by Jeff Bond
“The Empath” is one of those classic Trek episodes that you appreciate more as an adult than as a kid or teen, when it’s likely to play as unbearably “mushy.” But it’s illustrative of how different Trek has always been from the other science fiction shows of the period—classic Trek was unashamedly “touchy feely,” focusing on humanity’s most noble impulses and feelings.
In “The Empath” Kirk, Spock and McCoy touch down on a planet threatened by an imminent supernova (see “All Our Yesterdays”), and find a Federation research station that’s seemingly abandoned. “Security cam” footage saved in the station’s computers shows the station’s crew mysteriously disappearing (this is one of several examples on the show of security cam footage employing arty zooms and pans) before the Enterprise officers themselves disappear and find themselves deep underground in an alien research facility. There they find an attractive female mime that McCoy dubs Gem (in a strange foreshadowing for an episode based on torture, the bed Gem is found lying on looks like a giant agonizer from “Mirror, Mirror”). Soon Gem’s captors also appear: the Vians, aliens who look a lot like the Talosians from “The Cage.” They eventually hang Kirk and McCoy from the rafters (given the show’s strange, minimal sets, just exactly what the rafters are in this case is an interesting question) and torture the bejeezus out of them as we discover that Gem is an “empath” who absorbs other’s emotions and physical pain into her own body. As in many Trek episodes, the superior Vians are running a test—but in this case the subjects aren’t the Enterprise crew and by turn humanity, but Gem and her race, with the Vians seeking to discover whether she is willing to sacrifice her life for her newfound friends Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
Like “Spectre of the Gun,” “The Empath” showcases an odd, stage bound theatricality, from Kathryn Hays’ pantomime performance as Gem to the strange minimalist sets, achieved by blacking out the stage floor, curtaining off the walls and lighting to create the effect of a pure black, featureless environment marked by “floating” set pieces including Gem’s bed and the Vians’ laboratory equipment. This was a technique often used on Lost in Space and Irwin Allen’s other sci fi TV shows of the period but rarely on Star Trek—in fact the sets, lab sound effects and even the Vians’ costumes seem much more like something out of Lost in Space than Trek. There are other stylistic touches that are out of character for Trek, notably the use of slow motion in an exterior scene involving the illusion that the landing party is about to be rescued by Scotty.
“The Empath” is all about caring, but there is some condescension in the way Gem is treated that echoes the “Mary Sue” approach of some later Trek episodes—McCoy especially seems instantly charmed by and concerned for Gem despite having little or no idea exactly who and what she is (although Spock does remind him that the sandbats of Maynart IV appear to be inanimate rock crystals before they attack…) and the doctor immediately raises the need to find a catchy name for her to Priority One. There’s a sense that this is more about her appearing to be a helpless, pretty “girl” rather than an alien and you have to wonder how Kirk, Spock and McCoy would treat Gem if she were male instead of female. On the other hand, while it’s unstated in the episode, women are often considered to be more “empathic” and nurturing then men so it’s somewhat of a natural choice to portray Gem this way.
Some of what appears to be clumsy plot development in the story winds up making perfect sense when we see what the Vians are trying to achieve—the fact that they tell the Enterprise officers how their force field works, giving them the key to their eventual escape, the fact that they label their experiments in English so Kirk and the others can read and divine what’s about to happen to them, and the fact that they allow the humans to obtain one of their “control units” all plays into their manipulation. And “The Empath” does pay off as an illustration of one of Trek’s key strengths, the unstated but effectively portrayed “love” between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Probably the warmest moment between Spock and McCoy in the entire series occurs in the aftermath of McCoy’s torture as the camera holds on a shot of Spock’s deeply concerned expression as he holds his hand to McCoy’s head, with a touched McCoy weakly responding “You’ve got a good bedside manner, Spock.” Gem herself expresses the affection between the characters with a warm and silent smile as she watches them vie to be the first to sacrifice themselves for the others earlier in the story.
Another Trek staple that works better here than in some other episodes is the way Kirk manages to change the Vians’ behavior with an imploring speech—this one makes particular sense given what the aliens want out of Gem; for them to refuse to show mercy and compassion when they value it so highly in others is a critical contradiction.
All that said, “The Empath” still registers sometimes as overly sentimental and it gilds the lily with its talky final scene on the bridge in which Kirk and McCoy have to admit that they were “awed” by Gem and Scotty unloads his “story of the merchant”—Trek often presented the moral of the story verbally but after such an effective wrap-up this coda seems like more hand-holding than an intelligent viewer really needs.
With most of the episode set underground there are few spaceship shots in “The Empath,” but in addition to their usual additions of a new planet, CBS-D puts their efforts in other directions—there’s a more realistic view of the star system’s sun with visible solar flares and most importantly, the team has worked to smooth out the transitions in the makeup effects that are used to illustrate Gem’s empathic powers. When Star Trek was originally filmed this kind of effect hadn’t changed much from the thirties and forties when films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Wolf Man showed transformations by fading between shots of different stages of theatrical makeup. While it worked for audiences of the time, the approach requires loads of suspension of disbelief. Because of the big changes in the look of the static makeups between shots, and even changes in the position of the subject and the sudden appearance or disappearance of hair, the technique has the aspect more of a magical quality than something organic. Here the impact of CBS-D’s digital “smoothing” of the effects is considerable as it actually adds quite a bit of emotional power to the growth of scars and bruises on Gem’s fragile facial features. It’s too bad this couldn’t have been employed for the healing scenes in “Miri” as well but the addition here is one of CBS-D’s more effective fixes.
by Matt Wright
[new features: Vid is now higher res + click the above to go to full screen]
by Matt Wright
Remastered vs. Original
Seasons One and Two discounted at Amazon US
The Season Two box set is now available at Amazon for pre-order, discounted to $63.99 (Amazon has a low price guarantee that if they drop the price before ship date of August 5th you will get that lower price). The Season One DVD / HD DVD combo disk is available now for $104.99 (retail is $194.99).