Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Empath”

The Empath
Written by Joyce Muskat
Directed by John Erman

Season 3, Episode 12
Production episode: 3×08
Original air date: December 6, 1968
Star date: 5121.5

Mission summary

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are on the second planet around the star Minara, doomed to nova in classic stars-nova-left-and-right Star Trek style. A research crew was dispatched there six months ago to take some last minute readings, but now that the Enterprise has arrived with their ticket out of there no one’s around. The station is covered in dust and cobwebs and hasn’t been inhabited in at least three months. Scotty, at the Enterprise’s helm, alerts the captain that a solar flare is about to dump cosmic plot device rays that force the ship to retreat a safe distance from the planet, leaving the trio all alone.

As soon as our heroes are stuck and the Enterprise is out of range, they play a videotape lying around. In it, two scientists bitch and moan about “this godforsaken place”–which seems to have infuriated some locals, because a high-pitched screech and cheesy camera effect later, both scientists have disappeared into the ether. Then Kirk, Spock, and McCoy hear the same sound themselves and in just moments, vanish one by one. It turns out the sound was a transporter effect, and they’ve all been beamed beneath the planet’s surface to some kind of German Expressionist Hamlet. The walls, floor, and ceiling are inky, black darkness; the rest is silence. Literally, actually–they find a pedestal with a lady draped over it, but McCoy reveals she has no vocal cords: she’s mute. Her big, soulful eyes reveal a kind of childlike wonder and concern, but she can’t communicate at all, even telepathically. She gestures like she’s in some kind of invisible ballet and it’s clear she’s a little frightened by the men.

MCCOY: We can’t keep referring to her as she, as if she weren’t here.
KIRK: Do you have any ideas?
MCCOY: Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to call her Gem.
SPOCK: Gem, Doctor?
MCCOY: Well, that’s better than “Hey, you.”

Two Talosians Vians appear in swishy silver robes and trap Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in some kind of technicolor forcefield. The more they resist, the stronger the forcefield becomes.  Kirk tries to make peace with the Vians but Lal, the spokesperson, isn’t interested. They vanish and the forcefield disappears. Gem seems to be all right though, and when Kirk goes to check on her she touches him. A minor cut that was on his forehead disappears and appears on her own head, before vanishing as well.

MCCOY: The wound is completely healed. It fits, Jim. She must be an empath. Her nervous system is so sensitive, highly responsive that she can actually feel our emotional and physical reactions. They become part of her.

That’s an awesome racial ability! She’ll make a good addition to the party. They set off to investigate the lair and find a bunch of zany sculptures–they’ve found the MoMa! Actually the art installation is supposed to be a high-tech equipment, accoutrement to an alien laboratory. In two life-size test tubes are Linke and Ozaba, the research team in the home video. That’s a little disconcerting. Even worse: there are three empty tubes next to them, each neatly labeled “McCoy,” “Kirk,” and “Spock.”

Dun dun dun.

One of the Vians shows up again and claims it wasn’t his nefarious experiments that killed those men, it was the puny humans’ “own imperfections.” Like, you know, a vulnerability to their experiments. Kirk tries to explain that the nova-ing sun should be enough reason to abandon the little shop of horrors, and a ninja-like Spock manages to neck pinch the alien while he’s distracted by the bad science. (A weakness we can all sympathize with, I’m sure.)

They take this opportunity to get the hell out of there–without noticing that the alien has recovered and doesn’t seem to be pursuing them. They manage to emerge from the underground complex and head towards the research station, where a landing party would have begun its search. In the distance they can see Scotty smiling and waving to them, but Gem isn’t much of an athlete and has to be dragged there by McCoy. Kirk, on the other hand, noticed the Vians watching them from a rock outcropping–and decides to confront them and let the others go ahead. The Vians explain that “one specimen” should be sufficient, and Kirk agrees to submit to their experiments on the condition that his men can go free.

The others join up with him and explain that the image of Scotty and the landing party was a mirage. They try to talk Kirk out of his sacrifice but he won’t hear it. It doesn’t matter, though–the Vians blink everyone else away from the surface.

KIRK: One specimen, you said. One specimen! What happened to my men?
THANN: Indeed, the prime ingredient.
KIRK: Where are they? Tell me! You said you’d let them go!

Well, they were lying, obviously. And what’s this talk of a prime ingredient? Iron Chef: Minara II?

Later, Kirk is strapped into some kind of torture device, dangling from chains attached to the ceiling, barely conscious. Gem looks on, horrified, a cipher for the audience.

LAL: We’ve already observed the intensity of your passions and gauged your capacity to love others. Now we want you to reveal to us your courage and strength of will.
KIRK: Why? What is it you hope to prove? If my death is to have any meaning, at least tell me what I’m dying for.
THANN: If you live, you will have your answer.

Mmmm Dead Captain’s Goulash, coming right up…

Thank goodness we’re spared the torture scenes. Later, Kirk and Gem are beamed over to rejoin McCoy and Spock, who are promptly placed in a forcefield. Kirk collapses almost immediately but McCoy is stuck behind the forcefield and can’t help him. Gem instinctively reaches out to Kirk to absorb and heal his wounds, but she recoils from the pain. McCoy urges her to try again. She does so, frightened, and collapses from the effort.

The forcefield is released and McCoy diagnoses Kirk with–wait for it–the bends. Seriously? In any case, the Vians show up again and this time explain that they’ll need either Spock or McCoy. McCoy will likely die from the experiment, but Spock would go insane, and Kirk must choose which of his friends to sacrifice. They disappear and Spock explains that he’s been jiggering the transporter controller they swiped to try and get it to work for them. He has left notes for McCoy, because he volunteers for the experiment. McCoy, however, has hypos, and he drugs both Kirk and Spock so that the Vians take him away and not his friends.

When Kirk finally comes to, he demands to know what happened:

KIRK: Why did you let him do it?
SPOCK: I was convinced in the same way you were, Captain. By the good doctor’s hypo.

But by then Spock has gotten the transporter device to work and they agree to beam back to the lab and try and save the doctor. Joined by Gem, they find McCoy in the same crucifixion position that Kirk was in–but he’s in much worse shape. Gem looks like she’s about to throw up as Spock cuts down the chains. They put McCoy on a bed but Spock confirms the obvious: McCoy will die.

KIRK: Can’t we do something?
SPOCK: I’m afraid not.

If only we had some kind of healing magic… person….hmmm…. hmmmmmmmm….

The solution comes to them slowly but surely, and they discuss enlisting Gem to save him. This seems to be outside of the experiment’s parameters, though, and the Vians appear and warn Kirk and Spock not to coerce or persuade Gem in any way. And so it’s proven, finally, that Gem is the heart of their experiment.

LAL: Of all the planets of Minara, we have the power to transport the inhabitants of only one to safety.
THANN: If Gem’s planet is the one that will be saved, we must make certain beyond any doubt whatsoever they are worthy of survival.
KIRK: How will the death of our friend serve this purpose?
LAL: His death will not serve it, but her willingness to give her life for him will. You were her teachers.
KIRK: We were? What could she learn from us?
LAL: Your will to survive. Your love of life. Your passion to know. They are recorded in her being.
THANN: Her planet will be fortunate.
LAL: Each of you is willing to give his life for the others. We must now find out whether that instinct has been transmitted to Gem.

Surprise surprise, it has. Gem goes to McCoy and begins to heal some of his wounds, but the internal injuries are too much and she recoils. This pisses the Vians off–she’s supposed to go the whole nine yards! But eventually she returns on her own and tries again to save McCoy. As he slowly regains consciousness and figures out what Gem is doing, he weakly pushes her away from him.

MCCOY: Don’t let her touch me. She’ll die. Jim, I can’t destroy life, even if it’s to save my own. I can’t. You know that. I can’t let you do it.

Spock comes up with an idea: if the forcefield is feeding off of their emotional energy, which he just decided was what was happening for some reason, then he can suppress his emotions enough to escape it. He concentrates and soon the forcefield disappears around Spock. Kirk, meanwhile, is still arguing with the Vians. Gem has already offered her life to save McCoy, but they’re still not satisfied.

LAL: To offer is not proof enough.
KIRK: If death is all you understand, here are four lives for you. We will not leave our friend. 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.

Oh, snap! This seems to humble them enough that they finish healing McCoy, and then carry an unconscious Gem off into the darkness.

Back on the Enterprise, the men contemplate the episode we were all forced to endure:

SCOTT: Not to dispute your computer, Mister Spock, but from little what you’ve told me, I would say she was a pearl of great price.
KIRK: What, Scott?
SCOTT: Do you not know the story of the merchant? The merchant, who when he found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
KIRK: Yes, she was all that. And whether the Vians bought her or found her makes little difference. She was of great value.
MCCOY: Well, personally, I find it fascinating that with all their scientific knowledge and advances, that it was good old-fashioned human emotion that they valued the most.

And with that irrelevant story, the end.

Analysis

Every copy of this episode should come with its own empath, to absorb away the pain of watching it. Riddled with cliches, it feels like a distillation of some of the worst Star Trek episodes: people mysteriously disappearing, space douches, torture porn, awful special effects, even more atrocious music, and disturbing parables that fail to elicit anything from me but disgust. Usually I can see a gem (sigh, now they’ve ruined another word for me) that, in another’s hands, might have been impressive–but here the main premise is so flawed I can’t imagine any execution of it that would satisfy.

Why is the third season obsessed with torture? The Vians are so reprehensible and their intentions so deeply disturbing that it’s a wonder the Federation doesn’t come back and try them for crimes against humanity (broadly speaking). It’s not just that they’re unfathomably cruel, for no discernible reason, but they take that at least two levels beyond where it needs to go to prove their villainy, attempting to drive a doe-eyed woman to suicide. How is this entertainment? It’s unnecessary and sickening, and I resented the emotional manipulation of such a set-up.

Perhaps this is trifling in the face of the other flaws, but the allusions to Scripture made me wonder about the real motives behind this episode. We get not one, but two direct quotes from the Bible. First, there’s the videotape of Linke and Ozaba where Ozaba says, “In his hand are the deep places of the earth. Psalm 95, verse 4.” Okay, so alien stuff, god, yada yada, got it. But then things start to get less subtle: Kirk and McCoy, when hanging from the chains, look like they’re being crucified. They’re both compassionate and selfless individuals who had decided to sacrifice their own lives to save the lives of others. When Kirk recovers, Gem heals his wounds–which include wrist abrasions like stigmata. And if you look at the couch/bed that they use throughout the episode, it’s shaped like a cross. What’s with all the Jesus imagery? To top it all off, Scotty whips out the parable of the pearl at the end, but I can’t for the life of me figure out the relevance. Is Gem supposed to be a Jesus figure, taking on others sins and sacrificing herself for them? Is that supposed to be the divine presence in all people?  It sounds even more inane to type that out than to think it, so I have to hope that wasn’t the intended meaning.

I will say one thing: this episode is beautifully directed. It has some of the most artful and bold tableaux of the series, strikingly blocked. I mean, look at these:

Isn’t that beautiful? You can read the relationships between the characters instantly, with no context, no dialogue.  The minimalist set is evocative and mysterious, with the “scientific instruments” standing out starkly amidst the darkness. I love the way the actors walk in and out of the shadows–despite the fact that there are no walls, the rooms feel claustrophobic and suffocating. And while the Vians are Talosian clones, I liked Gem’s costume–it was elegant, and combined with her fluid gestures (as stupid as they were) it lent her grace.

And I am, right now, enacting a ban against child-women. Ugh.

Was anyone else in watching this reminded of The Green Mile? Both stories feature people who can absorb the hurt and pain of someone else into themselves, and both explore the idea of love and compassion as tools for pain and suffering when used by terrible people. To use compassion against someone, to hurt them with their loving kindness and empathy, represents the kind of moral bankruptcy that I wish only existed in science fiction.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: This episode unintentionally causes us to empathize with Kirk and McCoy’s suffering, unfortunately by torturing us along with them.

“The Empath” is a mashup of stories we’ve seen before: powerful, big-headed space douches testing the crew by messing with them physically and mentally. It borrows heavily from “The Cage” (and, of course, “The Menagerie“), with the Vians appearing as a cross between the cerebral Talosians and The Twilight Zone‘s towering Kanamits. The twist that the aliens are actually testing Gem may be surprising, but this premise introduces a slew of other logistical problems–most of which Kirk and Spock point out.

The idea that the Vians are evaluating Gem’s worthiness, and thus the worthiness of her entire planet for salvation, is intriguing, but it isn’t a fair test. They’re manipulating the results, attempting to alter her very nature by pushing the limits of her compassion, while demonstrating their own callousness and cruelty. They don’t have the moral high ground, just a position of power, and one wonders why they are interested in saving anyone. If they value human qualities so much, how can they so casually kill people for their misguided cause? And how did they even know that the human race possesses these desirable qualities anyway? Presumably the Organians and Metrons have been talking them up at Space Douches Anonymous. Thanks, guys.

Not only do the Vians fail at the scientific method–they explain their experiment right in front of the subject, which has to skew the results–but their basic argument is inherently flawed. They won’t be satisfied unless the empath is willing to sacrifice her own life, never mind the fact that she takes on a stranger’s wound spontaneously and voluntarily, with no discernible personal benefit. Many humans wouldn’t even do that much. On the other hand, aside from some temporary weakness and discomfort, there’s no real disadvantage to her powers; the injury is briefly transferred, and then she somehow heals–a disappointing bit of magic that considerably lowers the stakes and value of her selfless gesture.

What bugs me most about this episode is that McCoy goes from not knowing anything about Gem to suddenly becoming an expert on her unusual physiology. Similarly, the Vians conveniently know everything about the Enterprise and its crew, and Spock figures out how the Vians’ weapon works well enough to tune it to his brain pattern and operate it flawlessly. (I don’t even remember how he acquired one of them in the first place!) These ray guns can do anything: a Jedi-like Force push, teleportation, slow motion, holographic projection, emotion-based containment fields (why?), and resurrection. I suppose it merely focuses the Vians’ powers like a handheld version of Trelane‘s generator. Whatever, it doesn’t make any sense.

There are some neat things in “The Empath.” As usual, I liked the teaser (though I think it’s hilarious that a Starfleet researcher is on record as saying “I can’t stand this for one more day!”), especially Kirk’s imprint left behind in the dust after he’s been teleported away. The minimalist set kind of works, and I loved the lab and the creepy specimen tubes complete with nameplates, as if the Vians are collecting poseable, life-sized Star Trek action figures. But I hate everything about Gem, especially her interpretive dance, flowy outfit, and weird-looking eyes; the sappy soundtrack; and the shoddy time-lapse photography, some of the worst effects in the series. Even more of a problem is Dr. McCoy’s “highly unethical” drugging of Kirk and Spock, which is inexcusable no matter how good his intentions. And what is up with Scotty’s little story about pearls at the end of the episode? I don’t see the connection. (Is this why McCoy arbitrarily names her “Gem”? Sheesh.)

Most disappointing of all, I can’t even see any promise in this episode, even without its incompetent execution. It was poorly conceived, through and through.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 2

Best Line: MCCOY: She seems harmless enough.
SPOCK: The sand-bats of Manark IV appear to be inanimate rock crystals, doctor, until they attack.

Syndication Edits: None.

Trivia: This was reported DeForest Kelley’s favorite episode.

Like with “Miri” and “Plato’s Stepchildren,” this episode was not aired in the UK until the 1990s because of its depiction of sadistic violence.

Other notes: Joyce Muskat was one of only four fans to have her episode produced for the series, the other three being David Gerrold (“The Trouble with Tribbles“), Jean Lisette Aroeste (“Is There in Truth No Beauty?“), and Judy Burns (“The Tholian Web“). It was her only television sale.


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 11 – “Wink of an Eye.”

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

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.