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[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Tsunkatse"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: Are you ready for a smackdown? If not, then beware this review, which contains spoilers for Voyager s Tsunkatse. Nutshell: Surprisingly tolerable.
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 16, 2000
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      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
      villain persona)
      -----

      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
      relevant.

      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
      audience feedback.

      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
      eyebrow-raise.)

      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
      like this?

      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
      completely--just mostly.

      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
      stuff up.

      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?
      Grrr...)

      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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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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