Star Trek: Voyager – Season 6, Episode 15
I previously wrote at length about the peculiar appeal of a stupid idea triumphing in spite of itself. It’s something I really enjoy seeing because of the challenge involved, like spinning dramatic gold out of straw. I bring this up because when “Tsunkatse” first aired I was not only uninterested in it, but prepared to fully HATE it with every fiber of my being. So imagine my surprise when it ended up not being a total piece of garbage, but in fact an entertaining and competently-done episode of Voyager.
Why was I prepared to hate it? There’s no delicate way to put it, so I’ll just say it: I really hated pro-wrestling at the time. I’m still not a fan, but I no longer despise it and I’ve come to understand some of its appeal (the memes it has generated are quite sublime and I’ll always be infinitely grateful for this gem, literally one of my favorite things ever). Star Trek: Voyager (and Deep Space Nine) was a part of the now-defunct UPN network alongside WWF SmackDown!, of which this episode was created as a promotional tie-in. One of the things I loved about Star Trek was that it was high-minded futuristic entertainment totally disconnected from the petty concerns of the modern day. Not all of it has held up well, but the majority has retained an impressively timeless quality that transcends the age in which it was made. So the notion of mixing my favorite pop culture property with a form of entertainment I found brainless and trashy was really repulsive. Again, I don’t think of pro-wrestling in that way anymore, but suffice it to say I was NOT excited about this episode.
I never would have dreamed that Dwayne Johnson would ascend to become the biggest, highest-paid movie star in the world some 20 years later, but the tides of history are kooky like that. So this episode is therefore also notable for having arguably the most famous guest star ever on Star Trek (so far).
But the guest stars don’t end there, and “Tsunkatse” is ultimately more memorable for the inclusion of Jeffrey Combs and J.G. Hertzler, both talented and very welcome alums from Deep Space Nine. This episode aired after that series had wrapped, and it was great and bittersweet to see both of them again.
The plot boils down to “Space Bloodsport” and turns out to be surprisingly awesome. As high-minded as Star Trek can be, it still engages in a great deal of action, and fisticuffs have been an integral part of the franchise from the very beginning – so my original high horse in regards to this episode was no doubt uncalled for. Trek’s heroes are always reluctant to fight, but totally willing to when all other options are exhausted, and especially if it’s necessary to protect others. As much as I may have looked down upon pro-wrestling, I can’t deny the lizard brain appeal of powerful fighters duking it out on screen in well-choreographed action. We saw Worf kill his way through several Jem’Hadar in a Dominion prison camp with his bare hands during Deep Space Nine’s “By Inferno’s Light” – one of my absolute favorite episodes of Trek. “Tsunkatse” isn’t quite as awesome, but it’s pretty good.
Voyager is in orbit of Norcadia Prime, a planet that provides many welcome and varied opportunities of shore leave entertainment for the crew. One of which is Tsunkatse, which Torres and Chakotay really seem into (let’s put up another tally mark on the “Chakotay Random Interest” scoreboard!). It’s hand-to-hand (and foot-to-foot) fighting, similar to the mixed martial arts that have become so popular since the episode aired. But with aliens in shiny clothes and with light thingies on their limbs and torsos.
Seven and Tuvok, on the other hand, decide to jaunt out in a shuttlecraft to study a nearby nebula (neeeerrrds), but get intercepted by an alien ship. They beam a bomb on board and it goes off in Tuvok’s face, incapacitating both of them. When Seven wakes, she’s in the backstage barracks aboard the ship and surrounded by Tsunkatse fighters. A slimy little weasel named Penk (Combs, the king of playing slimy little weasels) happily informs her that she’ll be fighting for him now – they’ve never had a Borg before and people will be very eager to see her get her ass kicked. Oh, fun.
Seven demands to see Tuvok, and Penk drags him in – charred and severely injured from the bomb. Penk threatens to put him in a fight-to-the-death “red” match, but Seven agrees to fight in exchange for medical attention for Tuvok. Eavesdropping on their conversation (and providing some pointed snark directed at Penk) is a Hirogen fighter (Hertzler) who persuades Penk not to waste Seven on a deadly match right out of the gate (curiously, his character doesn’t get an actual name, so I shall dub him “Hartok”).
Later on, Chakotay, Paris, Kim, and Neelix excitedly watch a Tsunkatse match. It’s a loud and frenzied event, with flashy lights and blaring music – like a pro-wrestling match on steroids (or more steroids…). The next match starts and out steps… The Space Rock. He even gives his trademark eyebrow, which is just maximum silliness.
But things quickly turn serious when Seven steps out to face this gigantic alien he-man. Chakotay spends a lot of breath talking about how strategic and civilized the sport actually is (even though he didn’t even know it existed up until a few days ago, but whatever), however Seven being in the ring is suddenly a problem? Why? Because she’ll get hurt and possibly killed? Like all these other aliens you dudes have been watching and cheering on? The difference being you didn’t actually know them, so who cares? Of course, Seven is a prisoner and is fighting against her will, but the crew doesn’t necessarily know that at this point; maybe they quickly deduce it and extrapolate that perhaps the rest of the fighters are prisoners too? The moral component of the Tsunkatse sport is barely examined at all by the crew, which is a little unfortunate. Blue (non-lethal) and Red (to the death) matches are a basic, well-publicized component of the sport, so anyone who claims to know anything about it (ahem, Chakotay) couldn’t not know that. But anyway.
Attempts to beam Seven out aren’t successful, because it turns out that her and The Asteroid aren’t present in the ring; they’re somewhere else and being holographically transmitted into the ring (many rings throughout the sector, actually). After some trash talk (“Resistance is futile,” “So is all your talk”), Seven and her opponent go at it. They have doohickeys on their hands and feet that give painful tinglies when they contact other doohickeys on their chest and backs. A key aspect of the sport involves attacking your opponent’s vulnerabilities while protecting your own. Despite not depicted as having any fighting experience previously (but having cybernetic super strength), Seven does pretty well and almost defeats The Meteor, but hesitates at the pivotal moment. He responds by giving her a beatdown and swiftly defeats her.
She wakes up with Hartok healing her wounds. He was impressed by her performance but notes the lack of bloodthirst that caused her to lose the fight. He offers to train her to become a champion. She’s not interested, but Penk enters and cheerily informs her that ratings were through the roof on her fight – people loved seeing a Borg get her ass kicked, so imagine how much they’ll enjoy seeing one die! Penk has scheduled Seven for a red match in a couple of days. She doesn’t want to kill anyone, but the only way Tuvok will survive is if she fights and wins, so she accepts Hartok’s offer.
Penk is the kind of villain rarely seen on Star Trek – the sociopathic media mogul. And Combs of course portrays him with odious aplomb, mixing the obsequiousness of Weyoun without any of the diplomacy or moral pretensions that character often exhibited. Trek barely acknowledges the existence of mass media/entertainment so it’s an interesting and new angle. At one point Neelix tries diplomatic channels to try and get Seven back, but learns that so much revenue is involved in Tsunkatse that the government looks the other way and pretends not to know its fighters are slaves. It’s a nice and sadly realistic plot point.
Seven studies the standard rules of Tsunkatse, but Hartok impresses upon her that winning involves more than that. In a funny bit, she complains after he attacks her with a move that’s not one of the 33 santioned maneuvers. “There must be 34,” he muses, and berates her for trying to assimilate Tsunkatse. She needs the killer instinct that must be felt, not calculated. In another good bit, she returns the favor by attacking a tender spot of his she observed. He reveals some of his own Tragic Backstory of how he used to be a hunter and had a son, but they were separated when he was captured and he hasn’t seen him since. He carries the shame of being the prey instead of the hunter for his son to see. Seven expresses sympathy and Hartok suddenly attacks, barking at her to never drop her guard or allow sympathy to interfere with making the kill. Hertzler channels the gruff and cantankerous energy he brought to Martok in crafting the Hirogen’s grizzled trainer character. He’s just the best.
Eventually Seven reaches the end of her training with him and seems ready to win (and kill) at all costs. She confides to an improved Tuvok that she’s scared of what she might do to her opponent in the ring. He’s sympathetic and simply advises her to do whatever she can to survive. It’s a surprising attitude, as Vulcans have previously displayed pacifistic philosophies (even at the expense of their own life). He’s the security guy of course so he’s no pacifist, but it’s a little odd to hear him basically say, “Well, if you gotta kill somebody ya gotta kill somebody. Go get it, champ.”
Seven enters the ring for the fight, and not quite shockingly, she has to face… Hartok. Feeling betrayed, she thinks that he only trained her to learn her weaknesses. But in fact, he did so in order for her to be able to kill him – he’s been a prisoner for 19 years and is ready to die to end his servitude. As character beats go, it’s equal parts metal and pathos. She doesn’t want to, but he doesn’t give her much choice as he attacks.
At the same time, Voyager also has a fight of its own against Penk’s larger and better armed ship (that’s covered with satellite dishes which are kind of ridiculous). They manage to knock out the transmitters that televise the fight out to the audience. He diverts power from shields to maintain the transmission, allowing Voyager to transport through them.
Seven is getting beat until Hartok taunts her and calls her imperfect (audience: oOoOoOoh!). Angered, she promptly kicks his ass and is ready to deliver the final blow when they get beamed back to Voyager. She stands down and helps him to his feet. Later on in sickbay he wonders if she would have killed him, and she’s not sure. She later confides to Tuvok that her behavior in the ring bothers her. She’s worked hard to regain her humanity since leaving the Borg and is afraid she may have lost it. But Tuvok assures her that her guilt and remorse are signs that she has only reaffirmed it. It’s not mind-blowing stuff, but at least the violence Seven is forced to engage in gets connected to her past and her character arc.
Although it features violence, Star Trek always takes care to show its effects both on the victims and the people who commit it. In an episode that revolves around brutal fistfighting, it manages to still value the virtues of nonviolence and mercy. To this day I still don’t quite understand the appeal of pro-wrestling, but I do like action. There’s a primitive allure to it and it does require a certain… powering down of the brain’s higher functions to fully appreciate. “Tsunkatse” manages to loop in the same thrill of pro-wrestling and mix it with some nice characterization for a fun, flashy, and loud romp in the ring.
- It’s an interesting story choice to sideline Tuvok, given that he’s the resident martial arts expert. Ryan is generally more fun to watch and Seven has a greater reservoir of emotion and appeal compared to Tuvok, so it makes sense from a dramatic standpoint. But it’s also an example of the show highlighting Seven at the expense of another character whose background and skillset heavily relate to the plot at hand already. It would be like shoehorning her into a medical storyline instead of the Doctor. What if instead of dispatching Tuvok, they both had to fight each other at the end???
- I shouldn’t compare the episode to “By Inferno’s Light”,” but I’m gonna. I think where that episode succeeds more is in showing the effect that the constant fighting has on Worf vs. Seven here. In his case, he’s progressively thrashed as he fights Jem’Hadar day after day, which steadily wears down his thirst for battle. In a later episode he even reveals he contemplated letting himself get killed, as he saw no end to the ordeal. Seven only has two fights here, so the pressure and lack of options available to her as a plot point aren’t as intense as they could have been. By the time her second fight rolls around, she’s so focused on winning that she’s afraid she’ll go too far, but the episode hasn’t quite connected those dots and it feels more like telling than showing. It would have been cool to have shown that, and lean into the notion that as she fights she gets better, more efficient, and more brutal at it in that adaptable Borg way of hers. That sounds like a better use of time than Neelix futzing with his sunburn? This show’s priorities could be so weird sometimes.
- There’s a genuinely funny and charming scene of the crew joshing each other in the mess hall (they’re kind of picking on Harry, but fortunately he’s not having any of it). One of the great things about all Trek series is that their casts have good chemistry with each other, and the scene puts into sharp relief how seldomly Voyager let that easygoing rapport find its way onto the screen.
- Several shots show a Voth in the audience. We of course remember them as the super-advanced dinosaur species originally from Earth. Not so evolved now, are ya?
- Paramount’s UPN is of course no more, but now they’re back with their Paramount Network, which may or may not fare better. UPN was such a punchline back in the day that I was gobsmacked when Paramount announced they were getting back on that horse. Funny how cyclical things are.