Nutshell: Surprisingly tolerable. Nothing particularly interesting, but not a bad bubble-gum show. Just don't be prepared to think.
When you have an episode that comes billed by its trailers as "America's Smackdown Hero takes on Voyager's Battlestar Babe," let's just say that one doesn't exactly go in with the highest of expectations. I'll be honest: I was expecting this episode to be a cynical ratings-stunt disaster. (And besides, with this episode having aired the same week as Homicide: The Movie, how can I honestly say I cared about what Voyager was up to?)
All things considered, "Tsunkatse" is surprisingly okay. I'm hardly thrilled with it, but as an hour of lightweight entertainment, it fares reasonably and is not quite as dumb as the trailers make it look. It's average fare—a workable mix of lowbrow action-violence exploitation and middlebrow (if way-too-familiar) themes on violence.
Really, how many times has Trek done the Violence Is Bad episode? Plus, it seems to me this episode has an unconscious built-in conflict of interests. It presents to us as viewers the idea of arena fighting as a "fun" demonstration of athleticism before then presenting the same thing as "brutal" and "wrong" in story terms.
The plot. (What plot?) Let's see. Seven and Tuvok are captured while on a shore-leave shuttle expedition (yes, only these two would investigate a spatial anomaly while on shore leave). Tuvok is injured in an explosion and requires medical treatment. The captors, however, will only grant treatment if Seven agrees to participate in a brutal arena fighting sport called Tsunkatse. Prior to the kidnappings, we've already been introduced to Tsunkatse, which resembles a cross between kickboxing and pro wresting, and is seen being enjoyed by spectators including Chakotay and other members of the Voyager crew. The rules allege some sort of strategy involving hitting the electronic targets affixed to one's opponent, but the strategy mostly seems to be to beat the hell out of the other guy before he beats the hell out of you. The targets seem only vaguely relevant.
Tsunkatse as an organization is obviously supposed to parallel professional sports, and pro wrestling organizations like the WWF in particular. There are dialog nods to the marketing aspects—it's a huge revenue builder for several nearby planets—and the depiction of the event includes a lot of showboating, rock-concert-like stage lighting, and screaming spectators. Like the WWF, it's designed to play for an audience. The fights are broadcast from a holo-projection arena on board a ship that has no local crowd. For some reason I like the idea of a Trek-technology take on pay-per-view, but it seems sort of odd that since the actual fighters are in an empty arena they don't get that immediate audience feedback.
In any case, even if it weren't for UPN's cross-promotion with its popular WWF Smackdown! it would still be very obvious that one source behind the writers' depiction of Tsunkatse was wresting.
And, yes, the cast even includes real-life WWF star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who plays Seven's first opponent. But when considering the X-treme Promotion used to hype The Rock's appearance in this episode, it's perhaps interesting to note that he only has about two minutes of screen time. I never thought such a question would arise in this review, but will WWF fans feel short-changed? (Maybe less is more; I did, after all, get a chuckle out of The Rock playing to the audience with his WWF eyebrow-raise.)
The episode's real guest stars are none other than reliable DS9 alumni Jeffrey Combs and J.G. Hertzler. Combs plays Penk, the guy who runs this arena starship and arranges the fights. He "recruits" (read: captures) promising candidates to fight in his games so he can make big money off the broadcasts. And you thought UPN went to extremes to sell their material. (I found it amusingly fittingly cynical that the nearby planets tolerated and disavowed any knowledge of these kidnappings for the simple reason that they don't want to rock the boat. After all, a large percentage of their revenue depends on Tsunkatse profits.)
Part of "Tsunkatse" is fight action, giving us scenes like the one where Seven goes into the ring and gets her Borg butt kicked by The Rock. Not exactly material worth thinking about, but at least it's presented with some semblance of skill. The arena fight story isn't exactly my favorite Trek premise. I was none too fond of TOS's lackluster "Arena" and I hated the boring and cliché-ridden "Gamesters of Triskelion." I expected "Tsunkatse" would fall in a similar vein (it's original title, in fact, was "Arena" before someone realized the title had been used previously in Trek). But somehow the episode executes better and is more entertaining. It's not much more smart, but can you really expect smarts from something like this?
There are stunt scenes and punches and spin-kicks and body slams. Should Star Trek be the WWF? I vote no, but I also vote that Trek can borrow whatever it wants within reason if it can utilize said borrowed material effectively. "Tsunkatse" does not cross the line into the untenable; it borrows some of the sports-entertainment fun factor without selling out completely—just mostly.
It also features some very effective guest performances that elevate material that could've fallen flat in lesser hands. DS9 turned me into a Jeffrey Combs fan, and here Combs is amusing as Penk, who is a shallow villain, yes (see quote at top of review), but is very funny in his succinctness and smiles a friendly smile as he announces that, yes, Seven, you're going into a death match.
The other important character here is the Hirogen warrior played by Hertzler, who is Penk's number one fighter, a ring survivor for 19 years. Hertzler is a commanding presence as he teaches Seven in the ways of the Tsunkatse—never mind that the story of the fighter trainer/trainee is about the oldest thing about fight movies. And when Seven gets into the ring, the fact that it's her own trainer that she ends up facing in this death match is pretty much an anticipated aspect of the formula.
But the episode manages to survive on good pacing and good guest roles, and Jeri Ryan does well in a physical role, getting to play the badass (dare we go so far as saying the "battlestar babe"? Where did they come up with "battlestar" anyway?) while conveying enough hesitation regarding her character's dilemma to give this episode a legitimate (if tired) storyline. The question: Can she go through with actually killing her opponent, especially when it turns out to be her own trainer?
So will anyone actually die in the ring? Or will Voyager beam out both exploited contestants at the Last Possible Moment and make Seven's Big Decision unnecessary? Can we vote more than once?
The Voyager/Delta Flyer/alien ship battle scenes leading up to the beam-out strike me as unnecessary, but hey, it's sweeps month. Gotta blow stuff up.
We also get our dose of Trekkian Morality Dialog, which, frankly, feels very weary. Isn't it about time we have an episode about violence where the dialog is somewhat new? (Hint: This isn't it.) At the very least, "Tsunkatse" isn't preachy and ties relevantly into Seven's character and her quest for humanity, and uses Tuvok reasonably as a supporting character. But don't expect great insights; Seven's quest isn't looking like the newest thing in the world these days either.
In many ways, "Tsunkatse" is challenge-free trash, but at least it's entertainingly assembled trash.
Of course, I do have to ask: What are the Hirogen doing out here? I can maybe accept that a lone warrior who has been a prisoner to this game for 19 years might be this far from his homeland by now. But if we're something like 30,000 light-years from where Voyager ran into the Hirogen during season four, how can there be a convenient nearby Hirogen scout ship way out here to give our new friend a ride home? (I give up—Voyager's location in the Delta Quadrant is completely arbitrary. Why even bother shaving thousands of light-years off the trip, anyway? Grrr...)
One thing I found a little shortsighted on the part of the Voyager crew was the notion that they weren't aware of the extent of the Tsunkatse ring violence. How could they have heard about this huge sport and be cheering it on, yet didn't know about the existence of the popular "red match," a battle to the death? What kind of blinders are they wearing? But then again, this is the Voyager crew, who respect other cultures. Apparently they respect the right for two ring opponents to beat the hell out of each other. It's all about being a good sport, I guess.
Next week: Kiddie Borg. Don't piss 'em off.