(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)
Original Air Date: January 5, 1968
Crew Death Count: 0 (but two thralls are killed)
Bellybuttons: 1 (Kirk is the hunkiest thrall! We also have several near-misses, what with the thralls’ BDSM costumes)
“The Gamesters of Triskelion” is largely a hybrid of “Arena” and “The Menagerie,” and both of those earlier episodes were superior. This week, the Enterprise travels to the uninhabited planetoid Gamma II for a routine facilities check of the Federation’s automatic communications and astrogation (?) station there. Kirk leads a landing party of Uhura and Chekov. Uhura’s presence is logical as she is the communications expert. I guess Chekov is the substitute navigator in Sulu’s absence (George Takei was filming The Green Berets (1968) at the time, or he would have been the third member of the landing party). The landing party is abducted to the distant planet of Triskelion, where threee noncorporeal Providers maintain a collection of thralls (slaves) who fight each other for the Providers’ entertainment. Most of the episode is a fairly routine retread of the series’ most common themes: humans exceptional, aliens inferior, slavery bad, Kirk woos women, McCoy complains, Spock defends logic, Kirk loses his shirt, yawn.
The Providers are disembodied brains who live underground. (They are voiced by Bart LaRue, Walker Edmiston, and Robert Johnson, who all had significant voice roles in Star Trek and other movies and TV shows.) Like the Old Ones from “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and the Talosians in “The Menagerie,” the Providers once had physical bodies. Provider #3 tells Kirk, “Through eons of devoting ourselves exclusively to intellectual pursuits, we became the physically simple, mentally superior creatures you see before you.” Finding the brainy life boring, the Providers live vicariously through the physical exploits of their thralls. Considering the availability of advanced android technology observed in previous TOS episodes, I wonder why the Providers didn’t just implant themselves in android bodies and engage in their own fisticuffs. Perhaps like all people of privilege, they prefer to talk a good talk while sending others to face the real danger. And we can speculate that the Providers, like all slaveholders, relish the power of controlling the lives of others.
The term “thrall” is not in common use, but it’s also not made-up Star Trek jargon. It derives from an Old Norse term referring to a slave or one living in a state of servitude or submission. The obvious comparison is the gladiators of the Roman Empire. Believed to have originated with the Campanians in the 4th century BC, the popularity of the gladiatorial games peaked with the Romans in the 1st century BC. Some gladiators volunteered, but many were slaves or captured enemy soldiers, and even if they achieved public popularity, they still faced that whole fight-to-the-death scenario. Ridley Scott‘s Gladiator (2000) came long after TOS, but the brutality of gladiatorial life was popularized in the 1960 film Spartacus. We generally view slaves as being forced to work for their “owners,” but, like the Roman gladiators, the thralls primarily serve to provide entertainment. This doesn’t change the fact that the thralls have no choice in any detail of their lives.
The thralls are not native to Triskelion – we see an Andorian, and the other thralls are all unique in appearance – but they appear to have been born in captivity. Like slaves brought to North America from Africa, they have been denied their original culture and forced into a common identity of bondage. Each member of the Enterprise landing party is assigned a “drill thrall” (no double entendre intended!), and Kirk’s drill thrall Shahna (Angelique Pettyjohn) has no understanding of interplanetary travel or the possibility of life beyond Triskelion. Worse, they have been convinced that they are born to be enslaved, that they are incapable of living independently. When Kirk asks, “Why do the Providers…like to watch others being hurt, killed?” she can only answer, “That is the way.” No wonder the Enterprise crew, with basic freedom of choice, seems stubborn and rebellious in comparison.
Kirk is, of course, the central character and consistently demonstrates his established leadership style. Within seconds of being transported to Triskelion, Kirk determines they are not on Gamma II based on the sky color and the planet’s trinary star system. He remains true to his “survival is the first order of business” principle, demonstrated in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and “The Apple,” and later in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), taking time to resupply his energy reserves when Shahna brings food. He never stops gathering information, questioning Shahna at every opportunity, looking for any clue that might lead to escape. He goes so far as to seduce Shahna, confusing her with new emotions and knowledge to encourage sharing of information. He even sacrifices his own safety to diminish the suffering of others – volunteering to accept physical torture intended first for Uhura and later for Shahna – thereby earning the respect of both the thralls and the Providers.
Kirk goes too far in the end, however. Desperate to pull the wool over the Providers’ non-existent eyes, Kirk tells these career gamblers that humans also possess a love of wagering. His description of his own culture is an apt portrayal of humans in the 21st century: “We compete for everything – power, fame, women [oh, no!], everything we desire.” Lobbying for the thralls’ freedom should Kirk be victorious, he denies the Providers’ claim that the thralls are too inferior for self-reliance, claiming the Federation has taught self-governance to societies throughout the galaxy. If he’s basing this on the cultures Kirk has left in shambles with vague promises of aid (“The Return of the Archons” and “The Apple” come to mind), he’s giving himself way too much credit. Worse, Kirk gambles the lives of his crew on one final duel to the death: if he single-handedly defeats three thralls, everyone goes free; if he loses, the entire Enterprise crew will become thralls. What possesses Kirk to take this risk? It’s sheer luck that Kirk is victorious. It would have made far more sense to order Spock to turn tail and escape.
There are some terribly uncomfortable moments relating to race and gender; some deservedly uncomfortable, others a reflection of TOS’ typical clumsiness. When a disobedient thrall is offered to the others for target practice, Uhura refuses to attack him and is threatened with being horse-whipped by Kloog (Mickey Morton); Kirk insists on taking the punishment as Uhura’s captain. And that’s a relief, because the thought of seeing a Black woman whipped on network television is ghastly. (Yes, we’ve seen it in other productions and it was ghastly then, too.) The United States’ failed reckoning with slavery was on a lot of people’s minds in 1968. The Emancipation Proclamation’s 100th anniversary had been observed in 1962 and the Civil Rights Movement was in full force. The U.S. Congress passed a series of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, containing the Fair Housing Act, only three months after this episode aired. Much of the 1960s, however, was a bloodbath for civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Malcolm X, Vernon Dahmer, Wharlest Jackson, and Martin Luther King Jr. are only a few of the local and national leaders killed between 1963-1968. For any viewers with doubts about the direction required for progress, Kirk spells it out for us when he tells the Providers, “A species that enslaves other beings is hardly superior, mentally or otherwise.”
Later, Kirk’s strategy to confuse Shahna includes talk of love, which Kirk carefully defines in terms of censor-friendly gender roles: “Love is the most important thing on earth. Especially to a man and a woman.” He follows through with, “On earth, men and women live together, help each other, make each other happy.” Kirk quickly backtracks when he makes out with Shahna in an “information-gathering” session, then punches her! Take that, happiness! Kirk knocks Shahna unconscious to take her key and free his landing party from their prison cells. While we can understand Kirk’s willingness to do anything to save his crew, the ease with which he assaults Shahna after manipulating her emotions continues TOS’ disturbing pattern of misogyny. Shahna at least gets to call out Kirk’s manipulation in the last fight scene: “You lied. Everything you said.” Unlike previous conquests, Kirk doesn’t even pretend to have sincere feelings for Shahna; the class divide between them is too wide.
The worst moment comes when Lars (Steve Sandor) introduces himself to Uhura as her drill thrall. Lars enters Uhura’s cell and assaults her in TOS’ most disturbing scene since “The Enemy Within.” The actual assault occurs off-screen and leads quickly into what would have been a commercial break, so the outcome is left to the viewer’s imagination. Some interpret this to mean Uhura was raped, but a close listen to the dialog indicates otherwise. After the break, we pick up with Lars leaving Uhura’s cell and looking offended. “It is not allowed to refuse selection,” he says, implying that Uhura did exactly that and Lars intends to go crying to the Providers. After witnessing Uhura’s courage in “Space Seed,” not to mention her willingness to take on the Providers earlier in this episode, we can certainly imagine she successfully fought off her attacker. The moment is more significant than just a plot point; Uhura is defying the long history of sexual assault of Black women by white men during slavery. Nevertheless, watching the characters’ shadows matched to Uhura’s screams is terrifying.
The other crew members behave consistently with their established personas, and that’s mostly good news. Chekov calls the Providers “Cossacks,” the same insult he used on Klingons in “The Trouble with Tribbles.” When Scott observes the landing party’s disappearance from the transporter room early in the episode, he chooses preparedness over panic and conducts all the appropriate equipment checks before making his report to Spock. With Sulu and Chekov both absent and Spock in temporary command, a female officer takes over both the science station and the navigation console, the only time I recall this happening in the series. Spock demonstrates the superiority of logic when he pursues the abductees by following the only available clue, instead of idling around doing nothing, as McCoy and Scott both recommend. Spock also gets the episode’s most insightful dialogue. When McCoy refers to hope as “a human failing,” Spock reminds us what propaganda experts have been demonstrating for centuries: “Constant exposure does result in a certain degree of contamination.” Speaking of McCoy, his constant complaining (“This is ridiculous!”) demonstrates why later iterations of Star Trek don’t allow the chief medical officer to wander the bridge. And Scott adds insubordination to his troubled resume. When Spock asks if they can exceed warp six, Scott responds, “It’s my opinion that we’ve gone too far as it is, sir.”
The episode’s resolution is unsatisfying on two levels. The first is the mistake of leaving the newly-freed thralls in the care of the Providers with vague promises of citizenship classes. Why is Kirk so confident the Providers will suddenly give the thralls a better life? It’s hard to believe the Providers will give up their gambling addiction (more on that shortly) to become civic-minded social workers. Even if the thralls were born on Triskelion, their ancestors came from other worlds. Wouldn’t the thralls face better prospects with their original societies? As wrong as the Providers’ system is, Kirk has violated the Prime Directive and left another culture in shambles with no plans for follow-up. And what about the Andorian injured in the final battle – doesn’t he need medical attention?
The failure to properly confront the problems with sports gambling is the conclusion’s second problem. This ties in directly to the dilemma of the thralls’ inexperience with self-sufficiency. Brutal competition is all the thralls have ever known; wagering on the outcome is all the Providers know. It’s easy to imagine that, when free, the thralls will slip back into the old pattern of combat for sport, with the Providers eager to indulge. If people beating each other senseless for entertainment, with spectators betting on the results, seems barbaric, welcome to present-day human life. Mixed martial arts, western-style boxing, and football are far more dangerous than the sports-reporting media would lead us to believe. Yet we keep cheering on the bloodshed. Meanwhile, sports betting is a growing business, thanks in part to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned a national sports gambling ban. Sports betting in 2020 exceeded $800 million just in the state of New Jersey. So much for the myth that we can’t afford higher taxes! Imagine how different the world would be if that $800 million were invested in healthcare or education instead. Kirk speaks to all of us when he tells the Providers, “It’s an unproductive purpose, unworthy of your intellect. … Perhaps you’re not as evolved as you believe.”
Star Trek’s original series is often described in terms of the triad of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and “The Gamesters of Triskelion” is an episode of threes. A triskelion is a trinary motif of rotational symmetry depicted in a variety of forms, including three spirals or three human legs. The image dates back to the ancient world, found in Malta, Ireland, Greece, and Sicily. In more modern times, it shows up in Celtic-themed jewelry, the logo of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and a SHIELD headquarters in Marvel Comics. A more nefarious use includes three 7’s in a triskelion arrangement used by white supremacists. The triskelion can represent many occurrences of threes, whether natural or contrived, including past, present, and future, or body, mind, and soul. In “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” the thralls fight on a triskelion platform, there are three Providers, Triskelion has three suns, three Enterprise crew members are abducted, Kirk fights three thralls in the final competition, and three voices (Spock, Scott, and McCoy) guide the bridge of the Enterprise. As viewers, we might recall that we’re in the middle of a three-season series. Regardless of its flaws, “The Gamesters of Triskelion” does a fine job of expressing humanity’s past (slavery), present (civil rights legislation), and future (freedom and the promise of equality). Star Trek encourages optimism, so let’s hope the former thralls face a promising future. If these new citizens grow impatient, we can understand. As we’ve learned in our own century, the future is a long time coming.
Next: A Piece of the Action