Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Original Series

"The Empath"


Air date: 12/6/1968
Written by Joyce Muskat
Directed by John Erman

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

A little money can go a long way, which is proved by "The Empath," an episode made on an obvious shoestring budget, but having the style and story strength to pull off something quite moving. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to a research outpost, but soon find themselves the captives of alien experimenters (Willard Sage and Alan Bergmann) who had killed the missing research scientists. Also captive is a mute alien woman whom Bones names "Gem" (Kathryn Hays), and who possesses the ability to cure another's injuries by absorbing them into herself.

The episode becomes a classic Trekkian test of human qualities when it's revealed that the landing party has been made captive (and is to be subjected to life-threatening injuries) as a way of testing Gem's ability of self-sacrifice. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy each show a selflessness that is respectable, and the two aliens hope Gem will, also.

The money-saving all-black staging and minimized props actually enhance the eerieness of the situation. And without saying a single word, Kathryn Hays brings a powerful empathy to Gem through skillfully exaggerated gestures and facial expressions—an approach that brings a great deal of poignancy to the material. It's a refreshing hour of nice ideas.

Previous episode: Wink of an Eye
Next episode: Elaan of Troyius

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9 comments on this review

Captain Dippy - Sat, Nov 5, 2011 - 6:51am (USA Central)
I don't agree with all the ratings and that is natural given that I watched these in the 70's reruns and I am sure that the reviewer watched them after the 90's. Different sensibilities at play.
However, "The Empath", to me is the single biggest piece of flotsam that exists in the Star Trek galaxy. All the emoting. All the strained acting.
I get the simplifed set. It really worked in "Spectre of the Gun". However in this episode, it forces a few characters to fill the screen - and they don't. As much as "Eden" was the hippie-with-a-message episode under the guise of being "current", this had to be the art-house episode and as such it rates a 1-time viewing.
If I could scratch that episode on the DVD so that it never plays, I would.
It may have been the pre-cursor to the "Voyager Reset Syndrome".
"Empath" - zero stars.
KokoLeQ - Mon, Feb 20, 2012 - 4:40am (USA Central)
I got yer back, Stubb. It was cheap, and not exactly a complex plot, but there is something about the way "TWS" winds out that always stayed wih me, and is really rather poignant. She is eternally standing guard to protect a world that's been dead for centuries...
And the Empath? Really?
I read somewhere online a review along the lines of the way that actress (I use the term oh-so-loosely) wafted and grimaced and fluttered and emoted and mimed her way through the episode looked like it was her community college drama class' final project. I simply can't stomach her silent mascara'd close-ups.
Strider - Thu, Jun 28, 2012 - 10:53am (USA Central)
I completely agree about the actress. Just really bad stuff.

There was some satisfaction for me in seeing the 3 sacrifice for and protect each other--that's the kind of thing I like. Other than that, there was a LOT to be annoyed with in this, and I was.
Kioma - Thu, Jun 13, 2013 - 6:15pm (USA Central)
I think Jamahl's review on this is right on.

Definitely agree the budget dictated a lot of the elements of this episode, but also that in this case the minimalism added a great deal to the play, being skillfully integrated into it. Sometimes every element of an episode comes together, and I think this was definitely one of those times.

Here I need to say a few words about the context in which I view this episode and Star Trek in general. I think this is one of the BEST Star Trek episodes because of what Star Trek was all about, and how this episode fits into it. Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future was about a society that had cured or at least managed to tame many of the ills that plague our time. The future society of Star Trek therefore had a great deal of resources and the adventurous will to embark on a 5 year mission, exploring the edges of the known galaxy, which is revealed to still often be a very rough and even vicious place. This is why I feel The Empath is such a great Star Trek episode, because it puts these discongruent but integral elements of the Star Trek universe into direct conflict. As the drama plays out, it reveals exactly what is so hopeful and compelling about Star Trek.

Of course not everybody will be comfortable with those elements of conflict. Some people watch Star Trek more for the western 'shoot-em-up' element, and though our team prevails in the end, teaching the Vaians (sp?) a lesson, anyone looking for phaser bolts and fist fights versus emotion and sacrifice will definitely be disappointed. It is from episodes such as The Empath that Star Trek earned it's 'intellectual' reputation.

Yes, the story itself is told for very different sensibilities from the 21st century - anyone familiar with golden age sci-fi of the 40's and 50's will instantly recognize many elements - but there are also some elements that for their day were revolutionary, such as the pivotal moment of Kirk 'turning the other cheek' and giving the advantage back to the Vaians, along with his scathing appraisal on which the story turns. I found it so easy to get lost in the story, as it were, and let the action carry me along to it's very satisfactory ending.

Bravo Jamahl on your four and a half star rating for this episode, for which I award you four and a half stars. ;)
Mark - Sat, Jun 15, 2013 - 12:48am (USA Central)
As us Brits would say, a real 'Marmite' episode. You either love it or hate it. I'm the former, for me it is wonderful and shows the deep friendship Kirk, Spock and McCoy have for each other better than any other episode.
Lorene - Fri, Sep 13, 2013 - 9:28am (USA Central)
Certainly a lot of bible references in this one: Starts with the scientist on the video tape quoting the Old Testament, then the crucifixion scenes with Kirk and McCoy along with the concept of voluntary self-sacrifice, the test being whether Gem has compassion, and the final scene has Scotty quoting from the New Testament about a "pearl of great price". I enjoy theological ideas as much as anyone, but this just wasn't very interestingly portrayed. 1 star from me.
Nissa - Wed, Nov 13, 2013 - 11:17pm (USA Central)
While the concept of this episode was good, the execution was terrible. The girl in question could not act, Kirk was hamming it up worse than usual, and at times both Spock and McCoy felt off from their usual characterizations. It just feels like the three of the crew would have figured out this situation far sooner than they did. Really, there just wasn't quite enough thinking in this episode for me to agree with Jammer, and I don't feel any urge to ever watch it again.
Alex - Mon, Feb 10, 2014 - 11:54pm (USA Central)
Whether you liked this episode or not, it had a couple of interesting scenes between Spock and McCoy. One is when McCoy stabs Spock in the back with a tranquilizer needle, which seems to catch Spock completely by surprise. And two is when McCoy compliments Spocks on his bedside manner. Those were two A+ moments.
Fred - Sun, Jun 22, 2014 - 6:49pm (USA Central)
How about zero stars? I went through the agony of this episode. Dull. Much of the dark set and bigheads looked more like a higher-class Lost in Space scene.
Low budget? Yep, it looked that way except for the abundance of opticals. The might have been better off recycling The Doomsday Machine or another classic TOS.
The third season is essentially dreadful with Spock's Brain batting leadoff.

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