Star Trek: The Original Series

"The Empath"

3.5 stars

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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45 comments on this post

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.
Trent
Sat, Oct 7, 2017, 7:22pm (UTC -5)
I think the optimism and utopianism of Star Trek is best summed up this episode. It is in The Empath, of course, that Kirk, Spock and McCoy repeatedly, altruistically, sacrifice themselves for the greater good, an act of love which a female empath and a race of super powerful aliens learn to practice and internalize themselves. "Your love of life," these aliens go on to say, "your passion to know, everything that is truest and best in all species of beings has been revealed to you. Those are the qualities that make a civilization worthy to survive."
PetH
Tue, Oct 10, 2017, 4:05pm (UTC -5)
Fucking SHIT episode. At least Spock's Brain contained the dialogue "what is brain?(!)".
Rahul
Mon, Nov 27, 2017, 5:31pm (UTC -5)
Just re-watched this episode -- a really under-rated masterpiece.

The Vians clearly aren't sadists though one has to wonder what the 2 researchers did not do such that they died from the torture. The Vians mentioned their own fears killed them. Were they not able to engender the feeling of empathy for each other or "teach" Gem this trait? I would assume so and thus the experiment on them was a failure. Then along came the Big 3.

To William B. and Jason R. -- the Vians do indeed say they can save only 1 species so they are implying they will sacrifice themselves. I wish the episode had played this implication up a bit more. It would portray the Vians in a better light. I like the insights in your comments.
NCC-1701-Z
Mon, Feb 19, 2018, 9:55pm (UTC -5)
Amazing how TOS was able to tell such a profound story with such minimal sets.

Good writing will always endure, even if production values become dated over time.

(Unlike certain shows with the latest in CGI but #$@&!!! writing.)
Dubh
Mon, Feb 26, 2018, 1:12pm (UTC -5)
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 people...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.
Marc
Mon, Jul 30, 2018, 7:02pm (UTC -5)
The Vians said two things that establish they are choosing to save another race over their own:

"We have but one need left in life."
"Of all the planets of Minara , we have the power to transport only one to safety."
Startrekwatcher
Wed, Feb 20, 2019, 11:57pm (UTC -5)
2 stars. Rather underwhelming. The aliens were lame. The idea behind their experiment underwhelming and not very satisfying. Pretty bland overall
Springy
Mon, May 27, 2019, 3:24pm (UTC -5)
Katherine Hayes does a good job, IMO. Her make up is sort of frightening, but I don't blame her for that. She does a good job conveying what she's thinking and feeling. She's a good actress.

The episode - it's hard to buy into the idea that the Vians are noble, after they kill the researchers, etc.

Agree for the most part with William B's assessment of the situation - they're caught between the warmlyemotional Gem, and the super-cold logic of the Vians. The humans, including half human Spock, bridge the gap.

Gem sounds a lot like Jim, and I think the warm - cold spectrum placement goes Gem, Jim, Bones, Spock, Vians.

I didn't like the ep all that well. Hard to stay interested. Average offering.
Sarjenka's Brother
Tue, Aug 6, 2019, 11:26pm (UTC -5)
A Tale of Two Cities meets Lost in Space in a 52 minute show that felt like 100 minutes.

I can see why some like/love it and others dislike/hate. You're all right and you're all wrong.

Such as the mysterious ways of "The Empath."

QUERY: Why does an empath need to be taught empathy? Isn't that like teaching a fish how to swim or a heart how to beat?
Binging TOS
Wed, Aug 7, 2019, 4:15am (UTC -5)
I thought this was awful. There have been some bad episodes, but this one ranks as the worst in my book. Painstaking to watch. I enjoyed the variety of reviews of this episode. Some think it's horrid, others think it's peak TOS. :)
Silly
Wed, Jun 3, 2020, 11:50pm (UTC -5)
This episode is one I liked a lot better when I was a kid.

This episodes is crap! Kirk is right, it is a torture chamber! I don’t care what the aliens claim. BS!

The episode fundamentally expects you to believe the aliens deep down, after a nice Kirk Speech are good. Ok, but, no. Sorry.

It does have great Kirk/Spock/McCoy material, but still, no way.
Mal
Tue, Jan 12, 2021, 1:46am (UTC -5)
I don’t like The Empath.

Frankly, I didn’t enjoy it.

And I am not moved by its “message”. I can’t stand the torture, and I know there are better ways to depict self-sacrifice.

I think I just got turned off seeing Bones brutalized. McCoy’s body hanging limp and tortured.

https://youtu.be/IHd9bYGJtoI

It reminded me of the end of a Babylon 5 episode “Passing Through Gethsemane,” where they find Brother Theo’s body hanging after being lynched,

https://youtu.be/B8z06-W5G2U

Theo of course had been a murderer, and the folk who lynched him were the survivors of his murders.

What did Bones do to deserve that pain and horror? Kirk has a similar question. He asks, his ample arm-pit hair showing,

https://youtu.be/a36MHuKQBiw?t=9

But Kirk gets no answer.

*

https://youtu.be/BFsCIE-TB88?t=144

*

Eventually we learn that Kirk and Bones are brutalized to within an inch of their lives (two prior subjects, Ozaba and Linke, had already died from the torture) simply to teach some chick “self-sacrifice” - "Her instinct must be developed to the fullest,” and the torture must go on and on so "The test must be complete.”

What the fuck? Talk about evil.

Evil is using other people for your own purposes without any regard for them, no matter how much pain and suffering you are causing them - even death - because you think your fucked up purposes, your “lesson”, your “test” is more important than they are.

These are psychopathic aliens with zero Empathy, which is why, with all their technological prowess, they don’t have the basic decency not to pick up sentient beings and torture them, and in the case of Ozaba and Linke, kill them.

"When we resume our interrogations, you will decide which of your men we shall use. It is essential. There is an eighty seven percent chance that the doctor will die. And while Commander Spock's life is not in danger, the possibility is ninety three percent that he will suffer brain damage, resulting in permanent insanity."

I don’t watch Star Trek to watch evil. And in that vein, I guess I fully endorse @PetH’s far more succinct review above. I can get enough of psychopaths on all the other TV shows out there. I love House of Cards. Kevin Spacey plays a psychopath. I expect better from Trek.

The thing is, if you want to test self-sacrifice, there are better ways to do it.

In Babylon 5’s “Comes the Inquisitor”, Sebastian is able to test Delenn’s instinct for self-sacrifice, through torture, yes. But even Sebastian - Jack the Ripper - comes across as less evil than these sick fucked up aliens in “The Empath”. For two reasons: first, it is Delenn’s choice whether or not she wants to go through with the test, or drop out, and second, Sebastian does actually understand that what he has done is reprehensible.

The last scene with Sebastian is key,

https://youtu.be/Vn3EiDTgZDk

The Empath is the worst torture an all Trek, except of course nuTrek, which isn’t Trek at all. And there is no shortage of torture in Trek,

Geordi,

https://youtu.be/WTAmjxBI4pg

O’Brien,

[do you really need all the torture-O'Brien clips ;) ]

Picard

https://youtu.be/jk3EsXgXcyQ

Soval,

https://youtu.be/ulmH7DxQEKI

Uhura,

https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-cLR2Fl0ALe4/U7HCgW0xYMI/AAAAAAAADTg/SjpGdcpV7Nc/s1600/got8.png

Spock,

https://youtu.be/9nWE-aXaqms?t=17

Odo

https://youtu.be/cCc9Q391TV8

which was actually torture for Garak too.

And yet, none of those were completely gratuitous. Scotty had the right idea ("I would say she was a pearl of great price”). Only in this case, it wasn’t worth the cost.

In the future I may simply skip this episode and watch Babylon 5 instead. At least that is a morality I can respect,

http://b5.cs.uwyo.edu/bab5/snds/3prllife.wav

Remember Ozaba. Remember Linke. They had names. These alien psychopaths tortured and murdered them. Fuck them.

https://youtu.be/YrSy9r0-lMg?t=43
William B
Tue, Jan 12, 2021, 11:17am (UTC -5)
It's interesting. I think for me, with things like the situation the aliens are in The Empath, I really do see them as being in a situation which is either (take your pick)

a) Allegorical so that we don't need to take them as literal people, or
b) In a situation so extreme that it is one that we should never see ourselves as being in, except as a thought experiment.

IMO, the reason that they are so intensely measuring out Gem's worth before saving her people is that if Gem's people survive, they will be loosed on the Galaxy, where they may eventually do great evil. The aliens are essentially in a position of deciding the fate of the Galaxy, based on an intervention which can have incredible consequences, beyond our conception. Beyond theirs, really. To do nothing is the default action. If they intervene and Gem's people become tyrannical, then they are responsible for all the damage they do. If they intervene and Gem's people are not tyrannical, then they have nobly saved a species. The Vians *are* in a position of whether to play God, and so believe that they must use some of the tools at "God's" disposal.

Of course I don't think they should torture Kirk et al. But I see the reasoning behind it. And I believe that the Vians are sincere. I believe that they are sincere in part because they are choosing to save Gem's people rather than their own, who will also be destroyed in the supernova.

I think we are meant to see them as wrong to carry on this experiment, and Kirk emphasizes this to them. But I also think we are meant to see their decision as being of a magnitude beyond our understanding. This is a decision beyond any that any human being has ever made in scale. So they tread very, very, very carefully, and feel they need some evidence to justify the large scale of their intervention. The devastating personal pain they inflict on four individuals is small in comparison to the difference between the choices they will make. They should not be in the position to play God, but they are, and they will be destroyed along with the rest of their star system, so that it will also be their final act.

As a complete allegory, divorced from any conception of the players representing people, I think we can think of the Vians as representing intellect and Gem as emotion. The intellect recognizes that what is most valuable is empathy, which can be forged in oneself only through pain. The Vians and Gem share a solar system and thus in some senses are part of a complete person, and what this is depicting is the intellect recognizing the need to force one's own empathy to be developed by seeing the pain of others rather than hiding from it. The intellect is required to push the development of that empathy, which eventually is more important in the greater world (Galaxy) than the intellect itself. Scotty's "gem of great price" emphasizes this: the Vians can only save one element of their galaxy, and their choice is that empathy, forged in pain. This is the element of humanity that is purest and noblest, and the intellect recognizes this abstractly but must eventually be burned away.

Note that I'm not advocating this philosophy per se, so much as articulating that this is what I believe the episode to be about.

The episode's allegorical framework has always led me to find the torture sequences affecting, but not gratuitous, and nor do I think of them as genuinely being about real world torture, the way the Chain of Command scenes are. They are abstracted, the idea and feeling of pain boiled down to its essential components.

A blogger I like referred to TOS as being often a "stagey idea-drama" - which he did not mean in a derogatory sense. I think this episode fits that the most. It doesn't feel like any real world at all to me, and plays like a mental and emotional exercise, a Gedankenexperiment about moral value. I like it.
William B
Tue, Jan 12, 2021, 11:28am (UTC -5)
To add,

"These are psychopathic aliens with zero Empathy"

I disagree about psychopathic. But definitely they don't have empathy. That's why they save Gem's people rather than their own, when they can only save one species.
Rahul
Tue, Jan 12, 2021, 12:08pm (UTC -5)
Brilliant comment from William B -- you sir are a "pearl of great price" on this forum!

This is clearly a highly polarizing episode but I think it should be clear that the Vians are clearly not cardboard baddies -- they represent intellect and are tasked with playing God. Note that they are not saving themselves either -- their society will be extinct. They are taking responsibility for the future development of another world in the best (most logical) way, according to them. If a viewer can't see this distinction, they'll most likely hate the episode.

I think we humans naturally want to imbue or inject human universal values onto aliens like the Vians, but some of these Trek tales are about being in situations no humans could realistically be in and then seeing what values / ideals can be gleaned.

For me personally, I love this episode and rate it very highly (9/10), but the difference with my hating "Plato's Stepchildren" (PS) has to do with what is gratuitous but more importantly what is torture vs. what is demeaning humiliation. As William B says, I agree that the torture in "The Empath" is not gratuitous -- it does its job and creates the circumstances for Gem to do her thing. In PS, what Kirk/Spock go thru is demeaning humiliation and beyond a point, it becomes gratuitous. That's the difference for me. I think PS establishes pretty clearly early on that Parmen is an a$$hole. Then the episode goes on to establish how big of an a$$hole he really is.

As for CoC II, the torture isn't gratuitous either for me -- it is just the right amount to keep the plot progressing and to show Picard's resistance develop.
William B
Tue, Jan 12, 2021, 12:21pm (UTC -5)
Thank you Rahul!

I largely agree on the difference between this and Plato's Stepchildren. I do not hate the latter but find it much harder to watch. Perhaps it *is* good to really drive home the point about Parmen, but I also agree that I feel like I got it early on.

TV torture that I felt was gratuitous: (Game of Thrones spoilers) the Theon stuff. In the books, the story essentially jumped from Theon being outplayed by Ramsay to the broken man he is as Reek, several books later. We can fill in the gaps ourselves, and feel revulsion without dwelling on it. That the torture *occurred* is in keeping with the story and what kind of world they live in, but the actual on screen depiction felt endless and wallowing to me.

I am fine with the torture depiction in CoC, Firefly's War Stories, The Die is Cast and so on. Not only do they make character and story sense, but there are points being made in those scenes beyond just the fact of torture happening.

A "favourite" instance of torture in movies is in To Have and Have Not. It is established early on that Walter Brennan's character is a drunk who develops serious withdrawal symptoms, and then late in the story the fascist antagonist tortures him by depriving him of booze. Nothing but Brennan's performance is there to demonstrate how badly this damages him, but everyone knows how cruel the punishment is, as how carefully it was *personally* calibrated to do harm. I think that gorier, more visceral torture has its place but I see this as a good example of precise storytelling, demonstrating cruelty without reveling in it.
Peter G.
Tue, Jan 12, 2021, 12:31pm (UTC -5)
To add to William's great comment, I think it's not merely that pain is an incidental evil needed for this test. Pain is in this instance *the thing* they are testing for to make sure Gem's empathy is wired properly. Sure, she might have a good reflexive or intellectual empathy with various experiences like pleasure or laughter, but it is specifically her ability to recognize, empathize with, and want to heal pain that they are interested in. There is a sort of Christian aspect to this, where it's alright to be able to join with others in various aspects of life, but it's in the ability to join in with another's pain, and ideally heal it, that the truest version of emotional connection is to be found. And obviously the only way to test Gem's ability to join with another in pain is for her to encounter someone else in great pain. For this they need to set up the condition, since it's unlikely they will be able to randomly have her encounter the very scenario she needs to experience.

If this is an allegory, I suppose we might suggest that it could be a Biblical one, even addressing issues like the problem of evil or why a God needs to suffer alongside his people in order to help them. We could suppose the Vians have no empathy at all, which would sort of be a textbook definition of psychopath (@ William, this doesn't have to be a moral condemnation, merely a description). But they might also be empathic, just not able to use their empathy to help anyone, unlike Gem. Maybe she in practice can realize what they understand but can't do. They may be more advanced at the moment, but Gem and her species can develop and may surpass them in time, even in intellect. They key is whether that intellect and that empathy is connected to anyone else, or is self-contained like a solipsism and therefore useless.

Now the one way in which the allegory doesn't track to a Judeo-Christian framework is that in the problem of evil we have God permitting pain and suffering, whereas here it would appear the Vians are deliberately creating it to produce an effect. But then again if an omnipotent being 'permits' something, is that not akin to being responsible for it? Or at least we might well see it that way, even if we can't understand it fully. The difference between setting something in motion that will happen, or setting in motion something that *can* happen, is a bit vague to me morally. Generally in everyday life I would assign more or less full responsibility to someone who does something knowing that there *can* be said consequence, even if it's only probable. Like, set of a bomb knowing there are people in the building, or set it off not knowing if anyone's in the building, I would suggest that the culpability in both cases for murder is essentially the same. So where does that leave us for an advanced being causing pain, versus one permitting pain, in both cases where the outcome is the development of a species to a new height? I like William's idea that they may also be preventing a greater evil through these experiments, which puts us in the trolley problem. Unfortunately the trolley problem requires quite a lot of axioms to answer it either way.

Personally I can say that as a kid I never liked this one. It was slow, boring, and aesthetically its tone is very different from your average TOS adventure episode. As an adult I like it more on intellectual and construction grounds, and it's the sort of ep that I appreciate a lot on the very infrequent occasions I might be in the mood to watch it. I'm basically never in the mood to watch it, because it's no fun. But on those rare occasions when I do it's good. Not sure how that translates into a rating. The Empath is like taking my medicine.
William B
Tue, Jan 12, 2021, 2:45pm (UTC -5)
@Peter, great comment.

Just to clarify on the psychopath point, there are several statements usually included in a definition for psychopathy. One is lack of empathy, but others typically (though not universally) include egocentrism and extreme risk taking. The former maybe applies to the Vians (though as you say they may possess empathy, just of a different sort) but the latter qualities don't seem to fit. Or rather, I guess in this situation they are taking it upon themselves to take a great risk, which may seem egocentric, but it's ultimately that they are cautious about their big intervention which will annihilate them - so it's mostly the opposite of those aspects of psychopathy.
Mal
Tue, Jan 12, 2021, 11:32pm (UTC -5)
@Rahul, @William B, & @Peter G., fascinating comments. I love our conversations about TOS! As @Rahul said over in the “Tholian Web” thread, "They surely didn't expect folks like us to watch the series over and over again and analyze it to death!” I have to imagine, like all great creators - painters, poets, writers, film makers - they would have been thrilled to know that people still appreciate their work all these years later. That people still derive meaning from it. And we derive meaning not just from TOS, which is 55 years old, but also @Jammer’s reviews and his website, which is 25 years old. Talk about longevity!

I find it particularly interesting for these discussions to look at how each of us reacted to the three big TOS torture episodes, Triskelion, Plato, and Empath.

@Jammer rates Empath highest (3 1/2 stars), Plato a very close second (3 stars), and Triskelion last, by far (1 star).

@Rahul agrees with @Jammer’s order and ratings for Empath and Plato, but would rate Triskelion slightly higher (2 stars).

@William B agrees with @Jammer's order, but Plato is a distant second, not a close second.

@Peter G. is a little harder to read, but if I may, I think he puts Plato at the top of the heap and Triskelion at the bottom - but only because he believes Empath is “good” for him, like “medicine”.

Like @Peter G., I have Plato at the top (I give it 3 1/2 stars). I agree with @Rahul on Triskelion (I give it 1/2 a star more than he does, but close enough). But where I must part ways with you, my friends, is The Empath. It is dead last for me.

I wonder why that is?

We could be tempted to point to pure aesthetics. I love the theater, the bare bones staging, the higher level of acting required. William Shatner was of course Shakespearean, as was Patrick Stewart. Star Trek just wouldn’t be what it is without those two. But The Empath was bad theater. I have to agree with @KokoLeQ (“looked like it was her community college drama class' final project”). The quality here was unfortunate.

I commend @William B for his honestly on "Kathryn Hays' extreme emoting”. Maybe a different actress could have elevated the performance. But maybe not. The script was also amateur - as @Rahul points out, the writer never sold anything before this episode. And it seems, she never sold anything after it either. Suffice it to say that Joyce Muskat did not go on to have the star-studded career of a Ronald D. Moore (nBSG) or a Naren Shanker (Farscape, The Expanse).

But of course my problems with The Empath go much deeper than that.

@Peter G. posits that the issue here is biblical, "addressing issues like the problem of evil or why a God needs to suffer alongside his people in order to help them.” In a way @Rahul seems to take the same tack, "they represent intellect and are tasked with playing God.”

But I’m still of the view that the giant face in the center of the galaxy was a fraud ;)

https://youtu.be/x9sqkahSziU?t=101

So let me instead take a more Trekkian alternative

https://youtu.be/lNwzawXu4v8?t=49

As @William B muses, "I think that the test has something a little similar to Q's testing humanity in TNG”.

Indeed, Q gives humans their first real challenge in "Q Who?”

As a result of the forced encounter with the Borg, Q is responsible for the death of 18 Enterprise crew members. But Q didn’t just snap his fingers and kill 18 crew members. Nor did he torture them. Q is not the malevolent entity Nagilum from “Where Silence has Lease”.

https://youtu.be/Hh5Si9BWt5A?t=80

Q accelerates a conflict that was already set in motion hundreds of years ago in First Contact/Regeneration (ENT) and pushed into top gear in The Raven (VOY). If anything, those 18 deaths prevented the deaths of millions of more humans had the Federation been completely unprepared in BoBW.

And what of the Borg who died in the encounter? Are these drones innocent victims of Q, like Ozaba and Linke?

Seeing as the Borg were headed for Earth anyway, I have to assume that the drones would have been in the conflict eventually, and could hardly be called a victim - except that yes, they are of course victims of the Borg themselves. But the key is that they are not Q’s victims.

But let’s change Q Who a little.

Instead of the Enterprise hurled out, suppose Q had just put a detachment of heavily armed Jemhedar onto the ship, and 18 Enterprise crew members died subduing the invasion. Humanity would still have had it’s bloody nose,

https://youtu.be/MD05IVpnwFU?t=101

Q would still have been able to give his little speech.

But what of the Jemhedar who die in this hypothetical version of Q Who? The Jemhedar who would have died at the hands of the Enterprise crew as they fought to retake the ship? Those Jemhedar would most certainly be innocent victims, killed by Q’s actions in order to teach humanity a lesson about the true nature of the galaxy. We might not like the Jemhedar, but that doesn’t make using them - killing them - as instruments to teach humanity a lesson, into some sort of moral act. It would be evil.

Which brings me to @Peter G.’s fascinating question, the "difference between setting something in motion that will happen, or setting in motion something that *can* happen.”

For me, that’s the difference between Q Who and All Good Things. In AGT, Q sets in motion something that *can* happen, that humanity would simply cease to exist. Not at Q’s hands. But because of what a human - Picard does. Q gives Picard the knowledge of what he has done so that he might decide to do differently.

Where Silence has Lease is evil - imposing pain and death for your own purposes.

Q Who is destiny - it is coming for you whether you like it or not.

All Good Things is free will - if you have the knowledge, you might chose to act differently.

That’s the difference between "setting something in motion that will happen” and "setting in motion something that *can* happen”. The difference is free will. That is all the difference in the world.

In that way, I completely agree with @Rahul on one point. In The Empath, these aliens "represent intellect and are tasked with playing God.” And Star Trek season 1 did an incredible job of examining power like unto the Gods, and what that power does to a man (Gary Mitchell), a teenager (Charlie X), an alien (Squire of Gothos). This omnipotence arc culminates with one possible solution to the omnipotence problem: the Organian’s extreme pacifism in “Errand of Mercy.” TNG is slightly less categorial, but comes down to essentially the same answer in Deja Q: omnipotence must be policed.

But of course the real danger to us today (or in the 60’s for that matter), is not in brute force omnipotence. For two reasons - first, brute force omnipotence is still the realm of scifi. But second, and more importantly, brute force is easy to recognize, and people are immediately and instinctually repelled by it.

But when omnipotence hides behind intellectual superiority, there is always the risk that a superior intellect might trick you into thinking their exercise of arbitrary will over you is in some way justified.

And so TOS took us down the arc of showing that intellectual rule is still evil, not least because it tends to extreme cruelty. Of course that's what the story was in Triskelion, where the rulers were literal brains in a jar. There were also a series of computer overlords, not one of which was benevolent. In Plato we again saw rule by the intellectual elite, and we again saw that they wielded their power in a way to create pain and suffering without any regard to the well being of others. We again saw that they were evil.

And this Intellectual’s Arc of Evil culminates with The Empath. For what better rational do those who seek to exert power over you have to inflict pain and death, than, it is “for the greater good”.

As @Dubh says of these aliens, "They've found their answer to the Trolley Problem, and make no apologies for it.”

No doubt there was an army of Admirals and PhD’s who justified evil in every regime of the last century. No doubt there will be an army of experts who will continue to justify all manner of evil in our century as well.

But Star Trek posits a future where man has evolved far enough to recognize evil and call it out - no matter the "higher purpose" it may claim to serve. As Kirk very rightly says in The Empath,

KIRK: You've lost the capacity to feel the emotions you brought Gem here to experience. You don't understand what it is to live. Love and compassion are dead in you. You're nothing but intellect.

When people tell me that the evil aliens in The Empath were somehow justified in what they did, I see that TOS failed in its mission with this episode; it failed at morality. That is why this is bad Trek. As DS9 might have put it,

https://youtu.be/DhkfuyBLDlY?t=224
Peter G.
Wed, Jan 13, 2021, 12:58am (UTC -5)
@ Mal,

You're putting some work into this, thanks for egging us on to write more.

For what it's worth:

"@Peter G. is a little harder to read, but if I may, I think he puts Plato at the top of the heap and Triskelion at the bottom - but only because he believes Empath is “good” for him, like “medicine”."

I don't like rating episodes because I find it hard to mix together different factors like how much I value the episode, how much I want to watch it on any given day, and how much it adds to the Trek universe. For example I'd rather watch Let He Who Is Without Sin almost any day compared with The Empath, but I will not categorically say that makes it better. It makes it...easier, maybe? More fun for sure. How that translates into a star rating I don't know. But if I had to rank between these three episodes which I'd rather watch right now, Plato's Stepchildren is actually middle of the pack. It's hard to watch, brutal at times, but awesome. But it's not for everyday. I'll take Triskelion most days over the other two. It's enjoyable, I like its message, it's cool. But Plato's Stepchildren is by far the most important and sophisticated of the three for me, and I would call it objectively the best by far. Not sure where that puts my 2nd and 3rd place. Another good example of this is TNG's The Inner Light. Obviously a top-notch piece of work, but actually I shy away from it most of the time, I'm just not up for that. As nice as the story is, that's frankly not what I'm signing up for when I want to chill out with Trek when I'm tired. So there is also the issue of what Trek is to us in a given session. Challenging and moving? A friendly place to come home to on a bad day? An exciting adventure? It's been all these to me, but some episodes are almost never on the docket. Make of that what you will :)

I did want to respond to one other point:

"For me, that’s the difference between Q Who and All Good Things. In AGT, Q sets in motion something that *can* happen, that humanity would simply cease to exist. Not at Q’s hands. But because of what a human - Picard does. Q gives Picard the knowledge of what he has done so that he might decide to do differently."

Technically, yes, it was always in Picard's hands. But I would disagree that he had the full experience of free will in creating the anti-time anomaly. In fact he was essentially destined to do it exactly as he did it until Q gave him the final clues near the end. He had just enough information to know he had to act, and he acted in the only way he knew how: get out there, take measurements, make a plan, and do something at any cost. That's very commendable, but also destructive if you don't know what you're doing. Which is sort of what Q's point was in Encounter at Farpoint. It's not enough to just want to get out there and make waves, unless you actually know *for certain* you are doing good. If you don't know you're doing good, you might be doing wrong, or destroying yourselves. So the issue at stake in AGT isn't so much that Picard had the free will to choose either way; it's that when he chose to exercise his will at first it was through limited and mostly incorrect assumptions. He wasn't concerned enough about how limited he was, he was just completely confident that by making a choice he'd get it right. It's not really that fabulous to say he had a choice, because every choice he made was made looking dimly up from a dark pit. There's not much fabulous about that, especially when it means cancelling all life in the universe. That's not a Trek to celebrate; no one will be congratulating him on his free will in achieving that goal. It's only through transcending his understanding that he even had the capability to make a meaningful choice at the end of AGT. It was the actual wisdom and understanding that made the difference between his choice being salvation or destruction. It's not enough to mean well, you have to be right. So from that standpoint I think Q knew at the start that Picard would surely fail, and this failure was a necessary teaching tool to show him just how precarious a lack of comprehension can be if you think big picture.

Q Who is funny because Q did all that in response to Picard insisting humans were ready to face what was out there, and didn't need a god's help. You could call it a cruel lesson, you could call it evil and needless, but at the same time you could argue just as well that Picard was "free" to succeed in his encounter with the Borg. After all, Q didn't make the Enterprise fail, they failed all on their own. Granted, they were guaranteed to fail due to being technologically inferior; just as Picard was intellectually inferior in AGT. So between those I don't see much of a difference personally. I do tend to accept that some lessons can't be learned without the failure, although the issue of whether instigating a bloody failure could ever be justified is an open one. I can't really pretend to judge what a god should or shouldn't do, somewhat like what Picard said about Kevin Uxbridge. Following William B's hypothesis about the Vians, if they were faced with the ridiculous dilemma of doing nothing and letting everyone involved die, or doing something and having the results be potentially catastrophic, I'm not sure I'm in the position to judge their version of solving the problem. I could be upset by it, question it, but I don't know that I have the information to denounce it outright.

I was thinking while reading all of your comments that there is something of the Prime Directive in the decision the Vians have to make. Interfere and maybe make a terrible mistake; but leave events to their own devices and you guarantee a certain degree of disaster and loss. Many on this site have argued the immorality of the PD. Notwithstanding that I think many people misunderstanding the reasons why the PD is important, nevertheless it does bear mentioning that doing nothing in the face of need can in some cases surely be wrong. The question becomes when you are justified to intervene and take control of someone else's destiny, to own what will become of them. If an old lady is crossing the street and is falling out of her walker, helping her up feels like a no brainer. But what if an artist is crossing the street and falling out of his passion; is catching him and helping him back up saving him, or dooming him to a life of failure and misery? What if a child is falling out of his tricycle - is he best served if you prevent that too? We could come up with more and more difficult versions of that. In AGT the question of whether to act, and how to act when you do, is determined by whether you understand the situation properly and can choose an appropriate action that will provide benefit. Defining what "benefit" even means is a doctoral thesis topic. I guess I'm not convinced I understand the situation the Vians are in to judge them as harshly as Kirk does. He is probably right, since I almost invariably agree with him, but all the same playing god becomes a little less gruesome if you're given the job against your will. Maybe it would make you wish you never had the power in the first place. Maybe Riker in Hide and Q dodged a big bullet.
William B
Wed, Jan 13, 2021, 11:23am (UTC -5)
I guess I would restate my position as: I don't think the Vians are correct to do what they do. I think we are meant to understand them. They are tragic figures, who lack empathy but understand that this is the most valuable trait. They are going to let themselves be destroyed in favour of Gem's people. They have to know that choice is correct. I find that interesting, and even moving, that they value so highly a trait that they know that they lack, and will let themselves be destroyed because they know they lack it. I think that they should not be emulated, except perhaps in specific allegorical ways (how to understand the intellect's role within a person).

It may be my moral failing that I do not have much visceral outrage at what they do, but I don't really think of them as being analogous to real life humans as such.

Of course I condemn any real life experiments involving torture.
Rahul
Wed, Jan 13, 2021, 12:42pm (UTC -5)
@ Mal

Re. the Vians — I don’t think it is categorically as clear as you make it out to be that they are evil or that they are villains, especially if you keep in mind what William B wrote about the situation they are put in, their capabilities and what they are trying to do. What makes “The Empath” great Trek is it makes you think (if you are willing to) are they evil? Are they really villains? For me, the answer is no. They are certainly not the hard-headed aliens of the week so frequently seen on VOY. The Cardies in CoC are villains — no question about it. But is Sisko a villain in “In the Pale Moonlight”? His situation is sort of similar to the Vians’. If he doesn’t figure out a way to get the Romulans on the side of the Federation in the war against the Dominion, the Alpha Quadrant is fucked. Sort of similarly, the Vians want to make sure the species they save is the right one. I will always condemn violence, torture and killing from a human standpoint, but can we impose our morals on aliens? What makes them alien? For me, one thing that would make them alien is a different set of universal values.

Re. the writer Joyce Muskat — she was an amateur and I think it is irrelevant that she didn’t go on to have the careers of Moore and Shankar. She wrote a short story (“The Answerer” I believe its called) and it was turned into this episode. Maybe she didn’t enjoy the experience of working with the TOS powers that be back then and decided not to write anymore. Or maybe she became a housewife or a pharmacist. Who knows? My point is I don’t think we need to necessarily look at a writer’s career to opine on how 1 of their projects stands up to the test of time.

Obviously this episode is not visually appealing, it is dark, the subject matter is very dark. I would not be surprised to find out that “The Empath” was the absolute lowest budget Trek episode ever made. We know TOS S3 was running on a shoestring budget. This episode is all about the story, the characters and the acting. In terms of bang-for-the-buck, I’m hard pressed to come up with an episode that did it better. If a few more bucks were spent on whatever, it might well be a 4* episode for me. I think “The Empath” is quite an accomplishment.
Marc Jones
Thu, Feb 4, 2021, 12:38am (UTC -5)
An incredible episode.

Starts off so slow, so boring, but by the end my heart is in my throat, I’m on the edge of my chair, and there are tears in my eyes at the sight of McCoy. There is no other TOS episode that did this to me. Being ex-military, this choked me. You would never want to see a brother/sister in arms needlessly tortured, but your medic? The most honourable of citizens who, yes, joined the military, and knows what he signed up for, but he’s healing people, friend and foe, and he’s the one who gets it the worst? Wow. Brutal.

I totally understand why the U. K. did not air this for 30 years. With so many veterans, torture is not something abstract, and surely the worst aspect of war.

It’s no wonder TOS stands the test of time. All of us surely must want a better future for humanity? They put it right in our face just like Shatner’s armpit.

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