Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Empath" (December 6, 1968)

Stardate: 5121.5

The Enterprise visits Minara II, a planet whose star is nearing a critical stage before nova. The Federation scientists stationed on the inhospitable surface of the planet -- Ozaba (Davis Roberts) and Linke (Jason Wingreen) -- have vanished without a trace.

The Enterprise is forced to break orbit because of solar activity, and the landing party -- consisting of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) -- also vanishes, abducted by inscrutable alien experimenters: the Vians.

The Vians have captured the crew men in a vast laboratory 120 meters below the planet’s surface. There, they hope to see what impact the Enterprise officers can have on their ward, Gem (Kathryn Hays), a mute empath with the incredible ability to heal the wounds of others.

When the Vians physically torture Kirk and McCoy, Gem is encouraged to help them, just as she has seen Kirk, Spock, and McCoy demonstrate friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice for one another during this crisis.

When the Vians plan to bring McCoy to the point of death, Captain Kirk and Spock must not only encourage Gem to reveal her humanity and save him, but they must also ask the Vians to demonstrate that quality as well,


Although at times stagy and operatic, “The Empath” is another "high concept" --- and terrific -- episode of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) third season. 

The episode’s deficits are visual, and therefore plain for all to see: a large black sound-stage doubles as a surreal alien laboratory (shades of Lost in Space!), and Kathryn Hays’ sometimes exaggerated performance seems almost silent-movie style..

Yet, even these deficits might be interpreted as strengths if viewed from the right perspective. 

The lack of meaningful background technology -- or even decoration -- suggests both the alien-ness of the Vian habitat, and forces audiences to focus on the story’s theme, which concerns above all, the friendship of the series’ heroic triumvirate: Kirk-Spock-McCoy.  There's very little background "noise" to detract from the actual storytelling here.


Secondly, Hays performance may strike some cynical viewers as overly florid or purple, yet she also creates moments of extreme tenderness and sensitivity in "The Empath." Her expressive, porcelain visage proves quite unforgettable and haunting, and it is upsetting to see it marred by the “wounds” the Vians create. There's a quality of vulnerability about the character that makes her suffering difficult to bear.


I suspect that if one can accept the nature of Hays’ physical performance, and the lack of good production values in the laboratory set, the viewer will find much of interest in this particular tale. Again, it is incumbent on us to be engaged with the material, and the episode's mise en scene.

In fact, “The Empath” is -- to coin a phrase -- pure “triumvirate porn.”  In a very real sense, the story explicitly concerns the suffering that Kirk, Spock and McCoy will endure to spare their friends physical and mental pain. 

The episode -- banned in some countries for years, if not decades -- revels in the sadistic treatment of these beloved characters (a commonality with the less successful installment, “Plato’s Stepchildren,”) and showcases their ability to persevere against the odds, and in the face of pain.

Afterwards, the characters are hailed in the episode for their special bond, and credited with imbuing Gem with the qualities that will make her species worth saving. “Your will to survive. Your love of life. Your passion to know,” the Vians enumerate.  

What they don’t say, but should, is that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy risk death and grievous pain to help the others. They never give up on one another, and they never surrender to their own weaknesses.

McCoy’s importance to the character triumvirate or triangle is given special attention in “The Empath.” 

First, McCoy outmaneuvers Spock, so that the doctor can be the one to endure the painful trials, and die. In doing this, he spares Spock unbelievable pain and suffering. Also, Bones simultaneously spares Kirk the agony of choosing which of his two officers should suffer and be killed. 

Later, McCoy also refuses Gem’s help, aware that if he accepts her empath's touch, she will, in all likelihood, die from the injuries he has sustained.  “I can’t destroy life, even if it’s to save my own,” he says, pushing Gem away.

In both instances, we see clearly McCoy’s empathy. One might even formulate an argument that he is the "empath" of the episode title. Consider that McCoy puts himself in Spock’s shoes, in Kirk’s shoes, and ultimately in Gem’s too. He can see how his actions -- and his alone -- could save all of them, and he doesn’t just talk the talk. He sticks to his ideals (though Gem ultimately saves him).

Kirk is also handled well in the episode too, and in a fashion that excavates the captain’s particular brand of bravery. He is more than willing to die (bare chested, of course…) to save his friends, but he does have one final request: he wishes for his death to carry a purpose.  “If my death is to have any meaning, at least tell me what I’m dying for,” he implores. Kirk accepts his death as inevitable, in other words, but still acts, in his final moments, as an explorer of sorts. He must know what is on the other side of the mountain (death), and in this case, that means understanding the reason for his final journey.

In toto, “The Empath,” written by Joyce Muskat and directed by John Erman, is elegantly constructed as a narrative. 

The triumvirate (Kirk-Spock-McCoy) ignites the spark of compassion and love in Gem, who shall spread that spark to her people.  In the same story, the triangle re-awakens those same, atavistic feelings in the Vians, who have become so cold, brittle, and remote that they no longer are affected by the emotional trials they force others to endure.  


The triumvirate, in other words, impacts everyone it encounters, and in a positive way. The dynamics of the trio both give birth to feelings of empathy and self-sacrifice, and rekindle those feelings for those in whom they have withered and died.

There may be no better exploration of the triumvirate (although another third season show, “The Tholian Web," is a likely contender…) than the one found in this tale. In “The Empath,” we see Kirk, without thought for himself, order McCoy and Spock to safety, while he negotiates to remain behind, and experimented on by the Vians. 

We see Spock, without missing a beat, “request permission” to be the one to remain, as if his sacrifice would simply be a matter of logic.  

And we see McCoy, as enumerated above, tending to the mental and physical well-being of his friends.

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Sybok states that the “bond” between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is “strong…difficult to penetrate,” and “The Empath" reveals to audience just how powerful that bond truly is.

I made a joke above about this episode being triumvirate porn, because it concerns each point in the triumvirate offering himself up for the others, and facing physical sensations of agony for that choice. In our culture, we don’t have a good name for the kind of love we see demonstrated in the heroic triangle, so it is natural, if not necessarily correct, to relate it to physical, romantic or sexual love. Indeed, there is much “slash” fiction about these three characters engaging in a sexual relationship (and sometimes a sadomasochistic sexual relationship, to boot). The plain fact of the matter is that Kirk, Spock and McCoy love each other in a way that goes beyond brotherhood and family, but that isn’t romantic, either.  

These three men -- in combination the id, ego, and superego  -- create a kind of perfect “corporate” human, and “The Empath” showcases the lengths to which each point in the triangle will go to save his friends. It is a beautiful episode for its recognition and development of this love, and also for the idea that such a bond can be modeled, and taught to those who are without love, or who do not understand its nature.

This message is so much more powerful than the occasional visual distractions in performance or production value. 


I know...there are plenty of viewers out there who complain that "The Empath" is depressing, or boring, or sadistic. They will write that Shatner overacts his scenes (particularly the slow-motion collapse on the surface). And yet all this criticism, I believe, stems from the episode’s uncomfortable nature and exploration of love. “The Empath” demands recognition that the Kirk-Spock-McCoy bond is a form of love, and for some that is just a bridge too far.

The aliens in this episode put the crew through Hell (but are not “light” and "jokey" about their sadism in the way that the Platonians are), and go unpunished for their actions, and I suppose that also disappoints some viewers, who are looking for some form of “justice” here. 

What they fail to detect is that the Vians do get  a comeuppance. In the final scenes, they are forced to reckon with all the emotions they had discarded and considered primitive. These intellectuals realize they are not above the emotional ebb and flow of lower beings in the universe, but still a part of it.

Finally, we must always remember that some science fiction and some Star Trek fans possess a special brand of of self-loathing. It is this impulse that is at the heart of the rejection of the Wesley Crusher character; fans couldn't stand to see a kid or teenager -- themselves, in some cases -- reflected in-universe. Instead of seeing the character as a point of identification, they saw him as someone to destroy. They were, in essence, destroying the "self" they saw in the mirror, and hated.

So I am certain that there are those out there who will claim that since "The Empath" is written by a Star Trek fan, it is somehow a Mary Sue story, or some such thing.  Hopefully this review addresses, instead, the depth and clarity of "The Empath's" narratives and themes, and its exploration of the triumvirate's unique dynamic.

All these touches make “The Empath” a “pearl of great price,” and a highly unusual addition to Star Trek canon.


Next week: “Elaan of Troyius.”

5 comments:

  1. Sheri8:49 AM

    I have always loved "The Empath" and found it very affecting as a child viewing it in first run. I don't agree at all that it suffers from a "lack of good production values"; indeed, like a good Roger Corman film, every red cent is actually thrown on the screen with none wasted! The vivid color, chiarascuro lighting, and highly stylized modern-dance performing esthetic combine to provide the most visually striking, theatrically rich and memorable presentation in a period filled with pop-art styled shows such as "The Prisoner", "The Green Hornet", "Batman", and "The Man From Uncle". I don't know what production value is, if this isn't the very definition of it.

    Yes, Hays' performance is florid, but this kind of demonstrative expressivity was familiar to audiences at the time who had been watching both Danny Kaye and Carol Burnett lampoon the trendy "black leotard" modern chic approach that infected dance and musical theater. Unlike so much theater at the time, however, it's done here in a way that is not only starkly theatrical but emotionally affecting. It's appropriate, since Gem is mute and the story needs no additional exposition. We're meant to *feel* as she learns to respond to the needs of others in spite of her fear, and we do, if we have any sensitivity at all. The episode is nearly through-composed (and a marvelous score it is, by the way) but unlike opera, unsung and barely spoken. There can't be more than a handful of TV episodes that told such a rich story--and induced us to think so much--while saying so little.

    It's the beauty of the story that the Vians unexpectedly relearn the very values they brought the humans to teach Gem. I've always thought Kirk's admonition "at least tell me what I'm dying for" expresses his suspicion that the Vians won't be able to answer: he's surmised that they've become so engrossed in their experiments that they've lost all connection to fellow beings while searching for signs of it in Gem.

    I don't care if some people don't like this episode. I consider it a beautiful twin of the equally lyrical "Metamorphosis", and they both ask us to examine love in all its many forms.

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  2. Another impressive episode review, John. You made me buy the series on Blu-ray. (If you don't mind I'm going to send you the bill. Do not worry, at the current rate of exchange $91 CDN is about $70 US.) Hopefully soon I will actually watch some episodes. I've had it for almost two months.

    I think that the black limbo background actually works in this episode. It was the one time the production used that cost-saving tool, but it works here. Storywise it makes sense: the Vian lab is in a large cave deep down in the rock. The 'shooter' and designer part of me loves the use of dialed lighting. That theatrical device works splendidly here.

    "The Empath" is one of those shows you love or you hate. The story is touching, and its telling succeeds, I think, largely through its visual stylings.

    Imagine this episode without George Duning's beautiful score. His music is added human warmth to an otherwise cold setting. The superior character interplay reinforces the points about 'feeling' -- empathy. What other dramatic television series can claim Kirk, Spock, and McCoy? That's right -- none.

    By the way, years ago I produced, but did not finish a 35mm short titled "Hyper-Reality". The look I went for was based heavily on "Lost in Space" -- and its love of budget-saving black limbo backdrops. When I scrolled through a VHS tape of "The Empath" in order to show animation effects to my rotoscope artist, I noticed an editorial touch; and it impressed me. As the Vians pop in -- with the animation effect -- there is a single frame of something. Check it out. The filmmaking in the series is something that helps separate it from the common herd.

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  3. Many, many thanks for this. The Empath is, along with, to a lesser extent, The Tholian Web, one of my very favorite episodes – mainly for the reasons you state. The ST film-makers, by and large, made the mistake of thinking of the series as a duo, when really it worked best as a trio. I think one of the great missed opportunities of ST:IV – the best of the original series motion pictures, by the way – was in partnering McCoy with Scotty instead of keeping Kirk, Spock and McCoy together. Imagine McCoy doing a slow burn in modern-day California…

    Sometimes, these things work ‘only’ because of McCoy. I think Requiem for Methuselah (which I also like a great deal) would fail miserably without McCoy’s coda at the end, and The Galileo Seven would be a slog with Spock and his bunch of malcontents if McCoy weren’t there to also feel some degree of empathy for him at the end.

    Kelley delivered all the way till the end. He is the strongest element is the otherwise dismal ST:V, and my favorite line reading in ST:VI is “what is it with you, anyway?”

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  4. John,
    I have very little to add here. This is a beautiful and moving episode, and the body language utilized by Kathryn Hays is almost her language, her form of communication, and without her performance, this episode may not be as terrific as it is.
    I'll gladly agree that the completely black backdrops add to the alien-ness of the environment which the Vians have created. I think the Lost In Space episode which I'm reminded most of, and in which it works most effectively, is "Invaders From the Fifth Dimension." The Vians are strangely reminiscent of the aliens from that episode. However, the set decorators on LIS went to the well once too often, and by the time the Third Season rolls around, we have spaceship interiors being nothing more than a few computers with a black velvet backdrop. Really, how much extra effort would it have taken to create a simulated metal backdrop, and roll it in whenever you needed it? Used here, the darkness is very appropriate as a setting, and the characters "pop" against it; your eyes are drawn to them. The black backdrops in Lost In Space actually drew attention to themselves and away from the characters. That always kind of annoyed me.
    Full disclosure: As I type this, I'm wearing a Lost In Space t-shirt, and yes, it's black. Make of that what you will.
    Steve

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  5. Another terrific, insightful essay John. I especially like the "triangle" reading, and indeed this is one of the best pure Kirk/Spock/McCoy episodes ever, and one of most intimate Star Trek stories of any Trek series.

    Oddly enough, I think the theater style production, even though it may have been forced by budgetary reasons, actually adds to the episode. As you pointed out, it keeps those focus on the four characters. I also love the lighting choices.

    "The Empath" is so unique. I think it is one of the boldest episodes because (again, as you pointed out) it does not follow the typical formula (punish the aliens etc.) and it is not afraid to let the story simmer in its emotional content, which is at times hauntingly sad and even disturbing.

    Of course, as is my usual custom in these comments, I must point out the score. George Dunning's exquisite music is deeply moving, and along with the performances and the creative, avante-guard story by that Star Trek fan, (Joyce Muskat), contributes enormously to the emotional wallop this beautiful episode packs.

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