Every Saturday, The Savvy Screener’s Boomer Box is counting down “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960s,” in reverse chronological order, as researched and written by Todd M. Pence.
By its third season, which was to be its last, NBC’s Star Trek was in dire straits. The program had barely escaped cancellation at the end of its second year, due in no small part to a highly publicized fan campaign to save the show. But, in the fall of 1968, television’s most popular science fiction series of all time found itself with a horrible Friday night timeslot, a budget slashed by a third over previous years, and the departure of much of the creative talent which had been so instrumental in the series’ success.
Even creator Gene Roddenberry was in an absentee role, and when he did show up, it seemed to be to cause the series more harm than good. Directors who had understood the show and helped it realize its potential were dismissed in favor of by-the-numbers hacks interested only in getting the film into the can in time and under budget. The tremendous challenge of the lack of money, time, and usable scripts and stories led to a notable decline in the quality of the show as it staggered towards the cancellation from which it had received only a temporary reprieve.
Star Trek thus diluted was still one of the best shows on the air, and still capable of offering up notably excellent segments, which creatively circumnavigated the reduced budget. Episodes like “The Tholian Web” and “Day of the Dove” stand alongside the best of the first and second seasons, cancelling out such embarrassments as “Spock’s Brain” and “And the Children Shall Lead.”.
The best third season Star Trek episode of them all may have been the one that aired on December 6, 1968: “The Empath.” It’s available to Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix and CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount+) subscribers, or you can buy it for $1.99 from various providers.
The Starship Enterprise’s mission in “The Empath” is to pick up a two-man observation and research party from a remote planet, because its star is about to go supernova. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to the installation, which they find abandoned. Viewing the equivalent of “security cam” footage, they see the two scientists inexplicably vanish in flashes of light. And seconds after witnessing this, they themselves disappear in the exact same manner.
The three awake to find themselves in a dark complex, many miles beneath the planet surface. They encounter a female (Kathryn Hayes) who is discovered to be a mute. McCoy, for no apparent reason, gives her the name “Gem.” Soon, another pair of alien beings calling themselves “Vians” (somewhat resembling the Thalosians of “The Cage”, the first Star Trek ever filmed) appear.
The Enterprise trio learn that they are going to be the subjects of an experiment. Seems the Vians have the power to save the population of one planet – and only one – of the planets in its star system, and Gem is on trial to prove her people’s worthiness by demonstrating her “humanism” and qualities of self-sacrifice.
The experiments of the Vians have already killed the two members of the research post, and now Kirk, Spock and McCoy will face torture and even death. We will see the devotion of each of these three friends for the others as they each demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice themselves.
“The Empath” does have a problematic premise (Don’t any of the other inhabited planets of the system get a chance to prove their worthiness? And are the Vians really going to judge the worthiness of a species to survive based on one individual? Imagine if an alien species was trying to determine Earth’s worthiness to survive and picked as a representative of humanity someone like Kim II-Sung?).
But it is also an intensely moving script enhanced by a magnificent score by George Dunning. (Dunning’s score, incidentally, is remarkably similar to one he composed for a Mannix episode, “The Many Deaths of St. Christopher,” which will also be in the 1960s’ Top 50 Episodes).
The episode also manages to make great effective use of a minimalist set, staving off the monetary problems which usually plagued the show. DeForest Kelley (McCoy) proclaimed this episode as his personal favorite.
This was scriptwriter Joyce Muskrat’s only writing credit of any kind. Remarkable that she should come up with one of the best episodes of one of the best television series of all time.
(Source for all images of ‘The Empath’: IMDb)
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- Peter Fonda’s 1964 ’High’ - July 3, 2021
- #31: ‘The Outer Limits’ - June 26, 2021
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- ‘60s #37: ‘The Time Tunnel’ - May 15, 2021
- #38: ‘Mission: Impossible’ - May 8, 2021