Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Gamesters of Triskelion (January 5, 1968)

Stardate: 3211.7

While preparing to transport down to Gamma II to inspect equipment there, Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and Mr. Chekov (Walter Koenig) are unexpectedly whisked to the distant world of Triskelion.

There, they are trained as gladiators by Master Thrall Galt (Joseph Ruskin). 

After such training, they will spar at the pleasure of their new masters, the unseen Providers.  Kirk is also trained by Shahna (Angelique Pettyjohn), a beautiful green-haired human who has never known anything but slavery and servitude.

Kirk soon learns that the Providers are actually disembodied brains who like to gamble on the results of the gladiatorial contests.

He proposes a risky gamble: his life -- and the lives of the Enterprise crew -- if he loses in combat.

But if Kirk wins his gladiator match, the Providers will free all the thralls from captivity and train them to be self-governing.

“The Gamesters of Triskelion,” by Margaret Armen features colorful aliens, colorful fight scenes, and even colorful alien brains too. 

It is one of those perfectly entertaining Star Trek episodes that adroitly mixes action with romance, philosophy, and didactic morality (the concept that slavery is wrong, and evil). 

Here, Kirk essentially plays Spartacus to lead a slave revolt on a distant planet.

Like some other episodes of the original series, “The Gamesters of Triskelion” is “perfectly entertaining” without being particularly creative, or innovative. In short, nothing really new or surprising happens in the story, except that Lt. Uhura is nearly raped by her drill thrall, and Kirk, in protest, mispronounces her name.

But seriously, below a surface level, this is a story of clichés we have seen many, many times on Star Trek before (and will see again).  

There are a number of “fighting” or gladiator episodes in the canon, actually, from Pike’s Rigel fantasy in “The Menagerei,” to the more central personal combats of “Arena,” “Amok Time” and “Bread and Circuses.”

Another example of creative idling: the “B” story here is totally predictable.  From the Enterprise’s bridge, Mr. Spock attempts to locate his missing captain while Dr. McCoy (and even Mr. Scotty) snipe at him to work faster, or give up, or admit he was wrong, whathaveyou. 

The odds of finding Kirk are not good, yet find the captain Spock does. 

He always does. 

And McCoy always second-guesses him.

In this case, their banter and bickering is just there to eat up time. Certainly, McCoy would know Spock well enough by this time not to press him so hard, especially with Jim's life at stake.

Meanwhile, Kirk has a planet-bound romance with a beautiful alien woman, and teaches her the meaning and value of such words as “love” and “kiss.”  Then, he out-talks aliens, takes a big risk (the lives of his crew for the freedom of the thralls), and wins big too.

In other words, he is lover, a fighter, a leader and cocky as hell.

By this point, it all seems rather....mechanical. "The Gamesters of Triskelion" is a smooth running machine, but mechanical in concept and execution nonetheless. The episode succeeds in part, I would suggest, because it has a comforting feeling of Star Trek-kiness because of the sheer number of series clichés reshuffled.

And it is entertaining.  I enjoyed seeing it again. 

But deep analysis is not warranted.

If one looks too deep, Kirk seems reckless for risking his crew.  What if he tripped and broke a leg during combat? He'd be delivering 431 people into a life of slavery (and maybe even generation of slavery).  

If one looks too deep, Kirk seems cruel, too, for so clearly manipulating Shahna.  He makes her think he loves her.  He may have affection for her, but she is never as important to him as returning to the Enterprise is.  Her freedom and his desire to escape just happen to coincide for a time.

So I suppose it’s my opinion that one shouldn’t look too deeply at this episode's implications, and enjoy it simply as a really colorful “adventure.’

Like many episodes of the original Trek, “The Gamesters of Triskelion” is a pop-culture touchstone, and has been referenced on The Simpsons and South Park among other programs.  It is remembered by so many, I propose, not because it is great, but because, as I've noted, it regurgitates so many key “parts” of the original series and therefore feels emblematic of the series "vibe" or "aura."

Really, the series is a lot “brainier” than this particular episode suggests.

Next week: "A Piece of the Action."


  1. Sheri5:55 PM

    Yes, this is an enjoyable episode that may not bear deep examination. But John, it strikes me that it's hardest to review a show like Star Trek, where the episodes are familiar and maybe a little formulaic, without being suckered into critiquing the action as if the characters know how the story comes out. Reviewed on its own terms, it's not necessarily so lightweight. For one thing, the message really is about advanced beings so evolved they've become completely corrupt, purposeless and self-serving. Other beings exist solely for the Gamesters' entertainment. It's all about the quatloos for them at this point. Absolute power has corrupted absolutely.

    This is readily apparent to Kirk, who knows he must entice their gambling instincts with something beyond the routine if they're ever going to get out of here. What choice does he have but to lay a huge, risky bet for all the marbles? It would be no better for the three of them to keep gladiating for who knows how long, while Uhura's thrall keeps after her for you-know-what . . . sooner or later they'll be killed anyway, and the fate of the Enterprise crew will be in the hands of the Gamesters regardless. None of his options seem less risky than the one he chooses, and at least this way he can hope to win and hold the Gamesters to their bargain.

    Sure Kirk manipulates Shahna's budding emotional attachment to him, and so what if it seems cruel? Who among us wouldn't press whatever advantage we thought we had in the same circumstances? I guess he could have smashed her head in with a rock instead, would that be better?

    This is another one of those episodes where the entertainment value is higher than it seems like it should be, and oh, well. Every episode doesn't have to be about Great Issues (although "Gamesters" is about more than it seems on the surface). It's enough to be entertained much of the time, and this episode is one of those that somehow sucks you right into the story. I do kinda wish they'd broken it up with a little less Spock/McCoy bickering (although by that point, they had to include the trio as fan service) and added something like Checkov getting hammered all over by his Amazonian thrall. That would have been funny.

  2. John,

    Sounds like Sheri has an advantage in points made! I'll wager five thousand quatloos that you can't defend your arguments.

    "The Gamesters of Triskelion" also proves that McCoy shot first...He sounds a lot like Han Solo when he shouts down Spock with "Never tell me the odds" a decade before our favorite Corellian scoundrel famously admonished C3-PO with much the same sentiments!

    Upon a recent viewing of this episode, I literally gasped out loud when Kirk punches Shahna in the face. How times have changed! Between Spock beating the heck out of Nancy in "The Man Trap" and now this, the specter of 20th vs. 21st century sensibilities raises its ugly head once more.

    I can't argue that "Gamesters" is entertaining, though. I do hope the thralls found freedom, and that Shahna made it to the stars after all.


    1. Sheri3:39 PM

      And another five thousand quatloos to pretend not to notice Kirk keeps stepping on the wrong color and nothing happens to him, Steve!

      I agree with you: the shock of Shahna getting punched out is so astonishing--but it was back then, too, because of how it's done. But it's funny how quickly culture quarantines things off limits. Watch darn near TV program from the 70's and men & women are slapping each other all over the place! And what would today's audiences make of The Honeymooners?! "One of these days, Alice . . . POW, right in the kisser!"

    2. Sheri,

      I forgot all about Ralph Kramden threatening Alice with abusive violence on a weekly basis, to thunderous laughter and applause. It's amazing how some things that were once accepted make us cringe now. Perhaps we are maturing as a species...I hope!

      I had a friend who thought it was hilarious that Spock slaps Nancy in "The Man Trap" because it's so taboo now. He once called me when Star Trek was being shown in reruns, held the phone to the television, and I got to hear Spock saying "If she were Nancy, could she take THIS?" smack! smack! smack!

      I'd say those were the days, but I'd definitely have to slap myself for saying that!


  3. This episode sums up everything that I love about classic SF television, and Trek in particular. Exciting, brash, romantic, pulpy, and the word you used that sums it up best, "colorful".

    I especially liked the fact this testosterone-charged episode was written by a woman, the great Margaret Armen. TOS was truly ground breaking in the number female writers they used (Jean Lisette Aroeste, Judy Burns, Joyce Muskat, and of course the legendary Dorothy Fontana).