Star Trek: The Original Series – “The Gamesters of Triskelion” (season 2, episode 17)
Written by Margaret Armen; directed by Gene Nelson; first aired in 1968
Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov beam down to an automated outpost to check on its equipment, only to find themselves on a different, unknown planet, with three suns in the sky and four alien warriors surrounding them. After a quick defeat in hand-to-hand combat, Kirk and company meet Galt, the “master thrall,” who informs them that they, like the aliens who beat them, are now “thralls,” who must fight gladiator-style for the amusement of the unseen “Providers,” unless they want a zap from the pain-collars they’ve been outfitted with. Back on the Enterprise, Spock follows up on some tenuous leads as to the location of his missing captain and crewmates, with a worried and frustrated Bones and Scotty questioning his every move until he finally advises them to either mutiny or get off the pot. Meanwhile, Kirk and company learn the disturbing ropes of life as a thrall, and Kirk gets close with Shahna, who was born into thrall-dom and has never known anything else … and whom he knocks unconscious in a failed escape attempt. When the Enterprise finally tracks down the missing crew members, the Providers take control of the ship, and reveal themselves to Kirk as three disembodied brains in jars, with nothing better to do than bet “quatloos” on thrall fights. Kirk baits the Providers into a new wager: if representatives from his crew can defeat their thralls, both the thralls and the Enterprise crew get to go free; if not, the Providers get an Enterprise-full of new thralls. They agree, but insist that Kirk fight alone against a group of thralls, including Shahna. He does, and somehow manages to defeat several seasoned, lifelong gladiators, with Shahna surrendering after the others have been killed. With the Enterprise free to go, the Providers promise to teach the thralls how to live on their own, and Kirk says goodbye to Shahna, whom he can’t take with him, for … some reason.
Star Trek: Voyager – “Tsunkatse” (season 6, episode 15)
Teleplay by Robert J. Doherty; story by Gannon Kenney; directed by Mike Vejar; first aired in 2000
We open on an arena, where two aliens, including a Hirogen, fight in front of a cheering crowd which includes Chakotay, Torres, and other Starfleet officers. We learn that Voyager’s crew are taking shore leave on the planet Norcadia Prime, and with much of the crew caught up in watching, and wagering on, “Tsunkatse” matches, Seven of Nine and Tuvok decide to take a working vacation instead, and leave on a shuttle to study a nebula. Their shuttle is soon intercepted by another ship, which beams aboard an explosive to incapacitate them. Seven regains consciousness in unfamiliar surroundings, where Penk, the Vince McMahon of Tsunkatse, is excited to have a Borg drone as his new fighter, and tells Seven that if she doesn’t fight in an upcoming “red match” – to the death – he’ll force a badly injured Tuvok to fight instead. Seven reluctantly agrees to fight, though another fighter, the Hirogen, convinces Penk to make it a non-lethal “blue match.” She fights a super-strong Pendari (played, in a bit of much-hyped stunt-casting, by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to the horror of her crewmates in the crowd, who try to have her beamed out, only to discover that the fight is being broadcast by hologram. Holding back her own super-strength, Seven loses the match, but the Hirogen recognizes her as a fellow “hunter,” and offers to train her for her next fight – a red match. Seven learns that the Hirogen has been a Tsunkatse fighter for nineteen years, and has no idea what became of his son after Penk captured him. The two bond during her training, only for Seven to realize, as the match begins, that the Hirogen is her opponent; he hopes she can be the one to give him a worthy death after so long in captivity, but is willing to kill her if he has to. Thanks to a quick beam-out, mid-match, by Voyager – whose crew has tracked down and engaged Penk’s ship – neither of them has to kill the other, though Seven later admits to the Hirogen that she genuinely doesn’t know if she would have killed him or not. He leaves Voyager in search of his son, and Seven admits to Tuvok that she’s worried about losing the humanity she fought to regain, while Tuvok suggests that her feelings of “guilt, shame, remorse” only reaffirm her humanity.
If you ask a fan of the franchise what comes to mind when they hear the words “Star Trek,” you’re likely to get answers like “peace,” “cooperation,” and “optimism.”
Ask the general public that same question, and you might be more likely to hear, “shirtless Bill Shatner fighting an alien to the death while melodramatic music blares in the background.”
This is one of the paradoxes, maybe the paradox, of Star Trek as a pop-culture phenomenon. Within its fandom, Trek is often praised as a source of inspiration and aspiration, and with each new Trek TV show or film comes debate as to whether its depiction of humanity’s future is utopian enough, hopeful enough, in line enough with “Gene Roddenberry’s vision” (a common phrase in Trekkie circles, but a thorny one; yes, Roddenberry is Trek’s rightly-credited original creator, but many creative minds have shaped its fictional universe over the decades, and to treat his vision for that universe as more valid or important than anyone else’s seems both unfair and unnecessarily limiting). But in the wider culture, Trek, like most TV or film, is known more for its visuals than for its themes. And since Trek has traditionally been famously “cerebral” – heavy on talk, relatively light on action (and budget) – the visuals that have stuck most in the popular imagination have tended to be the campiest ones. Many of these come from The Original Series, and many from its hand-to-hand fight scenes: the distinctive double-handed chops; the endearingly heavy-handed orchestral scores; the tendency to part Captain Kirk from his shirt, or at least give it a good rip; and really, just the pulpy, “men’s adventure” vibe in general (and for better and for worse, this vibe also appears to have been part of Roddenberry’s vision for Trek, at least in the days of TOS, given how present it is throughout the series). These fight scenes have produced easily some of the franchise’s most widely recognized, referenced, and parodied moments in the culture at large. And they aren’t just unfair, misleading snapshots of Star Trek, either. Sure, some of these scenes, like Kirk’s fight with the rubber-lizard-masked Gorn in “Arena,” really are undeniably cheesy. But then, his emotionally charged gladiator match with Spock in “Amok Time” is not only iconic, but often cited by critics and fans alike as one of the better moments of The Original Series, and of Star Trek in general. Yes, Trek is about peaceful cooperation, about bettering ourselves intellectually and philosophically. It’s also about big, loud, melodramatic fight scenes. Star Trek is a big place, with room for lots of stuff.
And along with “Amok Time,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion” seems to have played a big part in cementing the gladiator-style fight scene, and a number of other Trek tropes, as part of the pop-cultural image of Star Trek. I’d argue that the orchestral accompaniment to both these episodes might rank among the most iconic scores ever produced for TV or film, and probably rivals Captain Kirk screaming “Khaaaaaaannnn!!!!!” in Star Trek II for the title of the most-referenced Trek moment in pop culture. We’re shown the now-very-familiar image of fighters slowly circling each other as that wonderfully melodramatic music plays, armed with weaponry decidedly lower-tech than we might expect from a show set so far in the future. We also get a shirtless Captain Kirk in “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” of course, as well as a scantily-clad woman with green hair (which, in 1968, might have seemed as alien as green skin) who will appear in exactly one episode, and whom we’re meant to see as in need of being rescued – and being taught what love is, I guess – by that very same shirtless captain. We get disembodied brains in jars and telepathically-controlled pain-inducing slave-collars, both staples of sci-fi in general, but ones that Star Trek certainly had a hand in popularizing. We get Spock approaching a life-or-death problem calmly and logically, and getting called out by Bones, and Scotty in this case, for seeming cold, for not appearing to care enough or to do all that he could be doing. And, of course, we get an alien world where a self-proclaimed supreme intelligence has imposed an oppressive, dystopian way of life, which Captain Kirk takes it upon himself to unilaterally dismantle before hopping back on board the Enterprise and leaving the locals to pick up the pieces … which might be the uber-trope of The Original Series.
The thing is, when something leaves a mark on pop culture the way that the tropes of Star Trek have, I think that almost inevitably distorts our experience of the original source material. As someone who, through shows like The Simpsons, had absorbed a million parodic references to Psycho and The Godfather long before I actually saw the films themselves, my experience of finally seeing them was undeniably affected by those references (I know I was supposed to be horrified when that guy finds a horse’s head in his bed in The Godfather, but all I could think of in the moment was Lisa Simpson finding a very-much-alive pony in her own bed, and the fact that her scream struck me as much more convincing than his). In the case of The Original Series, I grew up with reruns of it and pop-cultural references to it pretty much simultaneously, which has had the effect of leaving me with very distinct memories of certain episodes which, on re-watch, I find myself re-evaluating. Sometimes this is a positive experience, as when I recently realized that the TOS episode “The Naked Time” is much better than I remembered it, and that those memories were tainted by its unsuccessful copycat, the early Next Generation episode “The Naked Now.” But sometimes, things go the other way, and when I watch “The Gamesters of Triskelion” now, I find it to be a lot less than the sum of its nostalgic parts.
Some of this is simply due to the fact that virtually all of its super-familiar tropes have been better executed by other well-known episodes of The Original Series (which, admittedly, might not be the fairest way to judge an individual episode of television, but since I’ve typically approached these essays as being mainly about the experience of watching the episodes today, I’d argue that it’s at least fair enough). The gladiator-style fight scenes of “Amok Time” create a better sense of tension, putting much more at stake, dramatically and emotionally, by pitting two of our main characters against each other, not against one-shot characters we’ll never see again. The bickering between Spock and McCoy is much more effective in “The Galileo Seven,” where McCoy may have some valid points to make regarding Spock’s command style; in “Gamesters,” both Bones and Scotty are simply getting in Spock’s way while he pursues the only available course of action, and while I do enjoy watching Spock reason things out, he’s clearly 100% right here, and they’re clearly 100% wrong, making the time spent on their conflict feel mostly wasted. And while I’m not the biggest fan of the trope of super-smart aliens inevitably corrupted and left out of touch with reality by their advanced intellects – there’s an underlying anti-intellectualism there that I find troubling, given the rise of anti-intellectual populism in the real world of today – this trope at least made more sense, and was executed in a more visually interesting way, with the Talosians of “The Cage” and “The Menagerie.” (What do brains in jars need with “quatloos,” anyway?) As for freeing an oppressed society from a system that claims to take care of them while denying their basic rights … well, we’ve seen a whole bunch of that from The Original Series, but “A Taste of Armageddon” is one episode that comes immediately to mind as taking that premise, as simplistic as it might be, and building a significantly more coherent and satisfying story around it.
And that, I think, is my underlying issue with “The Gamesters of Triskelion”: not that it makes use of some now-very-familiar tropes, or even that it uses them less effectively than other episodes do, but that the episode feels so unfocused that those individual tropes end up seeming more noteworthy than the story they’re being used to tell. The Providers’ gambling gives us yet another iconic bit of Trek trivia through its coining of phrases like “A hundred quatloos on the newcomer,” but makes little sense, either plot-wise (again, they’re the undisputed dictators of their entire world – what do they even need currency for?) or thematically. Bones and Scotty suggest that Spock is gambling with his crewmates’ lives, but that seems like a stretch to me, given that he’s pursuing literally the only lead they have. And while Kirk does free the thralls by gambling with the Providers, he doesn’t actually outsmart them at their own game, or change the rules on them; he just happens to win, single-handedly defeating several hardened warriors whose entire lives have been devoted to training and fighting, which sure is lucky for the crew of the Enterprise, whose freedom he offers as collateral despite having no actual plan besides fight well.
But it’s when the episode gets into its bigger concepts, like “freedom” and “love,” that it really goes astray. The decision to make this nominally a story about slavery feels half-assed and ill-advised, given that the episode shows no real desire to deal with the material realities of slavery as an institution, and not just a plot device. The Providers are assumed to be honorable enough to keep their word and let their thralls go free, which is a wild assumption to make about anyone morally bankrupt enough to practice slavery in the first place, and feels uncomfortably naïve given real-world history in which slavers fought an all-out war to oppose the abolition of slavery, because slavery had made them rich and powerful, and the wealthy and powerful rarely just choose to give up much of their wealth or power. And as for “love,” Kirk’s treatment of Shahna ends “Gamesters” on a deeply strange note; after he’s spent most of the episode inspiring her with stories of the freedom he enjoys out among the stars, he flat-out refuses to take her there, and leaves her with her former (?) oppressors instead, making all that previous talk of “love” and “freedom” feel irresponsible at best, manipulative at worst. I don’t think this episode wants us to see Kirk that way – any more than it wants us to think he’s doing the wrong thing by trusting the Providers to do the right thing – but it’s how he ends up looking on screen, which speaks to the episode’s failure to form its collection of undeniably memorable moments into a story that feels meaningful, or even particularly coherent. (To say nothing of the moment in which Uhura appears to suffer an assault, off-screen, which is never even mentioned going forward, or the moment in which Chekov’s discomfort with thrall Tamoon’s deep voice is played for cheap laughs.)
But if my experience of returning to “The Gamesters of Triskelion” was disappointing, returning to Voyager’s “Tsunkatse” was a much more pleasant surprise.
“Tsunkatse” carries on the Original Series tradition of old-fashioned fisticuffs in Star Trek, building on those fight-scene tropes with the impressive stunt work of a later era of television, and the addition of some futuristic technology to the otherwise familiar gladiator-style staging of its hand-to-hand combat. But before re-watching it recently, what I remembered about this episode from my previous viewing of it, years ago, could be fully summed up in the form of a Friends episode title: “The One with The Rock.” And I think it’s safe to say I’m not the only one who remembers it that way; Dwayne Johnson’s appearance was heavily hyped at the episode’s original release as a bit of cross-promotion with the World Wrestling Federation (which would later become the WWE), and given that this much-hyped appearance lasts less than 4 minutes in a 44-minute episode, it’s not hard to see how “Tsunkatse” gets written off, by myself and others, as a cynical stunt with no substance, a novelty not worth taking seriously. And with all due respect to Johnson, who’s credited here as simply The Rock, and who occupied a very different place in pop culture 20 years ago than he does now, his work in the episode doesn’t make a great counter-argument. He was already a well-established and undeniably charismatic presence in professional wrestling by the year 2000, and would of course go on to prove his acting chops as well, but IMDb cites only 2 acting credits for him outside of a wrestling promotion prior to “Tsunkatse” – similarly wrestling-themed appearances on TV series The Net and That 70s Show – and while his charisma and presence are plain to see here, his delivery falls surprisingly flat on standard, admittedly silly Star Trek lines like “You’re no bigger than a Tarkanian field mouse.” And with direction that has him giving The Rock’s trademark People’s Eyebrow to the crowd, and delivering his finishing move, the Rock Bottom, Johnson’s appearance here really does end up feeling like a shallow gimmick.
But, again, that appearance takes up only a few minutes, near the mid-point of an episode that really held my attention in a way I hadn’t expected. Given its cross-promotional nature, “Tsunkatse” is surprisingly cohesive, both narratively and thematically. The shore leave premise allows for some fun slice-of-life moments (even if a couple of these moments, like Neelix’s sunburn, don’t feel entirely necessary), and I’m impressed with how the episode hints at Norcadia Prime being a sprawling, diverse, and complex place that we’re only getting a glimpse of; Tsunkatse matches aren’t the entire basis of Norcadian culture, but are just one plausibly corrupt aspect of that culture, avoiding the whole “we just altered your entire society … well, seeya” problem I have with “The Gamesters of Triskelion” (and with many other episodes of Star Trek, to be fair). We don’t get a lot of information about Penk’s criminal organization, but that works in the episode’s favor, sketching out a clear enough picture of what’s going on while leaving time to focus on the character moments that really make the episode. And Penk himself is played by veteran Trek character actor Jeffrey Combs, who had previously played Deep Space Nine’s weaselly villains Weyoun and Brunt and would later go on to play Enterprise’s impressively complex Shran. Where Johnson may have struggled a bit with Trek dialogue, Combs is a master of taking what Trek gives him and making it believable, under a whole lot of makeup and prosthetics to boot. If Penk was, as I suspect, partly inspired by the WWE’s own Vince McMahon, it’s easy to imagine another actor playing him as an over-the-top, vamping villain, in the vein of the character McMahon often plays when performing; instead, Combs makes the more subtle and interesting choice, playing Penk as an all-business, coldly efficient capitalist … more in the vein of McMahon as the WWE’s real-life CEO.
But the real heart and soul of “Tsunkatse” are the performances of Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine and J.G. Hertzler, another veteran of Trek character acting, as the Hirogen. Much like Combs, Hertzler continues, here, to show off his ability to give an impressively deep and precise performance even under so much alien makeup that his face (if not his voice) is completely unrecognizable from his recurring role as General Martok on DS9. And while “Tsunkatse” might not be the most obvious choice for an essential Seven of Nine episode, it is, I think, the kind of episode that really shows just how inspired a casting choice Ryan was to begin with. Her performance here is pitch-perfect, and the character is as fully realized as we’ve seen her. She moves effortlessly between the comedic and serious sides of Seven’s “outsider” status, showing her to be just as human, so to speak, during her comic relief scenes with Paris or the EMH as during the drama of Tsunkatse matches she doesn’t want to win, and bonding with the Hirogen as he trains her. As much as her fight scene with Johnson is built on a cross-promotional gimmick, their fight choreography is well-executed and engaging, and it’s to Ryan’s credit that she never lets us forget what’s actually at stake for Seven: either she loses, and takes a pretty severe beating (which she does), or she uses her superior “Borg-enhanced physiology” to dish out the beatings herself, compromising her moral objections to hurting or potentially “killing someone for the entertainment of others,” possibly jeopardizing her ongoing embrace of her “humanity” in the process. And the stakes only get higher as the life-or-death “red match” the Hirogen has been training her for turns out to be with him – a predictable twist, perhaps, but one which caught me off guard anyway, because Ryan and Hertzler had done such a good job by that point of absorbing me in their training scenes (hence my belief that, in fiction, surprising an audience with elaborate plot twists isn’t worth anywhere near as much as engaging them with well-developed characters).
This is why “Tsunkatse” works, for me, where “The Gamesters of Triskelion” ultimately doesn’t. The stakes in Seven’s fight scenes don’t hinge on whether or not she’ll be killed – as we know that she, and Kirk in “Gamesters,” won’t be – but on what she might have to sacrifice to survive. You could argue that “Gamesters” does this by forcing Kirk to fight Shahna in the end, but I think those stakes are squandered by a) not letting her be as big a threat to him as she should be, given that she’s a lifelong gladiator, and b) allowing her to simply surrender, which doesn’t seem like something the Providers would agree to, and completely undercuts the drama of forcing them to fight in the first place. Granted, Seven and the Hirogen are conveniently beamed out of their fight before she must decide to kill or be killed, but Hertzler’s delivery of the line “Fortunately, you were right – there was another way out,” and Ryan’s reaction to it, make it clear that their rescue isn’t quite the get-out-of-jail-free card it might seem, as it leaves Seven forever wondering what, exactly, she would have done if there hadn’t been “another way out.” Unlike “Gamesters,” “Tsunkatse” has a clear, cohesive theme, which it weaves through its fight scenes and the dialogue in between them. Seven’s earlier, more comic relief-oriented scenes remind us of the “training” in everyday “human” interaction she’s been undergoing with the Emergency Medical Hologram, and later, we see her successfully bonding with the Hirogen in the way the EMH has been encouraging her to bond with her crewmates. But once she’s forced to fight him, not only does that bond make her dilemma more painful, it also allows him to goad her towards killing him in a way she might not have been by a stranger. Similarly, abstaining from violence altogether might have been easy for her if she didn’t care about Tuvok, and about Penk’s threats on his life. Where “Gamesters” sings the praises of 23rd-century human “freedom” without ever grappling with the reality that humans are capable of the very same evils the Providers have committed – and that the effects of those evils continue to shape the world we live in today – “Tsunkatse” ends with Tuvok reminding Seven that even 24th-century humanity, like her last-minute transporter rescue, isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Human freedom isn’t freedom from consequences, but the freedom to accept consequences, and to learn from them. That “Tsunkatse” could clearly and effectively convey this message amidst gladiator fights and People’s Eyebrows surprised me, and impressed me.
Next time, we move from the wrestling ring to the holodeck, as we look at Reg Barclay’s first appearance in The Next Generation’s “Hollow Pursuits,” and some of the late, great Aron Eisenberg’s finest work as Nog in Deep Space Nine’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”