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Star Trek: Voyager – Tsunkatse (Review)

Tsunkatse is the crossover between Star Trek: Voyager and WWF that you didn’t know you needed. Mostly because you didn’t actually need it.

Tsunkatse is a delightfully bizarre piece of television, and perhaps the most cynical piece of Star Trek ever produced. That is saying something, considering that the franchise also includes Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, an episode that literalises William Shatner’s paranoid delusions about his fellow cast members. Separated from the episode by almost two decades, it is still hard to believe that Tsunkatse actually exists, even allowing for other “out there” premises for Voyager episodes like Threshold or Concerning Flight.

Somehow, the production team couldn’t secure Jean-Claude Van Damme as a guest star.

To be fair, Tsunkatse isn’t awful. It isn’t especially good either, but it never develops into the trainwreck suggested by the premise of making a Star Trek episode designed to cash-in on the popularity of wrestling. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but there is something to be said for the fact that Tsunkatse manages to be a truly memorable episode of Voyager based around a highly dubious premise, without ever collapsing into itself. Tsunkatse is better than it has any right to be, and that might just be enough.

Might.

Rock your world.

It’s impossible to talk about Tsunkatse without talking about UPN. This is good, because it is impossible to talk about Voyager without talking about UPN. In its own weird way, tethering itself to a broadcast channel seems to have been the worst decision in the history of the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek: The Next Generation had thrived in first-run syndication, free of the constraints of network interference and able to tell the stories that it wanted to tell. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine never had the same kind of ratings, but it also luxuriated in the creative freedom.

Star Trek: Voyager, and later Star Trek: Enterprise, found themselves anchored to a particular television channel. Their fate was tied up in that of UPN, the television network that Paramount had launched in the mid-nineties. The television landscape had been redrawn in the mid-nineties, with Fox emerging as a serious contender to the established big three networks. This was partly due to a deal with New World Communications that allowed them access to a huge number of television markets, and partly due to a deal with the NFL that made Fox home to one of the country’s most beloved pastimes.

Fight night.

For decades, the prospect of a fourth network had seemed like a pipe dream, something unattainable and impossible in the television market place as it existed. However, Fox’s success in the first half of the nineties set a precedent. Eager to claim their piece of the proverbial pie, Warner Brothers launched “the WB”and Paramount launched “the UPN” in January 1995 . It was a bold move, meaning that Paramount was no longer just producing content, but was also distributing it.

In the mid-nineties, with the success of The Next Generation, it made sense that Star Trek would be the crown jewel of Paramount’s television network. When it premiered, Voyager was treated as royalty. It was the only show broadcast on the network’s first evening, the third Monday of January 1995. Voyager was the only series to survive UPN’s disastrous first season, and there was some indication that the network was relatively happy with Voyager‘s performance in those early years. However, UPN’s interest would soon drift away from Voyager.

“I feel we should rastafy Chakotay by … ten percent or so.”

In the years following the debut of Voyager, UPN pivoted its audience towards neglected demographics, producing a number of African-American-led sitcoms. This was a familiar tactic when establishing a new network. Fox had done something similar in its early days, although such networks tended to cynically move away from those audiences once they had established a ratings foothold. As Dave Chappelle warily noted of his dealings with Fox in July 1998:

“They fly me out for a creative meeting. I’m in a room full of white people, and they proceed to tell me why we need more white people on the show, so it can have a more universal appeal.”

Chappelle continued, “This network built itself on black viewers, and what they’re saying is white people are narcissistic. They don’t want to watch black people, they want to watch themselves. It tells every black artist no matter what you do, you need whites to succeed.”

UPN followed a similar playbook. In its early years, the station came to be known colloquially as “the black channel.” Even in that context, Voyager felt like an awkward fit. Despite its relatively diverse cast, Voyager was never going to integrate particularly well with that network direction, with many of its diverse regulars pushed into the background for three white characters. The more diverse Deep Space Nine might have worked better with the brand.

There are moments when Voyager feels whiter than Seinfeld

However, as Fox had discovered during its early years, UPN quickly determined that cultivating underserved African American viewers was not a sustainable approach to building a major television network. In the late nineties, this African American programming found itself being squeezed out and marginalised to make room for an attempt to cultivate a different audience:

Although UPN gave the series its chance (CBS bought the original pilot, then passed on the show) and has tried to promote the show, Moesha has been demographically isolated there in a way that may only get worse this season. UPN (which went on the air in January 1995) has been more popular with men than with women; Star Trek: Voyager is its highest-rated show. This year, UPN decided to chase young male viewers even more aggressively, adding a two-hour pro wrestling show to Thursday nights, along with some action-adventure series and sci-fi movies.

That means promotional spots, in which a network advertises its other shows to viewers, will be seen mostly by people not likely to be attracted to Moesha. To make matters worse, the late-90’s audience phenomenon of white viewers tuning out shows with mostly black casts has accelerated, as the proliferation of networks has made viewers more clicker-happy than before. Virtually gone are the days when people of all colors and ages enjoyed The Cosby Show.

Incidentally, the network’s decision to aggressively target young male audience members may account for the shift that took place during the third and fourth seasons of Voyager. At that point, the series transitioned towards more action-action oriented storytelling than The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, as demonstrated by episodes like Future’s End, Part IFuture’s End, Part II, Macrocosm, Scorpion, Part I, Scorpion, Part II. And it introduced Seven of Nine.

Packing it in.

To be fair to Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, the production team working on Voyager have also made a conscious effort to downplay direct network interference in particular narrative choices on Voyager. In contrast, they have been very candid about attempted network interference in Enterprise, such as an aborted attempt to have a different band playing in the mess hall every week. Nevertheless, watching Voyager, there is a clear sense that the show aligned itself with the broader demands of the network, compromising itself in a way that The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine never had to.

This is particularly obvious with the character of Seven of Nine. Seven exists primarily as a character intended to lure in that young male demographic to Voyager. This is not to dismiss the interesting aspects of the character, nor to dismiss Jeri Ryan’s superlative performance in the role, but simply to acknowledge that the decision to put her in a skintight catsuit at the end of The Gift and to have her proposition Harry Kim in Revulsion were all condescending (and embarrassing) attempts to add a juvenile approximation of sex appeal to Voyager.

The attempts to control the budget by reducing energy expenditure were not well-received.

In the late nineties, UPN underwent something of a rebranding in the hopes of broadening its viewing base.  Analyst Mark Berman reported , “Now they’re kind of going in the direction of the WB. The WB considers itself the young adult network. UPN now is considering itself the network for young adult males.” Signing a deal with WWF was a huge part of this, with the network approaching it as analogous to Fox’s deal with the NFL earlier in the decade:

But the biggest winner is UPN, which, thanks to Smackdown!, has finally established a Nielsen beachhead almost five years after the network’s launch. Since the show’s debut on Aug. 26, the two-hour extravaganza ‑an outrageous concoction of sex, soap, and jaw‑dropping physicality‑ has slapped a hammerlock on the precious young‑male demo; it consistently wins its time slot among male teens, and places second only to NBC among males 18‑34 on Thursdays. In addition, it has improved that night’s performance among total viewers a whopping 168 percent since last season.

For UPN CEO‑president ‑ and admitted wrestling fan – Dean Valentine, snagging the WWF meant acquiring an established franchise, a potential flagship show that was itself already a pop‑culture Titanic. Likening the net’s alliance with the WWF to Fox’s with professional football, he says, “We needed our version of the NFL or NBA or NASCAR, [something] that was self‑starting, that would bring an audience with it.”

By February 2000, when Tsunkatse was broadcast, UPN was attracting almost half a million viewers more than its primary competitor (the WB) thanks in large part due to the success of its wrestling line-up. The deal with WWF gave UPN a sense of commercial legitimacy and credibility that had been sorely lacking to that point. With all of this going on, it makes sense that the Star Trek franchise would feel somewhat neglected and unloved at UPN.

“And the wrest is history…”

It should be noted that UPN’s commitment to WWF was not uncontroversial of itself. These vocal opponents might have been stirred by the resurgence of a moral political right during the nineties. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign spent a considerable amount of time engaging with what it perceived to be the abundance of violence in popular culture, while violence in video games was a huge cultural issue and moral guardians were emboldened by the scandal involving President Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinski.

As such, UPN’s attempts to court young male viewers with wrestling attracted vocal criticism from those concerned about the moral health of the nation. In August 2001, the Parents Television Council would argue that UPN “lapped the field” in terms of violence on television, in large part due to its broadcast of wrestling. There was the obligatory moral panic about what might happen if children were to imitate their favourite wrestling stars without the proper training.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But the shareholders always take priority.”

Of course, there was also a certain amount of thinly-veiled classism at play in these criticisms, as Lisa de Moraes argued of television critics’ response to the success of WWF:

Television critics–who have named a series about mobsters who murder people for a living the best show on TV–have a problem with the violence in WWF wrestling.

They have crowned HBO’s The Sopranos the very best that the small screen has to offer these days, commending its writing, directing and acting.

It’s also one of the most violent series. But it’s what we at The TV Column call brie-and-white-wine violence, the kind you can watch while sipping a crisp North Coast pinot blanc. WWF wrestling, on the other hand, is not. And for that, the critics and reporters gathered at the summer TV press tour here cannot forgive UPN, which plans to air WWF Smackdown! on Thursday nights starting this fall.

There are some flaws with the argument, most notably that The Sopranos aims for an appreciably older audience than WWF Smackdown! and that David Chase was using the violence as a vehicle to explore and deconstruct American identity in a way that WWF Smackdown! might not have been.

Open wounds.

At the same time, there is some validity to the argument. There is a sense that there are certain types of popular culture that are deemed “worthy” of coverage and discussion, and that there are large swathes of popular culture that go under-explored because they do not fit within that particular template. Emily Nussbaum has argued, for example, that the contributions of shows like Sex and the City to the evolution of television have been overlooked because it was not a prestige drama. There are similar debates about the critical tendency to dismiss reality television.

Tsunkatse is interesting in this regard, because it plays with this expectation a little bit. After all, the characters who populate Star Trek shows tend to be seen as refined and cultured. They listen to classical music and they quote the literary classics. Tom Paris’ affection for popular culture is treated as something of an eccentricity. Of course, there are still base pleasures in this civilised future. Riker and his father attacked each other with sticks to work out their issues in The Icarus Factor. Riker started hosting a poker game in The Measure of a Man. Even Chakotay demonstrated an interest in boxing in The Fight.

Blood! Blood! Blood!

Indeed, Chakotay’s affection for the eponymous sport in Tsunkatse is one of the nicer and subtler pieces of character continuity across the entire run of Voyager. Of course Chakotay could appreciate Tsunkatse. Similarly, it makes sense that Torres would be drawn to the sport as well, given that the bulk of her characterisation consists of “barely suppressed rage.” At the same time, it is strange how eagerly the rest of the crew takes to the sport, to the point that Paris and Kim nearly start wrestling with one another in the mess hall after witnessing one bout.

The issue is not so much the appreciation of the sport. After all, there is something to be said for martial arts as a fascinating and compelling spectacle. It just seems strange that the characters should become so excitable and enthusiastic, despite being trained professionals. It seems even more exaggerated than the enthusiasm that Kirk’s crew showed for the Tribbles in The Trouble with Tribbles, and that episode excused such enthusiasm by pitching itself as a comedy episode and suggesting that the Tribbles were biologically designed to be adorable.

And that’s enough characterisation for the moment…

The crew’s enthusiasm for Tsunkatse feels unnatural and forced, contributing to the sense that Tsunkatse is an awkward attempt at brand synergy from UPN. At the same time, it’s hard to complain too much. The characters actually seem engaged when discussing the sport. Voyager has often struggled to create a sense of an ensemble, in large part because characters like Chakotay, Kim and Tuvok often exist for no greater purpose than to provide exposition. Chakotay’s fannish enthusiasm and Kim’s playful roughhousing are hardly the cornerstones of good characterisation, but they at least give the characters something to do.

Perhaps more interesting is the decision to have criticisms of the sport come from the sober killjoy characters of Seven of Nine and the EMH. “From what I’ve heard, Tsunkatse is crude and pointless,” Seven intrudes into Chakotay and Torres’ conversation. When Neelix considers attending a match with the rest of the crew, the EMH is outraged, “I’m disappointed in you, Mister Neelix. Cheering for one individual to inflict serious injury on another hardly seems like an activity you’d enjoy.” However, the joke is very much on the EMH, with a cut revealing Neelix’s complete dismissal of the EMH’s concerns.

Sick burn.

The criticisms of Tsunkatse are placed in the mouths of characters who might be considered to be “no fun”, who are perhaps elitist and condescending. Tsunkatse makes a point to classify both Seven of Nine and the EMH as nerds. Seven plans to spend her shore leave studying “a micro nebula”, while the EMH tries to rope some companions into visiting “a fascinating exhibit of beetle larvae from the equatorial sub-continent.” Neither has the visceral thrill of hand-to-hand combat, and it’s revealing Tsunkatse is not too bothered with either.

This is an interesting set-up, because it suggests that Tsunkatse is tacitly endorsing the pleasures of violent sports. At the very least, it refuses to condemn them. It is too much to read Tsunkatse as an endorsement of violent spectacle, given the subsequent revelations about the sport and its none-too-subtle criticisms of the exploitation traditionally associated with such activities. However, in principle, Tsunkatse seems to position itself as rejecting these classist criticisms of wrestling as a sport worthy of condemnation by any reasonable person.

“I mean, seriously, though. Would anybody actually miss Tuvok? I think it’d take Janeway three weeks to notice he was missing.”

Tsunkatse had a long and storied path to broadcast, with the fan press picking up on the episode concept in late 1999. Naturally, there was some resistance to the crossover, given the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two franchises. Kenneth Biller assured Cinescape that there was no cynical motive behind the decision to air an episode about wrestling (starring a wrestler) during February Sweeps:

Voyager co-executive producer Ken Biller doesn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea. Johnson’s appearance isn’t some UPN-mandated attempt to lure viewers over from the network’s popular WWF Smackdown!

“The idea didn’t come from [the network],” he stresses. “It came from us.”

Or, more specifically, from Biller, staff writer Robert Doherty and writer Gannon Kenney, all of whom contributed to the development of the episode, titled Tsunkatse.

There was a healthy skepticism about these claims. Guest star Jeffrey Combs offered his own assessment of the episode’s genesis, “Pull those fans in! Somebody came to the table with this cynical notion. UPN has the contract for the WWF and Star Trek, so they figure, what a nice marriage.” It might have been cynical, but it made sense. Voyager‘s ratings were slipping and the Star Trek franchise was losing its cultural cachet.

“I mean, I get Next Gen ratings, baby.”

Of course, as with almost every major decision made by Voyager, it is interesting to wonder if this was necessary the right solution to a very real problem. With the end of Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek franchise was stagnating. Star Trek: Insurrection had failed to either ignite the fan base or smash box office records. The media could smell blood, and the vultures were circling. UPN was losing what little interest remained in Voyager, its attention turned towards the shiny new addition to its stable. So, there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

How exactly would scripting a crossover between Voyager and WWF fix this problem? How would a single guest appearance from a major wrestler lead to a long-term ratings bump? Did the production team imagine that young wrestling fans would tune into Tsunkatse, get drawn in by all the make-up and special effects, and stick around the following week for Collective and the week after for Spirit Folk? Just how exactly was this crossover supposed to be anything but a desperate once-off hail-mary? A band aid on a wound that was gaping and festering? How was this sustainable?

Counter arguments.

Television was changing at the turn of the millennium. It was evolving and diversifying. The success of WWF Smackdown! might have been one example of that change, reflecting the need for more populist and accessible prime-time television aimed at younger audiences. It seems fair to draw a line between the success of WWF Smackdown! (along with that of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? around the same time) to the boom in reality television during the early years of the twenty-first century. This is fair, and it was entirely reasonable for Voyager to acknowledge this cultural impact.

However, it also seems strange that this should be the contemporary television that Voyager decides to embrace. To be clear, this is not an issue of snobbery or an attempt to diminish or belittle the success of WWF Smackdown! Rather, it is an acknowledgement that Star Trek is quite literally worlds apart from wrestling. Star Trek is a scripted television series that unfolds in an elaborate and developed fictional universe, while wrestling aspired to provide a heightened soap opera aesthetic to carefully choreographed stunt work that aspired to something resembling verisimilitude. (“Kayfabe.”)

Gunning for a sustainable approach.

Instead, this speaks to a larger problem with Voyager‘s crisis of confidence and identity. Times were changing, and television storytelling was changing with them. At the turn of the millennium, popular and culturally important television shows didn’t really look like The Next Generation any longer. They looked like Sex and the City. They looked like The Sopranos. They looked like E.R. They looked like The X-Files. Although Deep Space Nine was by no means a success on that level, it looked a lot more like those shows that were succeeding.

However, Voyager lacked the courage to meaningfully reinvent what it meant to be Star Trek, to update the franchise for a new era like The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had done before it. A crossover with WWF Smackdown! represented the path of least resistance, a gesture that acknowledged popular taste without any of the hard work of reinvention. Voyager was too stuck in its ways to actually change, too comfortable and complacent in spite of its growing anxieties about its place in a rapidly-changing world. To Voyager, acknowledging changing tastes was no more complicated than doing some stunt casting.

“Can you smell what Neelix is cooking?”

According to an interview with Cinefantastique around the production of the episode, Rick Berman was inspired to sign off on Tsunkatse after meeting some of the wrestlers at a UPN function:

I have been criticized as having been pressured by the network to bring one of the wrestlers onto the show, which is absolutely not the case. We went to a UPN function and we met a bunch of these guys about a year ago. We’ve been looking for a reason to put one of them into a show, and when Tsunkatse came along, it was just a perfect fit.

We managed to get The Rock, who seems to be becoming more and more of an actor. I think if we had known how good an actor he was, we would have written a bigger part for him. Anybody who saw Saturday Night Live, and saw him in half a dozen skits, maybe more, can see that he is a very talented actor. He [was] wonderful on Saturday Night Live and he got a big role in The Mummy Returns. He was a joy to work with, and it worked out well. But it was our idea. We weren’t pressured, which is something I have always wanted to make clear to people.

It should be noted that Enterprise would also cast a number of wrestlers, albeit in less high-profile roles and frequently hidden under a great deal of make-up. Tommy Lister appeared in Broken Bow, while Big Show guest starred in Borderland.

Rocking this world, and many others.

Tsunkatse got quite lucky when it came to casting the Rock. The stunt casting was treated as something of a joke, with even the Rock himself quipping that his iconic arched eyebrow made him the perfect choice to play a Vulcan. However, hindsight has vindicated the Rock. He would host Saturday Night Live roughly a month after the broadcast of Tsunkatse, making a good enough impression to join the covetted “five-timers” club. He would be cast in a supporting role in The Mummy Returns, making enough of an impression to headline his own spin-off The Scorpion King.

There is a credible argument to be made that the Rock is actually the biggest star ever to appear in Star Trek. He remains one of the few genuine movie stars, in a Hollywood landscape that is moving away from the concept of movie stars and towards a model based on intellectual property. Indeed, the Rock is arguably one of the very few leading actors whose star power can butress an intellectual property, with his work on Fast Five and G.I. Joe: Retalliation earning him the nickname “franchise viagra.” As such, Voyager was very lucky to be able to cast an ascendant Dwayne Johnson at this point in his career.

Highly illogical.

Tsunkatse arrived at a point where Johnson was trying to branch beyond his wrestling persona and establish a broader sense of celebrity. Tsunkatse was a snapshot of a weird moment in that transition, although not quite as weird as that time that Martha Stewart got to smell what the Rock was cooking. (It was heart-shaped cookies.) Perhaps reflecting Johnson’s lack of experience as an actor rather than performer at this point in his career, or maybe just demonstrating Voyager‘s lack of imagination, Tsunkatse casts the Rock as an alien wrestler.

(It should be noted that Voyager arguably did extremely well in terms of guest stars. The series not only featured guest appearances from some of the best performers to appear on other shows, including Leland Orser and Kurtwood Smith, but it also featured a number of impressive cult figures whose turns on Voyager would mark their only dalliance with the iconic franchise; Joel Grey, Michael McKean, John Rhys-Davies, Ed Begley Junior, Sarah Silverman, Jason Alexander, John Savage, Titus Welliver. The Rock is a worthy addition to the Voyager guest star canon.)

Dwayne’s World.

If anything, Tsunkatse underutilises the Rock. The wrestler plays an anonymous alien identified only be his species and defined primarily by his “superior strength” and his “temper.” As writer Rob Doherty explained to Cinefantastique, the Rock was arguably more heavily featured in promotional material for Tsunkatse than in the episode itself:

The Rock, I thought, was more than adequate in his role. I thought he did some decent acting with his several lines. He was probably in the promos and commercials as much as he was in the whole show. He was certainly a selling point, to try and attract new people to Star Trek. I think that was a valiant effort to draw new people in and show them what Star Trek is about. At the same time, for the fans who were averse to the possibility, I don’t think he was in long enough to offend anyone. For the time he was in, I thought he did a pretty good job. Just from looking at various websites, and talking to people coming in to pitch, I think a lot of people were nervous about it. Once they saw it and heard good things about it, they were willing to check it our and give us a chance.

Dwayne Johnson may not be the greatest actor of his generation in a technical sense, but even his performance on WWF Smackdown! demonstrates his raw charisma and likability. Johnson is one of those rare performers with the capacity to generate enough goodwill to sustain a legitimately awful movie. It is almost a shame that Tsunkatse reduces his performance to little more than some “smack talk.”

That’s not what it’s all a bout.

While the Rock was the most notable (and controversial) guest star in Tsunkatse, the episode features quite an impressive supporting cast. Most notably, it features the only appearances of Jeffrey Combs and J.G. Hertzler in Voyager. Both actors had appeared in multiple roles on Deep Space Nine, serving as part of the earlier show’s expansive ensemble. Both performers would also appear in multiple roles on Enterprise, solidifying their reputations among the franchise’s most valued supporting players.

Indeed, Tsunkatse does well by playing off the established Star Trek screen personas of both Combs and Hertzler. Combs is very effective in the role of slimy fight organiser Penk. Penk is hardly the most developed villain in the Star Trek canon, his sinister plan to enslave Seven of Nine recalling Jason Alexander’s similarly generic antagonist in Think Tank. However, Combs infuses him with enough sleaze to make the character worthwhile. Similarly, Hertzler embodies a stoic (and righteous) dignity as the anonymous Hirogen that recalls his work in In Purgatory’s Shadow and By Inferno’s Light.

Bringing the Hertz.

There is some suggestion that the Voyager production team actively sought out Combs and Hertzler in recognition of their work on Deep Space Nine, which had only ended the previous season. Discussing his casting, Hertzler mused that he was offered the role directly without having to go through the usual process of auditioning:

“There were so many good things about it,” the actor said recently from his home in California, where he lives with his wife and baby daughter. “The first was that they asked me to do the role – I didn’t have to go in and interview with anyone. Then they said, ‘There’s good news and bad news. You have to wear a great deal of makeup, but you get to wrestle with Seven of Nine.’ I said, ‘Yeah!'”

Of course, Hertzler also mused, “I’d never have thought that the Hirogen on Voyager would take more makeup and appliance time than a Klingon, but it took longer. That was astounding.” For his part, Combs suggested the casting was a conscious olive branch to Deep Space Nine fans, “They just called me. They had this zany idea, and it was a compliment to me and J.G. to include a couple of DS9 alumni, to lure some DS9 viewers over to Voyager.”

Tickled Penk.

This is an interesting idea, one that suggests the complicated relationship that existed between Deep Space Nine and Voyager, a relationship that carried over with Rick Berman and Brannon Braga’s work on Enterprise. It could (fairly) be argued that Deep Space Nine served as something of an evolutionary dead end in terms of the larger Star Trek franchise. Its writing staff largely disbanded at the end of the run, with Ronald D. Moore migrating (very) briefly to Voyager. In contrast, there was a clear progression in the writing staffs between Next Generation and Voyager and between Voyager and Enterprise.

Whereas Deep Space Nine had built upon and doubled down on the ways that The Next Generation had pushed the storytelling envelope in terms of the Star Trek franchise, Voyager largely ignored Deep Space Nine‘s structural and narrative innovations both while Deep Space Nine was on the air and after Deep Space Nine was finished. In fact, when Enterprise finally embraced long-form storytelling during its third season, it seemed like the writing staff had to learn from scratch rather than benefiting from the experience garnered with Deep Space Nine.

Victory is life.

This is a fair summary of the awkward relationship between Voyager and Deep Space Nine, and later Enterprise and Deep Space Nine. However, the relationship was also more complicated. Even if Brannon Braga and Rick Berman failed to learn from Deep Space Nine, and were either unwilling or unable to integrate its narrative style into Voyager and Enterprise, it was clear that they held some respect for the series. Asked if he’d seen Deep Space Nine, Braga replied:

Of course I’ve seen Deep Space Nine. I was very aware of Deep Space Nine. The writers worked in the same building. We saw each other every day. There was some cross-pollination; I wrote a couple of Deep Space Nine scenes with Bashir, in an episode called Birthright in The Next Generation.

So I actually… the only character I’ve ever written for DS9 was Bashir. But Ron and I, you have to remember, Ron Moore and I were working very closely on the movies at that time, so he always knew what I was doing, and I always knew what he was doing. He was always writing a Deep Space Nine script, and I was always writing a Voyager script. We talked all the time; we cross-pollinated. I thought Deep Space Nine was terrific.

There are little nods and gestures to Deep Space Nine in both Voyager and Enterprise. The recycling of J.G. Hertzler and Jeffrey Combs into the franchise’s pool of recurring guest stars. Rene Auberjonois appearing in a guest role in Oasis, an episode that was rather overtly modelled on an Odo-centric episode Shadowplay. The incorporation of the Ferengi into Inside Man and Acquisition. Bringing in Ira Steven Behr to offer advice on Enterprise.

You shouldn’t box Chakotay in.

A cynic might argue that Voyager and Enterprise were trying to draw in lapsed Deep Space Nine viewers, the audience that had failed to migrate over from Deep Space Nine after it ended. However, it seems genuinely strange that Voyager would try to lure in Deep Space Nine fans with Tsunkatse, an episode that is the very definition of a ratings stunt. It might have made more sense to attract them to something more in keeping with the tone and aesthetic of Deep Space Nine, to prove that the series could handle material like that; something like Blink of an Eye or Memorial.

Small gestures like drawing in Combs and Hertzler suggest an appreciation of what Deep Space Nine was actually doing. Combs and Hertzler are among the most frequently recurring cast members on any iteration of Star Trek, and there is no denying that both performers elevated Tsunkatse. More than that, the parts seem to have been written with Combs and Hertzler in mind. Penk is very much in keeping with the sliminess that Combs brought to Weyoun. The Hirogen shares the same angry decency that Hertzler played so well as Martok.

Next (Hiro)gen.

However, once again, there is a sense that Voyager is aware of its own shortcomings and recognises the need to correct its course, but is unable to make anything more than a token gesture. If the casting of Combs and Hertzler was an olive branch to Deep Space Nine fans, it was just as trivial as the overture to WWF Smackdown! fans in casting the Rock. There is nothing in Tsunkatse that convincingly argues why fans of Deep Space Nine or WWF Smackdown! should tune in the following week when those superficial trappings are gone.

It is debatable whether Voyager could truly have reinvented itself in its sixth season, knowing that the seventh would be its last. Enterprise reinvented itself in its third and fourth seasons, and there is some evidence to suggest that it would have done the same in its fifth. Deep Space Nine arguably reinvented itself continuously across its run, most noticeably during its own sixth season. However, it is very clear that Voyager lacks the will power to actively change. In fact, the dismissal of Ronald D. Moore at the start of the season suggests an active rejection of change.

Prey tell.

So Tsunkatse was never going to represent a sharp change in Voyager, whether gearing more towards WWF Smackdown! or Deep Space Nine. However, on its own terms, it is not an awful episode of television. It is far from brilliant, but it is not the disaster that it might have been. Noticeably, the action choreography is quite good. As Robert W. Young noted in Black Belt magazine:

But the best part was the variety and realism of the martial arts techniques used in the bouts. There were believable poses and stances, wicked body slams, incredible spin kicks, clever jumping kicks executed after a fighter rebounded off the wall, and even a jeet kune do-style straight blast delivered by the Seven of Nine character into the mug of WWF sensation The Rock. Any viewers who happen to be martial artists and sci-fi fans were no doubt in shakari.

Of course, it is possible to oversell the fight choreography on Tsunkatse. It could not compete with contemporary martial arts films, or the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies to which it clearly aspired, but it was more visceral and kinetic than most Star Trek fight scenes to this point in time.

Smackdown.

In a way, Tsunkatse solidifies the general trend of Voyager towards a more action-oriented style of storytelling. Particularly under the influence of Brannon Braga, Voyager tried to pitch itself as a science-fiction action-adventure series, consciously drawing on pulpy set-ups and employing more extensive computer-generated special effects than The Next Generation or even Deep Space Nine. Janeway played Ellen Ripley in Macrocosm. The franchise riffed on Alien vs. Predator in Prey. It is revealing that Voyager just kept exploding and crashing.

Voyager very consciously aspired towards action movie storytelling, most obviously in the bombastic and epic two-parters like Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II or Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II. In fact, the series even made a point of broadcasting action-heavy television movies with two-hour blocks for The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II and Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The fight sequences in Tsunkatse are part of that aesthetic.

A rock solid episode.

In an interview with Cinescape, Kenneth Biller explained that Voyager had at least committed to the idea of effective hand-to-hand combat:

“We hired [veteran movie actor/stunt man] James Lew to do the fights for us. He’s really an extraordinary fight coordinator,” Biller says. “Tsunkatse is a weird blend of martial arts. It’s not WWF wrestling. It’s a very interesting, alien, futuristic, hybrid form of fighting. And there’s a high-tech element to it, as well. There are sensors and targets and different things. You won’t see people smashing each other over the head with chairs or tag-teaming or whatever it is they do in wrestling. [But] the very discerning viewer might notice a hint or two of The Rock’s signature moves. He’s got one called ‘The Rock Bottom’ and he does a version of that in the fight.”

Biller may be overselling it somewhat; the sensors are ultimately secondary to the visceral thrill of contact.

Brawl good, here.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with this. It should be noted that the original Star Trek regularly had Kirk and Spock engaging in fisticuffs. Some of the franchise’s most beloved moments find Kirk throwing down with an opponent, roughhouse in the dirt: Kirk fighting the Gorn in Arena, which was the original title for Tsunkatse; Kirk fighting with Spock on Vulcan in Amok Time, with perhaps the most iconic (non-title-theme) music cue in the franchise; even Kirk fighting himself in The Enemy Within. There’s a tendency to forget that pulp has always been part of Star Trek.

The story of Tsunkatse is relatively generic and straightforward. It fits with that pulpy throwback aesthetic, as Tuvok and Seven are captured by a hostile alien and forced to fight for the amusement of those spectators. This evokes any number of classic Star Trek episodes: Trelane’s desire to hunt Kirk in The Squire of Gothos; the disembodied consciousnesses in The Gamesters of Triskelion; even the Excalbians’ idea that good and evil can settle their differences by fisticuffs in The Savage Curtain.

“I have you now, my pretty.”

Of course, it should be noted that Tsunkatse belongs to its own rather frustrating subgenre of Voyager episodes, in which the Delta Quadrant seems to be home to nothing but slavers and predators. Once again, Seven of Nine is presented as a victim of these predatorial forces at work in the region. She was captured along with Tuvok in Hunters, and placed in a rather suggestive harness. She hallucinated a vivid and traumatic assault in Retrospect. She was treated as an item for purchase in Think Tank.

There is something uncomfortable in Voyager‘s recurring fixation on victimising and enslaving Seven of Nine. It is perhaps possible to read this in the context of Voyager‘s pulpy aesthetic, the beautiful blonde menaced by a variety of hulking monsters. It may also fit within Braga’s repeated engagement with bondage and submission, as best embodied by the Borg Queen as a clammy dominatrix in Star Trek: First Contact. However, it fits awkwardly with Voyager‘s portrayal of the Delta Quadrant as a deep space developing world, suggesting uncomfortable racial politics.

“When I told the writers that they could pry the script from my cold, dead hands, they took it a bit… literally.”

Interestingly, Tsunkatse was originally developed as an episode focusing on Tuvok. This makes a certain amount of sense. The only truly Tuvok-centric episode of the sixth season is Riddles. More than that, Vulcans are established as both physically strong and skilled in the martial arts. However, according to an interview with Tim Russ in Star Trek: The Magazine, the episode was repurposed:

The characters are switched around in a lot of the shows; Tsunkatse was supposed to be me fighting in the arena, and they changed the story to allow Jeri to fight. When a story is pitched, no matter who the main character is, they will consider putting somebody else in the story because it may be more interesting. That’s why Riddles turned out to be my story, because if it happened to anybody else it just wouldn’t have been the same.

Again, this choice to refocus the episode on Seven of Nine rather than Tuvok feels incredibly cynical and calculated. After all, Seven of Nine is one of the most developed characters on the show, a central focus even in episodes not about her; she learns important lessons and gets key scenes in both Dragon’s Teeth and Virtuoso without any real justification.

“So… good script, eh?”

The decision to focus Tsunkatse on Seven of Nine feels very much like pandering to the very young and very male demographics that would be attracted to the unlikely crossover between Voyager and WWF Smackdown! There has always been something very juvenile about the show’s use of Seven of Nine as a sex object with the emotional and psychological development of a child, wearing what amounts to a body stocking. Indeed, even in the final scenes, it is clear that Ryan is wearing a ridiculously tight corset under her fighting costume.

With that in mind, there might also be something cynical in the decision to write Janeway out of this very important episode that is very clearly aimed at a young male audience. Early in Tsunkatse, Janeway is put on the Delta Flyer, and only makes a handful of appearances across the rest of the episode. It feels like Tsunkatse is attempting to marginalise Voyager‘s leading character, which seems strange given that she would not have been the focus of the story anyway.

Barrels of laughs.

As such, the focus on Seven and the marginalisation of Janeway within an episode aimed at young male audience members seems calculated. Mulgrew has discussed at length her unease with the introduction of Seven of Nine, arguing that the character was created to compensate for her refusal to turn Janeway into a sex object:

That moment stands out for me when Jeri Ryan arrived. That was an interesting moment because – there’s been a lot of controversy about it generated by me – again unfortunate. When you’re the first female captain you hope against hope that that’s going to be sufficient until the day it wasn’t. Because men like – as they should, as all of you should and I love and adore every one of you – they love sex. And they need it. And I said “No” to all of that going in.

I said I’m not going to sleep with Chakotay, it’s not going to happen … lending a whole new meaning to the “ready room.” I said you’re just going to have to go somewhere else for it, so they got this very beautiful girl to come in.

Mulgrew confesses some anxiety about how the franchise’s young male audience would respond to her, “I had to worry and wonder – are these young men going to buy me? Are they bright enough, committed enough, deep enough to look beyond the fact that I could be their mother, and see that I could run this ship?” Tsunkatse suggests the production team’s answer to that.

“Trust me, you don’t want to see our healthcare plan.”

Still, there is something vaguely interesting in the way that Tsunkatse approaches its spectator blood sport. The episode initially appears to be open-minded about the activity, with Chakotay bringing along most of the senior staff to attend a match. “The reason that you have to see that fight is because?” Torres inquires. Chakotay responds, “I’m an anthropologist.” Torres is not impressed. “What does that have to do with Tsunkatse?” she demands. Chakotay replies, “It’s a cultural phenomenon.”

It seems like Tsunkatse is arguing for an application of the philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” Just because wrestling and boxing might not be the taste of certain fans does not make them abhorrent pastimes. Again, there is something very calculated in all of this. After all, what would be the point of luring in fans of WWF Smackdown! simply to insult their preferred franchise? This conciliatory tone seems cynical.

“I can promote anything. Except Harry Kim.”

As Tsunkatse develops, the episode takes a more aggressive stance. It is revealed that the fighters are actually slaves, and that the audience do not care. “The Ambassador promised to begin an immediate investigation,” Neelix remarks on returning from the planet surface after the crew have seen Seven thrown into the ring. Chakotay replies, “You don’t sound too convinced.” Even if the audience did not actually know about the slavery, it seems safe to say that they do not care.

Penk speaks to a maliciousness in his audience, a sense that he is feeding their worst impulses. Penk is willing to capitalise on racial anxiety and tension in order to turn a tidy profit. “There’s a great deal of hostility toward the Borg in this sector,” Penk tells Seven after her first loss. That anger and that resentment can be translated into income for Penk as a fight promoter. He explains, “If three billion people paid to see you hurt, imagine how many will pay to see you die.”

Perhaps tied to its history as a public spectacle, professional wrestling has a history of cynically playing on racial anxieties and stereotypes. A little over a year after the broadcast of Tsunkatse, Allan Johnson noted that despite the sport’s more progressive aspects, it was still prone to play into racially coded imagery to rile up the audience:

Say what you will about the comic-book violence, objectification of women and the questionable influence it has on young people, but the WWF has more diversity with its characters than all of the six broadcast networks combined. Its most popular star is an African-American — The Rock.

But there was a queasy moment Monday on the live “Raw” broadcast: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a huge WWF star, whipping a wrestler named Tazz with a belt as others held him down. It was part of an ongoing storyline involving “The Alliance,” members of World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling who have banded together to mount an assault on the WWF.

Austin is white. Tazz is black. The imagery was unsettling, especially for a company that, despite an occasional stereotype here and there, prides itself on being colorblind.

It should be noted that this sort of racially-coded subtext is not unique to wrestling. Boxing has a similar history of stoking racial tension in order to generation attention and interest. Even soccer players and fans have been know to play into racist imagery and stereotypes. Tsunkatse seems to be touching on the racially charged and coded spectacle common in professional sports.

Similarly, Tsunkatse is very clearly a criticism of unchecked capitalism in professional sports. Penk’s operation is cynical and exploitative, but Tsunkatse explicitly suggests that it is an extension of the roots of a lot of spectator sports. “They’re transmitting the fights from a ship,” Chakotay deduces at one point in the episode. Neelix responds, “Like a travelling carnival.” This conjures up the imagery of circuses and sideshows from a bygone era.

Penk seems to be a more extreme twenty-fourth century version of P.T. Barnum, collecting a bunch of people that he might showcase as an exhibit or curiousity. Tsunkatse evokes the history of exploitation and abuse of such performers. Seven of Nine is treated as a freak for display, a novelty act. After all, she is thrown into the ring against a season professional who looks to be several times her body weight. It evokes the tales of carnival freak shows. There are arguments that even modern professional wrestling still hinges on the exploitation of the wrestlers.

Running rings around each other.

As Dan O’Sullivan has argued, this capitalist exploitation of performers’ is very much at the heart of wrestling as a pastime:

Another delicate maneuver: is a pro wrestling match a competition, or an exhibition? A seemingly minor distinction—but in the eighties, the money men of pro wrestling broke kayfabe, that code of silence safeguarding the industry’s competitive integrity, to all but bellow at state lawmakers that the matches were predetermined, that the whole show was “fake.”

Why? The benefits were compelling. If pro wrestling is just “entertainment,” there is no need for regulatory scrutiny. By pushing through deregulation, with the help of sleazy right-wing lawyers like Rick Santorum, the WWF wriggled out of paying taxes on their TV broadcasts and sloughed off any oversight by state athletic commissions. In New Jersey, for instance, following the state legislature’s 1989 deregulation of the industry, the state “would no longer license wrestlers, promoters, timekeepers and referees,” and wrestlers “would no longer be required to take physical examinations before an exhibition”—a fateful dereliction in a business rife with injury.

Wrestlers are more likely to die prematurely than participants in football or boxing.

Are you not entertained?

Pointedly, Tsunkatse argues that unchecked capitalism is the real monster in all of this, perhaps prefiguring the criticisms of privatised healthcare in the seventh season’s Critical Care. The Pendari turn a blind eye to the questionable aspects of Penk’s operation because it turns a tidy profit. “I spoke to one of the Pendari delegates,” Neelix explains to Chakotay. “According to him, a huge percentage of the planet’s revenue is derived from Tsunkatse. Nobody wants to do anything that might interfere with the game.”

At the climax of the episode, Chakotay manages to rescue Seven and Tuvok by conscious targetting Penk’s income. He instructs the crew to target the transmitters. “If nobody’s watching, then why continue the fight?” Paris muses, articulating the strategy. Tsunkatse suggests that the only meaningful way of harming Penk is to interrupt his revenue stream. Sure enough, Penk decides that securing his income is more important than protecting his vessel. “We’ve lost more than half our audience. Reroute power to transmitters five and six.”

Well matched.

There is something both endearingly earnest in the strong moral sentiment underpinning this plot threat and something wry in the decision to thread this story through a very cynical crossover event. Tsunkatse almost feels cheeky, weaving an allegory about the capitalist exploitation of wrestlers’ bodies into what is otherwise a very calculated piece of brand synergy. Tsunkatse never smirks quite as hard as Deep Space Nine did during its own “obligatory crossover episodes” like Defiant, there is still something faintly subversive in the finished episode.

The episode even makes a point to have Neelix and Chakotay explicitly state that they have learned an important lesson over the course of the episode. “It’s hard to believe, a civilisation whose favourite pastime is cheering while innocent people fight each other,” Neelix remarks. Chakotay responds, “If Seven and Tuvok hadn’t been abducted, we might still be cheering too.” This is very much a stereotypical Star Trek moral, in the style of something like The Chute or Scientific Method. It is clumsy and awkward, and very much against the tone of the episode, but it is there.

“So… Harry, how do you feel about getting a few seats in here, tinkering with the sound system?”

Of course, Tsunkatse is still a very clumsy piece of television. Penk and the Hirogen are both woefully underdeveloped. The speed with which the crew takes to the eponymous sport seems particularly cheap given the episode’s eventual moral twist. Even on a basic plotting level, small details like Paris’ warning about the Pendari “tendency to throw their opponents into the stands” feels especially clumsy given the revelation that the fights are transmitted from a central location. The holograms do not seem tangible to the audience, and the audience is invisible to the fighters.

The entire twist feels especially clumsy. Is that a secret that Penk is broadcasting these fights across the system? Surely travellers must get suspicious when they notice fighters travelling impossible distances in very short periods of time? Do commentators note that fighters are brawling in multiple locations simultaneously? Perhaps it is known among fans of the sport, but it seems strange that the projection was never mentioned to Chakotay, despite attending several matches. Why would that franchising be a secret, except to preserve the most obvious twist in an episode like this?

Finish him!

Still, Tsunkatse is not as awful as the basic premise might suggest. That’s something, at least.

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