Monday, June 21, 2010

TOS Rewind #43: "The Gamesters of Triskelion"

Up today:  The Gamesters of Triskelion (01/05/1968)

Eric, Rob, and I did a podcast;


We tried a different method of recording our tracks this time.  I've had to record our Skype sound on my end only.  This did work, but it isn't the best audio quality, depending on how all our 'net connections were faring that evening.  This turned out a little better, but if you listen you'll be able to tell that we or I have some more work to do.

Eric got the jump on me this time, so here's his review:

I just noticed that "The Gamesters of Triskelion" was the first Star Trek episode aired in 1968. Knowing that this was, to say the least, an eventful year, my curiosity was piqued to find out just what happened. I was actually surprised--here are some of the highlights:

·      The Vietnam War escalated with the Battle of Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive, and the Mai Lai massacre.

·      Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.

·      2001: A Space Odyssey premiered.

·      The Beatles created Apple Records and released their self-titled album, commonly known as the White Album.

·      France detonated its first hydrogen bomb.

·      Nixon was elected president.

·      Elvis Presley made his concert return with the '68 Comeback Special.

·      The Zodiac Killer began his murder spree in San Francisco.

·      Apollo 8 entered orbit around the Moon allowing astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders to be the first humans to see not only the far side of the Moon but also the planet Earth as a whole.

I note this to give a sense of the times Star Trek commented on and reflected. Also, the success of movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the public fascination with the space program set the stage for science fiction on TV.

And while Star Trek is arguably the pioneer of serious television SF, "The Gamesters of Triskelion" is perhaps not the best example of classic Trek. It's not a bad episode, but its message is rather muddled and diluted, and I find the laughable production values to be more of a distraction than usual.

Despite these complaints, I did find an interesting theme. Obviously, there's Kirk's passionate defense of freedom and the human spirit (echoes from episodes like "The Menagerie" and "Metamorphosis), but beyond that, I saw this episode as an indictment of professional sports, particularly boxing. Admittedly, professional boxers aren't slaves...exactly. They are not the property of their "managers" and "promoters," and those at the pinnacle of the sport enjoy considerable wealth and prestige. But the rest (those who aren't at the very top) have to perform adequately, or they find themselves discarded and on the street. And even if they continue to please their handlers, boxers are generally washed up once they hit their early to mid-thirties. This is where the parallel to "The Gamesters of Triskelion" comes in. A central plot point is that the thralls are not educated--they're kept in a perpetual state of ignorance and dependence in order to provide entertainment for the providers. And when they can no longer compete, they're discarded. This insidious cycle isn't broken until the providers lose their wager with Kirk and have to free and educate the thralls.

So, there is a message to be found here (even if it's obscured). I would state it this way: Those who derive wealth and entertainment from the athletic abilities of others are little better than parasites, and they owe the people they feed on the means and opportunity to be self-supporting and self-determining.


Pity the Tool.

I went into this episode fully expecting to laugh at the cheesy costumes, gummy brained aliens, and a douchebag named Lars.  In this respect, the episode did not disappoint.  Lars was still a douchebag, the "Providers" still looked like rubbery brains in a large jar, and the costumes were...ahem!

One of the problems with this episode, even discounting the above, is that I feel like it covers familiar ground in the ideas department--I have a feeling I'll be repeating this statement before we're done with the series.  The plot setup, which includes the Providers, aka highly evolved aliens who are now very powerful glowing brains in a glass case, abducting the landing party for use in a pseudo-gladiatorial slave colony. It is a rather obvious setup for a rousing speech about freedom and the evils of slavery.  Not to mention the moral superiority of America/The Federation; and the combat is an excuse for Shatner to run around without a shirt, looking as Rob pointed out, rather paunchy.  Kirk's talk about the free spirit of humanity is also a convenient way for him to talk his way into Shahna's (Kirk's "drill thrall") shorts.  Shahna actually utters the line, "I will train you well."  I'll bet you will!  Like other episodes, Kirk uses his charms to take advantage of his current love interest.  Shahna naturally almost kills him later in the episode and I do like the fact that she actually beats him.  It makes up a bit for her being such a sucker.

One of the things that surprised me this time around was the scene where Lars goes into Uhura's cell looking for some slave on slave action.  It could easily be read as an off-camera attempted (?) rape scene.  It's pretty clear that Uhura fights him off, but the scene is actually intense and plays a bit edgy for 1968 television.  Plus it comes at a commercial break where there's a natural tension, so this seemed like a bigger deal than I used to give it credit for.  I just have to ask, what is the deal with Lars, anyway?  He just has a lousy costume, not even some funky face makeup.  The writers didn't even give 'ol Lars an alien sounding name, unless Lars was sufficiently foreign for 1968 audiences.  I have to believe that Lars has pre-determined douchebaginess (is that even a word?) and that the character has no real choice in the matter.  Lars is just a tool.  I almost pity the guy...almost.  I think we missed an opportunity to dissect this character on the podcast.  Who knows, maybe there's some fascinating insight buried within this character that could even open up something really compelling about this episode.  Or maybe not; just seeing if anyone's paying attention.

Meanwhile, Spock and the rest have to figure out where the hell Kirk and the other have gone.  My main problem with this "B" story is that it seems to run out of steam before the plot requires them to show up.  There are some good traded barbs of the usual sort between Spock and McCoy, but it plays like it could have used a bit of trimming.

The hand-to-hand combat, which is the main action, other than Kirk's little jaunt in the ruins with Shahna, that is.  I appreciate the interesting camera angles and the three segment design of the floor and the choreographed combat isn't too bad, by Trek standards.  The whole fighting set reminded me a little of the gladiator school sets from Spartacus.  Of course the final fight where Kirk has to fight three other thralls is easy to ridicule; they often seem to be taking turns attacking him!  Lars is satisfyingly offed by Kirk, so that's something at least.

In the end, Kirk turns the tables on the gummy brain aliens and they have to "challenge" themselves to turn their little slave colony into an actual society.  We were asking ourselves, "what's a quatloo?"  I think it's the cool new name for an advanced porta-potty:  the Quat-Loo!  Eric covered the episode's possible indictment of spectator sports as a society-crushing exploitve endeavor.  I think boxing is perhaps the closest analog we have to what's portrayed here.  And hey, if the sports comments don't get us some feedback, what will?!

I'm not sure the production values are really that far below what we've seen in past episodes.  I think Eric was beginning to recognize the reuse of old sets and props from previous episodes and combined with the neon-colored rubber brains, was perhaps too much.  I could also be accused of being to easy on old Trek.  As I pointed out on the podcast, we will probably look back at this "so-so" episode with fond memories when we get deep into the third season!

I have a dim memory about watching this one while I was growing up and thought it was fairly OK.  The action helps, plus there's nothing like watching Shatner writhe around on the floor under the pain of those collars.  Sure, there aren't any space battles, but some hand-to-hand combat, complete with odd weapons, still does the job when you're 12.

The BD version of this episode looked great.  Galt, the head thrall, had a poor man's Dracula costume and the HD image made his makeup look like it was a powder coat.  The new effects were limited to a couple of planets, so nothing big here.  I continue to be impressed at the overall quality of these BDs.  They actually look better, in some ways, than the BDs of the Trek movies.  There's something wrong about that; but that's another blog entry.

Next time:  "A Piece of the Action"

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