Warning: Are you ready for a smackdown? If not, then beware this review,
which contains spoilers for Voyager's "Tsunkatse."
Nutshell: Surprisingly tolerable. Nothing particularly interesting, but
not a bad bubble-gum show. Just don't be prepared to think.
Plot description: When Seven and Tuvok are captured, Seven is forced into
fighting in a violent arena sports-entertainment spectacle.
Star Trek: Voyager -- "Tsunkatse"
Airdate: 2/9/2000 (USA)
Teleplay by Robert Doherty
Story by Gannon Kenney
Directed by Mike Vejar
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Rating out of 4: **1/2
"If three billion people paid to see you hurt, imagine how many will pay
to see you die." -- Penk (delivered by the reliably amusing Jeffrey Combs
When you have an episode that comes billed by its trailers as "America's
Smackdown Hero takes on Voyager's Battlestar Babe," let's just say that
one doesn't exactly go in with the highest of expectations. I'll be
honest: I was expecting this episode to be a cynical ratings-stunt
disaster. (And besides, with this episode having aired the same week as
"Homicide: The Movie," how can I honestly say I cared about what Voyager
was up to?)
All things considered, "Tsunkatse" is surprisingly okay. I'm hardly
thrilled with it, but as an hour of lightweight entertainment, it fares
reasonably and is not quite as dumb as the trailers make it look. It's
average fare--a workable mix of lowbrow action-violence exploitation and
middlebrow (if way-too-familiar) themes on violence.
Really, how many times has Trek done the Violence Is Bad episode? Plus,
it seems to me this episode has an unconscious built-in conflict of
interests. It presents to us as viewers the idea of arena fighting as a
"fun" demonstration of athleticism before then presenting the same thing
as "brutal" and "wrong" in story terms.
The plot. (What plot?) Let's see. Seven and Tuvok are captured while on a
shore-leave shuttle expedition (yes, only these two would investigate a
spatial anomaly while on shore leave). Tuvok is injured in an explosion
and requires medical treatment. The captors, however, will only grant
treatment if Seven agrees to participate in a brutal arena fighting sport
called Tsunkatse. Prior to the kidnappings, we've already been introduced
to Tsunkatse, which resembles a cross between kickboxing and pro
wresting, and is seen being enjoyed by spectators including Chakotay and
other members of the Voyager crew. The rules allege some sort of strategy
involving hitting the electronic targets affixed to one's opponent, but
the strategy mostly seems to be to beat the hell out of the other guy
before he beats the hell out of you. The targets seem only vaguely
Tsunkatse as an organization is obviously supposed to parallel
professional sports, and pro wrestling organizations like the WWF in
particular. There are dialog nods to the marketing aspects--it's a huge
revenue builder for several nearby planets--and the depiction of the
event includes a lot of showboating, rock-concert-like stage lighting,
and screaming spectators. Like the WWF, it's designed to play for an
audience. The fights are broadcast from a holo-projection arena on board
a ship that has no local crowd. For some reason I like the idea of a
Trek-technology take on pay-per-view, but it seems sort of odd that since
the actual fighters are in an empty arena they don't get that immediate
In any case, even if it weren't for UPN's cross-promotion with its
popular "WWF Smackdown!" it would still be very obvious that one source
behind the writers' depiction of Tsunkatse was wresting.
And, yes, the cast even includes real-life WWF star Duane "The Rock"
Johnson, who plays Seven's first opponent. But when considering the
X-treme Promotion used to hype The Rock's appearance in this episode,
it's perhaps interesting to note that he only has about two minutes of
screen time. I never thought such a question would arise in this review,
but will WWF fans feel short-changed? (Maybe less is more; I did, after
all, get a chuckle out of The Rock playing to the audience with his WWF
The episode's real guest stars are none other than reliable DS9 alumni
Jeffrey Combs and J.G. Hertzler. Combs plays Penk, the guy who runs this
arena starship and arranges the fights. He "recruits" (read: captures)
promising candidates to fight in his games so he can make big money off
the broadcasts. And you thought UPN went to extremes to sell their
material. (I found it amusingly fittingly cynical that the nearby planets
tolerated and disavowed any knowledge of these kidnappings for the simple
reason that they don't want to rock the boat. After all, a large
percentage of their revenue depends on Tsunkatse profits.)
Part of "Tsunkatse" is fight action, giving us scenes like the one where
Seven goes into the ring and gets her Borg butt kicked by The Rock. Not
exactly material worth thinking about, but at least it's presented with
some semblance of skill. The arena fight story isn't exactly my favorite
Trek premise. I was none to fond of TOS's lackluster "Arena" and I hated
the boring and cliche-ridden "Gamesters of Triskelion." I expected
"Tsunkatse" would fall in a similar vein (it's original title, in fact,
was "Arena" before someone realized the title had been used previously in
Trek). But somehow the episode executes better and is more entertaining.
It's not much more smart, but can you really expect smarts from something
There are stunt scenes and punches and spin-kicks and body slams. Should
Star Trek be the WWF? I vote no, but I also vote that Trek can borrow
whatever it wants within reason if it can utilize said borrowed material
effectively. "Tsunkatse" does not cross the line into the untenable; it
borrows some of the sports-entertainment fun factor without selling out
It also features some very effective guest performances that elevate
material that could've fallen flat in lesser hands. DS9 turned me into a
Jeffrey Combs fan, and here Combs is amusing as Penk, who is a shallow
villain, yes (see quote at top of review), but is very funny in his
succinctness and smiles a friendly smile as he announces that, yes,
Seven, you're going into a *death match*.
The other important character here is the Hirogen warrior played by
Hertzler, who is Penk's number one fighter, a ring survivor for 19 years.
Hertzler is a commanding presence as he teaches Seven in the ways of the
Tsunkatse--never mind that the story of the fighter trainer/trainee is
about the oldest thing about fight movies. And when Seven gets into the
ring, the fact that it's her own trainer that she ends up facing in this
death match is pretty much an anticipated aspect of the formula.
But the episode manages to survive on good pacing and good guest roles,
and Jeri Ryan does well in a physical role, getting to play the badass
(dare we go so far as saying the "battlestar babe"? Where did they come
up with "battlestar" anyway?) while conveying enough hesitation regarding
her character's dilemma to give this episode a legitimate (if tired)
storyline. The question: Can she go through with actually killing her
opponent, especially when it turns out to be her own trainer?
So will anyone actually die in the ring? Or will Voyager beam out both
exploited contestants at the Last Possible Moment and make Seven's Big
Decision unnecessary? Can we vote more than once?
The Voyager/Delta Flyer/alien ship battle scenes leading up to the
beam-out strike me as unnecessary, but hey, it's sweeps month. Gotta blow
We also get our dose of Trekkian Morality Dialog, which, frankly, feels
very weary. Isn't it about time we have an episode about violence where
the dialog is somewhat new? (Hint: This isn't it.) At the very least,
"Tsunkatse" isn't preachy and ties relevantly into Seven's character and
her quest for humanity, and uses Tuvok reasonably as a supporting
character. But don't expect great insights; Seven's quest isn't looking
like the newest thing in the world these days either.
In many ways, "Tsunkatse" is challenge-free trash, but at least it's
entertainingly assembled trash.
Of course, I do have to ask: What are the Hirogen doing out here? I can
*maybe* accept that a lone warrior who has been a prisoner to this game
for 19 years *might* be this far from his homeland by now. But if we're
something like 30,000 light-years from where Voyager ran into the Hirogen
during season four, how can there be a convenient nearby Hirogen scout
ship way out here to give our new friend a ride home? (I give
up--Voyager's location in the Delta Quadrant is completely arbitrary. Why
even *bother* shaving thousands of light-years off the trip, anyway?
One thing I found a little shortsighted on the part of the Voyager crew
was the notion that they weren't aware of the extent of the Tsunkatse
ring violence. How could they have heard about this huge sport and be
cheering it on, yet didn't know about the existence of the popular "red
match," a battle to the death? What kind of blinders are they wearing?
But then again, this is the Voyager crew, who respect other cultures.
Apparently they respect the right for two ring opponents to beat the hell
out of each other. It's all about being a good sport, I guess.
Next week: Kiddie Borg. Don't piss 'em off.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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