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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: "Wink Of An Eye"/"The Empath"

Illustration for article titled iStar Trek/i: Wink Of An Eye/The Empath
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I take notes when I watch Trek episodes for recapping. I do that for every show I watch. I don't spend all that much time directly referring to those notes when I do the actual write-up, but I like having the information there if I need it. There's probably something to be said for the way jotting down plot details, character names, and dialog helps to give me a clearer sense of what each episode is about, making it easier to remember details and create a structure for the review. Whatever the exact reason, I've found that whenever I've tried to put together an essay on a movie or show without notes, I get nervous.

I mention this as a way of apologizing for the sketchiness of my comments on "Wink Of An Eye," because, despite the fact that I know I had my laptop open and I typed repeatedly throughout the episode, my notes for it have mysteriously vanished. Maybe I deleted them when I opened the file to take notes on "The Empath." Maybe I put them in a different file. Maybe I was hallucinating, because it's been that kind of a week, and I gotta be honest with you, I'm not completely convinced that I'm writing this right now. This could all be some kind of stress dream, and in a moment or two, the letters on the keys will change into some language that cuts my fingers and my monitor will slam down on my hands and eat them. (The only benefit to this being a nightmare is that at least I could be sleeping right now.)


Anyway. "Wink of an Eye," what I remember. Of the two episodes this week, "Eye" is easily the best—not great, but at least it feels like a Trek episode, as opposed to "The Empath," which plays like one of those awful hour-long Twilight Zones. Responding to a distress call from a planet with no recorded life forms… again… Kirk and co find a beautiful, culturally advanced city that's entirely empty of inhabitants. (The beauty aspect is apparently important, as Scotty mentions it in the supplemental Captain's Log.)(Which is odd. Why is Scotty recording a log? I was under the impression that Kirk was in charge of the Captain's Log, and that other crew members recorded entries only when Kirk wasn't available to do so. Admittedly, Kirk is on the planet when the episode begins, but he hasn't been there that long, and surely the log entry can wait till gets back. Maybe it's that officers each have their own journals, which would make sense, or there's a specific time the Log needs to be recorded each day. But I like to imagine, given James Doohan's well-known animosity towards Shatner, that Scotty is just taking the next step torwards attaining complete control of the ship. After all, it's Kirk's fault that the poor Enterprise keeps going on all these mechanically damaging adventures.)

It seems like most every episode we've seen in season 3 has had our heroes visiting planets with no discernible life forms, only to be immediately accosted by those life forms upon beaming down. At least "Eye" gives the computer an excuse for its error. The citizens of Scalos (the planet) (thanks, Wikipedia!) are really, really, really fast. So fast that it's impossible to see them in "normal" speed, so fast that when they talk it sounds like a buzzing insect—so fast that they can dodge phaser fire. The accident that Barry Allen-ed everyone also made them sterile, and now a once thriving civilization is down to its last nine members. The distress call that attracted the Enterprise is a lure to give the Scalosians a chance at some fresh meat. That's why a red-shirt named Compton disappears on Scalos, and that's why Deela, a Scalosian, drugs Kirk's coffee and winds him up to her level. She likes him. She really, really likes him.

As threats go, the Scalosians aren't bad, although their willingness to give the hero of the show a drug that will make it possible for him to defeat them is a little suspect. They manage to beam aboard the Enterprise somehow, which doesn't make a lot of sense, science-wise. If their speed makes them invisible to the computer as life-forms, how would the transporter even work? Especially since they get brought on without anyone on the ship realizing it. Their sabotage of the Enterprise's control systems makes clever use of their undetectability (Spock's reversal of that sabotage makes for a cute episode button), and there's something, well, creepy is a stretch, but certainly unsettling about a threat whose presence can only be recognized in the aftermath. (For a better use of this idea, check out the great later series episode of Dr. Who, "Blink.") In fact, the ep might've been stronger if it had spent more time focusing on the mystery, and the danger that mystery represented, instead of dropping Kirk down the rabbit hole and spoiling the question so early on.

Once Kirk crosses over, though, the situation progresses as expected. Deela is hot for him, the leader of the Scalosians, who is also into Deela, is less fond. The actor who plays the latter, Jason Evers, was also the lead of the wacky, "My wife's a head I've got in the basement, who can I kill so I can have some sex again?" b-flick, The Brain That Wouldn't Die. (Brain was used in a great MST3K episode, as well as source material for feminist graduate students searching for thesis topics.) Evers' performance in "Eye" can best be described as "perfunctory," and apart from Deela, none of the other Scalosians make any impression at all. We have our main danger, a machine that's screwing with the life support system, and we have our obstacles, and then it's just a matter of Kirk and eventually Spock teaming up to fix things. (We even have McCoy coming up with a magical cure for the super speed.)


But like I said, it wasn't horrible. The hook is clever, if undercooked, and I did get a kick out of Spock following in Kirk's footsteps without hesitating, and Kirk, in turn, reacting to his arrival as if it was an entirely expected turn of events. I'd label this as "functional." The triangle between Deela, Kirk, and Evers is a familiar one, and given such a rich main concept, it's a shame that there wasn't more an attempt made to take advantage of the possibilities. There are hints: Compton, the red-shirt, dies of "cellular damage," which apparently the newly turned are vulnerable to, but once this is raised, it's quickly dropped. It's not like Kirk is going to die, after all, though it's surprising the Scalosians don't get some kind of comeuppance for all the kidnapping and manslaughter they're responsible for. (They explain that when their numbers began to drop, they created the distress signal to attract new blood, but the super-speed transition tends to kill weaker, non-Kirk humanoids.)

In a stronger season, "Eye" would've been a low spot, a perfunctory by-the-numbers programmer which, while not embarrassing, wouldn't have made much of an impression. Here, it reminds us that, for a while anyway, competency was the least we could hope to expect from the series. "The Empath" is a sad reminder of Trek's slow sink into mediocrity, an ep with a lazy, random script, a set that would've made more sense on Lost In Space, and a leading lady that tests the patience of even the most loyal of the show's fans. It's not as outright embarrassing as some of the stories we've seen in the past, and it definitely has some weirdly effective moments, but it's indicative of the general trend towards sloppy, ill-formed plotting that ruined one of the series' greatest strengths. At least in the first two seasons, when stupid things were happening, they nearly always happened fast.


Another solar system, another star about to go nova, and the Enterprise on a rescue mission to contact some guys in a science observatory. These guys turn up dead, which is probably for the best, because the security camera footage of them that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy see reveals a cranky dude and a religious dude, neither of whom we'll miss. In the footage, after a two line dialog that instantly defines their stereotype, both characters vanish (there's a weird, quilted screen effect when they disappear, too, which I guess indicates a rift in time or space, but mostly makes me think somebody rammed the camera lens into the kitchen table at my grandma's). Our heroes express consternation over the disappearance, then Spock blinks out, followed by McCoy, and finally, after the expected ration of hammy-acting, Kirk.

They wake up in a big dark room that, according to Spock, is "121.32 meters below the planet's surface." Really, though, it's just a lot space and shadows and the occasional prop. "Spectre of the Gun" could get away with this minimalism because it had just enough trappings to suggest a place. The empty bits made that suggestion more sinister and eerie. Here, there's no sense of anything. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy walk around, then they find a mute woman on a platform, then they run into tall bald men with special remote controls, and then there's a lab. Why would you conduct so much science in a place where you can't see anything?


Of course, this is less "science" than a morality play—the aliens, called Vians, are running an experiment to see if the Empath has developed the proper emotional, physical, and ethical requirements to justify the survival of her race. So, again with the TZ vibe. As godlike beings, the Vians are strictly second-tier. They start off sadistic and terrifying, but we're supposed to be sympathetic towards them by the end, somehow, despite the fact that they murdered the Grumpy and Godly. Or maybe not sympathetic, but at least not actively evil. Kirk manages to psyche them out with a "You're no better than us!" speech, which somehow makes it acceptable that they killed the other men and tortured McCoy. I think.

I really didn't care for this. The story is cheesy, 3am profound junk. We've been down the road of the aliens who test other aliens for worthiness, we've had some laughs with it (Space lizard!), we don't really need to be reminded how noble everybody is. Plus, the constant return to the archetype isn't good for world-building. The universe can't be this full up of these guys, can it? Take the monolith in 2001. It's a striking, powerful image—a stark reminder of how little we know about everything, how barely we've cracked the possibilities that life and the cosmos have to offer, how rich with potential we, as a species, still are. Now, imagine that every planet we went to had a monolith. Sometimes more than one, many of them in different colors, or different shapes, and some of them told knock knock jokes. How quickly would the magic die? And how fast before you start assuming that the whole galaxy is a poorly planned MMORPG that you forgot you were playing?


What really kills "The Empath," though, is the title character. McCoy calls her Gem, which is as ridiculous as it sounds. (Truly ridiculous? Truly, truly, truly ridiculous?)(Yes.) The actress, Kathryn Hays, is, um, awful. Just—awful. She doesn't say anything, and her facial expression never really changes, but she performs these utterly bizarre and inorganic gestures to communicate that I guess are supposed to indicate her deep emotional connection to the world, but really just scream "Bad senior dance thesis." This would be lousy enough, but the script goes out of its way to praise her beauty, her worth, her quality of character. It's interminable. The episode needs Gem (snicker) to be fascinating, and when she's just a mediocre actress that (I'm guessing) Rodenberry wanted to, ahem, feel up (ha!), the already weak writing falls apart completely.

There are a couple of decent bits. The sight of Grumpy and Godly in their jars is funny/disturbing, and the torture of Kirk and McCoy is presented in such an odd fashion as to make it distinctive. This might just be the warmest we've ever seen Spock and McCoy behave towards one another; McCoy, near death, tells Spock he has "a good bedside manner" in a non-sarcastic way, and Spock even calls McCoy a "friend." Plus, the basic, baffling absurdity of the story is enough to hold your interest at least for a little while. But overall, "Empath" is a wash.


"Wink Of An Eye": B-
"The Empath": C-

Stray Observations:

  • I've got nada for quotes this week.
  • Okay, one: "Their own imperfections killed them." See, now I'm imagining Saw 6: In Space, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.
  • Next week, I will keep better track of "Elaan of Toryius" and "Whom Gods Destroy."
  • Oh, and for those of you who have been asking for Star Trek: The Next Generation coverage (and even for those of you who haven't been asking, I guess), it's official: once I've finished up the third season of original Trek, I'll be digging into Next Gen, S1. I'm very excited about this, despite having already watched all of Next Gen, S1.

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