Cited by DeForest Kelly as his favorite episode of the classic run, “The Empath” is a story with an interesting premise that is, unfortunately, stretched fairly thin over 52 minutes of screen time.
Beaming down to a research station studying a star going nova, Kirk, Spock and McCoy discover the team missing and the station covered in dust. After the Enterprise is forced to evacuate due to solar flares, the trio find that the crew was hearing a mysterious noise before they vanished. The same noise begins and all three are taken below the surface of the planet.
There, they meet a woman that McCoy names Gem, who is an empath. By touching another person, she can connect to their nervous system and remove any pain and wounds. She can then heal herself of them quickly. As they explore the area they’re being held, they discover plastic cylinders holding the deceased research team and find three more, ready for Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
Kirk is taken and tortured by the alien inhabitants of the world, but not told the reason. They want no information from him. Kirk is returned and Gem heals him, at a great cost to herself. She nearly dies in the process.
The aliens inform Kirk, Spock and McCoy that one of them will stay and suffer under their hands while the other two can go. The trio argue about who it should be with Kirk ordering Spock and McCoy to save themselves. McCoy drugs Kirk under the guise of giving him a vitamin supplement and then hypos Spock. He surrenders himself and is tortured, again for no reason. The aliens keep saying that if he survives, he will understand.
Kirk and Spock wake up and go looking for McCoy. Gem goes with them and they find McCoy, near death from the wounds inflicted. Kirk realizes that Gem could take some of the pain and wounds from McCoy to stabilize him long enough to get back to the ship, but the aliens appear again. They say the test has been about Gem and her people. With the sun going nova, they only have the power to save one of several inhabited worlds in its wake. If Gem can demonstrate the principles of self-sacrifice, the will to survive, the passion to know, and the love of life that she’s learned from Kirk, Spock and McCoy, her civilization will be saved. Gem partially heals McCoy but stops short of taking all his wounds.
Kirk eventually makes the aliens realize that Gem and her people are worthy and that their test is too driven by logic. He makes an impassioned plea to save her people and McCoy. The aliens are convinced and McCoy is healed. Gem’s people are also saved.
On paper, it all sounds like a pretty good idea for an episode–and it is an intriguing little morality play. The problem is that the premise is one that might work for a half-hour episode of a show, but stretched out to 52 minutes, it becomes a bit thin. This becomes abundantly clear in the fourth act when the aliens show up and state the premise of the experiment several times over. While it lets Kirk and Spock in on exactly what’s going on, it also tells Gem of the stakes of the experiment and, I think, makes her decision to partially heal McCoy a bit easier. At least from a dramatic standpoint. If she heals McCoy, she saves her people and planet.
I’m guessing we’re supposed to infer that her people are a bit more self-centered given that they can’t speak and are empathic. (It’s not really said whether Gem is the exception or the rule to her planet. It feels like more the exception since you’d think that a planet of mute people might find some way to communicate and we see no evidence of Gem trying to reach out to the landing party). I may be overthinking the episode a lot here (and I probably am) but with a premise that is this thin, you have time to maybe address these things. Even having Spock infodump some information from the tricorder would be helpful.
The sets for this one are minimalist with lots of dark backgrounds and a few forcefield effects. The acting by all the principles is solid enough and it’s easy to see why this was a favorite of Kelly’s. He gets a lot to do here and it’s a far better McCoy showcase than “For the World Is Hollow and I Touched the Sky.”
The most memorable part of the story is the original music. Star Trek recycled a lot of its incidental music so when you get new incidental music, it stands out. And the music for “The Empath” is a lyrical score that really helps the episode and underscores what’s happening on-screen. It’s also one of the rare instances of new music composed for season three–again due to the budget cuts.