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Star Trek TOS - Season 3 - Episode 12

Star Trek TOS - 3x12 - The Empath

Originally Aired: 1968-12-6

The landing party is used to test an empathic race. [Blu-ray] [DVD]

My Rating - 1

Fan Rating Average - 3.39

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Filler Quotient: 3, bad filler, totally skippable.
- Pretty lame episode with no significant long term continuity.

- Scotty says they found a "solar flare" coming from the star. This is a common error. The term "solar" should only be used when in reference to our star, which is called Sol. A flare from another star is more properly referred to as a "stellar flare." Likewise, the reference to "74.1 solar hours for the storm to pass" is also incorrect, as the term "solar hour" makes no sense in reference to any context.


Remarkable Scenes
- Spock neck pinching the alien while Kirk tells it about how their star is about to go nova.
- McCoy: "I'm a doctor, not a coal miner!" (Count #8 for "I'm a doctor, not a [blah]" style lines McCoy is famous for.)
- Spock to McCoy after being injected: "Your action is highly unethical. My decision stands!" Spock passes out. McCoy: "Not this time, Spock."
- McCoy attempting to sacrifice himself to save Spock and Kirk.
- Kirk: "The best defense is a good offense and I intend to start offending right now."
- Spock to Kirk: "He's dying, Jim." So close, but so far from a "he's dead, Jim."
- Gem sacrificing herself to save McCoy.
- Kirk and Spock escaping the forcefield by suppressing emotion.
- McCoy, regarding the Vians: "Well, personally, I find it fascinating that with all their scientific knowledge and advances, that it was good old-fashioned human emotion that they valued the most." Scotty: "Perhaps the Vulcans should hear about this." Kirk: "Mister Spock, can you be prevailed upon to bring them the news?" Spock: "Possibly, Captain. I shall certainly give the thought all the consideration it is due."

My Review
This episode is sort of like an inferior version of The Cage. Two large-headed, intellectual super aliens with the power of illusions entrap the cast for their own seemingly selfish motives which turn out to be rather benevolent in the end, or at least somewhat well intended. While this episode has some strikingly original austere aesthetics from a directoral perspective, unfortunately this version of The Cage's themes doesn't work quite so well from a storytelling perspective.

For starters, the Vians' methods were not terribly scientific and their cruelty remained poorly substantiated even by the end of the story, not the least of which was because there at no point ever appeared to be any consequences for the Vians killing two Starfleet officers. The Vians simply wrote it off as "their own imperfections killed them. They were not fit subjects." And "we did not kill them. Their own fears killed them." Kirk never appeared to follow up on these ridiculous explanations and the Vians never appeared to answer for their crimes.

While it's certainly true that they're from an alien culture guided by an alien philosophy, not much of the story's time is spent on developing their philosophy. We know that they had the power to save the population of one of two planets in this planetary system and were trying to decide which of the two were worthy of survival, but unfortunately that's a rather bold claim for the episode to ask us to simply accept at face value, as it seems rather contrived that it's simply impossible to save the populations of both planets. It would make sense for the Federation to refuse to save the populations of either planet on the grounds of the non-interference Prime Directive, but no mention is made of this. As for the Vians, they clearly were not guided by a similar philosophy and I have a hard time believing that the resources they spent setting up this ridiculous experiment couldn't have been used to save the populations of both planets instead.

What's worse is most of the episode boils down to unsubstantiated torture scenes and long, boring Gem-stares-significantly scenes which brought back bad memories of The Corbomite Maneuver. At one point during the torture scenes a Vian tries to console McCoy by implying that if there was any other way for them to accomplish their purpose, they'd be seeking those means instead. Golly, had the Vians shared their purpose with the landing party any earlier than 39 minutes into the episode, perhaps the landing party could have educated the Vians as to the many possible alternatives!

Aside from that, plenty of other little details add up to a pretty big stinker of an episode as well. Unlike the Vians, Gem is yet another alien race that looks exactly like humans. She is referred to as an "empath" but McCoy incorrectly acts like that term automatically implies and substantiates her remarkable healing powers. When the Vians allowed the landing party to keep one of their devices, Spock makes the ridiculous claim that the only logical explanation is that the Vians let them keep the device so they could reverse engineer it and escape so the Vians could keep McCoy. Why would the Vians do that? If their intent was to let them go, why do it through such indirect means? Why not just... let them go?

Finally, the most obnoxious part of the episode is that the whole thing is Christian theology in (a poor) disguise. In Gem's first scene, she's laying on a bed shaped like a cross. Her healing powers and her theme of self sacrifice mirror the story of Jesus Christ. The Vians play the role of god watching Jesus (Gem) self sacrifice for his (her) entire race. On two occasions the episode even makes direct references to the bible. Early on, Ozaba says "in his hand are the deep places of the earth. Psalm ninety five, verse four. Looks like he was listening." At the end of the episode, Scotty says "I would say she was a pearl of great price. [...] Do you not know the story of the merchant? The merchant, who when he found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it." That's a quote from the Gospel of Matthew, 13:45-46.

As I wrote in my review of Bread and Circuses, this sort of writing is hardly in the spirit of Star Trek which, for the most part, would seem to advocate a progressive future without superstition guiding society's laws and moral code any longer. A few religious characters or a few biblical references here and there in the spirit of realism and good literary referentiality is all well and good, but this episode went well beyond that. The episode itself feels preachy. Its very theme oozes Christian evangelism, which is shameful.

The following are comments submitted by my readers.

  • From Bryce on 2009-08-28 at 1:52pm:
    This has to be my least favorite episode of the series is so slow a boring and the music doesn't help.
  • From rpeh on 2010-07-16 at 1:10pm:
    It's not necessarily the worst episode, but it's really bad. The premise is absurd, the music grating, and the ridiculous number of times somebody tries to sacrifice themselves to save somebody else is nauseating.

    It was one of the few episodes that made me glad when it was over.
  • From Jem Hadar on 2010-08-25 at 6:43pm:
    What are the two below me talking about? Were you watching the same episode I was? This is one of my favourite episodes of the Original Series! I loved the black background throughout, it gave it a very mysterious and supernatural feel.
  • From Orion on 2012-01-30 at 1:29am:
    I give this episode credit for being artistic, but there's just too many problems to for the viewer to come away satisfied. It's hard not to be restless when the camera cuts to the close-up shots of Gem's face. The music during these shots make them even more unbearable. Why run such a slow experiment while the star system is about to destroy itself? Why did the Enterprise not offer assistance?
  • From Strider on 2012-06-28 at 3:51pm:
    A Christian theme (and I strenuously argue the premise that it's present here) is not at all the same as Christian evangelism. Themes are drawn from all sorts of cultural mythologies--just because a story has an archetypal Greek mythos doesn't mean the creators want us all to worship Zeus.

    Any themes of self-sacrifice will resonate with the Christian mythical system, as well as with the many other cultural expressions of the high virtue of sacrifice for the good of another or of the whole. It's encapsulated in the Vulcan maxim of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few." Of course, that can be taken too far and is only valid when the "one" or the "few" sacrifice their needs voluntarily and not by force.

    Actually, if there's a Christ figure in all this, it's McCoy...who is dying from the exact wounds that Christ died from on the cross: heart damage and lung congestion.

    The theme of self-sacrifice is one that strongly resonates with me, and I never tire of seeing these 3 men sacrifice for each other, even if they have to lie and manipulate in order to ensure the others' safety. I do prefer, however, when it just happens, and we don't have self-satisfied bighead aliens taking up valuable time lecturing on it.

    The episode has some other serious problems. The "Gem" character is SO annoying! I've known people who can't speak, and they still manage to communicate. They have facial expressions, for example, and don't just sit around looking doe-eyed all the time. Also, empathic healers (which is what I think "Gem" is supposed to be, rather than a pure empath), relieve the pain of others by taking it into themselves. I didn't see an indication that she was in pain...though maybe that was what her almost non-existent acting was trying to convey.

    And why was "Gem" the one that had to take the test for her whole people? Why not bring in a few of them and average the results? And are they ALL mute? You'd think a mute race would have developed some writing or sign language.

    And the music...God save us from meaningful 60's sound tracks. And WHY weren't those Vians arrested and tried for kidnapping, abuse, and torture? And I don't see why "Gem" should be called a pearl of great price. She was useless. Yeah, she healed them, but she was the reason they were being tortured anyway. And, what will happen to the people on the other planets--is the Federation just going to let them die when the sun novas? And everybody's okay with that?

    For me, the only value in this was in the loyalty of the 3 to each other.
  • From Mosh on 2012-08-02 at 2:33am:
    Yeah, every time someone quotes the bible in this show it just rings false. It just ruins my optimistic view of the future. I guess maybe that's my fault.
  • From Alan Feldman on 2012-09-05 at 2:44am:
    Frankly, I'd rather watch "The Alternative Factor". At least there are a couple of exciting scenes in that one.

    This episode is simply awful. Overall it makes no sense.

    The reasoning behind the test is invalid and the test itself is unjustifiably cruel.

    And I find it really, really painful to watch Gem. (Yeah, I know -- I'm not the only one. Just seconding it, so to speak.)

    All it takes at the end is a 30-second speech by Kirk to make the Vians change their minds.

    After the Vians heal Bones and pick up Gem, why do they leave flying backwards?

    And all they say as they leave is "farewell".

  • From Glenn239 on 2012-11-28 at 1:07pm:
    '0' Worst episode of the entire series.
  • From Alan Feldman on 2013-11-17 at 3:43am:
    The Vians look pretty cool.
  • From jd_juggler on 2015-03-26 at 7:46pm:
    This episode has my vote for the worst of the series.
  • From Mal on 2015-06-13 at 8:56am:
    To be a fan of sci-fi/fantasy/horror is to accept plot holes. Often the difference between great, good and bad of genre fiction is how egregious the viewer or reader perceives those plot holes to be.

    When I first saw this one as a kid, I hated it and would have given it a one. Too static, no action and overly sensitive. But now, I have a different view of life, suffering and mortality than the twelve year old who first watched this episode in 1968.

    This episode speaks to friendship, compassion, self-sacrifice, loyalty and the ability to both acquire those traits and amplify them. These are the very traits that give us our humanity. Wish there was more of it in this world.

    The actress who played Gem annoyed me to no end in my first viewing. I now see in those lingering close ups she so often got that she spoke volumes with just her eyes, leaving no need for physical histrionics or excessive facial contortions. The music that accompanied her was mysterious without being sinister, poignant without being maudlin.

    There is one thing I could have done without: the biblical pandering.

    I gave "The Empath" an 8.
  • From Chris on 2018-08-07 at 6:11pm:
    Great review!
    You know, not once did I make the connection to the religious themes in this and your analogy of Gem and Jesus is spot on!
    Considering that Roddenberry was supposedly an atheist, I'm constantly irritated by the religious references in the series and now that my eyes are opened on this episode, I'm even more irritated! Argh!
    Could they have gone more over the top? Hardly!
    Still though, I did kinda like the episode and found the actress who played Gem very expressive and she conveyed her feelings very well.

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