Star Trek: The Original Series

"The Gamesters of Triskelion"


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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5 comments on this review

Ben Masters
Sat, Jul 27, 2013, 4:27am (UTC -5)
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."
Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 12:24am (UTC -5)
The gamesters of Triskelion are such rapscallions!
Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 10:13pm (UTC -5)
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 -5)
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.
Sat, Dec 12, 2015, 7:26am (UTC -5)
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.

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