Writer: Joyce Muskat
Director: John Erman
Producer: Fred Freiberger
"The Empath" is a fascinating episode of Star Trek and I've been struggling with how to talk about it. Certainly it's the episode that leans the hardest into the budgetary confinements of season, producing a surreal, stage play atmosphere that might seem familiar to anyone who sat through the third season of the 1960s Batman TV show.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy are trapped by aliens with a mysterious fourth prisoner, a woman Bones dubs "Gem". She can't speak, but she is empathic, to a sci-fi degree where in addition to feeling a person's emotional states she can also touch them and absorb their pain and injuries. She literally can cure people but only by hurting herself.
The aliens who've captured them have placed them underground in a seemingly endless black void with occasional props or furniture or devices scattered about, all designed to "test" their subjects, primarily by causing them pain and then seeing how Gem responds. They particularly want to know how far she'll go in harming herself to save others, and if she can be taught to sacrifice herself for the good of strangers.
In terms of the presence of aliens in silver robes with enlarged skulls testing captive humans for an unknown purpose, this episode definitely feels like a bizarre theatrical stage play reworking of the original pilot, "The Cage", updated from 1964 to 1968. But the focus is different. The pilot was about "can we trick this depressed human into being horny enough to mate a slave class for us?", this episode is about "Is a species of empaths worth saving from annihilation, if we can discover if they can use their powers for good?"
But ultimately the minimalist sets and sparse nature of the plot means the episode becomes focused in on the show's characters, particularly it's lead trio, and showing how Kirk, Spock and McCoy all react to the situation they've been placed in, and how they feel towards Gem and towards their captors. DeForrest Kelley cited this episode as his favourite of the series and maybe it's because its budgetary limitations meant the focus needed to be on the actors, their emotions and their performances, more than the trappings of gadgets, monsters and effects.
The actress playing Gem, Kathryn Hays, was trained first and foremost as a dancer. Her performance is extremely effective. It has perhaps it's broad moments, but given that her character is mute and must carry the episode and serve as its lynchpin without dialogue, her expressions and movements must be understood to be occuring in a mime/dance tradition, furthering the "modern theatre" atmosphere of the episode as a whole.
It's an abnormal episode of Trek, but its a standout entry in the beleagured third season.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4