Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Original Series, Season 3: The Empath

The Original Series, Season 3
"The Empath"
Airdate: December 6, 1968
64 of 80 produced
67 of 80 aired
Click here to watch at


While investigating the missing crew of an outpost, Kirk, Spock and McCoy are transported to a bizarre laboratory. There they meet a mute woman with remarkable telepathic and healing powers. Who is she? Who brought them all here and why? How completely high were the writing staff when they wrote this episode?
Just because I'm mute doesn't mean I'm boring... right?


Kevin: I watched this episode three times, trying to prepare this review. I'm gonna be honest. I am still not entirely sure what in hell is going on. But let's break the episode down into smaller, easy-to-digest pieces, and see if something emerges. 

Kevin: OK, just so I am clear on the thought process of the Vians, I'm gonna sketch it out for everyone. There are two planets. We have the resources to save one. Sad, but let's not dwell. Flipping a coin is arbitrary. Picking the planet with the most hotties too douche-y. Let's go with whichever planet has the nicer people. That'll work great. What's a good noble characteristic? Self-sacrifice. Done. So, our goal is to save people based on their ability not to be vicious jackasses? Everyone clear? Good. Now, what's the best method to determine if someone is nice?...I know. We will kidnap and torture complete innocents. If that doesn't coax kindness out of them, nothing will. How about the Vians take the hit on this one and let the non-kidnap and torture planets live?

Matthew: Hmm. It seems as though you are pointing to some conceptual problems with the story. And I most certainly agree with you. The basic plot elements are there, and could be interesting. But they way that the story is developed just fails to make a lot of sense.Why is Gem the representative of her entire race? What if they had just made a mistake and picked the biggest jerk on the planet? I think, perhaps, what the writer was going for (first time fan-author Joyce Muskat) was a take on the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which the god-like beings must locate a certain number or a certain quality of persons in one of two communities to justify saving them. This motivation might explain the plethora of biblical references in the script. But this story, an interesting germ though it may have been, needed more time to develop.

Kevin: The character of Gem (It is a physical effort not to add "and the Holograms" every time I type that) never really gels for me. She just gives a lot of sympathetic bovine looks and that's about it. A good actor and a good script can capitalize on the limitation and make it more effective, but here, that just doesn't happen.

Matthew: "Mute character with empathic powers" is one of those sorts of characters that writers salivate over. But writers can be idiots some times, and such characters almost never make good TV (which is not even to mention swishy and boring speaking empaths, ahem, Tam Elbrun...). An editor should have stepped in and said NO. Perhaps they had to pay her less because she didn't have a speaking role? I'm not up on my 1968 SAG rules.

Kevin: Like the paying the voice of the Road Runner only to say meep once and double tracking it?

Matthew: OK, criticism aside, I think we should point out what works in terms of the story. The conflict (who will be tortured) is effective between the Big Three. The horror element of the scientists being dead in plastic tubes, and the three empty tubes for our crew, was also effective. So not everything failed here.

Kevin: I will agree those aspects of the story were pretty well achieved, but in the end, they resonated, both in terms of writing, and, as I will get to later, physically, in a big empty space. I also think Spock's commentary on the nature of their emotionalism and using his control against the Vians worked and is certainly in character for Spock. It's not quite as affecting as other examples, but I think that speaks more to DC Fontana's skill, than it does to a defect in this episode.


Kevin: The acting here is pretty good. I think Gem is trying, but there is just not a lot to work with. If this episode has a winner, it's McCoy. Apparently, in an interview, he stated this was his favorite episode, and I can kind of see why. McCoy is the emotions character so an episode focused on that would focus on him. When he refuses Gem's help, even at the cost of his own life, I was actually quite moved. It was a quintessential McCoy moment, and he played it perfectly.

Matthew: Kathryn Hays, best known as Kim from "As The World Turns," gives it all she's got as Gem. For what it's worth, I think she succeeds. But succeeding at a poorly developed, not-well-thought-out role isn't going to save the episode. Like the excellent De Kelly performance, it just sort of makes you scratch your head and wonder what could have been done with a better editing or plotting job.

Production Values

Kevin: If this show had any production to speak of, I would discuss it. Ok...that's a little harsh. But this was not a shining moment for the staff. The Vians were clear retreads of the Talosians from "The Cage" and "The Menagerie." Where the Talosian costume had an austerity, even in shininess, the Vians are clearly wearing Hefty bags made of disco balls. Gem's costume...yeah...I don't know what to say. Leggings are always an interesting choice.

Matthew: The makeup on the Vians was actually pretty decent. Their mouths had a wrinkly, dour look that was a little creepy. Their robes were indeed pretty ho-hum. As you can see in the photo above, (though it does not show the teal leggings) Gem's costume was pretty bland TOS fare. It's not as visually interesting as some of the best womens' clothing on the show, which was really necessary given the kind of character she is.

Kevin: I will agree the make-up job from a technical standpoint was well done. Their faces moved, which is hard to do under that much rubber, but from a design point, it still feels like a reuse to me. It may be I'm giving the make-up more of the credit than I should given that the writing makes the Vians pretty similar to the Talosians, insofar as they are both aliens using bizarro and unethical testing methods to find worthy humanoids..

Kevin: This episode stands in stark contrast to "Spectre of the Gun" as for what not to do when it comes to minimalism. Where the half finished sets propelled the surrealism of Spectre, this just looked like the crew wandered into a particularly avant garde production of Waiting for Godot. Rather then enhance the episode, it actually made it hard to watch. My eye had nowhere to go except the lead actors and it was kind of stressful. You need a background to break up the scene. The outpost on the planet was okay, but nothing special. I do enjoy a nice spiral staircase.

Matthew: I think my main problem with the sets was not their spareness, but with the lighting. It was just too obvious that this was a soundstage that had been blacked out. You could see the floor. You could see the dirty feet on Gem's leggings. The exterior outpost set was a reuse from one episode or another, and the spiral staircase was also in "For The World Is Hollow."


Kevin: This gets a 2 from me. It's not as excruciating as "The Apple" or "Catspaw." Its sin is more the lack of a cohesive episode than the presence of a bad one.

Matthew: Yeah, I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is a 2. It has redeeming facets. The conflict between our main characters was nice, and Kelly got to do some serious acting as McCoy. But the rest was half-baked. It results in a forgettable but not utterly disastrous 4.

1 comment:

  1. I liked this episode, and I'm only slightly embarrassed by liking it; I thought it had an interesting dream-like quality to it. The pacing was nonsensical, but if I had to measure it against another 'all-powerful aliens want to test human morality' episode The Savage Curtain (aka Space Lincoln) I would put it out ahead for a more interesting look, a more complex plot, and more compelling character interaction. But no Space Lincoln or Vulcan Gandhi, so it looses on characters.