10:27:18 on July 20
By: Steve Krutzler
Dept: Reviews - Voyager
Reviews Ex Deus
Written for TrekWeb.COM by 'O. Deus.'
UPN may never have been a first rate network but there was a time when Voyager ruled that particular roost. Not anymore. The World Wrestling Federation's idiocy is the number one show on UPN and even though Voyager's ratings have finally stabilized, that still hurts. Which of course adds to the complex stew of motivations behind "Tsunkatse" which in and of itself is not a particularly complex episode at all. That isn't to say that "Tsunkatse" is a bad episode by any means, it is a mildly enjoyable repetition of a formula that was old a long time ago filled out by some good actors and entertaining view of interspecies existance outside the Federation. But ultimately most of the attention of the Voyager audience is not so much on the episode itself but what's behind it. Is it a surrender to the UPN/WWF marketing machine? A principled rejection of violence and gladiatorial combat for entertainment's sake? Or possibly neither and both?
Tsunkatse begins with what we saw often enough on TNG and have come to see far too little in the Berman spinoffs, interspecies co-existance outside of the Federation. That is societies of different races existing, trading and working with each other in a way that vaugely resembles the modern day global village, instead of just isolated races of bad guys and victims for our heroes to battle and rescue. The Voyager crew arrive at a planet that is neither a totalitarian society or some sort of idealized hideout for people in robes with spirtual principles but is just an undefined planet and society that seems all the more genuine because no attempt is made to define and categorize it. It simply is.
Of course the problems begin when the crew takes shore leave. Shore leave on Star Trek tends to be a dangerous thing to do. Invariably someone gets kidnapped, hijacked or sidetracked by talking bunnies. While the crew becomes obsessed with a gladiatorial style of sport in which various aliens fight each other in a ritualized series of moves know as "Tsunkatse", the Doctor takes the cliched civilized view and goes looking for culture and museums. They don't however seem to realize that the sport they've become so enthused about is fought at times to the death, that its participants are not volunteers and that it does not occur live but is broadcast from a hidden location. Considering that they know every detail about every player it seems odd that they would fail to learn these things; but then again there is every possibility that as the Voyager crew travel through the Delta Quadrant they might become similarly obsessed with thousands of alien cultures and knowing that they'll be on their way soon they only learn the surface details of what interests them rather than getting the big picture. Either way it doesn't really matter because with this kind of formula it is understood that there are things that the rescuers can't know until they run directly into them and the snappy and suspensefull work by one of Trek's best directors makes the surprises shocking even if you can easily predict them ahead of time.
So in no time Seven and Tuvok are "drafted" British navy style into becoming fighters for the interstellar WWF organization that conducts these bouts. Some people may complain about this being another Seven episode, but really what other possible options are there? If you were recruting gladiators from among the Voyager crew, who would you choose? Neelix, Kim, Paris, Janeway, the Doctor? There have been at least two episodes this season dealing with Torres' rage issues and Chakotay has had an ill recieved boxing episode. Admittedly a Chakotay/Tuvok version of this episode in which Tuvok has to struggle with his rage and Chakotay with his spirtual principles while resolving lingering issues with each other would have been a lot better but neither of them are major characters and Seven is. Still however the episode might have made better use of Tuvok than as a bleeding crippled victim for Seven to rescue. But Tuvok as Seven's mentor must be out of the way for the Hirogen hunter played by DS9's Martok to take over.
Hertzler does turn in a moving performance as the gladiator training his unknowing replacement to eliminate him but he and Jeffrey Coombs, DS9's Weyoun, as the sleazy fight promoter are just trimming. For the episode to be more than just a regurgitation of formula would require an extaordinary performance from Jeri Ryan, which unsurprisingly she's not capable of. While Ryan is not just the T&A in a can many have accused her of being and is a capable enough actress, she's not anywhere at the level of Star Trek's best actors. Ryan does a good enough job of showing raw distress oozing through Seven's steel exterior but she can't take it any further to show a more complex character arc which is exactly what's needed here. Without this, all that Tsunkatse can really showcase is Seven of Nine being bitter, afraid and desperate. That might be nice for one or two scenes but the problem is Ryan can't do anything else and it shows.
As a Borg, Seven of Nine took part in assimilating and destroying races and individuals on a scale so vast that it boggles the mind. As an individual she has slowly moved from a more pragmatic and callous perspective to a more excessively humanistic center in her quest to become truly human again. As such she's poorly prepeared for such a contest which requires that she be neither Borg or human but some combination of the two. A combination that would allow her to physically and instinctively contest her opponent. Her human half is revolted by the contest and when the pragmatic necessity of it is forced on her by way of Tuvok, she responds by switching to her Borg half in a contest that requires her to combine the two. And here she ends up in the match that is the most discussed 30 seconds of the episode even though nothing climactic happens here and what does happen here seems to have been missed by most viewers.
There is a certain questionable daring in bashing and promoting your network at the same. Letterman and Leno both do it as often as possible, denigrating shows on their network while getting viewers to remember them at the same time. The Simpsons and now Futurama won't stop bashing Fox and Frasier follows the Paramount dictate to promote Star Trek by creating an offensive stereotypical Trek fan to ridicule. Voyager though here forms a more intelectually complex strike against its own network and the WWF by creating an episode dedicated to attacking violence as entertainment while trying to lure viewers from the WWF to Voyager through featuring one of their superstars in this action sequence. While the action sequence is clearly intended to demonstrate the evil of violence, the overall tactic seems to be the rough moral equivalent of cursing the company but cashing their checks. Voyager condemns the WWF but it's more than happy to take their viewers and showcase their own material in a violent sequence taken as entertainment. There might be a moral behind it all but then the media has long specialized in showcasing prurient materials for the purposes of moral condemnation.
"Tsunkatse" itself is written so as to be subtle enough to prevent the average WWF viewer from understanding the thrust of the material while appeasing their regular fans with a "The More You Know" commentary thereby trying to have their cake and eat it too. Addressing violence as entertainment in the direction of the WWF is really a bit silly since unlike the violence of the Tsunkatse combats, the WWF is fake cartoonish violence as entertainment. In a time when war is entertainment and the average person is completely incapable of making basic moral distinctions, the WWF is mostly a target for humorless people defending what they see as civilized culture and is an unworthy target for Star Trek to engage. And while Voyager has never specialized in the kind of extreme choreographed martial arts popular on TV today or has pushed the boundaries of physical violence in the way that DS9's infamous spine cracking sequence has, it still is an action show where the ship is put at risk in nearly every episode and violence usually has few consenquences.
If Voyager episodes survive for as long as the original series, no one will know or understand or remember 30 years from now the WWF controversy. They will judge the episode on its own terms as a midly enjoyable repetition of a standard formula, with very little to offer beyond that. Tsunkatse is formula and the climax of Tsunkatse is classic formula too. Seven struggles to make the decision we know she won't make, Voyager confronts the sleazy promoter and rescues both her and her opponent who looks forwards to rebuilding his life while Seven is concerned over how close she came to killing someone. From a better actor this kind of soul searching might actually be fascinating but from Ryan it's just another chapter in Seven's search for her lost humanity and about as interesting. Ironically enough for an episode dedicated to condemning violence as entertainment, Tsunkatse disproved its own point by making its own violence about as interesting as a cold cup of coffee. With no main character worth watching and talented actors on the sidelines to show you just what you're missing, "Tsunkatse" has nothing to offer the audience past a single viewing. Like that which it condemns, it ends up just being disposble entertainment.