The Good: Fun, Thematic issues, Hints of character
The Bad: Terrible acting, Mediocre – and very simple – plot, Inconsistent
The Basics: When Captain Kirk, Uhura and Chekov are abducted and forced to fight in gladiator events, the viewer cringes to consider they ever likes this poorly acted and presented piece.
Every now and then, I come across an episode of Star Trek that I have a soft spot for, usually because it was one of the first episodes I saw when I started watching the show. One such episode is “The Gamesters Of Triskelion,” an episode that I watch now and cringe to think how I once enjoyed it as much as I did. Objectively, it’s a very bad episode of television and not a very good representation of Star Trek and in the context of the series, it’s even worse as it is almost thematically and structurally identical to “Bread And Circuses” (click here for my review!).
The Enterprise is exploring uncharted space when Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Uhura and Ensign Chekov disappear from the transporter before it can even dematerialize them. Abducted by an alien transporter beam of uncertain origin, Spock and Scott begin to search for the three lost officers with little sense of hope. Kirk, Uhura and Chekov find themselves on a planet in a distant star system, Triskelion, where they are held hostage by the Providers, beings that force aliens of many different races to fight one another in gladiator contests. When Kirk and his officers begin to resist their will, their lives are put in jeopardy, prompting Kirk to enter into a dangerous gambit with the Providers!
“The Gamesters Of Triskelion” is a remarkably simple episode that has pretty much a one-line pitch idea (“Captain Kirk gets abducted and has to fight in gladiator tournaments”) and has to be fleshed out with subplots in order to make it to the time allotment of the episode. As a result, Kirk has a relationship with his gladiator instructor where he seduces her to try to get information on the nature of the Providers. It’s pretty much a generic seduction by Kirk and his romance with the green-tinged porn star (Angelique Pettyjohn was in the pictures . . .) is one of the less memorable except . . .
Shahna, the thrall Kirk trains with and seduces, is characterized by childlike naiveté and an innocence that could exist only in the imagination of a science fiction/fantasy writer . . . and perhaps every fifteen year old boy! Shahna is written with a broken English, kinda slow curiosity that requires Kirk to have to teach her the ways of love that makes one think writer Margaret Armen got her start in writing porn! The simplistic Shahna makes it very hard to take the episode seriously because Kirk is playing with such a stacked deck. I mean, that the episode is not over in five minutes (the result of the collars of obedience the abductees are fitted with) is somewhat insulting considering the level of functioning Shahna is operating at. Indeed, there's something unseemly about the way Kirk couples with someone so dim . . .
Indeed, one wonders why the Providers bothered to abduct the members of the Enterprise crew; they were just asking for trouble. All of the adversaries Kirk, Chekov and Uhura face are unimpressive and working with far less upstairs than they are. Indeed, until the Providers are revealed, it seems like Kirk and his team are the only ones on the planet with any brains. The rest of the thralls are brutes, weapons masters or people with funny skin colors and accents (Chekov is paired with a yellow and pink woman with a deep voice!) and none of them are developed as characters so much as caricatures. Indeed, the peak of this ridiculousness is the giant brute whose race is defined by slightly darker skin, wearing fur and the most fake set of pointed teeth jutting out from his underbite ever seen on television!
Once the premise is established, the episode is broken up with Kirk fighting for his life, Kirk romancing Shahna, and Spock searching minute leads for the Captain. The plot is ridiculously simple and it’s something that has been seen on Star Trek before this. As well, it would be seen afterward; when Star Trek: Voyager did a crossover with wrestling in its fifth season, the plot pretty much mirrored “The Gamesters Of Triskelion,” save that there is less romance and more fighting. Yes, this type episode appeals to the same type audience.
It is worth noting that one of my very reasonable problems with “The Gamesters Of Triskelion” is that it does not live up to its own premises. So, for example, Kirk is put into a ring with two different color tiles on the floor forming a patterns. His section is central and breaks up three other areas that have the other color tile. When he is set upon by three thralls, the rules are that he cannot step onto the other color without forfeiting the match, yet even an inattentive viewer will note that when the fight gets going, no one pays attention to this mandate! Kirk moves pretty freely over the floor, even when he makes an effort not to.
But the fight sequences in this episode are some of the worst choreography the series (and the franchise) ever does. It’s hard to imagine what the director was thinking at points. That the producers didn't ask for alternative takes is alarming.
There are two things that hold up even remotely well in this episode over time and the perspective of a bit more maturity than when I initially began watching Star Trek. The first is the theme of the episode. “The Gamesters Of Triskelion” is an exhortation demanding freedom, even if one has to risk their lives for it. Kirk is obsessed with regaining his freedom and the freedom of everyone on Triskelion. He tries to reject the premise that the fighting is necessary at all and he makes wonderful points on the value of liberty.
(Even if he's already made the exact same points and played the same gambits in prior episodes!)
The other thing is the episode's lone decent performance. Joseph Ruskin plays the monolithic Galt, the Master Thrall, the liaison between the thralls, gladiators and the Providers. He does not have much to do but speak in a dramatic and redubbed voice that insinuates menace and power, but he does that quite well. He is interesting to watch and his few scenes were memorable enough that when he guest starred in the first season of Alias I eagerly looked for him.
But that is a stretch. All of the other performances are melodramatic, over-the-top and or campy. The episode suffers because it looks and feels cheap as far as the integrity of the storytelling goes. It seems like whatever isn't obvious is overdone and none of the performers shine and – once again – we learn nothing new about the characters (after all, there was nothing to suggest Chekov might like masculine women or that Uhura wanted to be raped, so when they both reject their thralls advances, it’s not a big surprise!).
“The Gamesters Of Triskelion” is candy and it’s not particularly good candy, regulating this to a pretty forgotten place on the shelf after a time. Fans of drama are likely to be freaked out by the camp quality of it and fans of science fiction shows have certainly seen something similar but better before. Even within the franchise, Star Trek does better, even for those of us for whom this was one of our earliest Trek memories!
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!
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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.