Stardate: 5121.5 (2268)
Original Air Date: December 6, 1968
Writer: Joyce Muskat
Director: John Erman
“What could she learn from us?”
“Your will to survive. Your love of life. Your passion to know. They are recorded in her being.”
The Enterprise is orbiting the second planet in the Minaran star system, whose sun will soon go supernova. Six months prior, a research station was established on Minara II to study the star’s demise. However, the station has gone suspiciously quiet without returning scheduled communications. Kirk, Spock, and Bones beam down to Minara II to evacuate the station before the super nova event, but they are surprised to find the station entirely empty with nothing more than dusty controls. Suddenly, Scotty notifies Kirk that a large solar flare is imminently en route, the size of 3.51 cosmic rays on the Ritter scale. Kirk instructs the Enterprise to flee the planet, while he and the landing party remain on the planet’s surface, protected by its atmosphere.
Kirk, Spock, and Bones then observe recorded tapes of the scientists stationed on Minara II, only to discover that something terrible has happened. Both researchers –Linke and Ozaba—have spontaneously disappeared. Suddenly, moments later, Kirk, Spock, and Bones disappear, as well. They awaken in a dark room, 121 meters below the planet’s surface. They find a mute humanoid, later identified as an “empath,” whom Bones dubs “Gem” (Kathryn Hays). Then they encounter a pair of aliens called Vians. They are named Lal and Thann (Alan Bergmann and Willard Sage) and they begin conducting a series of torturous experiments on Kirk to test his strength. Thankfully, his suffering is regularly absorbed by Gem.
During the course of events, the corpses of Linke and Ozaba are discovered inside giant test tubes, and various mirages are placed in front of the crewmen, Kirk and then Bones are tortured, until in the end, they learn that this whole ruse has been designed by the Vians to test Gem to see if she would willingly sacrifice herself for the sake of another being (which she attempts to do for Bones, but he prevents her). They can only rescue one species before the sun goes supernova. The Vians restore Bones and Gem to full health, and pledge to save Gem’s race from the supernova. They disappear, leaving Kirk, Spock, and Bones to return to the Enterprise where Scotty speculates that Gem must have been a “pearl of great price.”
My Thoughts on “The Empath”
I liked the setting and ambience of this episode more than the plot, itself. The cinematography, for example, is remarkably unique, as is the score and surrealist jet-black set backdrop. There are plenty of nods to “The Cage” and “The Menagerie,” however “The Empath” suffers from some of the same issues as “Plato’s Stepchildren” –in particular, it features odd scenes of sadistic torture, along with comical scenes of Kirk flopping around in slow motion, and it ultimately concludes in an unsatisfying manner. At the end, I was left to wonder: what is to become of Gem? Is there anything the Federation could have done to better her situation? Could the Vians have been punished in some way? Was anything learned from this escapade? At the very least, the Vians’ elaborate plan to test Gem seems like a real stretch. And also, why did they need to kill the two Federation researchers? While not an outright terrible episode, this one leaves something to be desired.
This episode was Joyce Muskat’s only produced script in her entire career. Her script, originally entitled “The Answer,” was accepted by former producer Robert Justman. She was considered a cheap option because she was not a member of the writer’s guild. She was a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and took inspiration from 1933 science fiction novel When Worlds Collide. She was a Star Trek fan working at a local movie theater when employer helped her submit this script for consideration.
This was also the first and last episode of Star Trek directed by television director John Erman (1935-2021). He was called in at the last moment to replace another director, but he went slightly over budget and so was not invited back again. Apparently, he was vocal about his displeasure with the experience –especially the way that Shatner and Nimoy insisted on directing themselves and infighting.
Star Trek Trivia:
- At one point in this episode, when the crew first meets Gem, Spock cautions Kirk that the Sandbats of Minnear IV appear to be rock crystals until they attack.
- The Enterprise crewmen mention a race of mutes on Gamma Vertis IV.
- This was George Duning’s final Star Trek score.
- This was also cinematographer Gerald “Jerry” Finnerman’s last Star Trek episode (according to production order).
- “The Empath” was one of four episodes not screened on the BBC due to unsuitable content.
- As I write this review in 2022, actress Kathryn Hays just passed away earlier this year due to dementia (1934-2022).
- This was one of DeForest Kelley’s favorite episodes.
- There were production delays due to Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley being unhappy with elements of the script, and various injuries and illnesses including Kelley suffering a back spasm.
- Dr. McCoy employs another one of his famous quips in this episode: “I’m a doctor, not a coal miner!”
- The Vians names –Thann and Lal—are only revealed in the closing credits.
- The events of this episode are later mentioned by Kirk while inside Janice Lester’s body in “Turnabout Intruder.”
- This episode bears certain similarities to an Outer Limits episode “Nightmare” which was also directed by John Erman.