Star Trek Rewatch

Star Trek Re-watch: “The Empath”


The Empath
Written by Joyce Muskat
Directed by John Erman

Season 3, Episode 12
Production episode 3×8
Original air date: December 6, 1968
Stardate 5121.5

Recap: Dayton Ward

The Enterprise has arrived at Minara II, home to a Federation research station set up to monitor the decaying Minaran sun as it prepares to go supernova. With the critical event fast approaching, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to collect the research team and whisk them off to safety before the planet gets cooked like a nice beef brisket. Naturally, attempts to contact the science team go unanswered, and when the landing party descends to the station’s subterranean command center, they find evidence of it having been abandoned for months.

Scotty calls down from the ship, letting Kirk know that a solar flare is on the way, bringing with it all sorts of nasty cosmic rays and stuff. Naturally, Kirk orders the ship out of orbit to avoid the flare, while he and Spock and McCoy will hang out for the three days that will pass before the storm subsides. Hmm…out of contact with the ship for three whole days? That just screams, “Yo! Aliens! Come screw with us!”

Kirk finds a computer record tape and Spock spools it up, noting that anything recorded on it is three months old. The tape shows the team of two scientists whining about being stuck on this rock. As the landing party watches, the two men disappear in an odd flash of light and that ominous Star Trek “oing-yoing-yoing” sound. Moments later, a loud hum permeates the room before Spock disappears, followed by McCoy and finally Kirk.

Unfortunately, the mysterious force left me behind, forced to watch whatever might happen next.

Star Trek episode The EmpathOur heroes awaken to find themselves lying together in a mysterious cavern that seems all but enveloped in a Stygian darkness. They’re inside a politician’s heart! The three set off into the unremitting blackness with phasers at the ready, until they come across a dais upon which lies a beautiful, sleeping woman. She awakens and sits up, but when Kirk asks her if she’s from around here or if she comes here often, she says nothing. McCoy gives her a quick scan and determines that she’s a mute, possessing no vocal cords. Is she a telepath? Spock poo-poos that notion, observing that telepaths send as well as receive thoughts, and she’s made no attempt to “reach out” to them. Without any apparent means of learning her name or where she’s from, McCoy decides he’s gonna call her “Gem,” like he’s just picked out a new puppy at PetSmart.

Star Trek episode The EmpathKirk figures “Gem” has to know why they’re here, but no sooner does he give voice to that thought than the “oing-yoing-yoing” sound is back, bringing with it two aliens. Not just your regular “I’m really just a human with funky makeup and a wig” aliens, but Evil Butthead Aliens! They identify themselves as Vians, and warn Kirk not to interfere or delay them as they proceed to do whatever it is they’re gonna do. Kirk presses the point, and for his troubles gets himself along with Spock and McCoy trapped inside a force field. Nice going, Jim.

With that taken care of, the Vians turn their attention to Gem, waving their little gizmos over her for a minute. They get whatever they came for and disappear. The force field goes away, and Kirk and McCoy check on Gem. She seems unhurt, but then she notices a cut on Kirk’s forehead. She reaches out and touches him, and the cut heals. If that’s not cool enough, a cut just like it appears on her forehead, but only for a moment before it disappears, too. Now that’s a health care plan I can get behind. The effort of healing Kirk seems to drain Gem, and McCoy reasons that she must be an “empath,” possessing a physiology that is so responsive that she’s able to feel emotional and physical reactions in others as though they were her own.

Star Trek episode The EmpathSpock returns from snooping around, and reports that he’s found a whole bunch of stuff over yonder. Taking Gem with them, the landing party goes to investigate and they make their way to some kind of control center with computer consoles and all sorts of whatchamahoozits. To be honest, at this point I keep waiting for Dr. Smith, Will Robinson and that Robot to show up out of the darkness. Things take a turn for the sinister, however, when the landing party finds the missing researchers, encased in transparent tubes and looking pretty gosh-darned dead. (In case there’s any doubt, the aliens have thoughtfully provided name plates for both of the tubes.) Things don’t get any better when they find three more tubes…wait for itwith their names on them!

I hate when that happens.

After getting the drop on the Vian, Kirk and the gang make a break for it and reach the surface, stumbling right into a fierce windstorm, and Kirk tries to contact the Enterprise…apparently forgetting that he told Scotty to take the ship out of orbit to protect it from the solar flare. With no help coming from the ship, Kirk opts to make a run for the research station, and the group covers the six or so kilometers on foot in something like 3.6 seconds. They see the station, as well as a rescue party from the Enterprise, including Scotty, who’s waving at them with a big stupid grin on his face. That’s when Kirk spots the two Vians, watching them from a not-so-discreet distance, and he Star Trek episode The Empathdecides he’s gonna have some words with these jokers. Well, the Vians have something to say about that, and promptly stun him, after which he begins this loooooooooong sloooooooooow-mooooooooootion faaaaaaaaaall to the groooooooooound.

Upon reaching the research station, Spock, McCoy and Gem are just in time to watch Scotty and the rescue party disappear. Spock figures they were an illusion. They realize Kirk’s not with them and run back to get him. Meanwhile, the captain’s still taking his time falling to the ground, moving so slowly that even Steve Austin is telling him to hurry it the hell up. The rest of the gang shows up, but then the Vians tell Kirk that “one specimen will be sufficient,” and declare he’s coming with them.

Star Trek episode The EmpathKirk, looking around and seeing no redshirts waiting to take one for the team, is understandably irked by this. In no time, he’s found a way to get his shirt off so that he can show us that meticulously hair-free chest of his, all while being strung up and tortured by the Vians while Gem watches, mute and helpless. The aliens don’t seem to want any information from him, not even his safe word (which my ever-reliable sources tell me is “strawberries,” for those of you who like to catalog such trivia); they’re just out to test his courage and strength of will. Oh, those.

Meanwhile, Spock and McCoy have been left to wander around, looking for the exit, which seems to have disappeared. Then they find themselves trapped inside one of those pesky force fields as Gem and Kirk appear. The captain’s obviously been through the wringer, and though she hesitates at first, Gem steps up to help heal his injuries as she did before. It’s obviously a grueling experience for her as she absorbs the wounds from his shackles along with whatever internal damage he suffered at the Vians’ hands, and she collapses from the strain.

Star Trek episode The EmpathThe Vians reappear and tell Kirk he has to choose either Spock or McCoy to be the subject of the aliens’ next experiment. Kirk tells them to sit and spin, but the Vians aren’t impressed. They tell Kirk that it’s likely McCoy will die, or Spock will be rendered a fan of Justin Bieber insane. While Kirk agonizes over the decision he has to make, he’s overcome with symptoms resembling “the bends.” McCoy knocks him out with a tranquilizer before arguing with Spock over who should go with the Vians.

Gem, of course, is bearing mute witness to the way the three men care for each other, but that whole “being mute” thing doesn’t let her warn Spock that McCoy’s sneaking up behind him with a tranquilizer hypo. (I guess her species doesn’t know how to point, either.) Apparently, Spock’s keen Vulcan hearing isn’t working this episode, because a moment later he’s out, unconscious next to Kirk in what’s shaping up to be one heckuva weird “lost weekend.” The Vians return and take McCoy with them, and that’s when the party really kicks into high gear.

Now awake, Spock figures out one of the Vians’ control thingamajigs. It’s some kind of channeling device for the brain patterns of the person using it. He manages to modify the gizmo, and Kirk opts to use it not for escape, but to be taken to where McCoy’s being held. Gem digs this idea and wants to tag along, so away they go!

Star Trek episode The EmpathThey find McCoy in even worse shape than Kirk was during his own “interrogation,” with all manner of massive internal injuries. There’s little Spock can do except make him comfortable, but Kirk’s not buying that line. What about Gem? Kirk moves to ask her for her help, but the Vians show up and trap him and Spock in yet another of those dang force fields. Curses! Foiled again! They don’t want Kirk and Spock interfering in whatever research they’re conducting. It seems the Vians have the means to save one species from the impending supernova, and they’re testing Gem as a representative of her planet to see if her people are worthy of such effort. The landing party were her mentors in this little play, showing her their will to live, passion to learn, and their willingness to sacrifice their lives for each other. Has any of this been imparted to Gem?

To the Vians’ surprise, Gem moves to McCoy and begins the process of healing his injuries. She fights a war within herself, her survival instinct battling a desire to sacrifice herself to save McCoy. The Vians are prepared to watch all this play out for their little test. Meanwhile, Spock figures out that if he and Kirk just chillax for a minute, the force field that feeds off their energy will weaken to the point that they can escape. They dial it back a couple of notches and break free and get the drop on the Vians.

Star Trek episode The EmpathKirk gives the Vians one of his famous tongue-lashings about superior beings being total jerkwads, giving them the business about having forgotten what it means to feel and be compassionate toward others. Let’s face it: the man could sell hair gel to Lex Luthor, because the next thing you know, the Vians heal McCoy’s injuries before taking Gem and departing. We can only guess that they’re on their way to save Gem’s people.

Back aboard the ship, Kirk ruminates at the circumstances that brought them to encounter Gem and the Vians. For his part, McCoy can’t get enough of the fact that it was “good old human emotion” that beat the Vians, much to Spock’s apparent chagrin. He goes off to sulk in a corner as we… FADE OUT.

I can’t tell you the last time I watched “The Empath.” It might well have been when I received my laserdisc from Columbia House many years ago. (One of those two-episode editions, with the other episode being “Elaan of Troyius.” Ugh.) This isn’t one of those episodes I revisit when I’ve got a hankering for some classic Trek, but upon review I have to say it’s not as bad as I remember it being. It’s not one of my Top 10 or anything like that, but there are certainly far worse episodes, from all three seasons.

The big downside is that we’ve seen some of this before: advanced aliens testing humans to see if they’re “worthy” of one thing or another. Granted, there’s a twist this time around in that the humans aren’t really the subject of the research, but it’s only a minor distinction. Also, the Vians’ resemblance to the Talosians from “The Cage” (or “The Menagerie,” if you prefer) isn’t helped by their use of illusion to trick our heroes. Still, the episode has enough of its own material going for it that you can forgive any similarities to past installments.

Star Trek episode The EmpathMuch of what’s right about this episode can be credited to the performances, not only by Shatner, Nimoy and particularly De Kelley, but also the wonderful actress who portrays Gem, Kathryn Hays. Given the considerable challenge of having to act without dialogue, Hays does a splendid job of employing body language and facial expressions to convey Gem’s various emotional states throughout the episode. It truly is an underrated performance that often gets lost in the shuffle of dismissing third-season original series episodes.

Long story short? “The Empath” is a solid middle-of-the-pack episode that gets an extra nudge due to the efforts of the Big Three cast members along with a very fine supporting turn by Kathryn Hays.

Dayton’s Rating: Warp 4 out of 6


Star Trek episode The Empath

Analysis: David Mack

The moral compass of the Vians seems like a peculiar thing. Despite professing to value such traits as compassion, self-sacrifice, and love of life, they were willing to slay the two human scientists from the Minaran research outpost, as well as our three heroic Starfleet officers. In the episode’s climax, Kirk accuses them of cruel hypocrisy:

KIRK: You’ve lost the capacity to feel the emotions you brought Gem here to experience. You don’t understand what it is to live. Love and compassion are dead in you! You’re nothing but intellect!

But is the Vians’ behavior really inconsistent with their stated motive? I’m not so certain.

Star Trek episode The EmpathFirst, we don’t know that Vians express emotion in the same manner as other humanoids. Perhaps their faces don’t have microexpressions. Maybe their eyes, like those of Klingons, have no tear ducts. It’s possible they evolved in a manner that internalizes all emotional reactions. For all we know, they are anguished by what they must do to the human prisoners, and to Gem. It’s not fair to judge their reactions by human standards.

Second, because of Gem’s empathic nature, and the Vians’ desire to imprint certain ideas and emotions into her personality, mere illusions would not have sufficed. They actually did need to create victims for her to save. And they needed those victims to be noble enough to exhibit courage and self-sacrifice as it was happening. They needed to hurt heroes. In other words, the Vians needed to play the part of villains in order to ensure they were saving a species with innate nobility.

Unfortunately, in the story’s climax, the Vians’ plan is revealed to have one glaring flaw. Their insistence upon Gem’s total sacrifice makes no sense. Earlier in the episode, they implied that the reason for inculcating these values in Gem was twofold­: to see if she was capable of them, and to enable her to pass on those ideas empathically to others of her species. But if Gem dies in order to pass the Vians’ test, how can the second objective be accomplished? All these noble traits that have been nurtured into existence within Gem will be lost with her, and there is no guarantee they will emerge spontaneously in other members of her species. In order for the Vians’ efforts not to be empty and self-defeating, they need Gem to return to her people so that these traits can propagate.

The tool of the Vians, which Spock describes as brainwave amplifiers, reminded me of the Weirding Modules from Frank Herbert’s classic SF saga, Dune. I wonder if the Vians’ gadgets can make names into killing words. Luckily, neither of them was named “Muad’Dib.”

Star Trek episode The EmpathJohn Erman’s direction makes strong use of minimalist sets and stark lighting; the camera work is deft and fluid, making elegant and sometimes bold use of tracking shots. The blocking is also superb and proudly theatrical; it frequently evokes classical rules of composition and balances foreground and background action. I also thought it was an interesting choice at the end of Act Four to have McCoy fall farther out of focus the closer he swings toward the camera.

There were some peculiar slow-motion sequences, such as when the Vians torment Kirk on the planet’s surface, and the use of camera movement to simulate Kirk’s swinging from chains is less than convincing, but overall the visual styling on this episode is rich and cinematic. Also, George Duning’s musical score is “dreamier” than usual for the series, emphasizing the surreal and nightmarish aspects of the story.

Star Trek episode The EmpathAfter several episodes that featured scantily clad female guest stars, it was refreshing to see how modest Gem’s attire was. It underscored the innocence of her character, while at the same time its diaphanous quality evoked her fragility and vulnerability. But nothing brings out those qualities so much as the magnificent performance by mime Kathryn Hays. Despite not uttering a single word of dialogue, she brings to life one of the most sympathetic and memorable guest characters in all of Star Trek’s long history.

As questionable as the Vians’ rationale and methods are, there is no questioning the heroism and nobility of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Beyond their willingness to sacrifice themselves for one another, they show true concern for Gem’s safety and well-being. Even when they realize that McCoy’s only hope for survival is Gem’s empathic healing ability, Kirk hesitates because of the danger it poses to Gem. Likewise, when the dying McCoy realizes Gem is about to sacrifice herself to save him, he pleads with her:

McCOY: Don’t touch me. Stay away. … Jim? Spock? Are you here?

KIRK: Yes, Bones.

McCOY: Don’t let her touch me, she’ll die. Jim, I can’t destroy life—even if it’s to save my own.

And then McCoy pushes Gem away to save her. It’s a wonderful, tragic, and heroic moment.

Star Trek episode The EmpathAlthough the term “meme” is not used in the episode (because it hadn’t yet been coined, by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene), it’s intriguing to realize that what the Vians were hoping to accomplish was the inception within Gem of such noble memes as heroism, self-sacrifice, and compassion.

To read some interesting trivia about this episode, check out its article on Memory Alpha.

All in all, this was a far stronger episode than I had recalled from my youth. It was stylishly directed, beautifully photographed by veteran cinematographer Jerry Finnerman (his last time lensing an episode of the series), well written, and perfectly played. Only the most minor of plot holes and limited special effects keep this from garnering top marks from me.

David’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1 to 6)

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 13 — “Elaan of Troyius.” U.S. residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.

Dayton Ward’s safe word is “pineapples.”

David Mack hopes that Dayton remembers all the safe words in the world are useless when one is wearing a ball gag.


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