Friday, September 09, 2022

Star Trek Week: "The Empath"

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.

1 comment:

  1. John, your reviews are so thorough there's not much I can really add. The "bedside manner" scene is touching.

    "The Empath" used a third soundstage ― in addition to the Enterprise and 'swing' stages. The black limbo stuff was shot there. Normally I don't like black limbo, but I think it works splendidly here since we're told the Vian complex is in a large underground cave. (Note: This choice of setting was deliberate as the series was going over budget; producer Justman thought it would be a perfect way to save money and make story sense at the same time.)

    George Duning's score is great; it tells us what Gem cannot.

    Trivia: The original script called for the planet to have a grey sky, but Trek's research company, which reviewed all scripts, noted: "The light from a pre-nova sun would be quite red."

    This episode came in at $181.820


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