Thursday, October 17, 2013

“...suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion”: The Empath

"There's no greater sacrifice than one's self, and Joyce Muskat's 'The Empath' proved that to SF fans worldwide."

Science fiction aficionados of a certain age will probably remember Starlog: A fan magazine looking at sci-fi and other genre film and television works, often focusing on the perspective of writers, actors and the community fans built for themselves. Starlog actually began as essentially an unlicensed fanzine for Star Trek fan culture that broadened its scope to avoid legal troubles, which was interesting for me to read: It was always a bit curious to see Star Trek get such a focus in the magazine, although back then I just chalked it up to the massive amount of cultural capital and ubiquity the franchise had at the time I was reading it.

Starlog was really my primary entry into the world of science fiction culture. I never went to Star Trek conventions or anything like that (OK I think I did once, but it was so long ago I remember next to nothing about it), nor did I have a bunch of spin-off or reference books (well, at first I didn't at any rate). Partly because of this, I never considered myself a massive Star Trek fan, let alone a massive genre fiction fan. Star Trek had certainly captured my imagination, but a large part of the reason why it was able to do that was because at the time it was wildly popular and when I talked to people about television, it was naturally one of the things that came up.

But Starlog gave comprehensive coverage to a wide spectrum of film and TV projects: Articles on the latest Star Trek and sci-fi shows were mixed in with, retrospectives on the live-action Batman and Spider-Man shows, cartoons, bits on action spy fiction, cowboy westerns and interviews with the writers of really obscurantist stuff like The Powers of Matthew Star. Looking back, the magazine was probably my introduction to a lot of shows, like Buck Rogers, Red Dwarf, Doctor Who and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (which probably directly led to my years-long belief Doctor Who was some kind of peculiarly and flamboyantly British version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and why Jon Pertwee remains one of my favourite Doctors). It was also my first, and for a very long time only, exposure to Star Trek: The Animated Series: Seeing gorgeously lush and evocative screenshots and cells from what seemed to be a Star Trek cartoon that continued the story of the Original Series was unfathomable to me at the time, and all I knew was that I needed to see a lot more of it and as soon as possible. But no matter how hard I looked I couldn't find anything more on it, so it remained a part of the franchise's history forever ungraspable to me.

Starlog then was my window into what went into making these programmes and what allowed me to read the reflection of the people and positionalities involved in bringing them to life. I was fascinated by the stories of writers, what they were thinking, what they had hoped to convey and what they loved about the shows whose legacy they were contributing to. Reading about them was my first introduction to the people who would help to define the way I looked at not just Star Trek, but in many ways fiction in general. And of the Star Trek episodes profiled in the magazine, “The Empath” was, apart from the ones from the Animated Series, what stood out in my memory and imagination the strongest. Starlog peppered an interview with the episode's writer Joyce Muskat with some of the most vividly surreal images I'd ever seen associated with Star Trek: A stark black stage with nothing but an alien-looking couch in the centre, Kirk speaking with an unearthly young woman, Spock and McCoy frozen in place by a beam of rainbow energy, weird extraterrestrial beings in glitzy, sequined gowns and two guys in giant test tubes seemingly frozen in a moment of sheer horror and anguish.

"'With violence in a script, suggestion is much more effective,' Muskat says."

Star Trek to me is as much about images as it is about characters and ideas.

“The Empath” is a triumph of not just atmosphere, but also minimalism and subtlety: Its setting and general look-and-feel are utterly unlike anything else in the series, possibly the entire franchise. To me it's the most 1960s the show ever looked, and by that I don't mean it looks especially gaudy or psychedelic, although there are certainly parts of it that do. Nor do I mean it as a negative: Rather, what I'm trying to say is that for me, if you were to try and come up with a single piece of visual art that encompasses the totality of what the decade meant, I think it would look a lot like this episode: It's got the overt filmic contrast indicative of the black-and-white era with the theatricality of the early single-set sitcoms and dramas and there are occasional flashes of glitzy psychedelia shining through the dark to set our consciousnesses aflame. “The Empath” also at times teeters on the edge of calling to mind the bittersweetly nostalgic Neo-Expressionism of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! that would define the last few years of the 60s era for me, mostly thanks to the aforementioned use of light and shadow, and before Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! to boot (although not before Mysteries Five, to be fair). “The Empath” at once reminds me of The Twilight Zone, Rocky and Bullwinkle, The Honeymooners, Monty Python's Flying Circus, “The Mind Robber” from Doctor Who and Star Trek itself. Watching it is like a dream of signifiers standing in for all the images from the era that captured my imagination the strongest.

"'I wanted a bare stage, not rock walls,' Muskat maintains. '[Director] John Ermen gave me just that.'"

While at least part of the reason the episode was filmed largely on an indoor set was surely for budget reasons, Muskat specifically requested a “bare”, “theatrical” set as she not only approached writing it like a stage drama, she wanted to use a lot of visual contrast because she only had a black-and-white TV while all her friends had colour, and she was of the opinion Star Trek looked better in black-and-white, a sentiment I've at times shared. The cinematography is also a rare bit of genius: Muskat goes out of her way to credit director John Ermen, and says she never would have had a director other than him. For me the highlight of Ermen's work here is the use of rapid fire images, cuts and distorted, fisheye lenses. All of these techniques were utilised heavily in the last episode, “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”, especially in the climactic “mind war” between Spock and Miranda Jones. But, like a lot of things in that episode, it never seemed to quite fit there and felt like a jarring intrusion into something that seemed so straightforward and simple (which could very well have been the point). In “The Empath” however, this just reinforces and builds on the episode's hauntingly psychedelic subtexts and provides a formidable visual landscape through which Star Trek crosses astral planes.

Curiously, “The Empath” bears a number of striking similarities with “The Cage”: Both involve highly advanced aliens living in a vast underground scientific research outpost who kidnap human test subjects to test their resolve and usefulness to a larger purpose of their own. Both episodes make somewhat clunky allusions to aspects of traditional Western thought: The Platonic (read Greek) idea of the Cave Allegory in “The Cage”, and a few tossed off Bible references in “The Empath”. The Vians even faintly resemble the Talosians, with large, bulbous heads, flowing gowns and mastery over telepathy and emotion. But that's where the similarities end, and “The Empath” ends up about as different from “The Cage” as is possible to get.

"Morality is a double-edged sword, and these aliens use that blade to test the Enterprise crew."

“The Empath”, rather unsurprisingly, is a story about empathy. But the empathy of whom, and for whom, is never singularly clear for more than a moment. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to evacuate a group of research scientists observing the decay of a star as it starts to go nova. Scotty and Sulu want to rescue the landing party before the star's solar flares become too violent to withstand. The mysterious Vians seemingly kidnap the crew and subject the to cruel experiments on the limit of human fear and pain in order to test their reaction. And at the centre of it all is the mute Gem, the “complete empath” who can take the suffering of any person upon herself and heal it with her latent energy. Gem is embodied with an almost balletic grace by Kathryn Hays, whose vividly expressive performativity is evocative of mummers and mime artists, turning her into an uncannily sublime mirror of William Shatner. Hays-as-Gem trails the crew like a ghost, putting on the masks of every emotion Kirk, Spock and McCoy experience. She fills the palpable, physical space that opens when the landing party is split up or at odds with itself, and she cries Spock's and McCoy's tears for them when each is hurt by the other's attempt to sacrifice himself. But her masks do not work to hide or conceal anything, as she rather instead becomes each mask, underlining and emphasizing the emotions the show needs to express at each crucial interval.

Though initially appearing to be an extradiegetic test of the crew's empathy for one another during the Vians' brutal physiological endurance sessions, Gem is ultimately revealed to be the focus of the experiments herself. While the Vians have the technology to spare a planet from the impending supernova, they can only save one civilization, and they needed to be sure Gem's was the one to preserve. The Vians had hoped Gem would learn from Kirk, Spock and McCoy's values of loyalty and self-sacrifice and would ultimately sacrifice herself to save another person. And interestingly, as both Muskat and the characters in her script seem keenly aware, it's from McCoy, the most human and emotional of the entire main cast, whom Gem is expected to learn from. Muskat considered McCoy one of the most underutilised characters on the show and felt he was “a force to be reckoned with”. DeForest Kelley responded in kind, delivering one of his most memorable turns in the entire franchise.

"DeForest Kelley was one of the episode's highlights for Muskat. 'The doctor should be someone to be reckoned with.'"

Here is where Star Trek strikes back and reasserts itself, but this is not the Star Trek we've come to expect. As McCoy and Gem lie dying, her wanting to save both his life and her own, while he steadfastly refuses to let someone else sacrifice themselves for him as he values life above all else. The Vians stand idly by on the sidelines refusing to take action despite possessing the capability to save them both because they are of the belief the only way for Gem to prove she truly has empathy and compassion is for her to die for another. Kirk and Spock suddenly break free of the emotion-powered force field the Vians are holding them back with (in the aired episode, Spock essentially meditates his way out, while in Muskat's original script Kirk would have overwhelmed the Vians with emotional overload. Both versions have their merits in my opinion), rescue Gem and McCoy and declare it is the Vians who lack compassion and empathy, having long since abandoned it in favour of pure intellect, and that Gem has more than passed their test already. The Vians finally capitulate, restoring life to McCoy and Gem, sparing her planet and returning the crew to the Enterprise.

Though the Vians' plan may not have originally been about Star Trek, it has now become about it. The series has accidentally stumbled into someone else's exploration of empathy, and instead of becoming subsumed by the story and allowing it to become a test of their own capacity for empathy as we may have expected in years past, now Star Trek has become the model by which *others* can be compared to. Not because the show is going around *declaring* itself to be morally superior and telling everyone else how to behave as it was in the first season and the opening half of the second: Now Star Trek is valued because it acts in accordance with its own beliefs, openly and respectfully dialogues with other perspectives and simply wants the freedom to remain what it is, and to hopefully make the universe a better place in the process. The role the series used to play in past stories with this kind of structure has now been passed to the Vians, who are shown to have made mistakes and are praised for admitting and making up for them. Star Trek has become empathetic.

"Muskat refused to visit the set. 'I was writing a script about Kirk and Spock.' Seeing William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy might have ruined the illusion."

Joyce Muskat was not a professional writer. She was one of a handful of fans allowed to pitch stories to the Original Series, along with Jean Lisette Aroeste, who wrote last week's “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”, Judy Burns, who writes next week's script, and Dave Gerrold. Without getting too far ahead, I don't think it's a coincidence that three of these four stories are among the very best Star Trek episodes ever (and also note how, with the exception of Dave Gerrold, these writers are all women). “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” might seem to be the outlier here, but Aroeste's original brief did at least seem to have one or two interesting ideas and if nothing else its first act was easily more effective than the stuff the actual staff writers were doing at this point in time. “The Empath”, however, is conclusive proof Star Trek in fact both can and should work. No matter what intrinsic, fundamental flaws the franchise may have, it is absolutely possible to make something imaginative, provocative and positive out of it. But the people who understand this are the people who love it in spite of everything: Star Trek relies on empathy. And right now, the people running the show neither love it or empathize with it. But the fans do because they can see things in it that inspire them, and its that sense of love, loyalty, compassion and empathy that will singlehandedly keep the franchise alive for decades to come.

And at last we can perhaps see why “The Empath” seems so curiously similar to “The Cage”: This is in truth the pilot for a new kind of Star Trek. In amongst all the doomsaying that makes up the 1968-1969 year, the way forward is as clear as both the inevitable cancellation and the vivid images of “The Empath” itself. The heart of Star Trek beats for itself and for anyone else who loves it.


  1. I think I'm going to offer the highest praise I can possibly think of: wow, I need to go rewatch this ASAP.

    1. I hope you enjoy rewatching it as much as I did!

  2. A scathing critique of the argument that scientific logic and emotion are a fixed, binary set of choices, if I ever saw one. A mature deconstruction of all those shallow logic v. emotion attempts from previous seasons.

    Not to say there aren't at least 10 episodes of season 3 I find excellent, but "The Empath" is still a diamond in the rough.

    1. Perhaps like a comet's tail, shining in the dark...

  3. Incidentally Starlog was edited by Kerry O'Quinn, who as a Randian would likewise have been hostile to the reason/emotion dichotomy. (There's a lot more to be said about the Trek/Rand connection, particularly as regards the Marshak/Culbreath Star Trek novels, but Sufficit diei.)

  4. Love this episode and thanks for a great article on it - one that beautifully looks forwards to the future...

  5. Would anyone know how to contact Joyce? I've looked all over the Internet and this article gives more info than I've found anywhere else. Any help would ne appreciated. I can be reached at gemmagirl at g m a i l dot com