Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Quiet Simplicity Makes The Quiet Greatness Of "The Empath" A Tough Sell!

The Good: Excellent acting, Decent character development, Theme, General plot, Soundtrack
The Bad: Simple plot, Effects, Pace/repetition makes this a terribly slow episode!
The Basics: When Kirk, Spock and McCoy are abducted by aliens on a mission, they encounter a mute with healing powers whose test may cost one of the officers their life!

It is a rare thing in my reviews for me to talk about any of the things I do outside reviewing out of context, but with the Star Trek episode "The Empath," I find myself thinking about what a tough sell the episode can be, even to fans, and I think about the Star Trek trading cards, which I have collected for almost twenty years now. The thing about Star Trek cards - and actually trading cards in general at this point - is that many of them now have autograph cards inside random packs. So, you can get cards autographed by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, and prominent Star Trek guest stars like Joan Collins, Ricardo Montalban, and Sally Kellerman just by opening a pack of cards! You know you've gone through far too much talent when you're getting stars like Jason Wingreen to sign a trading card.

I have nothing against Jason Wingreen, but an autograph card of him - and there is one! - is absolutely ridiculous. Wingreen appears in "The Empath" for possibly ten seconds. His character is already dead and he is standing in a contorted position. Ten seconds on screen, no lines, forty years later, people pay $10 - $25 for a card autographed by him! It's hard not to love America! Conversely, in that same set of trading cards, there is an autograph of Kathryn Hays, who played Gem, the title character of the episode and that's one that is a very special autograph to fans of Star Trek. Why? Because fans of Star Trek have discovered something truly wonderful about "The Empath," but we've never effectively been able to sell it to the masses.

As the local star in the Minara system rapidly heads toward going nova, the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Minara II to retrieve two scientists there. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to find the scientists missing and record tapes that show both Dr. Ozaba and Dr. Linke disappearing from the facility which the landing party witnesses only moments before they, too, are abducted. They awaken in a cavernous underground facility defined by its vast darkness. There they find a woman who is mute, who McCoy names Gem and the four begin to search for a way out.

Instead, they discover the bodies of the dead scientists and they are confronted by two Vians, extremely powerful and intelligent beings who let the Enterprise crew know that they are here as part of an experiment. Captain Kirk is then tortured by them and returned to McCoy and Spock in a beaten state. Gem then reveals that she has the ability to heal with only the touch, a gift that comes with the price that she must suffer the pain of the wounds she absorbs. After a botched escape attempt, the Vians return with an ultimatum for Kirk, he must choose from McCoy or Spock which one will endure the final phase of their test, the results of which appear to be madness and/or death for the officer Kirk chooses!

First, what's wrong with the episode. It's slow. This is a ridiculously slow episode, made painfully more slow by a sequence during an escape attempt where the Vians hit Kirk with some sort of field that slows him down even more! That sequence looks ridiculous, but it kills just enough time to help the episode reach its time limit. Besides that, this is a slow episode. It is one of the few episodes where Kirk is left to ruminate over a very difficult decision and we see him actually sitting and thinking for a decent amount of time. This is a remarkably cerebral episode and amid all of the philosophy and ideas, there are long patches where nothing of significance happens. The pacing is deadly for the episode and it's so dramatic that it almost sinks the episode.

Second, the plot is ridiculously simple: Kirk and team become part of an alien experiment. Being experimented on by aliens is a recurring premise in the Star Trek franchise, most notably in the terrible second season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, replayed ad nauseam that season because of the writer's strike, "Where Silence Has Lease." The Vians are conducting their apparently sadistic experiment with good intentions, but the episode never develops into anything more than a drawn out experiment as the Vians search for the theme of the episode.

Finally, the effects in this episode are pretty terrible. The make-up artists do an excellent job both at creating the Vians and the many many many wounds they were required to make. But the effects used to illustrate Gem's gift are cheap, cheesy and bad even by the standards of the late '60's! And the slow motion sequence mid-episode is head-shakingly pointless.

But there's so much to counterbalance that. The first is that the plot is not a bad one. The Vians, we come to realize, are not sadists, just somewhat misguided in the execution of their ideals. Good beings, bad methodology! And the idea of experimenting to find the worthiness of a being, to try to discover their soul, that's an idea that's still being done in science fiction today! Indeed, the fabulous film Dark City (click here for my review of that film!) explores the very same idea, albeit in a somewhat different way.

The theme of the episode is quite good and when the viewer learns what it is - I'm choosing not to ruin that surprise because it is made explicit in the episode and... - the moment is truly heartbreaking.

This is an episode that rocks with character. Kirk is tormented by the magnitude of the decision he has to make. Spock is troubled seeing his friend conflicted and forced to make the choice and in the laboratory of the Vians, he becomes strangely free to express that, though in his own understated way. And McCoy! This is one of the best McCoy episodes of the series because here all of his crankiness and temper dissolves to reveal the true depth of the compassion he has always (we've suspected) had. In "The Empath," he comes fully into his own and illustrates the depth of his love for life, love for other lifeforms, and the determination of his pacifism.

The Vians are suitably well-defined characters as well being far from monolithic villains. Instead, they are people with a desire to help, but limited resources. A follow-up episode with them could have been absolutely fascinating. And Gem . . . Gem is the centerpiece of this episode, which is essentially about her growing into her gift. She must learn to use her abilities and set aside her fears to do it, making her a wonderful character on an intriguing character journey.

Her task is made all the more difficult by the fact that she is mute. This presents an incredible challenges for actress Kathryn Hays, because all of her performance and characterization must be done without speaking. And yet, she lives up to the challenge and makes the role memorable with a strong sense of body language and the ability to emote fear, compassion, longing and pain all through her eyes. She is amazing in the role.

From the regular cast, the only one who comes close to touching Hays's miming brilliance on the acting front is DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy. Kelley gives one of his best performances because he heads into fairly new territory with the character, playing McCoy as neither acerbic and angry, nor as the "aw-shucks" country doctor he occasionally portrays. Instead, here he embodies McCoy the consummate professional and humanitarian and he does it in a way that seems effortless when watching it and appears very genuine and real to the viewer.

And despite all of its faults, the episode manages to come together because of the portrayals of these characters who are acting with complex motivations. The episode is very accessible to fans of science fiction, though many raised on today's television science fiction are likely to find this piece a bit slow. That said, it's worth the time investment. Similarly, fans of character study dramas will find a great deal to enjoy in this episode and are likely to be thrilled by the complexity of it, even if the science fiction elements might cause them to cringe.

In other words, "The Empath" is an episode that is worthwhile, but uneven; complex, which makes it fall outside the comforts of a niche.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the third and final season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode reviews, please click here to visit the index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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