One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Monday, September 04, 2017
Star Trek Anniversary - John's Top #20: "The Empath" (#18)
Coming it at #18 on my top #20 list is "The Empath," a visually unusual, and thematically off-beat third season tale of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate, and the bond that joins these characters. This one is strange and beautiful. Stardate: 5121.5
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
these touches make “The Empath” a “pearl of great price,” and a highly unusual
addition to Star Trek canon.