Monday, July 6, 2009

Star Trek--"The Empath"

A couple days ago, I said the gratuitous torture presented in “Plato’s stepchildren” was unpleasant to watch because it served no ultimate purpose other than to degrade the characters. I also noted I felt similarly about “The Empath” even though the torture was different. Here it is raw and pointlessly cruel. That it takes up so much of the story, combined with the illogic of the plot, ruins the episode for me.

The plot itself sounds promising. A sun is about to go nova. There is an advanced alien civilization called the Vians that can save one of the two species in the system, but wants to determine which is more worthy, so they test an individual for her character. The killer is in the execution. We never find out why torturing random prisoners is the best way of conducting the test, nor do we find out why an advanced civilization like the Vians act so contradictory in their intentions to save an entire civilization versus the method they choose to make their decision which to save.

First, about the torture. I want to make sure I am avoiding any contradictions myself. If all goes well, I will be reviewing Tng’s “Chain of Command II” sometime in late December. The bulk of that episode is an imprisoned Picard brutally tortured by a sadistic Cardassian, Gul Madred, after he has discovered Picard cannot tell him what he wants to know. The torture sessions become a personal challenge to break Picard’s spirit while Madred gets the satisfaction of projecting his inner anger.

At first glance, you could argue Picard’s torture is pointless cruelty for thesake of sadism just like the torture Kirk and McCoy are subjected to in “The Empath,’ but I think you would be wrong. “Chain of Command Ii’ is a character study which reveals much about Picard and Madred. Indeed, Madred winds up as one of the most developed guest stars in Trek history. In ’The Empath,’ we learn nothing about anyone, much less the Vians because their actions do not match what we are supposed to consider them.

Which leads to my second point abut the logical flaws in the plot. Nothing makes sense. The Vians are enlightened enough to care about the survival of two species about to be destroyed, but are callous enough to brutally torture innocent men in order to force a representative of one of the species to sacrifice herself? What sort of compassion is that? What sort of experiment is that? Why not can the whole idea and save part of both civilizations? If the Vians have the power to save one completely, surely they can preserve parts of both. It is not the ideal outcome, but at least it prevents complete genocide. Heck, why not ask the Federation for help? If nothing else, they could ferry people off world in starships or something. The Vians are going about the situations in the most absurdly ignorant possible.

Gem the empathy’s reactions to taking on the injuries of Kirk and McCoy are emotive to the point of parody. She obviously does experience the pain of others to the point she can put herself in anyone’s shoes, so why do the Vians have to teach her to be self-sacrificing in the first place? She should grasp the concept better than anyone, yet she apparently does not until the end after witness in the loyalty and compassion Kirk, Spock, and McCoy show for one another. What good are her empathic abilities if she has to learn empathy? Gem just a poorly thought out character to be so central to the plot.

Gem's characterization brings up the ultimate question: if the Vians decide her species is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, would that not make them the better choice to be wiped out by the nova? if they will give themselves up for thegreater good, then why not? Such a revelation at the end might have changed my mind about "The Empath," but that shocking twist was not to be.

I will give the episode some props for its atmosphere. The black, minimalist set fits in well with the eery feel. But “The Empath” has nothing else going for it. The plot is illogical, the torture is needlessly gruesome, the Vians’ motives and actions are inconsistent, and gem is not much of an empath if she has to learn empathy. A bad episode all around.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

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