Many of my fellow members of Generation X look back on things their families enjoyed and feel a sense of regret — or at least a sense of "Ugh, I can’t believe we were into that." It’s a common side effect of growing up in the 1970s. Not me, though. I’ve always considered myself fortunate to grow up in a family that was into the good stuff. The first song I consciously remember recognizing, for example, was Bob Dylan’s "Ballad of a Thin Man." And by the time I was 7 years old, my two favorite TV shows were M*A*S*H and Star Trek.
I also still enjoy all those elements of pop culture, particularly Star Trek, partially because of all the various cats in the various Treks over the years.
Indeed, there weren’t a whole lot of cats in science fiction until Star Trek came long; there’d been more of a fascination with monkeys, in movies such as Forbidden Planet and especially Robinson Crusoe on Mars, in which "Mona, the Woolly Monkey" got third billing in the trailer.
But Star Trek brought the focus to cats, where it belonged. Here are my favorites.
In the original series’ 1967 Halloween episode, Capt. Kirk & Co. encounter a haunted planet with all the trimmings, including but not limited to a spooky castle occupied by shape-changing aliens. They spend most of their time looking like human wizards or witches, though the latter also occasionally changes into a black cat just because she can. (Wouldn’t you?) When it’s time for the big action climax, she turns into a really, really big black cat. And speaking of shape-shifting alien women who turn into cats ÔÇª
Actually, this one is more of a shape-shifting alien cat who can occasionally turn into a woman, and then mostly does it to mess with people’s heads. (Wouldn’t your cat?)
What’s interesting is that this episode was intended to be the pilot episode for a new television series, about the adventures of Isis and her raised-by-aliens human companion Gary Seven on Earth, but it didn’t sell. More’s the pity.
The animated Star Trek could do things that the not-animated Star Trek couldn’t, like have a crewmember who was a sentient, bipedal cat by the name of Lt. M’Ress. She was from the planet Cait, because ÔÇª well, of course she was, and she had a tendency to purr/ululate between sentences.
The animated series fell out of favor (and out of the Star Trek canon) in the 1980s, particularly by the time Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the airwaves, but M’Ress always been significant for me. When I was very young in the late 1970s, the live-action as well as the animated Star Treks were in reruns, and I didn’t differentiate between them.
I mean, I grokked that one was a cartoon and one wasn’t, but to me they were both legitimate Star Treks, and that a cat was a valuable member of the crew made perfect sense at the time. And it still does. M’ress never appeared again after the animated series, but a fellow Caitian did appear in one of the movies, if you look closely.
Not all felinoid races were as peaceful as the Caitians, such as this more warlike race of sentient, bipedal cats. Though they were originally introduced in Larry Niven’s non-Trek stories in the late 1960s, they’re best known outside of sci-fi book clubs from this single appearance in the animated Star Trek.
The fearsomeness of the Kzinti in that episode is somewhat undone by their pink-and-purple uniforms, a result of director Hal Sutherland’s unfortunate color-blindness.
A couple of non-Star Trek cats from the fallow period between The Animated Series and The Next Generation bear mentioning.
Not until Snakes on a Plane had a movie so baldly stated its thesis in its title. It’s a cat, and it’s from outer space! Produced toward the end of Disney’s decade-long rut of dire live-action films, The Cat From Outer Space was the company’s first attempt to scramble onto the suddenly lucrative space-wagon created by Star Wars, but unfortunately, it’s just another banal Disney kiddie flick. The cat in question, Jake, communicates by telepathy, which solves a lot of budgetary issues but doesn’t make for a very compelling character. M’Ress had more depth than Jake ever would.
I remember getting dragged to see this as a 5-year-old, and even though I was the film’s target audience, it left me cold. (Maybe I was just bitter because I didn’t get to see Star Wars.)
Unlike Jake, Jonesy is a regular, nontelepathic domestic cat, which raises an important question: Just what is a regular, nontelepathic domestic cat doing on a mining ship in space? The answers: to provide plenty of opportunities for "Boo!" scenes, and to watch impassively as the humans get killed off.
Jonesy also gets credit for being one of the rare cats to make it to the end of a horror movie, and he even makes a cameo appearance in the sequel. (Warning: The above clip is a bit violent, though Jonesy doesn’t get hurt.)
Which brings us back to Star Trek, and ÔÇª
Spot was Lt. Cmdr. Data’s pet cat on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and much like Jonesy in Alien, Spot managed to pull of the remarkable feat of surviving — not only making it from the television series to the movie Star Trek Generations, but surviving the destruction of the Enterprise itself. By his own account, actor Brent Spiner did not like working with the cat who played Spot, but you can’t tell from Spiner’s performance.
Not getting nearly as much screen time was the cat Chester, who appeared in only one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but he’s worth mentioning because he was a rescue. It’s reassuring to know that even in the 24th century, people are still fighting the good fight.
Because Star Trek wouldn’t have happened without the U.S. space program and all the hard work that led up to it, we can’t forget the real-life cats who paved the way:
They’re not in outer space space — they’re on a Convair C-131, and they didn’t go higher than 12,000 feet — but they’re real cats from 1947, and they’re floating in zero gravity! It was part of cruelty-free experiment in weightlessness by the U.S. Air Force’s Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories in 1947. (Here’s the full video, of which the cats are just a minute and a half.)
With all due respect to M’Ress and the others, these cats are the real heroes.