Episode Review of Star Trek - The Original Series Season 3: "The Empath"

Warning: all of my reviews contain spoilers.

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Episode Information

Title: "The Empath"
Writer: Joyce Muskat
Director: John Erman
Rating (out of 4 stars): ***
Reviewed on: October 26, 2008

Synopsis from Wikipedia


Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are tortured by aliens as part of a test for a young empath.

The Enterprise has arrived at a planet orbiting the star Minara, which will soon go nova, in order to pick up a research team that has been studying the star. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to the researchers' compound. Scotty is forced to take the Enterprise out of orbit in order to keep it safe from a flare from the star. When Kirk and the others investigate the compound, they find that it has been empty for months. A video log three months old shows the researchers being beamed out by a strange transporter. Immediately thereafter, Kirk and the others are also beamed away.

They reappear in a vast, dark area. The area feels so big and dark that I immediately feel they are underground, even though there is no evidence of that yet. They explore the area and encounter a young humanoid woman. She is naturally mute, but is extremely communicative in her manners and facial expressions. Kirk, of course, is anxious to find out what happened to the researchers, which initially scares the woman, but he manages to calm down and reassure her. She touches him and heals a cut that he had on his forehead. McCoy says that she must be an empath; her nervous system is very sensitive and can pick up the emotions of others. McCoy names the woman Gem.

Two alien humanoids (different from Gem) appear and identify themselves as Vians. They hold the Starfleet men in a forcefield while they discuss and examine Gem from a distance. They are not at all cooperative in answering Kirk's questions.

Once the Vians disappear and release the Starfleet men, they all continue exploring and find an area with lots of advanced scientific equipment; they also find the missing researchers - they are dead and displayed in transparent tubes with their names on them. From their expressions, they did not die pleasantly.

One Vian appears, and Kirk begins demanding an explanation about what happened to the researchers. Kirk walks one way to distract the Vian while Spock nerve-pinches him from behind - a nice example of how well the two work together without even planning. Kirk grabs the Vian's control mechanism, while Spock uses his tricorder to find an escape route. Sure enough, there appears to be a path to the surface of the planet. As they walk off, we get our first clue that the Vians are manipulating everything: the Vian wasn't knocked unconscious, but had set up the situation. The Vians discuss the Starfleet men's appropriate qualities for their tests.

When Kirk and the others reach the surface, Spock says they are several kilometers away from the research compound, which is where any search party from the Enterprise will be looking. I question the timing of this idea - I thought that the Enterprise was going to be away some 70 hours by the initial estimate of the stellar flare - has that much time really passed? At any rate, they begin the trek, but a fierce wind storm blows in. They are buffeted all over.

They have the compound in sight when Kirk sees the Vians off to one side. He sends the others on ahead while he veers off to confront the Vians. One of the Vians zaps Kirk with his controller, and Kirk collapses in ultra-slow motion. The others see Scotty with a search party at the compound, but then Scotty and the searchers disappear. Spock surmises that the search party was never there, and they all rush back to Kirk.

The Vians tell Kirk that since he is in charge, they will accept him as a test subject and let the others go. Kirk agrees to this. However, the Vians beam them away against their agreement. They beam Kirk into hanging shackles and begin torturing him. They use their controllers to torture him, and whatever they do doesn't leave visible marks on him. Kirk demands to know why they are doing this, in order to give his death meaning. The Vians reply that if he dies, there would be no meaning. What an answer!

Eventually, the Vians beam Kirk back into the sitting area where they first found Gem, which is where Spock, McCoy, and Gem are. Gem uses her empathic abilities to heal Kirk's injuries, but is nearly overcome with the effort. Kirk wonders if Gem could die from healing someone, but McCoy says her instinct for self-preservation should make her stop before she gets to that point.

The Vians return and demand that Kirk choose whether Spock or McCoy will be their next test subject. They state that McCoy has a 87% chance of dying, and Spock has a 93% chance of becoming permanently insane. This is another indication of the Vians' complete control over the "experiment" - they have deduced that the possibility of insanity is much more frightening to Spock, and they know that Kirk knows that. They disappear to give Kirk time to decide.

Spock has been working on the controller he got from the Vian in the hopes of altering it to work for them and possibly allow them to escape. He tells McCoy that while he is not finished, he has made numerous notes of how to proceed, so that McCoy and Kirk can finish the job while he is being tested. McCoy protests that he's the logical choice to be tested, since he can't offer anything toward their escape. Kirk says firmly that he'll make the decision.

McCoy takes matters into his own hands, sneaking up to Kirk and sedating him. Spock congratulates McCoy for simplifying the situation, because now Spock is in command, so he chooses himself for the test. But Spock foolishly turns his back on McCoy, and McCoy sedates him, too. (This gives us what I think is probably an unintentionally funny line: Spock says that his orders still "stand", just before he falls over.)

This whole sequence perfectly fits the personalities of the characters and the relationships between each of them. Of course, each of them wants to be the sacrifice before the others; just like in season 2's "The Immunity Syndrome", Kirk is forced to decide which of his best friends to condemn. And it fits McCoy perfectly for him to think that sedating Kirk will help his plan, but to not have thought through it completely. Or maybe he did, and he planned to shoot up Spock, too.

The Vians arrive, and McCoy says he's been chosen. His last words are to Gem, telling her that the others will take care of her after they wake up. The Vians beam him into the torture shackles and begin their work. Meanwhile, Kirk and Spock have awakened. Spock is finishing his alteration of the Vian controller, which works by mental control. He tells Kirk that there is only power for one transport at most; he says they probably have enough power to transport directly to the Enterprise, but Kirk orders them to go to the torture chamber instead to find McCoy.

They arrive, and the Vians are nowhere to be found, but McCoy is nearly dead. They take him down from the shackles, and Spock's reading of the medical sensors shows numerous internal injuries. Spock says that there's no way McCoy will survive. McCoy is obviously in extreme pain, and Spock's manner is almost tender toward him, belying yet again the idea that Spock doesn't have emotions. After what seems way too much time, Kirk realizes that Gem might be able to help McCoy, to at least heal him enough so that he can wait for treatment on the Enterprise.

Before he can encourage Gem, the Vians reappear and isolate Kirk and Spock in a forcefield. They tell Kirk that they can't let him make her help, that she has to decide to do it on their own. They finally begin explaining what they are doing: they know the star is going to go nova, and there are three (I think) inhabited planets whose inhabitants will die. The Vians can save the inhabitants of one planet only, and so they are testing Gem to see if her people are worthy of being saved. Apparently the property they are looking for is the willingness to die for another person. The Vians set up the entire sequence of events the Starfleet men experienced so that Gem would witness their friendship, their passion, their love of life, their compassion, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for one another.

While they are talking, Gem has approached McCoy and worked herself up to touching him. She heals some of his injuries and then stops, obviously in great pain herself. McCoy wakes up enough to realize what's going on and says that he can't destroy life, even to save his own. When Gem tries to heal him more, he shoves her away. In McCoy's condition, this shove is obviously more psychological than physical, but Gem seems to collapse, nevertheless.

The Vians are disappointed that Gem is not worthy, after all. But Kirk points out that she offered to save McCoy, and isn't that enough? When the Vians deny that it is, Kirk berates them for lacking the compassion that they are seeking in Gem. It's not clear whether Kirk made his point, or the Vians give up. They heal McCoy and release Kirk and Spock. Then they gather up Gem and leave.

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy return to the Enterprise and apparently relate their story to the bridge crew. Scotty recalls the Biblical story of the merchant who found a pearl of great price and sold everything he owned in order to buy it. I'm not really sure if the story fits Gem, but they all seem to think so.

This is a very interesting episode. There are many good aspects to it, but some major plot holes that I will get to. The most distinctive things about the episode are the direction and the sets. When Kirk and the others are under the Vians' control, they wander through the dark from oasis to oasis of light and physical objects. This gives the episode an unreal feeling and also contributes to the plot idea that the Vians are controlling everything, even the physical environment. The "escape" from the Vians to the surface of the planet was also directed unconventionally, especially Kirk's slow motion collapse, heightening the feeling of unreality. In fact, if this episode had been in a later generation of Star Trek series, I wouldn't have been surprised to have an ending revelation that all the events occurred in the characters' minds and not in reality.

As I commented before, the chemistry between the main characters was excellent, as in many episodes. Having Gem set up as an observer in order to absorb their good qualities was an interesting idea not only for the plot of the episode, but also as a comment on the series in general: after all, if Gem can improve herself by watching them, couldn't a viewer of the episode do the same?

The character of Gem was very interesting and different. I'm not sure why the writer decided to make her a mute - perhaps so she couldn't explain the plot in the first 30 seconds! - but it definitely added to the episode. The actress playing Gem was obviously very expressive, but she also brought a sense of fragility and innocence to the character. This was emphasized in one way by the protectiveness that Kirk and McCoy immediately felt for her, and in another way by her wispy tunic. One has to wonder if Gem realized the huge consequences of the tests she was undergoing. I have to think that she didn't, and that she couldn't understand speech, since the Vians explaining the test at the end could have invalidated the whole procedure.

The overall plot of the Vians testing Gem's worthiness was acceptable, but not outstanding. I appreciate how the plot was executed, with the Vians carefully manipulating the others' actions every step of the way. I even wonder if the Vians set up the stellar flare to keep the Enterprise away. It was interesting how we did not learn in the end if the Vians decided to save Gem's people.

The fact that the Vians consider themselves qualified and entitled to decide on the fate of the worlds in question is an interesting point in itself. Apparently they do not have any kind of noninterference principle, or they figure in this case they should interfere. What gives them the right to decide which civilization is worthy? Is this what the Federation could become in the future if they didn't have a Prime Directive?

There are some plot holes that I'm going to discuss below.

The first big plot hole has to do with the timing of various elements in the plot. If I remember correctly, the researchers studying the star had been left on the planet some six months earlier. This brings me to my first problem: if the Federation knew six months ago that the star was going to die soon, why aren't they evacuating the inhabited planets? A comment by Kirk indicates that the Federation is aware that there are three planets with millions of inhabitants. Perhaps the Federation does not have the resources to evacuate everyone, but I would think that six months of effort would go a long way. Instead, they send a two-person research team to study the star. It's possible that the Federation cannot interfere with the inhabitants of the planets because of the Prime Directive, but that isn't stated in any way, nor do we have any indication of the technological level of the civilizations.

Overlooking the Federation's hard-heartedness, we also know that the two researchers disappeared three months ago, which means the Vians have been performing their tests for at least that long. Why haven't the Vians been evacuating the planets during that time? We have seen that they have technology significantly more advanced than the Federation's - surely they could evacuate a lot of people during that time. (In fact, I wonder why the Vians didn't know about the impending nova much earlier, but I think one of the Vians did make some comments about how unusual things were happening with the star, so presumably it was not expected.)

And why do the Vians feel they can only evacuate one planet? If they mean fully evacuating one planet, that's millions of people. Why not split up those millions between the three planets? Saving a million or more from each planet would certainly preserve viable populations to ensure the continuation of each civilization, and the number of overall deaths would be the same. Perhaps the Vians can only evacuate a small number of people from just the "worthy" civilization, but we don't know that, so I feel like I'm making excuses for them. The situation set up in the episode was just a little too arbitrary.

I also have an issue with what the Vians were testing Gem for, which they described as compassion. When Gem's empathic abilities were first introduced, I had thought that a civilizations of empaths would have to be a peaceful and compassionate one. After all, if you can touch someone and feel what they are feeling, how could you ever decide to hurt another person? It's the ultimate expression of the concept "putting yourself in their shoes". I cannot believe the Gem or her people are not extremely compassionate. This doesn't mean, however, that she would necessarily be willing to die for another person, so I agree that that would be something new.

Overall, the episode was very compelling, but suffered a bit too much with plot problems for me to give it a higher rating.

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