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Mon, Feb 26, 2018, 1:12pm (UTC -5)
Re: TOS S3: The Empath

This has long been one of my favorite TOS episodes. Viewed according to 21st century norms, it looks odd at best, terrible at worst. But the movement and acting were very much in context for 1950s - 60s staging, albeit more common to stage and early television. The minimalist sets (known as a 'space stage' - no relation to science fiction - created a look very much more like the theater and early television than what we're used to today.

Similarly, the plot and writing are much more '50s and '60s SF. A 'What if" piece, staged like a chess problem: You have a given situation. Certain catastrophe. For irrelevant reasons, the aliens who are able only have the resources to save one of a multiplicity of peoples. They have to decide which to save. How do they do so, and what criteria do they use? They're aliens. Their values, standards, and viewpoints aren't necessarily going to be anything like ours.

Our protagonists encounter this scenario, already in progress. They become part of it, now viewing the experiment from the perspective of not the lab rats, but actually part of the incidental equipment. Irrelevant, save as fodder for the experiment, pressed into service due to scarcity of time and resources. How does this all appear to them, at the outset. To the audience, seeing it all through their eyes? Then, as they learn what's actually happening, how does the truth of the situation change the morality of what's happening? Does it make it any more acceptable? And do we have the right to hold the aliens making the decision of which race to save to our standards? Are ours necessarily any better or wiser, or more moral, simply because they're ours?

The criterion the aliens are considering critical seems to be the willingness to sacrifice one's own life for another. Even if that other isn't of one's own kind. That's...a pretty big step. Apparently, the aliens consider that a critical component of their system of morality. I will give my life, not just to save my family, my loved ones, my tribe, or my species. But someone I do not see myself as connected to, save that they are another sentient being. That's...pretty big.

It's also telling that their morality is flexible enough - rather like our own, in fact - to allow for the sacrifice of a small number of individual sentient beings in order to save a far larger number. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...." They've found their answer to the Trolley Problem, and make no apologies for it, although they do seem to empathize with those who suffer and die, because of their decision.

And yes, naturally there's a stirring speech, and they listen to it, and they're stirred by it, and respond to it. It's popular melodrama from the 1960s. Star Trek was never intended to be high art. There was no franchise, and no legacy, back during the TOS years. The episodes were done on a tight budget, at Desilu studios, and only greenlighted in the first place, because Lucille Ball overruled her board of directors, who wanted nothing to do with the show in the first place. It was intended to be broadcast twice - one initial airing, and once in reruns, and then not seen again. Hell, they raided Mission: Impossible's dumpster for props. Nobody thought these episodes would be around five years later, let alone fifty.

One of the biggest disservices that can be done TOS is watching it through the layers and layers of accumulation that the Star Trek franchise has accumulated since it aired. Not to mention viewing it as if it were a modern, 21st century production. Viewed in context, alongside other shows of its time, it's fairly brilliant. Even with all its campy and sometimes hokey elements. Many of which - although they seem sappy, ridiculous, nonsensical, or threadbare today, don't in context with its time. Shatner and his acting style, for instance. (He could actually act quite well. The part of Kirk was written that way.)

The Empath, when viewed in context with its time, and as a period SF piece, is a brilliant piece of work. It may not be to everyone's taste, especially in the 21st century. But it's well done, given what they had to work with, and it's an interesting thought piece, as were many of the TOS episodes, many of which aren't recognized for that, these days.
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