I had been waiting to get to this episode because my memory of it was very positive but The Empath, like so many Trek episodes, does miss the mark more than I remembered. It’s always a shame when that happens; it’s so much nicer when a good memory is proven to be the truth. Don’t get me wrong, there are some strong elements here but also some silly bits. To start with, there are some great visual moments. The fish-eyed view of the aliens at one point is very disturbing. McCoy’s beating and injuries were gruesome and it’s no wonder they were blurred out for 60’s TV. And I actually found the minimalist set very alien, even if I did wonder if the budget had been strained to a breaking point prior to this episode! (I can’t help but comment that Doctor Who’s white void of The Mind Robber was still superior to Trek’s black void, but both use the void to eerie effect and that’s good enough for me!) Yet we can’t focus solely on the cinematography. How did the episode stack up in Spock’s field of logic? Alas, not so well if you ask me.
Ok, the plot: Minara is a planet in a system whose sun is about to go nova. Kirk and crew come to get the science crew off the planet. Upon arrival, they learn that all of the equipment is covered in dust and the two scientists are nowhere to be found. And so it begins…
Spock tells Kirk to “remember” that the footage they are about to watch is 3 months old. How did he assess that? (Maybe Spock knows how much dust accumulates over the course of three months and assesses based on that!) Still pre-credits, we get the next odd thing. Spock and McCoy mysteriously vanish and Kirk is left alone with a deafening noise. He staggers up a few steps, then falls down to the ground unconscious but sporting a cut on his head. How did he get it? He was neither attacked, nor did he hit anything! (Perhaps he was in need of a fingernail clipper?) The audience may eventually understand that this is used solely to show Gem “empathing” the cut off Jim, but it was a silly way to make the point! It also reminds us yet again that by the time of the Federation, blood borne pathogens are a thing of the past, because this isn’t the first time a member of the crew touches someone else’s bleeding cut!
“She must be an empath!” Um, how did you deduce that, Bones? The definition of an empath is a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual. I see nothing in there about absorbing, transferring, and then dissipating cuts and bruises! Kirk also has a moment of confusion: “we’re not going to hurt you” he says, pointing his gun at Gem. Does he put the gun away then? No. He keeps it trained on the sleepy mute, just in case she lunges I guess!
Yet it must be noted that there are a lot of good ideas here too. Gem is the first official Star Trek fan! She’s been observing the crew and learning from them. She makes a decision to sacrifice herself for them because she’s learned the lessons we fans have come to know so well. “We will not leave our friend!” She risks her life to save a man she barely knows because she sees that others are capable of caring for someone beyond themselves. In turn, she shows the Vian’s that her species is worth saving (although I do question how much it counts when she’s right there, hearing them talk about the end goal of the experiment!) I also found the ethical debate very interesting surrounding the knock out shot. Spock’s comment to McCoy before passing out is: “you’re decision is highly unethical”, which may be true, but this might be the first time McCoy truly impressed me. Trying to help Jim put Spock in the position to die, so he knocks Spock out as well, thus putting himself in the unenviable position of being tortured, rather brutally! I love a good ethical debate and while McCoy may be in breach of a medical oath, I don’t know that he was actually unethical in his decision. He technically caused harm to Spock by putting Jim to sleep if he left things as they were.
McCoy definitely wins this episode for some of the best moments. “I’m a doctor, not a coal miner!” No, not that, although it’s just another fun one to add to the list. I was actually referring to the decision that almost killed him. As he lies there dying, he tells Spock, “you have a good bedside manner, Spock!” I think in that moment, we can see he really does care about Spock and knows they are friends. We’ve seen that before, but it is very evident as he believes he’s going to die.
In the end, it’s the lessons of Star Trek that save a species. When Gem offers to lay her life down for someone else, the Vians decide to save her whole planet. Does that make it a good episode? Perhaps not, but as a life long Trek fan, I can love the symbolism. It reaffirms that the show I grew up loving may have a place in our history and that maybe one day, being a Trek fan will save us all too! ML
The view from across the pond:
“Bones, what’s wrong with her?”
She’s suffering from a bad case of overacting, Jim. To be fair, playing a mute character couldn’t have been easy for Kathryn Hays, especially as Gem goes through something of an emotional roller-coaster, and she needed to get that across to the viewers. This is another of those Trek stories where an alien race stands in judgement over those who they see as their inferiors. The twist here is that they are judging a member of another alien race, but it’s not really enough of a difference to make it entertaining or interesting. Instead, this is quite tough to watch, with Kirk and McCoy getting tortured.
There are some impressive aspects of the episode. Much like the first episode of The Mind Robber (Doctor Who), virtue is made of budgetary restraints by making an empty studio scary. Without much in the way of set dressing, the large studio becomes a dark, echoey space. Among the few props we see are torture tubes that already have the names of the Enterprise crew on them, which is quite menacing.
The focus on the friendship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy works well, and for once there is little of the usual hostility from McCoy towards Spock, although he does try to cut him off at the point where he has something important to say, so it really doesn’t seem to be possible for an episode to go by without McCoy being a jerk at some point. But their willingness to sacrifice themselves to save their friends is a strong storyline, especially when you realise that Spock is operating well outside the sphere of logic. The odds are clear: an 87% chance McCoy will die, or a 93% chance Spock will be severely brain damaged and insane for life. That second one effectively means Spock as everyone knows him would be dead, so if he was dispassionately playing the odds then trying to go instead of McCoy defies logic, but it shows how friendship comes before any other considerations, even for Spock, when it comes to the crunch. Then McCoy takes the decision away from him, showing that he’s willing to lay down his life for Spock. It goes some way towards making up for his xenophobia in previous episodes. Despite his horrendous behaviour towards Spock in the past, McCoy clearly thinks highly of him. So the bond between these three characters is at the heart of the episode.
That’s not enough to completely elevate it from the tedium of a very thin plot, dragged out tortuously over 50 minutes. It doesn’t quite make up for the latest iteration of annoying aliens who think they can judge everyone else, or the depressing scenes of torture, or the latest futile attempt to make us worry that one of the main trio’s lives is in danger, despite it being blatantly obvious that Gem will save him. Frankly, it’s not enough to stop this being one of the more boring Season Three episodes.
There’s a good message at the end, though. Super intelligence and great achievement can come at a cost:
“Love and compassion are dead in you. You’re nothing but intellect.”
That says something important about the risk of scientific advancement without tempering it with strong ethics. The price of achievement is too high, if it comes at the cost of empathy. Intellect is nothing without compassion. In fact, it’s worse than nothing. It’s potentially harmful. So there are aspects of this episode that help to lift it from the exercise in unpleasantness and boredom it could so easily have been, but it never quite manages to be a Gem of a story. RP