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Star Trek: The Empath

"The best defense is a good offense. And I intend to start offending right now."

I have a confession to make. I rather liked this episode when I was kid, and for one specific reason: that Kirk, Spock and McCoy were all so unquestionably willing to die for each other. After all, the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is one of the major reasons why Star Trek took off in such a big way.

Another reason "The Empath" is memorable, except that I had completely forgotten about it so maybe it wasn't that memorable, is that it looks a lot different than other episodes in the series. A great deal of the episode features Kirk, Spock and McCoy interacting against a background of black, nearly empty space, starkly decorated with the alien machines in primary colors that look like abstract sculpture. It was as if they had been deposited into nothingness, or heaven or hell. It added a surreal quality to the encounter with Gem and the Vians.

And since I have you here and I'm talking about heaven and hell, what jumped out at me when I rewatched the episode was the Christian symbolism: Gem as the Christ figure who must sacrifice herself to save her entire race, the miraculous healing, the stigmata-like injuries that appeared and disappeared, Kirk and McCoy strung up and tortured as if they had been crucified. The piece of furniture the director kept grouping them around mimicked the shape of a cross. There were even two references to the Bible.

What didn't work for me at all were the Vians. They were too reminiscent of the Talosians in "The Cage." (Spock even wound up using his mental powers to get free of the force field.) If the Vians were capable of the massive feat of saving everyone on a single planet, why play torture games to determine worth instead of saving the inhabitants of the other planets? If the Vians thought compassion was so freaking important, why did they also think it was completely unimportant? The constant references to the Vians using our guys to give Gem an "instinct" just drove me nuts, too. An instinct is inherited; you don't give it to someone. It seemed illogical to me that a race of empaths would have to be taught compassion for others, or that they could be "taught" something that isn't teachable. The sacrificial theme might have worked better if Gem had been given the power of healing by the Vians and she had indeed given her life to save McCoy. I think.

At any rate, the "insane torture chamber" aspects of this episode were the weakest part of the story. How come Kirk's shirt was removed, but McCoy's wasn't? (Yeah, yeah, I know why, but still.) And I can remember when I was a girl that I kept fixating on Shatner's armpits. Maybe my younger self thought that people in the future shouldn't have hairy armpits.

In conclusion, Gem was very mime-like. And as we all know, nobody deserves mime.

Ben says...

If "Plato's Stepchildren" was the cast being put through a series of acting school exercises, then this might very have been the amateur theatrical they did at the end of the term. Three men trapped in a room, they come across a woman, she is mute, they name her (as one would with any random woman or stray cat), then they face a series of ill-defined trials to prove that she is worthy to survive; the result is the triumph of the human spirit. It's like Waiting for Godot crossed with that Helen Keller play The Miracle Worker. What they lacked in story or dialogue they made up for with repeated close up shots of guest star Kathryn Hayes' heavily made-up eyes (which were lovely, so there is that).

Little known fact: Nimoy and Hayes starred together one other time in an episode of Night Gallery named "She'll Be Company For You". You may remember Night Gallery as the ill-conceived Twilight Zone-y show hosted by a very tired looking Rod Serling and united by a series of paintings hung in the... wait for it... Night Gallery. What struck me as I watched this episode was the screechy music, cheap production values and near incoherence seemed to be the direct line that connected "The Empath" to a lot of other sci-fi/fantasy/horror programming in the early 1970's. It was a period of real decline in the form that doesn't begin to recover until Battlestar Galactica premieres in 1978. Hayes played Nimoy's secretary with whom he had an affair while his poor wife was slowly dying. Nimoy is himself a cold widower who is eventually eaten by a house cat. My cat called it a feel-good film and then bit me.

Actually, is this a little known fact? I can never tell when I am pointlessly knowledgeable or pointlessly ignorant anymore.

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

— Stardate 5121.5. The second planet of the Minaran star system.

— Solar flares are measured on a "Ritter" scale. Was that mentioned before? Of course, it's obviously meant to sound a bit like the Richter scale.

— The jumpsuits from "The Devil in the Dark" made yet another appearance. I'm surprised they're not rags by now.

— Nitrogen bubbles in the blood? That was pretty creative.


Link: "I don't think I can stand another week in this godforsaken place."
(the ground shakes)
Ozaba: "'In his hand are the deep places of the earth. Psalm 95, verse 4. Looks like he was listening."
Or maybe not, since they both vanished directly afterward and died.

Kirk: "Be careful."
McCoy: "She seems harmless enough."
Spock: "The sand bats of Manark Four appear to be inanimate rock crystals, Doctor. Until they attack."

McCoy: "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm going to call her Gem."
Spock: "Gem, Doctor?"
McCoy: "Well, that's better than Hey, you."
Actually, I think it would have been fun if they'd called her "Hey, you." But it might have lessened the dramatic impact.

McCoy: "Men weren't intended to live this far underground. It's just not natural."
Kirk: "And space travel is?"
Spock: "Some men spend the majority of their lives in mines beneath the surface."
McCoy: "I'm a doctor, not a coal miner."
Shortly afterward, he said, "I'm not a mechanic."

Kirk: "Why did you let him do it?"
Spock: "I was convinced in the same way you were, Captain. By the good doctor's hypo."

McCoy: "Personally, I find it fascinating that with all their scientific knowledge and advances, it was good old fashioned human emotion that they valued the most."
Scott: "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."
Which clearly was no consideration at all.

Scott: "From little what you've told me, I would say she was a pearl of great price."
Matthew 13, verses 45 and 46.

Two out of four Manarkian sand bats,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. I only saw this one for the first time when I was seventeen and, I hate to say this, but I found it underwhelming, bordering on boring. I love the idea of the Empath and the narrative was interesting but it was just so slow and dark.

    I thought re-watching it with more maturity would have helped, but it didn't.

    And I completely agree with what Billie said about Kirk's armpits! I am just glad I didn't have to see McCoy's.

  2. This is another one that stood out in my mind all these years later, although mostly for the empath herself. The TTRPG Rolemaster has a healer class that uses empathy to transfer wounds to themselves to heal those wounds, and since it originally appeared in 1980 I'm quite certain this episode inspired that class for the game. It's not the only time in sci fi or fantasy that such a thing exists, but this one is certainly the 1st one many people mention that does.

    So besides Gem and the main trio's interactions, this one does feel a bit less than stellar, although not rock bottom thankfully. And yes, by the time Star Trek's actual date rolls around, one would hope that armpit hair is long gone!

  3. Morella, this episode is also one of my most memorable. Made me want to be an empath. These many years later I still feel the wonder of what Gem could do.


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