Star Trek: The Original Series

"The Empath"

***1/2

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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22 comments on this review

Captain Dippy
Sat, Nov 5, 2011, 6:51am (UTC -5)
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 (UTC -5)
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?
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 (UTC -5)
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 (UTC -5)
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 (UTC -5)
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 (UTC -5)
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 (UTC -5)
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 (UTC -5)
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 (UTC -5)
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.
William B
Thu, Nov 6, 2014, 5:06pm (UTC -5)
I'm amused by how polarizing this episode seems to be based on these comments, and Jammer's review, and things elsewhere (i.e. the AV Club review gives it a D or something). I sort of agree with some of the criticisms, but ultimately I'm more firmly "love" end of the "love/hate" spectrum.

First of all, on the actress: I agree, to a point, that Kathryn Hays' extreme emoting is perhaps over the top. I think I'd say that her acting style, and in many respects the episode itself, owes a lot to silent film, in which more exaggerated, overdramatized acting was more common. That doesn't necessarily mean her performance is "good," because I think there is a difference between good overemoting and bad overemoting, and here I'll just plead ignorance -- I don't really know how to distinguish between the two. Hays' performance works for me, but I can't really identify why, nor can I really argue with criticisms of her performance.

The episode has something that I associate with other Trek greats like "The Inner Light," though not quite to that extent, in that it deals fairly directly with mortality on a long scale. The solar system is dying. The Vians are going to die along with it. They have the ability to move one species, and have already more or less made the call that it's not going to be them. We are not told explicitly why the Vians don't save themselves with their ability to save one species; there may be some technical reasons why not. But I suspect it's because the Vians start with the premise that they are testing in Gem: they believe that for life to be worthy, beings have to be willing to sacrifice themselves. If the Vians are willing to let other species in the solar system die out and save themselves only, are they really worthy of that salvation? I think it's also, on some level, perhaps even something more haunting -- that the Vians recognize that they have reached the end of their "natural lifespan," and are willing to let themselves die with dignity rather than work to preserve themselves, but they hope that they may contribute something to the rest of the galaxy by saving another species which, in terms of its ability to allow empathy and self-sacrifice in its members, is just in its infancy.

I think that knowledge that the Vians themselves are already, preemptively willing to die, to sacrifice their entire species, is what saves them in my mind from being purely tyrannical or sadists. It is true, what Kirk says, at the episode's end, that they have lost touch with the compassion they are trying to see instilled in Gem. I think it's also worth noting immediately that the Vians don't use one of their own species in this experiment in the role of the humans, for some reason, and that is pretty weird and dark. (My suspicion is that any Vian would be able to simply use their mind to get out of the deadly situation, and it would be difficult to see Gem sacrifice herself for a being so superior to her in mind and power.) But they are also already essentially done with themselves; they are already on another plane of thinking when it comes to self-sacrifice, willing to essentially sacrifice their whole *species* for another species, which is a concept rather beyond Kirk et al.'s reckoning.

One question is, why do they have to prove that Gem is capable of self-sacrifice, in order to save her? I think that the test has something a little similar to Q's testing humanity in TNG: if Gem's species is saved, they will be out in the galaxy, and there will be no Vians to watch over them and to restrict them if they become evil and destructive. In some respects, this is a dying parent testing their child's capacity for goodness before sending them out in the world; it's something that is generally *not* necessary or a good idea at all, but the amount of damage that could be done by an unsupervised species who also have some degree of empathic powers is probably pretty great (if Gem can remove pain, can she instill it?). But mostly, it strikes me that the Vians view their own goodness and sophistication entirely in terms of their (correct, IMO) view that it is good to be willing to sacrifice oneself for another, even while still caring about what's own life. In prioritizing this so much that they are willing to let themselves be killed to save a different species, they are obsessed with it to the point of being unable to conceive of worthiness to survive in any other terms, and so go on to do an experiment which is cruel.

AND YET -- I think the result of the experiment, that Gem learns to sacrifice for another by following the example of Kirk et al., is also a good thing. The episode's structure, following the Vians' design, is pretty effective: first, Kirk et al. try to find a way to escape, thus proving to the audience and to Gem how much they value their lives and their freedom. Then, once the torturous experiments begin, the Big Three start finding ways to sacrifice for each other, demonstrating that in spite of their genuine desire to live and be free, they will put themselves in chains for each other, with no other options available. Without the first section of the attempted escape and the mirages and so forth, their self-sacrifice could be read as a desire to just get death over with.

Gem learns from the humans' example, and the escalation of injuries from relatively minor to life-threatening allows for Gem's willingness to use her powers to increase in proportion. That Gem cannot communicate directly -- she is mute (and may not understand speech at all) -- means that emotional and physical "language" is all she gets; the concept of love, desire to live, pain and self-sacrifice are stripped down to their absolute essentials, and self-sacrifice becomes a literal thing, not protected by a level of displacement or even intellectualism like someone willing to chain themselves up for torture -- which, ultimately, is not *quite* the same thing, since there is at least some possibility that McCoy might have taken the opportunity to get off the cross once he was on it, and that his resolve was based on the fact that his decision was made by him while *not* in pain. Like the episode's stripped-down, black background look, Gem's self-sacrifice is more literal, direct, stripped of all but the essential act. And, of course, when she's ready to Give All, McCoy stops her, because humans, at least some of them, are too good at this thing. Along similar lines, the element of self-sacrifice is certainly in the Vians, but they have stopped *feeling* it directly -- their survival instinct has withered at least a little bit, and their intellectual willingnes to die as a species is not quite the same thing as *feeling* the pain and certainty of their death; that they don't "feel" Gem's certainty that she is going to die and willingness to go to it, and only look for external signs of it, is a sign of their intellectualism and disconnection from their own emotion and life-urge.

There is thus a spectrum of sorts between the Vians on the one hand, and Gem on the other -- from intellect and Big Picture thinking to emotion/body and the intimate -- with Kirk et al. in the middle. For the record, I think Spock is closer to the Vians and McCoy closer to Gem, in the show's usual intellect to emotion spectrum; McCoy is the one who names Gem, and Spock is the one who figures out the Vians' mind-controlled devices, after all. Anyway, they teach Gem to think beyond herself and the moment -- to be able to feel the pain outside her own body. And they teach the Vians that the Big Picture fate of entire species is blinding them to what is going on in their very own room. Lessons all around. In the process, the Vians help communicate to the crew and the audience a sense of grace and even dignity in the acceptance of death, on a long enough time scale, and willingness to use one's last days to try to find another species to save, and Gem helps communicate the actual agony of moment-to-moment existence. Group and individual, mind and feelings/body.

I think the episode is indeed a bit slow, but I really like it quite a bit. I'd also say 3.5 stars.
William B
Thu, Nov 6, 2014, 5:22pm (UTC -5)
For fun and since it's such a slow process watching season three, a halfway point breakdown. I feel like a few episodes are worth marking down at this point.

episodes ranked from best to worst IMO:

1. The Enterprise Incident (4)
2. The Empath (3.5)
3. The Tholian Web (3)
4. Is There In Truth No Beauty? (3)
5. Day of the Dove (3)
6. Spectre of the Gun (2.5)
7. Plato's Stepchildren (2.5)
8. For the World is Hollow... (2)
9. Wink of an Eye (1.5 -- marking this down too)
10. The Paradise Syndrome (1.5 -- also marking down)
11. Spock's Brain (.5)
12. And the Children Shall Lead (.5)

So with a median of 2.5 stars and a mean of 2 3/8, that's actually surprisingly not-terrible. I do still feel pretty disappointed by the first half of this season, and I'm more annoyed by eps like "For the World is Hollow...," "Wink of an Eye" and "The Paradise Syndrome" than "Spock's Brain" and "And the Children Shall Lead," because they had some degree of potential to work and do on some level, and yet just fall apart into a boring mess. "For the World is Hollow," especially, is *almost* a decent Bones story for some of its running time, and then it isn't. Anyway, (having only rewatched "Elaan of Troyius" and "Whom Gods Destroy" already) I suspect that the second half of the season will be much worse -- though at least there's "All Your Yesterdays" and a few others to look forward to...
Jeff
Mon, Jul 27, 2015, 5:44pm (UTC -5)
@William B. Not at all meant to be argumentative, but merely to express my own opinion: Your idea that the Vians are going to sacrifice themselves is an intriguing one, but anytime I've watched this episode I've always thought that the Vians are saying they have the ability to save one "other" species. I could very well be wrong. Your idea puts a very interesting spin on things.
Bill
Mon, Aug 31, 2015, 10:12pm (UTC -5)
This is indeed the worst among the worst. At least with "Spock's Brain" or "The Way to Eden" I could laugh. This episode's premise is the complete opposite in every way of Individualism, Egoism, and Rational Self-Interest. Kantian in its drivel ("the greatest good is that which enriches the doer the least") and steeped in Christianity, the silliness even extends to things non-philosophical and strictly scientific such as the diversity within the Human Race itself toward all ends of all ethical spectrums. And yet, by Gem's performance, the Vians will know her species? Even the Old Testament's rubric required "10 good men." God awful (pun intended) in every way, from sets, acting, philosophy, ugh. Zero stars with a McEnroe "argument for the next call" for some future capability on this wonderful website to rate episodes negatively.
navamske
Mon, May 30, 2016, 8:01pm (UTC -5)
I thought Kathryn Hays did a lovely and convincing job of conveying the character of Gem though facial expressions and body language alone. In particular I liked the scene in which she places her hand on Spock's shoulder, obviously reading his emotional state, then gets a look on her face which clearly communicates that she has found the emotion of caring in the Vulcan.
Matt
Fri, Sep 30, 2016, 3:11am (UTC -5)
I'm most curious about what the doomed species that was deemed not worthy of surviving (having lost out to Gem's species) was like.
SteveRage
Tue, Nov 29, 2016, 1:48am (UTC -5)
Absolutely loved this episode. Previously watched Is there in Truth no Beauty which I thought was zero star misogynist bile. This I thought was beautiful, thoughtful and moving. I love the scenes that show the self-sacrificing nature of the big three and the depth of their relationship.

I'm with Jammer - 3.5 stars from me.
Jason R.
Fri, Dec 9, 2016, 7:13am (UTC -5)
William, I am not sure your assumption that the Vians intend to die, is supported in the episode although there might be one line hinting at that (I will have to rewatch). But count me as one who loves that interpretation. The idea that the Vians would choose *another* species to save in place of themselves is delightful irony and both proves and disproves Kirk's assessment of them at the same time. Whether intended or not by the writers, henceforth it's how I will understand the episode.

Count me among the fans of this episode. Even when they are torturing our heroes (before we understand their motives) there is this quiet nobility to the Vians (a credit to the actors) that tells you that these aren't stock villains let alone sadists. This is not an episode that can be resolved through gadgetry or blowing up a central power source and even Spock's overcoming of the forcefield seems less about defeating the villains (as it would in most other episodes) and more about setting up the climax of the drama, the final crucible of the Vians' test.

Regarding Gem's exaggerated expressions, taken out of context one could easily conclude that this is terrible over the top acting. Yet understanding that Gem's race has no means of verbal communication and relies entirely on empathic communication, it is not unreasonable to assume that she would communicate in part through facial expressions that would need to be more pronounced. For me the acting style was appropriate given the context.
Jason R.
Fri, Dec 9, 2016, 7:18am (UTC -5)
As an addendum to my point about the forcefield - of course the Vians tell Spock right from the start how to disarm it. They are as much working with the heroes as against them.
David Ware
Fri, Mar 17, 2017, 8:41pm (UTC -5)
For me, personally, I rate THE EMPATH very highly indeed. There is much pathos throughout the episode and the friendship of the captain, Spock and Dr McCoy is very transparent indeed. I loved the acting in this episode and I thought the actress who was one of the guest stars was very convincing. The musical score added so much to this episode and for me it was a most appropriate choice for the type of content and issues that were contained in it. I have definitely grown to love this episode, as I became older, as an adult. For me, it is one of my favourite episodes of that brilliant series.....classic STAR TREK!
Trek fan
Mon, Apr 10, 2017, 3:58am (UTC -5)
I love this episode even though it puts me to sleep if I catch it at the wrong moment of mental fatigue. It's very...different from run-of-the-mill Trek, in a good way. Not only is it a character-driven story about self-sacrifice that develops crucial backstory for the Big Three's relationship -- a backstory that will pay off in Wrath of Khan -- but it's one of those rare Star Trek stories that "shows rather than tells," allowing us to focus on the relationships of our star characters through the expressive face and eyes of a mute empath. That's clever stuff considering most Trek stories err on the side of talking viewers to death.

Indeed, there's a sense of mystery and even spirituality to this story that is rare for Trek. The minimalist sets add a mystical feel to the whole thing, allowing us to really focus on the relationship of the Big Three (Kirk, Spock, McCoy) without the distractions of space battles and other staple Trek gimmicks. The Big Three, the titular empath Gem (a remarkable Kathryn Hays), and the two Vians are almost literally the only things on screen for most of the show. It's like TOS has been boiled down here to its most essential element: The oft-tested friendship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Perhaps more strongly than any other TOS story, "The Empath" shows that while these guys may bicker and snap at each other, they really care for one another to the point of being willing to die. That's powerful stuff and this episode, through Gem, truly lets us savor its truth.

I've always been especially touched by the sequence of Kirk's torture building up to the hypo scene, as we watch Kirk, Spock, and McCoy each quietly jockey to be the one who sacrifices himself for the other two. It's not bravado, but genuine affection and concern for others that drives them. I love the way DeForest Kelley plays his near-deathbed scene, complimenting Spock (a big step there) and then trying to push Gem away because he can't bring himself to take a life even to save his own. Brilliant stuff and very much in-character for our resident humanist, who gets to shine in this story as he steals the show from Shatner and Nimoy.

It's because of episodes like this one, where the Big Three show themselves so ready to give their lives for each other, that Spock's ultimate self-sacrifice in Wrath of Khan will resonate so deeply. It's because of stories like this one that his death will later carry so much meaning. Although we see the willingness of the Big Three to die for others throughout the show, we never expect it to actually happen.

In "The Empath" we have here a classic Trekkian story about testing human limits, self-sacrifice, compassion, dignity, and morally complex decisions. I concur with Jammer's rating and might even give it 4/4 stars. Another bit I appreciate is Kirk's final speech to the Vians, who accept his rebuke that they've forgotten how to feel the emotions they hope to elicit in Gem. In some ways, this speech is also a rebuke to fans who don't "get" this episode, and to those who react against sincere depictions of human emotions in a Sci-Fi show because they want to see conflict and intellect more than cooperation and caring. While I do appreciate sharper Trek stories from time to time, "The Empath" really captures the idealism of the series for me, the spirit and heart that first made me fall in love with Trek (in all its incarnations) as something different from other kinds of TV shows.
Jon
Mon, Apr 17, 2017, 5:33am (UTC -5)
Indeed very atmospheric but rather unpleasant
Rahul
Fri, Jun 30, 2017, 5:32pm (UTC -5)
This episode, to me, is a different kind of Trek episode - it makes no bones about the minimalist set and Gem's expressions. Those work to the show's advantage. It is a production that just gets down to the emotional bond between the Big 3. It's about the what makes them tick as well as the Vians learning about human qualities -- a different kind of Trek episode but one that exemplifies what the show is all about.

"The Empath" goes to show that with the right plot, script, acting there's no need for special effects, elaborate costumes, action.

This is one of 60s Trek's most poignant episodes. Great story for building up the friendship between the Big 3 - each willing to sacrifice himself for the other 2.
I remember reading somewhere that this was Kelley's favourite episode.

The score from George Duning is outstanding - the delicate music for Gem is perfect.

Wholeheartedly agree with Jammer's review as well as Kioma's comments.

When I first saw "The Empath" back in the 70s, I hated it. The dark backgrounds, Gem being a mute - I didn't get it.

But more I think about it, Hays' expressions and being mute really work to convey her compassion as she heals. As for the final resolution, Kirk talks about compassion to the Vians who make an abrupt about-face and cure McCoy. Not sure why Kirk simply didn't say that McCoy pushed Gem away and that he showed he would rather die than let her absorb more of his injuries. Thus Gem's species is more than worthy of being spared. The Vians' experiment was not a failure.

"The Empath" gets 3.5 stars from me. It is a gem of an episode. I read on Wikipedia that the writer Joyce Muskat was one of only 4 60s Trek "amateur" writers who just came out of the blue with a story. Fantastic effort.

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