Star Trek: The Original Series

"The Gamesters of Triskelion"

1 star

Air date: 1/5/1968
Written by Margaret Armen
Directed by Gene Nelson

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov are kidnapped from the ship and taken to the planet Triskelion, where they are forced to become slaves and engage in arena fights with other captives, much to the amusement of the mysterious "gamesters" who place wagers on the outcomes.

"The Gamesters of Triskelion" is the type of Star Trek episode that does nothing for me. Full of the recognizable TOS clichés (prolonged, stylized fight scenes; Kirk getting the girl; a superior lifeform that ultimately forms the basis of the story's moral message; a subplot where Spock pits logic against Bones' emotional outbursts; and so on), the episode exploits for cheap entertainment (and plenty of fight "action") the issue of "slavery" in an overly broad manner as a way to hold up Kirk as the savior of the collective captives.

This is the sort of arrogant episode that seems to herald itself as important and profound, but too much is made of too little on the screen. The "superior lifeforms" are implausibly hokey in design and especially in ideology. The use of Spock versus Bones doesn't work either: McCoy is far too quick to challenge Spock for no good reason—and the friction feels entirely illogical and forced as a result. A dull, heavy-handed hour with an ending that clunks with a thud to the floor.

Previous episode: The Trouble With Tribbles
Next episode: A Piece of the Action

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13 comments on this review

Ben Masters
Sat, Jul 27, 2013, 4:27am (UTC -6)
I had the opportunity to see the "Triskelion" episode over the last two days, and I unfortunately agree with your rating on it, for reasons unknown. I then saw the "Action" episode (the Chicago gangster one), and the premise of it made it far better and much more entertaining than "Triskelion."
Alex
Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 12:24am (UTC -6)
The gamesters of Triskelion are such rapscallions!
redshirt28
Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 10:13pm (UTC -6)
Everyrhing you point out jammer is technically correct, but I still love this episode. The arena scene did it for me. Kirks "trainer" didnt hurt my eyes neither.

3 stars.
William B
Sun, Aug 10, 2014, 10:55am (UTC -6)
This is indeed pretty bad. I'm going to focus on the most interesting (and ultimately, most frustrating) element of the episode: the dynamic between Kirk and Shahna, his trainer.

As background, the "Providers," we eventually learn, are all brain, no brawn; they use fear and the threat of pain to manipulate the "Thralls" into their games. Their aim is their own entertainment, and they also arrogantly believe that the Thralls are unable to take care of themselves, until Kirk assures them at the end that they will learn.

So here's what happens: Shahna is Kirk's trainer. She seems to be his physical equal or superior, in skill if not necessarily in raw strength. The power dynamic is tilted to Shahna's side initially, as we are reminded by the crass act-break off-screen near-rape of Uhura by Lars (really, episode?). Kirk needs information that she has, in order to find out about the Providers, and, *hopefully*, to free himself and maybe her in the process.

Kirk starts talking about freedom and then eventually love. Now, I think Kirk does find Shahna attractive, but I think he's pretty clearly cynically bs-ing here. What is stronger than fear and pain? The hope for love. Kirk knows that Shahna's emotional/sexual needs aren't being met in this hell, and kisses her so as to bring her over to his "side," to tell her what will sway her: what freedom feels like, the importance of free thought, and loooove. Love, especially between a man and a woman! Kissy kissy kiss. The providers start injuring her when she talks about them, so Kirk yells that it's his fault, genuinely wanting to protect her; but he also keeps pursuing her, and back in his cell, he gets close to her again in order to knock her unconscious so that they can escape.

The thing is, Kirk is acting like the providers. He uses the carrot instead of the stick for the most part, but Kirk uses his superior brain (not necessarily that he's intrinsically smarter than Shahna, but that he has experience and cunning which Shahna has had no opportunity to develop while in slavery) is manipulating Shahna primarily for his own good, and secondarily because he believes he knows better than her what is good for her. This makes Kirk's love overtures particularly creepy, because fundamentally he doesn't and won't love her, but lays on the charm because it's in his best interests to do so. The key differences, of course, are that Kirk is acting out of self-preservation, and he is, fundamentally, right about what he wants to convince Shahna of -- that the providers are bad for her, that freedom is a real thing she should want, that love is something she should be free to seek out and would like. Unlike the providers, who steal people from all over the galaxy and pretty clearly don't have anyone's interests at heart but their own, Kirk is right in the things he's instructing Shahna -- except that he doesn't actually love her, and he claims he does in order to get close enough to knock her out, use her to escape.

This is what makes him fighting Shahna in the final fight a good dramatic move. Shahna has a legitimate beef against him. He made her believe he loved her, and it was a lie. He's made her existence under her harsh conditions more painful by giving her a taste of what freedom is like only to take it away from her. Shahna's anger at Kirk in the fight is partly misdirected anger at the Providers -- because Kirk's manipulation of her is way less severe than the Providers, who also claim, in their way, to care for ("provide" for) her. But Kirk's betrayal stings. This is what tyranny does: in order to survive, those who are slaves may eventually turn on each other, which distracts from the real enemy.

When Shahna hesitates, because she has feelings for Kirk which have awakened, Kirk has the opportunity to turn the battle around. While I don't think Shahna consciously "spares him," essentially she does emotionally -- had she killed him, that would be it. And Kirk returns the favour, and shows that he is not like the Providers deep down. It would be much safer for Kirk to just slit Shahna's throat, rather than claim that the contest is over, especially since the rules of the context are that he has to kill, and not merely wound, his opponents. At that moment, Kirk does put Shahna's needs above his own, or, at least, shows a willingness to opt for both of them to survive rather than just him. It proves that his lines to her were not all lines.

This paralleling between Kirk and the "Providers," but with Kirk being ultimately morally better, extends into Kirk winning against the "Providers" by being better "gamesters" than they, and taking bigger risks at higher stakes. Kirk's strength, basically, is in being close enough to his opponents, or being able to "access" parts of himself close to his opponents, to use his opponents' values against them. I am pretty skeptical that Kirk risking his entire crew's security in order to free the Thralls (and how many Thralls are there?) is a wager he should be doing -- and, you know, his crew did sign up to be under his command, so it's not slavery, but it's pretty extreme that their lives are so forfeit to Kirk's gambling. But, you know, unlike the "Providers," a good cause, at least.

So, right -- I find Kirk's actions shady but ultimately probably the best he can do under the circumstances, until the very end. Here we have:

KIRK: I'm sorry, Shahna. I didn't lie. I did what was necessary. Someday, I hope you'll understand.
SHAHNA: I understand, a little. You will leave us now?
KIRK; Yes.
SHAHNA: To go back to the lights in the sky?
KIRK; Yes.
SHAHNA: I would like to go to those lights with you. Take me?
KIRK: I can't.
SHAHNA: Then teach me how, and I will follow you.
KIRK; There's so much you must learn here first. The Providers will teach you. Learn it, Shahna. all your people must learn before you can reach for the stars. Shahna. (he gives her a farewell kiss) Scotty!
SCOTT [OC]: Aye, sir.
KIRK: Beam us up.
(They disappear in a twinkle.)
SHAHNA: Goodbye, Jim Kirk. I will learn, and watch the lights in the sky, and remember.

What a bastard! Look. There are lots of reasons Kirk could have decided not to take Shahna with him. First of all, given that these people have been kidnapped from across the galaxy, I don't see why Kirk thinks it's a good idea to leave them behind anyway -- these aren't these people's actual homes anyway. But fine, let's say that it's the condition of the deal he made with the "Providers." Can he really not take Shahna with him? Shahna is not just one of the Thralls -- she particularly was hit with lots of pain in order to help Kirk, and even if she didn't directly spare him she more or less did during the fight, at great risk to herself. Maybe the Providers really wouldn't let her go with Kirk, and Kirk doesn't want to tempt fate, but then it's not exactly a real end to slavery, is it?

And I'm sure those Providers are going to be teaching these Thralls spaceflight any time now. Most likely, I think the Providers will go back to pitting them in gladiator fights "for their own good" in about a month. Kirk has an awful lot of optimism about the Providers to leave them in charge. But if it's the best he can do, I don't fault him for that -- I just wish he'd be honest, say, "I do care about you Shahna -- but I will never see you again, because I did the best I could, and most likely you will never get off this rock." Give her a *real* reason why she can't come with him, rather than this "you must learn!" b.s. that implies that if she studies real hard she and Kirk can be lovers (and, presumably, when it never happens, it will be her fault for not reading hard enough). Up until the very end, Kirk's actions really are from necessity, even if they are ugly, but there is an arrogance to his blase attitude once he has the freedom to leave that leaves a *very* bitter aftertaste.

The episode in general is quite bad -- the fight scenes are awfully dull, the "pain faces" with the collars so silly, the Enterprise scenes very dull. But in that Kirk/Shahna plot there is something interesting, and, finally, intensely frustrating. I think that this plot is interesting enough that I'd rate the episode slightly higher than Jammer -- 1.5 stars or so.
Maq
Sat, Dec 12, 2015, 7:26am (UTC -6)
It is not one of the episodes I will watch again and again. Still Yes I was entertained. Slightly irritated that it was again a two man show, Kirk and Spock. It missed the opportunity to involve Uhura and Chekov more than their were. The two scenes where they jointly tried to escape was inspiring but they then just fell flat. So if I was entertained it was due to nostalgia and still to win without supreme violence.
Michael Cromwell
Wed, Dec 28, 2016, 11:29am (UTC -6)
This was a weird episode. It kind of came out of nowhere. It's like they wanted to address some kind of slavery narrative urgently. Also, it was way too Kirk-focused. Can Uhura and Chekhov fight at all? That was very disappointing to see Kirk fight their battles for them. I thought fighting was part of Federation training for everyone. Finally, the Shana character is extremely sexualized, even by today's standards. The fight scenes were decent but we already knew Kirk could fight. Just an odd episode in general. I would say 1.9 stars out of 4.
Chris EP
Wed, Jan 25, 2017, 12:43pm (UTC -6)
This episode is on the "horror channel" on Sky in the UK right now. I'd forgotten how over-the-top Shatner is in this episode. The way he looks directly into the camera when he's being choked - mouth wide open, eyes bulging - never fails to make me laugh. And then when Shahna is being hurt, he screams to the providers "YOU'RE KILLING HER!!!!!". Two classic Kirk moments, but for all the wrong reasons. They are the highlights in a forgettable episode.
Skeptical
Wed, Jan 25, 2017, 7:21pm (UTC -6)
At the risk of incurring the wrath of all Trek fans, there's something I need to get off my chest. I'm halfway through my first full run-through of the original series, and quite frankly... Bones is not a very good character. For all the hype that the Kirk-Spock-Bones triumvirate gets, Bones just comes off as an irascible idiotic contrarian. He and Spock are supposed to represent emotion and logic, with Kirk as the perfect fusion between the two. Which strongly suggests that the emotional side is needed, and should be, if not equal to logic, then at least close to it. Yet in every single conflict with Spock so far (with the possible exception of Galileo Seven), he comes off poorly. Spock is ALWAYS correct. Always. Not only that, but Bones almost never has a good point when he argues. Look at the situation here. Kirk and company clearly disappeared by a very highly advanced technology, and they are clearly nowhere in the system. There is, however, one anomalous reading. The logical AND emotional response is to follow that one reading, since there was clearly no hope in that system and, since whatever happened is beyond their technology, there is no reason to believe they are still in that system. So why not follow the gas trail? But Bones argues against it just to be a jerk... again. I know Jammer complained about this too, but unlike him, I don't think it's a problem with just this episode. This exchange seems to have come up in a dozen other episodes before. And each time, he always looks stupid. And he always seems so angry about it too. Well, I can't blame him. I'd be angry too if the writers were giving me those lines...

As for the episode itself, so Kirk and company become gladiators for a bunch of talking muffins? There's a winning idea.

Actually, I thought the talking muffins were the best part of the episode. Their bemusement and disattachment over everything was a good characterization, and it made for a good foil to the normally in-charge Kirk. He's gone up against god-like beings before, but he always seemed to be able to grab their attention and talk to them as something akin to equals. Here, the muffins are clearly interested in Kirk, but are completely dismissive of all of his arguments and speechifying. He can't appeal to their better nature, he can't even convince them that there is a better nature. He basically has to stoop to their level to get anything done. They like to wager, so the only way to get their attention is to wager with them. I don't think they are even all that upset when they lose. It kept them from being too shallow of villains (given how shallow the slave-gladiator concept is to begin with), so I will give them props for that.

On the flip side, the "humans are special" bit was way overplayed. I can understand it if all the Thralls were natives of the planet and had lived in slavery for generations. Then, it makes sense if Kirk's appearance can cause that many disruptions. But it's clear that the Gamesters were kidnapping people from all over. So everyone else, as soon as they were kidnapped, just rolled over and became compliant? Does anyone think Vulcans would be like that? Could you imagine a Klingon being so meek? Kirk fought an Andorian at the end; so the Andorian never resisted? That doesn't mean other aliens wouldn't eventually comply, but the Gamesters act like everything Kirk does is completely novel. I know, I know, humans are special, but it was laid on pretty thick.

One final bit: what's with Shana surrendering at the end? Since when was that allowed? It just seemed to come out of nowhere. Battle to the death! Unless you say uncle, then it's cool... Don't get me wrong, I knew they would never let Kirk kill her. But I figured that rule at the beginning - about how Kirk had to stay on yellow and the others on green - would be the loophole that allows both of them to survive. Why set up that Chekhov's gun if you aren't going to use it? Wait, they took Chekov's gun after he beamed down, nevermind...

Anyway, it's a bad episode sandwiched between two hilariously awesome ones. So let's just move on. As strange as it may sound to say, if you really want "crewmember kidnapped and forced to become a gladiator", Voyager did it better (not by much, but still better).
Rahul
Fri, May 26, 2017, 2:36pm (UTC -6)
Definitely not one of the memorable TOS episodes although it might be thought of as one for trying to do what TOS is supposed to stand for.
It's well-intentioned - trying to talk about human freedoms, abolishing slavery, men and women etc. but those messages won't really resonate here.
The superior beings, despite tremendous powers, don't have the wisdom to go beyond amusing themselves by gambling. I find it hard to believe that they will live up to their promise to Kirk to train the thralls etc. but whatever.
Regarding one of Spock and McCoy's interactions - this is one of them where McCoy comes across as unreasonable and overly emotional to me - Spock's logic is fine as usual and he does ask for McCoy's suggestions at times. I always enjoy these and they're a part of what makes TOS so great.
I think the viewer does have to feel for Shahna at the end who is left on the planet and had developed feelings for Kirk.
I think this one just barely makes it to 2 stars out of 4. The episode has good intentions and some of Kirk's discussions with Shahna are well done as he means to help but also get him and his crew out of trouble, but the episode is also a bit cheesy and has full of cliches overall.
Alex
Mon, Aug 28, 2017, 1:15am (UTC -6)
I may be incorrect, but is this the first(and last time) that a guest star(Angelique Pettyjohn) gets the last bit of dialog in a Star Trek TOS episode? If so, congrats to her.
Alex
Mon, Aug 28, 2017, 1:18am (UTC -6)
oops, I was wrong. The other time was when The Keeper communicated to Kirk at the end of "The Menagerie Part II".
Trek fan
Wed, Nov 1, 2017, 9:19pm (UTC -6)
I saw a YouTube video of a Trek marathon in California where a diverse group of people watched all of TOS, ranking each episode out of 10 and averaging the scores for each episode to rank them all. And you know what? "Gamesters of Triskelion" got a very high rating. Indeed, this offbeat and unusually pulpy entry in the series recalls the popular camp stereotypes of the series as represented in the Abrams reboots pretty strongly, and I gave it 3 or 3 1/2 stars for its pure enjoyability.

The obedience collars, fighting arena, and disembodied brains betting on gladiatorial fights make "Gamesters" a uniquely memorable outing. All the camp images of Trek are turned up to 11 (ala Abrams) here: The social critique of an absurdly authoritarian slave-based society, the clashes of logical Spock with emotive Bones on rescue strategy, Kirk seducing a green-haired alien babe to facilitate escape, colorful alien barbarians, etc. It's good to see Chekov and Uhura feature in the main story here; Uhura brings defiant attitude and Chekov's look when his manly drill thrall promises the possibility of breeding with him is hysterical. Finally, the scenes in the Triad fight arena remind us that TOS really invented many of the oft-parodied Sci-Fi tropes imitated countless times in the past 50 years leading up to "Hunger Games" and so many other things.

Granted, there are problems here: The story isn't terribly deep or original. If you're not in the mood for something REALLY different from what we've seen earlier on Season Two, this one may catch you in a foul and unforgiving mood. But if you, like many of us, are getting tired of Trek's self-seriousness by this point in the series, you may groove on the glorious absurdities of "Gamesters." It's not a subtle show, but it's a fun one in its weird way, and it's very different from the usual "Kirk-Spock-McCoy beam down to a new planet" episode. If the scene of William Shatner as Kirk gambling the lives of his crew against three colored brains doesn't entertain you, you must be made of ice!

Trek fan
Wed, Nov 1, 2017, 10:26pm (UTC -6)
PS - i have to echo what someone else said earlier in this thread: the shipboard scenes in "Gamesters" are a bit stronger than usual, as Spock actually succeeds in locating the captain through a fairly logical process that we as viewers can follow. It doesn't feel like filler. And I love the little throwaway bit where Spock wags his finger at Scotty and Bones, playfully beckoning them to lean down toward the bridge railing where he invites them to stage a mutiny if they don't like his way of doing things. Scotty's abashed reaction is priceless; even McCoy seems chastened. Anyway, Nimoy and Kelly are clearly having fun in this one; Doohan is more along for the ride in echoing McCoy. But in any event, these shipboard scenes have a certain bite and energy that makes them fun in a way that is lacking from the B-story shipboard filler in many Trek episodes of any series.

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