to any of his classic episodes of Thriller or Alfred Hitchcock Presents and for that he should be roundly commended.
Trust your Uncle Jasp on this. You know it makes sense.