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
Wrinkly-lipped distant cousins of the Talosians?
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).
Amazon.com (USA)Seasons One and Two of TOS-R ($104.99 and $63.99 respectively)
Boy, this episode was always a tough one to swallow!
Eh. This one always felt phoned-in.
sound stage city
I guess I’m in the minority who liked this show, even as a kid in the 1970s. The stage-iness is part of the mood and the charm; Gem was oddly appealing in her muteness; and the Big Three had some great moments.
Sure, it’s no “Balance of Terror” or “City on the Edge…”, but it’s also far from the “Spock’s Brain” and “Children Shall Lead” end of the spectrum.
Uh oh. I always liked this one as a kid. But I was a wierd kid.
Never liked this episode.
The merchant story that Scotty paraphrases is from the Gosples.
Jesus used it as a parable. I like how trek writers lift material from
scripture but given the show’s humanist bent would never properly give due credit. “Bread and Circuses” being a notable
I love this episode. Reminds me of the last season of Batman.
so i guess its obvious that these guys are based on the talosians? i remember having an old copy of the cage i taped from BBC2, anyone remember the talosians voices changing from scene to scene> lol from high to loww and slowww
5. I still like this one, probably because it did feel theatric, more like a play than a television episode.
ive got to be in the mood for this episode. it has some really good moments but its very surreal.
I think this episode was one of four of TOS banned by the BBC here in Great Britain for many years before it was finally shown to UK audiences.
I loved some of the new music created for this episode.
Funny how Jeff nailed the fact that the platform looked like a giant agonizer. As many times as I’ve seen this episode over the years, I never picked up on that until I watched the remastered episode last weekend.
““The Empath” is one of those classic Trek episodes that you appreciate more as an adult than as a kid or teen,”
“Boy, this episode was always a tough one to swallow!”
Agreed Harry. I hated it as a kid and it really made for a lousy afternoon after school when I discovered, “Oh man!”, this was the one that was on. I just found it gory and sadistic. I couldn’t believe any race could be that way.
I do remember an ailing Deforest Kelly telling on those SciFi extras in between the commercials that this was one of his favorites because of the approach and art direction. Again, to quote Jeff Bond….I can appreciate them all on a different level these days.
Always loved this episode, when I was a kid I was very curious as to how Gem survived the pain, it looked so gruesome to me back then!
The voices of The Talosians changed in pitch only during the “pieced together” version of “The Cage” that had both black and white and colour footage, this was before the “lost colour footage” was “found”. It’s been so long since I have seen the entire colour version of The Cage that i can’t remember if they kept the pitch correct throughout that one.
On the original “Managerie”, their voices were re-dubbed at a lower pitch (and re-voiced), there was a post here a while back about the guy who played Commodore Mendez being one of the re-dubbed voices), and the main Talosian voice in the original “Cage” was the late Meg Wyle herself.
The story and dialog has some holes, but it’s heavy on the McCoy, so I still enjoy it. And like Paul, I liked the black box set. It manages to make me feel closed in, yet suspicious of what may be lurking in the darkness.
I think this was one of the ones the BBC dropped from showing because it was No Good
Oh boy More Mars like Planets!
No Season 2 Box-Set in UK????
Season 2 only available in US-Stores next week?
Why is it impossible to tell us the european release-date????
I’ll try to not ever say this again, but boy am I tired of the “realistic” planets!!
I’ll give it to them that the makeup transitions look great. Makes the episode better, even. However, whats with CBS and their hatred of over exposing shots? The new sun looks far less menacing than the old. Like a planet.
i am very impressed with the high def video clip shown above for this episode. if that’s what the remastered episodes looks like, I might change my mind and get the DVD.
I always liked this episode and still do. it made a whole lot of sense to me, even as a kid.
This may be the only original series episode that I’ve never seen all the way through. And, because I didn’t set my VCR correctly last weekend, I still only saw the last 15 minutes.
But as a kid, I’d read the James Blish adaptation, so I staged it in my head. I knew it was set in a pitch dark, nearly featureless underground cavern, so I pictured it as a dark place I knew — my grandmother’s spooky basement. Thereafter, when I’d go into that basement, I’d be expecting to see those tubes with the dead scientists in them. Yikes!
But last weekend, with the bit I did see… as Jeff ponders above, I wondered what the empath would have been like if it had been male instead of female. More to the point, I wondered, what if the Empath looked like the Vians(Talosians), and the captors torturing them were typican Trekian alien babes? Be an interesting change in the dynamic of the episode.
I miss the split-screen “comparison” videos!
The aliens in Lost in Space’s “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” appear to be related to the Vians.
“(this is one of several examples on the show of security cam footage employing arty zooms and pans)”
— I think it was mentioned in the review for “And the Children Shall Lead” that the reviewer didn’t see how the tricorder could take shots of the subject that contained the tricorder itself.
Neil Stephenson makes a very believable for nanotechnology employing camera obscurae (sp?) of only a few molecules in size. Essentially, there would be no need for a fixed camera; you would get an indefinite number of tiny low powered cameras flying around.
Point is — if Trek ’09 is to use the three basic tools — phaser, communicator, tricorder — then each has to show us something that doesn’t exist in 2008. There are opportunities to do that and blow us out of our socks. I think JJ will.
re: better transitions and “It’s too bad this couldn’t have been employed for the healing scenes in “Miri” as well ” — As I’ve repeatedly said, I doubt this is the last time we’ll see a revamp of TOS. CBS-D has broken some important ground, but another complete pass would be nice to finish the job. I mean really, Paramount is making a mint off this 40+ year old property. COME ON.
Anyway, thanks Jeff. I always thought this one had a nice creepy beginning, then got sloooooow through the middle. Yes, I agree that this one is the most Lost In Space-like ep. I like Scotty’s little Gaelic storytelling at the end, but maybe that’s just me.
believable case for…
This one was one of my favorites… to the contrary of the popular opinion on it..
Yeah this was one of the ‘banned’ episodes in the UK for years. Probably until the 90s. It was released on a rental VHS along with ‘Miri’ the other banned episode in the UK. Renting the video in the 80s was the only way to see these episodes.
Oh, and the Talosians were all played by chicks.
The Vians are dudes — with no dates. No wonder they’re grumpy.
10 — yes Beeb did restrict it because it thought the Kirk hanging/torture too strong. I like it’s theatrical feel. I watched for the first time the last but one episode of the Prisoner with just Pat McGoohan and Leo McKern in a very play like surreal script and theatrical set which also worked brilliantly with strong allegories to modern life and the individual fitting in to society etc (exec prod, written and directed by McGoohan too), very Trek like.
13 I can also remember reading De’s comments about this being one of his favourites with its theatrical prod design somewhere in an Starlog article I think years ago.
A big part of Trek and its appeal was is theatrical/Shakespearean feel and connections, hope this is not forgotten in the new film.
The set doesn’t just SEEM to be out of “Lost in Space,” the tubes holding Ozaba and Linke ARE from “Lost in Space.” They are, in fact, the freezing tubes from the Jupiter II, which can be identified by their crowns and pedestals. Five of these tubes are seen simultaneously in “The Empath,” six would have been available as old props from LIS.
Apparently, one year after LIS left the air, Star Trek felt it was safe to rent some of its props from 20th Century Fox.
As for the giant “agonizer”-shaped bed, it is actually the Eymorg conference table from “Spock’s Brain.” The base of the table was either cut off, or, more likely, the carpeted pedestal was built around it.
I think I have those stairs b4, which episode? Other than all the time Irwin Allen used them. The holding tubes for the crew, look like the freezing tubes from LIS.
This has to be one of the lowest budget episode of the whole series. Very few cast, no stage, and very little props. But not the worse episode by any means.
I’m pretty sure that CBS-D did touch up the healing “morph” shots in “Miri.”
I believe that a similar spiral metal staircase shows up as the way into the underground portion of Yonada in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”
“I like Scotty’s little Gaelic storytelling at the end”
As #6 Roger points out, Scotty’s little story was actually one of Jesus’ parables.
13. Andy Patterson
“I do remember an ailing Deforest Kelly telling on those SciFi extras in between the commercials that this was one of his favorites because of the approach and art direction”
“Star Trek Special Edition”! I can’t believe I forgot all about that! Strange that CBS/Paramount hasn’t included any of those interviews as extras in the DVD box sets. Same with the Patrick Stewart-narrated documentary that accompanied the “All-Color” version of “The Cage” that debuted just before the 2nd season of TNG. I always felt that little doc was far better than the lame anniversary ‘celebration’ shows that came in the years following it (the 25th anniversary show, the lame show that accompanied the TNG finale, and especially that *awful* Star Trek Honors show with Kenny G and some opera diva singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” plus that painful-to-watch Trek skit with the cast of “Frasier”).
RE: The agonizer bed
Glad to see I’m not the only one whoever noticed this! Genius bit of self-referencing (whether intentional or not).
The new close up of the sun looked even more fake than the original. It looked like a static painting. I didn’t care for it.
I love the planets the guys at CBS-D are doing.. MUCH better than the ones that they originally had. I love the realism to them.
I was watching an old episode on SPACE here in Canada… wow… you can see the choma key shadows of the enterpise as it orbits… the planets look horrible and unbelievable. But then again.. AT THE TIME, it was advanced and spectacular.
I look forward to purchasing the remastered series and watching the full episodes. Everything looks great in them!
I never cared for this episode. Call me a Philistine.
Also, it’s “gild” the lily, not “guild” the lily.
Lod Garth’s FAAAAAVorite episode
If JJ and company watched this episode and used it as a basis on how to treat the big 3. Their humanity, courage, sacrifice and hetero brotherly love for one another they will do well
WAY TOO MANY TORTURE SCENES THAT WENT NOWHERE…
…helped make “The Empath” seem as if it was being written as it went along. I never thought it was as BAD as some make it out to be… just irritatingly unfocused.
cbs does a great job with planets but they have no talent for anything else
This is not Lost In Space, it’s The Outer Limits “Nightmare”. Check the credits for both: directed by John Erman.
#31, There was also a hexagonal viewscreen (with rounded corners) on the set that was either from Land of the Giants or Lost In Space…not sure which, but definitely from one or the other.
I recognized it being in The Empath when watching my Irwin Allen DVDs recently…
#37 – I represent the Lily Pop Guild.
I always liked this episode. The low-fi production design forces you to pay attention to the acting and the dialogue, and in that way “The Empath” always reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone. Serling could get enormous mileage out of two or three sets, some well written dialogue and a handful of quality performers.
oh and the score is beautiful
STILL wish that they’d made the ‘remastered’ Enterprise a far LIGHTER shade overall, throughout the episodes…. The comparison shots here really show how much ‘whiter’ the original looked overall. And I don’t ever recall seeing ‘grey’ merchandise of the ‘E’ either….
I was just about to mention the similarity to “Nightmare,” which is quite a bit creepier than the “Empath.” Amazing that it’s the same director, though his style is certainly a big clue.
I also find Gem a bit like the Eloi in the 1960’s “The Time Machine.” Attractive, not very verbal, and really in need of developing an instinct for self sacrifice.
I always loved this episode! Spock’s reaction to McCoy’s hypo shot is priceless.
…the adventure continues….
ahhhh… reminds me of me boyhood boarding school…
St. Lulubell’s Co-Ed School For Misfit Boys by tha’ Isle o’ Eel… vast dark open spaces, strange blokes in robes running aboot, tha’ only women thar’ havin’ taken a vow o’ silence, showin’ strong emotion gets ya’ confined ta’ quarters, indiscriminate torture of alien life forms to (offical story) make them feel human, and a Scotsman relatin’ Bible stories…
tha’ best o’ times… tha’ worst o’ times… These days, iffi I had any, I would just send me kids ta’ bandcamp…
on a more pedestrian note did anyone think the way they treated Gem was truly outrageous?