Star Trek Re-Watch: “The Gamesters of Triskelion”

“The Gamesters of Triskelion”
Written by Margaret Armen
Directed by Gene Nelson

Season 2, Episode 16
Production episode: 2×17
Original air date: January 5, 1968
Star date: 3211.7

Mission summary

Enterprise is assigned to check on the automatic communications and astrogation stations on an uninhabited planet, Gamma II. Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov are all set to beam down when they abruptly disappear from the transporter pad without the usual shining and whining beam effect. Scotty’s a miracle worker, but even he isn’t good enough to work the transporter without touching the controls—he has no idea what happened, or where they are. Spock is dubious.

The landing team is unceremoniously dumped in the center of a large blue and yellow triangle; “This is the craziest landing pad I’ve ever seen,” Uhura comments. It gets crazier still: from the greenish color of the sky, Kirk realizes that they aren’t at Gamma II anymore, and the trinary sun indicates they aren’t even in the same system. What he first thought was another transporter malfunction seems to be something more insidious—space douchery. He tries to contact Enterprise, but their communicators don’t work. Then the party gets started as a fanged caveman, an Elvis impersonator, She-Hulk, and a space babe show up. Phasers don’t function either, and the motley crew quickly kicks their collective asses. Kirk seems more upset that he was beat by a woman than anything, until he notices she’s only wearing a shiny silver bra and panties, which nicely complement the collar around her neck.

A man pops into the scene (out of thin air!) and compliments Kirk, Chekov, and Uhura on their spirit, calling them by name. He introduces himself as Galt, the Master Thrall of Triskelion and captures and collars them in preparation for their “training.” He explains that “the Providers” brought them to Triskelion to live out their days as thralls. As Spock tries to eliminate the impossible on Enterprise—sensors don’t show the missing crewmembers anywhere on Gamma II, the transporters didn’t malfunction, and there isn’t even an ion storm handy to blame—Kirk and the others try to flee their training enclosure. Galt ends their escape attempt easily; his eyes glow and their collars administer agonizing pain. They enter their cells without further struggle.

The Elvis impersonator, Lars, brings a tray to Uhura’s cell and informs her he is her “drill thrall” and that he’s been “selected” for her. They struggle for a while in the back of her cell, just out of sight, with her screaming and protesting. Kirk goes nuts from worry, but he can’t help her. Soon Lars leaves, grumbling: “It is not allowed to refuse selection.” Uhura is shaken but otherwise physically unharmed. The Barbarella-wannabe in silver approaches Kirk’s cell with a tray for his “nourishment interval.”

On Enterprise, it’s been two hours since the captain and his team vanished. McCoy is concerned that his friends’ atoms are scattered out there somewhere, but insists that they keep looking for them on the planet. Ensign Haines earns her pay for the week by noticing an energy fluctuation in a hydrogen cloud, which Spock determines is an ionization trail. They set course to follow it to its source, with McCoy protesting:

MCCOY: You’re going to leave here without them and run off on some wild goose chase halfway across the galaxy just because you found a discrepancy in a hydrogen cloud?
SPOCK: Doctor, I am chasing the Captain, Lieutenant Uhura, and Ensign Chekov, not some wild aquatic fowl. This is the only lead we’ve had.

Chekov gets a drill thrall of his own, Tamoon, the large green woman, who keeps calling him “Chee-koof.” She hopes to train him well enough that her Provider will take him and select them for each other, an unappealing prospect for him. Kirk is faring better with his thrall, Shahna, already pumping her for information. She explains that his obedience collar will change colors to show which Provider he belongs to once he’s been “vended.” He tries to teach her about slavery but this goes over her poufy head, so he switches tactics and explains the alien concept of beauty by showing her her own reflection in his food tray. He tries to find out where she and the other aliens came from, but a red light flashes to announce it’s time for the exercise interval. Shahna hands him a training harness and tells him to put it on. Things are about to get kinky.

Maybe not. Galt orders Kirk and the others to use a bound thrall for target practice as his punishment for being “slow in obeying a command.” Uhura refuses, Kirk echoes the sentiment, and Chekov calls them Cossacks. Galt zaps their collars again and makes Uhura the new target, but Kirk offers himself in her place. His arms are tied behind his back and the fanged caveman, Kloog, goes after him with a whip and a net.

Kloog works Kirk over, tearing his shirt and cutting the length of his back; it seems the harness is designed to keep the captain’s shirt on during a fight. But Kirk holds his own and soon he gets a fifteen-trisec rest interval, during which Shahna gives him some Gatorade and fighting tips. Round two begins and Kirk manages to loosen his bonds while dodging Kloog until he can get his tied wrists in front of him. He mounts Kloog’s back and chokes him to unconsciousness. A voice commands: “Hold.” Galt responds, “We hold, Provider One.”

Two other godly voices chime in, as Providers One, Two, and Three bid against each other for Kirk and the others. Provider One places the winning bid, at 2,000 “quatloos.” Kirk protests, launching a round of wagers.

KIRK: We’re free people. We belong to no one.
PROVIDER TWO: Such spirit. I wager fifteen quatloos that he is untrainable.
PROVIDER THREE: Twenty quatloos that all three are untrainable.
PROVIDER TWO: Five thousand quatloos that the newcomers will have to be destroyed.
PROVIDER ONE: Accepted. Mark them, Galt.

Galt’s eyes do their thing and their collars turn red to show they now belong to Provider One. While Spock defends his decision to bring Enterprise 11.6 light years away from Gamma II to the M24-Alpha system, Kirk chases the girl—he and Shahna are running through some ruins. His shirt is gone after all, showing nasty whip slashes on his chest and back, but he’s still wearing his training harness. He calls for a break and he starts in on the questions again. He wonders why the Providers like to watch others hurt or killed, then hopefully asks, “Are they computers?” He knows how to handle those!

Shahna doesn’t know what a computer is, and she deflects his probing about whether the Providers have bodies or not, and whether they used to have a city on Triskelion. She doesn’t even know what a planet is. Well, Kirk has one more trick up his virtual sleeve.

KIRK: Shahna, don’t you ever look at the night sky? The lights up there?
SHAHNA: I have looked at them.
KIRK: Well, those are stars. And around them are planets. And there are people that live on them, Just like us.
SHAHNA: How can one live on a flicker of light?
KIRK: From Earth, Triskelion’s three suns are just a flicker of light. Actually, this is the darkest planet I’ve ever seen.
SHAHNA: Dark? But all is lighted. Here, the chambers.
KIRK: The thralls have no freedom, Shahna. You don’t think or do anything but what the Providers tell you.
SHAHNA: What else would one do?
KIRK: Love, for one thing.
SHAHNA: What is love?
KIRK: Love is the most important thing on Earth. Especially to a man and a woman.

Here we go… He starts telling her about human mating but she feels uncomfortable (don’t we all?) so he asks her about the Providers again. She says she’s never seen them, but just as she gets to the juicy gossip about them, her collar activates. Kirk yells at the Providers to spare her. Provider One answers: “Is that what you humans call compassion? It is interesting, but it has no value here.”

Compassion might have some value after all: to impress a girl. The Provider turns off Shahna’s collar and Kirk turns her on with a kiss. Galt shows up and tells them to get a room. On Enterprise, Spock is having less fun. McCoy and Scott continue to disagree with his actions, and the engineer refuses to give him warp seven to get them to the trinary system faster. Spock’s learned a thing or two about command, though: “Gentlemen, I am in command of this vessel, and we shall continue on our present course. Unless it is your intention to declare a mutiny.” That shocks them into compliance. McCoy gets him to promise that they’ll go back to Gamma II if they don’t find their missing people, and Scott musters up warp seven.

Shahna brings Kirk some more nourishment and tells him she’s disturbed by his sexual harassment. He kisses her again then punches her out and slips the key to his cell out of her shiny panties. (It’s not like her ridiculous outfit has pockets.) The captain frees Chekov, who has somehow tied up Tamoon in his own cell, and Uhura, who got rid of Lars by complaining about the food. They go outside in search of one of their phasers, so they can try to short circuit their collars with its components. But Galt will have none of that. He activates their collars and Provider One admonishes them.

Meanwhile, Enterprise has finally reached Triskelion. Spock and McCoy prepare to leave the Bridge to beam down to the planet, when the lights go wild and Provider One speaks: “No, Mr. Spock. You will not leave the ship.” He compliments them on their ingenuity in locating their friends.

They can also hear Kirk’s voice on the Bridge. It’s time for the exposition interval: he and Provider One fill everyone in on what’s going on. The captain turns this into an opportunity to flush out the Providers. He calls them chicken and to prove they aren’t afraid of him, they allow him a glimpse of the aliens behind the curtain. It turns out that the brains of the operation are… Brains! Three brains form the points of a triangle under a glass dome, glowing in fun colors—strawberry, lime, and tangerine.

Kirk spots their underground power source nearby, a vast array of machines that are well-protected for once, shielded from Enterprise’s phasers by a thousand meters of solid rock. The Providers explain that their intellects have evolved to this simple form, with the games as their only stimulation. Kirk insults their evolution, calls them murderers, and tries to threaten them with the might of the Federation.

PROVIDER ONE: Your ship will be destroyed by a magnetic storm. No communications with your base will be possible. Your fate will remain a mystery to your people.

Good plan. Kirk switches tactics. He proposes a wager with stakes higher than mere quatloos. If he, Chekov, and Uhura can defeat three thralls with weapons of their choice, then they’ll let his people go and they’ll free the thralls and nurture them into their own society. They accept, but demand that Kirk fight three thralls alone. If he loses, everyone on Enterprise will become thralls.

KIRK: Three against one? Those are pretty high odds.
PROVIDER TWO: Not for true gamesters, Captain.
KIRK: Your, your terms are unfair.
PROVIDER ONE: On the contrary, they’re extremely fair, since your alternative is death.
KIRK: Well, in that case, I’ll accept your terms.

That went well… Looks like the captain has everything under control then. The Enterprise crew watches on the viewscreen as their captain is once more forced to fight aliens for his survival and their freedom. Armed with a pole that has a spear on one end and a hook on the other, Kirk faces an Andorian, Kloog, and Lars. Provider One tells them the rules of combat, which all of them are about to ignore anyway:

Captain, you will defend. Thralls must stay in the blue area. You will take the yellow. Touching an opposing color deprives a contestant of one weapon. An opponent must be killed to be removed from the game. If only wounded, he is replaced by a fresh thrall.

Kirk dances about the triangular arena and puts up a good fight, killing all the thralls but only injuring the Andorian. Shahna is called in as a replacement. She seems rather annoyed with him, but each of them stop just short of delivering a killing blow until Kirk gets the upper hand and she surrenders. Nothing about that in the rules, but the Providers go along with it. They free Kirk, Chekov, and Uhura from their collars and agree to the terms of their agreement: the thralls will be trained to provide for themselves.

Shahna wants Kirk to take her away from all this, but he refuses and tells her to stay and learn. “All your people must learn before you can reach for the stars.” He gives her a good-bye kiss and Scotty beams them up. Shahna looks up. “Goodbye, Jim Kirk. I will learn, and watch the lights in the sky, and remember.”

On the surface this episode appears to be another remix of Star Trek themes, touching on the ideas of slavery, love, and the value of human compassion, perseverance, and ingenuity. It doesn’t go much deeper than that, but at least this time Kirk and his crew aren’t being tested by overpowered alien beings—they’re being tortured for pure entertainment. The Providers are admittedly impressed by the humans’ spirit and intelligence, but perhaps in the way you’re surprised when a pet does a nifty trick.

In today’s world we’re inundated with reality TV, though the stakes haven’t yet included death—too much liability for the networks. Staged conflicts and survival shows are very familiar to us and may not be too shocking, but there was nothing like that in the 1960s; the games on Triskelion are clearly modeled after Roman gladiator fights, a commentary on the barbaric pursuits of the supposedly intellectual and cultural elite. This concept is explored plenty in other fiction before and after Star Trek tackled it, and seems to be a real concern: if we evolve too far, become too smart, we may not need bodies anymore but we’re going to be fairly bored.

The episode is also about taking chances. Spock makes an informed decision to follow the ion trail in search of the missing crew, but it’s still a gamble. Kirk makes a huge gamble of his own for the freedom of his crew, beating the Providers at their own game, but it’s a bit riskier since he has no guarantee of winning. Consequently, I expected a stronger reaction from the people watching the fight. I only wish there’d been time to show McCoy and Scotty admitting that Spock was right all along.

“Gamesters of Triskelion” is a somewhat iconic episode, which is part of why I’d completely forgotten that the Providers were just brains under glass. The Simpsons parodied it in the episode “Deep Space Homer,” in which Homer fights Barney while Star Trek fight music plays and people bid quatloos on them. You may not remember that scene if you’ve only seen “Deep Space Homer” in syndication, but it was so firmly fixed in my mind, I remembered the Providers having bodies.

The most appalling thing in this episode by far is the scene where Lars first enters Uhura’s cell and they struggle offscreen. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what must be happening in there, and it horrified me. Even though Uhura seemed all right afterward, I couldn’t believe the episode went there, and then just as easily ignored it. (And I was so happy at first that she got to go on an away mission! Next time, stay on the ship, Uhura. Red skirts have it just as bad as red shirts.) A close second on the squick meter is binding the black thrall for target practice, followed by Uhura before Kirk intervenes. In an episode nominally about slavery, I just wasn’t sure what we were supposed to take from that, particularly in 1968.

In this episode, annoyances come in threes: I was also bothered by Kirk’s manipulation of Shahna. When she asks to come with him, he doesn’t even tell her why he can’t—the truth is, he doesn’t have feelings for her and she would cramp his style too much. She called him on it during their battle: “You lied. Everything you said.” And he never corrected her.

Some nitpicks and other complaints: I hate that scene where Tamoon calls Chekov “Chee-koof.” And speaking of Tamoon, if Chekov was able to tie her up, why couldn’t he steal her key and free himself from his cell? Kirk talks about Shahna’s people building their own lives, but the episode completely misses the fact that these aliens have been kidnapped from other planets and don’t belong there. Did a bunch of planets solve some missing persons cases after Kirk’s report on Triskelion?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: This episode was played up to me as being really good,* but from the moment Dracula (or “Galt” as he prefers to be known) popped out Bewitched-style to the nauseating speeches on love, I knew this wasn’t going to make past warp 3.

It has the makings of a lot of interesting ideas—slavery, free will, blood sport, violence as entertainment, sexual freedom, and the “dangers” of human evolution—but is entirely too trite, too dreadfully scripted, and too incomprehensible to live up to that promise. Kirk spends the entire episode waxing poetic about free will and making choices, but manipulates Shahna to his own ends with no regard to her own desires, feelings, or well-being. His actions get her hurt—not just by the collar, but by punching her in the face—and in the end she learns that what she thought was love was actually just crass exploitation and gets left behind with a vague “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” I mean, ouch. My only consolation is that they didn’t have Uhura trying to seduce Lars as a ploy to get out of there. The near-rape scene freaked me out a lot—all you see are the writhing shadows and the terrible screams. I can’t believe they went there. Very bold.

Mostly “Gamesters” is a rehash of a bunch of great ideas dealt with much better in previous episodes. (I’m surprised at how often I’ve been saying that, but there really are three central plots that seem to get recycled endlessly.) The space douche column is getting mighty long, and while floating brains could be interesting, something similar has been done better on at least three occasions so far (“The Menagerie,” “Squire of Gothos,” “Arena”). The brains here don’t take any joy in their existence, and I can’t imagine what relevance “quatloos” have to disembodied intellects. It just didn’t add up to me. If they have the power to warp people across sectors and make people and things appear out of nowhere, can’t they manufacture some kind of entertainment for themselves that doesn’t involve slavery? And I hate to say it, because normally the cheesiness really doesn’t bother me, but this episode had the most ridiculous costumes and make-up so far. In “Arena” when Kirk fought a giant lizard man it didn’t look nearly as absurd as the Dracula/ Elvis/ She-Hulk with pointy foam weapons thing.

I was also troubled by how naïve the conclusion was. In the end the thralls are just meat zombies, with no desires or understanding of their world. I certainly didn’t feel like the brains’ assurances of teaching them all how to live independently were going to work out. The painful truth is that these thralls can’t actually take care of themselves, and they’ve been “bred” to feel comfortable in their situation, and need to be provided for (hence, “The Providers”). I’m not saying that’s right (it’s not! It’s awful!) but it’s pretty damn naïve to think that some training seminars are going to make them suddenly evolve a fiery human spirit with a desperate need to be free and carve their own path. Even on Miri’s planet they left behind some Federation folks to help them survive their first taste of maturity. Here all we get is a “see ya later, toots.” You can’t just have Kirk drop from the sky, free all the slaves, get some PG-rated tail, and then ride off into the sunset with no consequences whatsoever. Or you can, but it just doesn’t feel satisfying.

One thing I did really enjoy was the back-and-forth between Spock and McCoy on Enterprise.  McCoy’s seemingly irrational argument for returning to the sector they came from obviously stems from his total panic over possibly losing Kirk and the others, while Spock is able to maintain total calm and knows exactly how to deal with both Bones and Scotty.

Digression 1: my favorite line is when Kirk introduces himself and his crew and Galt says: “Your old titles mean nothing here, Captain.” (Emphasis mine.)

Digression 2: Did anyone else notice in the last fight that Kirk strayed from the yellow oh, maybe a hundred times? He should’ve lost that bet!

* That person will be punished.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3

Best Line: Scott: “I would be more than content to do so, sir, and maybe a wee bit more.”

Syndication Edits: After Galt tells Kirk and the others they’re never leaving Triskelion, an establishing shot of Enterprise and the entire scene of Spock, McCoy, and Scotty trying to figure out what happened to them; Uhura’s visit from Lars is shortened; the Captain’s Supplemental Log; more discussion on Enterprise; Kirk begs the Providers to spare Shahna after the commercial break; Shahna and Kirk head to their quarters after their second kiss; some of Kirk’s debate with the Providers, leaving him to utter “But these Providers haven’t the courage to show themselves, but you are afraid.”; Shahna and the thralls gather in the arena before she cries.

Trivia: The original title of this episode was “The Gamesters of Pentathlan.” The script was rewritten for Chekov instead of Sulu, since George Takei was unavailable while filming The Green Berets with John Wayne. The Providers’ dome is recycled from Lazarus’s ship in “The Alternative Factor,” their machinery is a matte painting from “Devil in the Dark,” and the thralls use daggers from “Mirror, Mirror.”

Other notes: The voice of Robert C. Johnson (Provider Three) became famous as the voice on the tape recorded assignments on Mission: Impossible, which filmed next door to Star Trek; he also did voice work for “The Cage.” Angelique Pettyjohn (Shahna) appears in the film The Mad Doctor of Blood Island.

As previously mentioned, this episode was parodied on The Simpsons, and referenced in South Park’s “Hooked on Monkey Phonics” (Simpsons did it first!) and Futurama’s “Where No Fan Has Gone Before.”

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Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 15 – “The Trouble with Tribbles

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 17 – “A Piece of the Action.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.