“Entertain us...Or die!”: The Gamesters of Triskelion

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"Ah! Loana the Fair One approaches!"

If “A Private Little War” was bad on account of being a slapdash parade of Star Trek's signature reactionary concepts and a general catastrophe on all counts, this one is bad because it's just a hollow recitation of the tropes the series has accrued over the years. “The Gamesters of Triskelion” is a very promising candidate for most generic and uninspired episode of the Original Series ever.

Having spent the year on a quality roller coaster that wildly alternated between moments of iconic brilliance and spectacular ethical cratering, Star Trek finally decides to just give up and go through the motions. There is a profound sense of apathy throughout this entire production: The basic plot is a defanged and watered down rehash of “Bread and Circuses” with a critique of slavery, gambling and maybe boxing thrown in for good measure, none of which are themes the episode is particularly interested in engaging with in any meaningful way. And really, is “Slavery is bad” a statement that the supposedly ever-socially conscious Star Trek honestly needed to engage with in 1968? This is cheating: Giving the illusion you're saying something relevant and important while really just clinging to safe, hollow platitudes.

Aside from that, we have another of Kirk's cold-blooded, manipulative seduction with a painfully superficial “What Is Love?” overtone. This is capped off with a scene that could be chartiably read as the first concrete example of Star Trek describing its world as a utopia, except in practice it actually plays out more like a celebration of modernist teleology of the sort the show's been hampered with all season. Also, the scene in question feels like a knockoff version of Kirk's conversations with Edith Keeler about stars in “The City on the Edge of Forever”. Then we have some more top graduates from the William Ware Theiss school of laughably sexist costume design, because I guess it was time for some more of those. Uhura gets raped for literally no reason that makes any sense from the perspective of the plot or the episode's internal narrative logic except for “we apparently needed one to increase dramatic tension”, so that's charming. The entire story is an absolutely tedious series of pulpish captures and escapes that were dated writing crutches ten years before this was made, and I'd call the pacing glacial if I was convinced “The Gamesters of Triskelion” actually had pacing. Furthermore, Spock and McCoy are written so stock they no longer seem like programmatic, formulaic characters but parodies of programmatic, formulaic characters (and Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley respond in kind).

Along those lines, this is the first episode where the criticisms of William Shatner's acting start to get the appearance of having any semblance of merit. Shatner's style of performance has always been defined by a kind of subtle overstatement that is descended from the classical theatrical style of acting where, instead of trying to get their mental state to match that of the characters and portray it as realistically as possible, actors instead directly convey information to the audience through visual and auditory cues. This does mean that theatrical actors, such as William Shatner, tend to deliver more exaggerated performances then most US audiences would be accustomed to, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with this style and I for one actually prefer it to Method Acting as I think it allows actors the freedom to do some really captivating, unique, clever and inspired things that, frankly, US audiences simply do not know (or know how) to look for on the whole. Here though, there really is no getting around it: Shatner bellows his lines at the top of his lungs and devours every bit of scenery in sight in a manner that really does invite comparisons to Brian Blessed. But this is the crucial thing critics of Shatner always miss when bringing up his behaviour in episodes such as this one: Shatner has very clearly and absolutely given up here and is no longer even trying.

Looking to something like “The Gamesters of Triskelion” and attempting to use it as an example of Shatner's standard operating procedure on Star Trek (or anywhere else, for that matter) is quite simply ludicrous. It's no more indicative of the character he was trying to play then DeForest Kelley drawling on to “Jimmy-Boy” and drinking mint juleps in “This Side of Paradise” was indicative of who he meant Doctor McCoy to be. This is Shatner checking out of the series and abandoning any hope he's going to be doing anything remotely resembling intelligence, and just deciding to go as bananas as possible to troll everyone and get some manner of enjoyment out of his increasingly silly and inane job. And honestly, given what a damp squib of a production Paramount and Deislu regurgitated up this week I don't blame him in the slightest. However that said, this is a mode Shatner is occasionally known to slip in to on Star Trek (and increasingly so after this point in the series), but I actually find that speaks more of the show then him: It's no secret we're rapidly approaching the third season, which is universally (and deservedly, I'll make the claim right now) considered the rubbish year. Given the fact season one was frequently morally bankrupt and season two has been something of a hot mess from start to finish, the fact it's the third season that stands out as the “silly” one is, well, telling.

But these are all concerns for the future. In the here and now, I have to finish analysing the episode at hand, which presents me with something of a problem as this is another story with a worrying dearth of actual interesting material and I have now essentially exhausted the possible observations to make about it. So let's have fun again and overanalyse some random piece of minutiae in an effort to tease something, anything, out of “The Gamesters of Triskelion”. One thing that caught my attention in this episode was that the slavesXcompetitors on Triskelion were called “thralls”. In Old Scandinavian history, a thrall was a bonded serf and on the lowest level of the social order during the Viking age. Now, contrary to popular belief, the terms “Viking” and “Nordic” are not actually interchangeable: The Viking lifestyle is but one manifestation of a culture and mythology common to the pre-Roman, pre-Christian peoples in Northern Europe. The Vikings were the latest and most combatative subgroup of what is more properly called Germanic heathenism or paganism: Much like the cultures on the various Polynesian and other south Pacific islands are emanations and regional variations of a unique Oceanic worldview and set of experience, so also can it be argued the Celts, Vikings, Gauls and pre-Norse Nordic peoples were linked by a similar regional perspective. The Vikings were merely the last, best-documented manifestation of this culture.

What's important to note about Germanic heathenism, for me at least, is that it is largely not the origin of what I frequently refer to in this blog as the contemporary Modernist Western culture. I would instead argue the way of life known to most post-industrial late-stage capitalist societies is primarily descended from Ancient Greece and (as “Bread and Circuses” so aptly showed us before chickening out in the denouement) the give-and-take tension between the Roman Empire and Christianity. This means, as typically happens with empires, the actual indigenous population, cultures and belief systems unique to Northern Europe were actually displaced themselves, just as was the case everywhere else in the world. The evidence and legacy of these peoples lingers on in some places, most notably in regions north of the 50th parallel (naturally the NordicXScandinavian countries, but also Greenland and parts of the British isles, Canada and debatably even New England), but it largely remains one curiously European casualty of Western imperialism. Indeed, the Vikings' warlike expeditions were most likely their reaction against coercive Christian encroachment into the Scandinavian territories.

The relevance of this to “The Gamesters of Triskelion” comes, as I hinted at above, in the script's use of the term “thrall”. This is clearly meant to evoke a European form of servitude to tie into the episode's anti-slavery theme, but the choice of “thrall” is actually really weird. Naturally, I would have preferred had they used the word “serf”, as I feel its connotations to medieval Feudalism would have given the story an extra interpretative layer given its associations with manor life and control of land. To me this would have been a far stronger statement that would also have shot right to the heart of arguably the most classical Western motifs after those of the Hellenistic era. As it is the invocation of the Vikings feels off to me, my own fondness for the Germanic peoples aside: If the intent was to link slavery with European imperialism the Vikings were probably the least effective group to call on, being on the whole more general pirates and explorers then empire builders. Honestly, writer Margaret Armen really would probably have been better off just flat-out calling them slaves: Certainly slavery is associated with Westernism enough as it is.

However “thrall” also calls to my mind something Armen absolutely would not have known about, but since Vaka Rangi is as much about time travel as it is straight historical analysis I can get away with mentioning it. In the video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which draws heavily on aspects of Germanic heathenism, including the Vikings, the word “thrall” is used to describe a reanimated zombie-like body controlled by a powerful necromancer. Although we're still several weeks out from this becoming a blatantly explicit comparison, the analogy is far, far too good for me to ignore. Kirk, Chekov and Uhura become thralls to an all-powerful but bored and petty audience that makes them compete in violent but overly complicated and pointless blood sport for their mild amusement, which they then place bets on. Read this way, “The Gamesters of Triskelion” is almost more bitter and cynical then “Bread and Circuses”.

It's still dull as dishwater, though.

Comments

Kevin Carson 3 years, 6 months ago

Your point re northern European paganism is something I've tried -- with limited success at best -- to hammer home with "race realist" shitheads who criticize sub-Saharan Africa for its supposed lack of cultural accomplishment, or dismiss the accomplishments of Mali, etc., as "really just Middle Eastern imports."

Um, by the same standard northern Europe was a Third World periphery, and the Western culture extant in western Europe and North America today is imported from the Near East via the Phoenicians via the Greeks via the Romans.

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K. Jones 3 years, 6 months ago

This is a prime example of an episode with not a lot good going on, storywise, but which I can't help but love purely from the production and design. We've had purple skies and bleak wastelands, but nothing quite so like a living, live-in-color example of a cover from a 50s/60s era science fiction paperback.

We've had scantily clad pulp-type alien women before, but to date, I don't think they've worn chrome bikinis. We've had Kirk in slave or gladiator garb, but never quite in bondage/fetish gear.

I'd read more into it; about how Christianity subverted the incredibly pagan Triskelion symbol to represent the father, son and holy spirit (because holy spirits are more important than say, "the mother") and therefore eternity, and so the "warrior races" enslaved by the Triskeles could represent pagan tribes indentured by Christianity. But I believe by this time the Triskelion has been reclaimed by neo-pagan groups. The Three Gamesters (of course there are three) represent any central authority that imposes its will onto other cultures. "Provider" is just another word like "Governor" or "Caretaker" - though these sorts of titles are Pulp sci-fi standbys used often when an alien race has no need of being more fleshed out beyond "they've lost their humanity".

I like noting that here among what are clearly aliens selected from warrior races, is an Andorian thrall, and a missed opportunity to expand that species, get Kirk away from Spock and McCoy and see how he might compare with a technically "friendly" warrior, since the Klingons weren't yet even defined as a warrior race, and were strictly "bad guys".

I suppose the thing I like most about this episode is how exotic and well-designed the Remastered trinary system and dwarf planet looked. And that's never a great sign.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 6 months ago

I'd like to offer a hypothesis on one of the reasons Star Trek took off so successfully in syndication: You could take each episode as an individual unit more easily, and not as one element in the progression of a television season. Syndication randomizes the order of broadcast, allowing the local station to choose which episodes they'll run, and how frequently a given episode will appear in the schedule.

So an episode like Gamesters of Triskelion may be mediocre story with interesting visuals whose narrative had already been done to death on the show's original run. But in syndication, one could find this episode randomly and enjoy it free of the context that made it look repetitive. Taken entirely in isolation, Gamesters is a flash-looking story straight out of the 1960s pulp sci-fi handbook, and audiences could enjoy it more in that context. The few fantastic episodes like Mirror Mirror, Balance of Terror, and Tribbles could be enjoyed for the masterpieces they were. The mid-range and otherwise unremarkable episodes could be enjoyed for the hour of fun they constituted.

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K. Jones 3 years, 6 months ago

That's where the nostalgia kicks in, too, I think.

A lot of fondness for bad episodes probably stems purely from the fact that they were hard to track down. A completionist hoping to watch every episode might have spent a long time waiting to see something like Triskelion if it didn't get run very often, and didn't sell enough to find its way to a local public library in VHS form in the 70s.

The cult sci-fi phenomenon is as much about the back-tracker discovering as it is the stories about discovery.

I've had similar experiences and fairly recently, too, with TNG. I was entirely sure I'd seen all 177 episodes, and it was only during a complete marathon that I discovered I'd never in 25 years of watching syndication, and periodic browsing of Memory Alpha, seen 'The Quality of Life', 'Lessons' or 'Dark Page'.

I can imagine if I discovered 'Triskelion' as a 'Lost Episode' I'd have no choice but to call it good. Because 'more of what you love' can easily be rose-tinted.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 3 months ago

There were a number of years when this was the only TOS episode I hadn't seen.

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