Monday, December 23, 2013

The Empath

It feels unfair to criticise The Empath because it's a sincere attempt to tell a very different story. There are none of the usual Star Trek staples; no one "dies" or is presumed dead, and nobody falls in love or meets an old flame. Gem is an attempt to realise a very different type of alien. The Vian's have their own agenda and are not out to conquer the Galaxy. These are not superior beings outwitted by clever humans. Earth is not in danger. The story is resolved not with a fist fight but when Kirk tells the Vians that they have lost the very qualities they are looking for in Gem; almost a proto Star Trek: The Next Generation resolution. This is an attempt to break out of the usual format while still telling a recognisably Star Trek story.

Unfortunately The Empath is dull. Like Return To Tomorrow it feels as if there isn't sufficient plot to fill a 48 minute episode, but where Return To Tomorrow could pad out the running time with characters making speeches at each other The Empath has an additional problem. Gem is mute. This is, as already mentioned, an attempt to realise a very different kind of alien, but it does mean large portions of the story are dialogue free. It's possible to do exciting dialogue light sequences but they rely on the film editor having sufficient material to cut a sequence together. In The Doomsday Machine the 90 seconds between Kirk activating Scotty's improvised self-destruct system and the planet-killer being destroyed has this dialogue.

KIRK: Beam me aboard.
SPOCK: Energise.
KYLE: Energising. Bridge, it's shorted out again.
SCOTT: Och, what's wrong with it?
KIRK: Gentlemen, beam me aboard.
SPOCK: We can't, Captain. Transporter is out again... Mister Scott, twenty seconds to detonation.
SPOCK: Mister Scott?... Mister Scott. Try inverse phasing.
SULU: Sixty, fifty, forty, thirty.
KIRK: Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard.
SULU: Ten, nine, eight, seven.
SPOCK: Mister Scott?
SCOTT: Try her now, Mister Kyle.
SULU: Six, five, four.

That's 13 lines of dialogue to cover one of the most exciting 90 seconds in Star Trek. Film editor Donald R. Rode is able to keep cutting between Kirk on the Constellation, Spock on the Enterprise bridge, Scotty in the Jefferies tube, the transporter room, the damaged exterior of the Constellation, and the maw of the planet-killer. In The Empath Donald R. Rode struggles to make a shorter sequence work when Gem heals the cut on Kirk's head; simply because he doesn't have the same variety of material.

[Medium close-up of Gem]
[Medium close-up of of Kirk showing a cut on his forehead]
[Medium close-up of Gem, she begins reaching forwards]
[Three shot of Kirk, Gem, and McCoy, Gem puts her hand on Kirk's forehead]
[Medium close-up of Gem]
[Medium close-up of of Kirk, the cut vanishes]
[Medium close-up of Gem, the cut appears on her forehead]
[Medium close-up of McCoy]
[Medium close-up of Kirk, he begins reaching forwards]
[Medium close-up of Gem, Kirk touches the cut]
[Medium close-up of Kirk, he looks at the blood on his fingertip]
[Medium close-up of of Gem, the cut vanishes]
[Medium close-up of McCoy]
[Three shot of Kirk, Gem, and McCoy, Gem slumps forwards as Kirk touches his forehead]
Kirk: The pain is gone.

Even that simple sequence was probably a nightmare to film. Something as basic as capturing two shots of William Shatner with and without make-up for the cut, so they could be convincingly dissolved together, probably ate up filming time. In fact possibly that's one reason for the black void setting; a featureless background would simplify the process of dissolving between shots of actors. The lack of dialogue also hampers storytelling because the shots that are filmed have to be as simple and basic as possible to allow the audience to see what is happening and understand events without explanatory dialogue.

It's easy to think of The Empath as a cheap money saving story, the central location for the action is a large black void, but by the standards of Star Trek this is lavish. There's a specially composed score by George Duning. The research station seen in the teaser doesn't look like a redress of one of the Enterprise sets which means a specially constructed set was made for an area with less than three minutes of screen time. There's also a planet exterior set, make up for the two Vians, more make up for the assorted injuries inflicted on the landing party and Gem (plus the time required to make up the actors), the hire of special props to fill the different areas of the black void, and lots of optical effects; the Vian's matter-energy scrambler, their force field, even something as simple as Gem's healing of the cut on Kirk's head is given a small optical effect. Ultimately even the black void itself comes across as a halfway house, less an excuse to save money than the only practical way to represent a large underground cavern on Star Trek's budget.

Ironically while the episode is dull it is visually interesting. The black void setting is unique and well lit and filmed by director John Erman and director of photography Jerry Finnerman; again there's no small irony that the man who made
Star Trek so colourful should spend his last episode lighting black drapes. In production order The Empath falls between two Ralph Senensky directed stories and it's tempting to wonder, given his skill at drawing sensitive performances from actors, whether the intent was to get Ralph Senensky to direct this episode rather than either The Tholian Web or Is There In Truth No Beauty?. If that isn't the case then its notable that the episode uses lenses in a similar way to those two stories. During the act two chase across the surface, when McCoy and Spock realise the rescue party is an illusion, a 9mm lens is used to add depth to the set and, exactly as was also done in Metamorphosis, strategically placed rocks hide off set areas which would have been revealed by the lens. It's also possible that some shots of the Vians make use of the 9mm lens, occasionally there's a degree of distortion to the aliens like the point of view madness shots in The Tholian Web or Is There In Truth No Beauty although the effect is more subtle. When Donald R. Rode is given sufficient material to work with he cuts together some good sequences. The act two chase works very well, and there's a lovely moment when, just before the healing sequence mentioned above, his editing shows the two Vians teleporting away by stepping forwards as if to walk out of frame; a subtle but good looking effect.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. After 12 episodes only three crew have died making season three the safest for the Enterprise crew; so far.
Running total: 49

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