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The Trek Nation - The Empath

The Empath

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at October 27, 2006 - 10:30 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Empath' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: When the Enterprise arrives at Minara to collect a research team just before the star goes supernova, a landing party consisting of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is stranded when a radiation surge threatens the ship. The officers cannot track down the researchers and are soon abducted themselves by two aliens from a race called the Vians, who imprison them together with a mute empath whom McCoy calls Gem. When torture by the Vians leaves Kirk injured, she heals his wounds. The Vians then demand that Kirk choose either Spock or McCoy as another test subject, warning that McCoy is likely to die and Spock is likely to go mad. Because Kirk is still in pain, McCoy gives him an injection to help him sleep, leaving Spock in command; when Spock says that he will be going with the Vians, McCoy gives him a shot as well and tells the Vians that he has been chosen for their experiment. Kirk and Spock track down McCoy, who is dying, but the Vians will not let them encourage Gem to heal him because they want to see whether her species is deserving of salvation when the star they share explodes. Gem offers to give her life to save McCoy but he will not permit it, and Kirk persuades the Vians that because of her willingness to die for another, Gem's people should be saved and McCoy as well.


Analysis: I'm not going to try to argue that "The Empath" is a good episode; it has too many similarities to "The Menagerie" and the set looks less minimalist than unfinished, like the producers couldn't be bothered to come up with enough of a budget to create a believable background. That said, I adore "The Empath" unreservedly and it's on my Top Five list, though it isn't nearly as nuanced or sophisticated as "Amok Time", "The Enterprise Incident", "Journey To Babel" and "The City on the Edge of Forever." I choke up every time I watch the ending, when Lal explains that Kirk, Spock and McCoy were Gem's teachers: "Your will to survive, your love of life, your passion to know, they are recorded in her being...each of you was willing to give his life for the others." But I think my favorite moment in the entire series may be the one earlier in the episode, when Spock has just informed McCoy of his purportedly logical decision that he, Spock, will be going to probable death to save the other two, and Gem walks over to touch him, proving with one look the extent to which Spock's claim to have no emotions is a lie.

This is an episode that could easily have fallen apart if the performances were not spot-on, and for a little while at the beginning, it looks as if it will: there are some silly-looking stumbling-and-falling scenes when the Vians first capture the landing party and again when they suspend them in an energy field for observation. The big, ominous test tubes in which the three will presumably meet their fates and the Scary Music as each nameplate is revealed seem pretty campy too, particularly since we've just seen the dead researchers wearing Sci-Fi Expressions of Horrible Agony, which are never anywhere near as scary as simple, featureless death. But as comical as Shatner can be to watch when he's looking unconvinced by the scenario, he can be equally good when he makes it real, and from the time of the abortive escape when Kirk furiously demands to know what the Vians have done with his men whom they promised to release, his performance is pitch-perfect. Kirk is in agony, and it has nothing to do with having the bends.

Gem is the key to any of this mattering, and Kathryn Hays also gives an unforgettable performance, hindered by the fact that she has no dialogue and is called upon to perform exaggerated demonstrations of pain and fright. McCoy's paternalism toward her, which is at first a little annoying - he flatly refuses to believe that she could be the alien responsible for their abduction - evolves into a kind of awe, since she can do things as a healer that he can't even dream of. Kirk doesn't seem quite to know what to make of her, as she doesn't fit into his model of women who either need to be protected or have powers he needs to learn to understand. The mechanism by which Gem's people can take on and cure the injuries of others is never explored by these scientifically-trained Starfleet officers. She is profoundly alien to them, someone whose thoughts they cannot penetrate and don't particularly try, though untold numbers of lives besides their own are tied up in her choices.

The set-on-the-cheap gives the episode something of the feel of a theatrical piece, since there is little for the camera to focus on besides the actors' faces (with a couple of neat angles, like the overhead shot after the characters are first abducted). As in "The Menagerie", the team works its way to the surface, only to have it revealed that they have been misled by illusions; this brief distraction adds color (literally and figuratively) to the episode but also forces Jem to look wraithlike and helpless. Her jewel-tone clothes and heavily accented eyes are pretty and exotic to look at, but I wish it were clearer whether she is a child or an adult among her people, and whether the Vians are looking for instincts already present or trying to instill values that she will share telepathically with all the others.

The Vians believe Gem to be a tabula rasa who may absorb the Starfleet officers' values completely, but it's not very clear how they came to this conclusion, and they seem to leave a lot to chance, given how little time they have left. Apparently the Federation scientists studying the dying star made unsatisfactory examples of "everything that is truest and best", in their words. There's no suggestion that the Vians had any telepathic influence over which crewmembers beamed down, and if they didn't, what was Kirk thinking, really, beaming himself and Spock to the surface of a planet whose sun was about to blow? It's not even clear whether the Vians learned from the dead scientists just how much humanity has to offer, for it is certainly what we would deem "human" values as opposed to Vulcan ones that they want Gem to understand: passion, compassion, loyalty, sympathy, maybe even the interconnectedness of all beings. They certainly aren't concerned about whether she will make logical decisions about whom to save. Spock may be able to suppress his emotions well enough to escape from the Vians' energy field, but no one in this instance is impressed and it changes little.

It's a bit frustrating that it takes a typical speech from Kirk to make the Vians decide that Gem has passed the test and McCoy (who refuses to let her die for him) deserves to be saved, but in this case perhaps the writers have justified it, for if the Vians did feel things as deeply as Kirk does, they wouldn't need the Starfleet officers to teach her what they believe her people must learn. Considering what they do to Kirk and McCoy, I find them oddly sympathetic, and I think it's because (since we know the Starfleet officers will survive) they allow the crewmembers to access and portray what's really important in their relationships beyond the banter which is largely absent from "The Empath." It does make a return in the end, as McCoy announces that he finds it fascinating that with all their scientific knowledge and advances, it was good old-fashioned human emotion that the Vians valued most. Kirk asks Spock whether he can be prevailed upon to bring this news to the Vulcans, and Spock replies that he "shall certainly give the thought all the consideration it is due." Maybe he should have taken the idea more seriously; he could have spared himself years of trying to find fulfillment through Kohlinahr.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.