Jul 6, 2021
Star Trek: Voyager “Tsunkatse”
As I continue my look back at Star Trek: Voyager, I’ve been focusing mainly on the terrible episodes, but I have to admit that this current episode really isn’t all that terrible. In fact, for anyone who was watching Voyager at the time, the sixth season episode “Tsunkatse” is above average compared to most of the dreck we were enduring back then.
However, I’m a strong believer that a TV episode, or a movie, or really any creative work must be ultimately judged on how well it achieves what it set out to do. And “Tsunkatse” is all about network cross-promotion in the form of a guest appearance by pro wrestler and UPN SmackDown! star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which was an obvious attempt to lure in fans of the then-WWF and help turn around Voyager’s declining ratings. And in that respect, this episode fails miserably.
“Tsunkatse” was actually part of a special WWF-themed week of programming on UPN. In addition to the Rock on Voyager, Triple H appeared on Grown Ups, and the network aired the made-for-TV movie Operation Sandman: Warriors in Hell co-starring Bob “Hardcore” Holly. It obviously wasn’t a very memorable week of TV, but thanks to the eternal popularity of the Star Trek franchise, this is the one remaining artifact of this shameless attempt at intra-network synergy that lives on.
Well, there’s that, and also, the cast of Voyager apparently got to spend a whole afternoon taking pictures with a guy who went on to become (arguably) the biggest movie star in the world. So at least they’ve got that to look back on.
Fun fact: The unwieldy episode title (which is the name of the sport that’s the focal point of the story) was a last minute choice. This episode was almost titled “Arena” until someone remembered that’s already the name of an all-time classic episode of the original series. Whoops! Well anyway, tune in for next week’s episode, “For I Have Touched Tom Paris and His Skull is Hollow”.
We open in a small, circular arena that looks uncomfortably like a set from American Gladiators. The camera does a lengthy spinning shot that shows us a lot of hubbub in the stands, and the crowd is made up of members of various alien races, including a few members of Starfleet.
One combatant enters to cheers. I don’t know what kind of alien he’s supposed to be other than Generic Delta Quadrant Race #5526, but he’s wearing shiny spandex and has glowing green pads on the backs of his hands and feet. His opponent enters the arena through some dry ice fog, and you might not realize it here, but he’s Hirogen, the race of hunters who were Voyager’s primary enemies back in season four. But admittedly, it’s hard to recognize a Hirogen without his combo Predator/Sub Zero rip-off head gear.
The two aliens proceed to have a martial arts fight, and whenever those glowing pads make contact with circular patches on the other fighter’s suit, it causes cartoon electricity to course through his body. Eventually, the Hirogen knocks out his opponent and the crowd stands and chants, “Tsunkat! Tsunkat! Tsunkat!” And among the people in the stands cheering him on are… Chakotay and B’Elanna Torres. And on this typically Voyager non-teasing teaser, we go to credits.
After credits, Janeway’s log informs us that Voyager is visiting the “Norcadian homeworld” for shore leave. However, Janeway herself will be taking the Delta Flyer to the planet “Pendari” for scientific research, and leaving Chakotay in command. If you watch the later seasons of Voyager, there are a few occasions where Janeway conspicuously disappears for most of the episode; it apparently had to do with Kate Mulgrew openly complaining about not getting to spend enough time with her family, and suggesting she might quit the show once her contract was up after season six.
As she prepares to leave, Janeway walks through a corridor with Chakotay, telling him to remember to take out the trash, feed the cat, and call her if anything comes up. She heads for the shuttlebay and B’Elanna approaches Chakotay, talking about the fight they saw last night, and how there’s another match tonight. Chakotay says he has other obligations, but she points out that he’s in command now, which means he can “delegate”.
They enter the mess hall, and see a big tub of mucus-colored goo in the kitchen. Neelix says it’s “leola ointment”, which he’s using for his skin. He’s got a bad sunburn from going to a Norcadian beach and falling asleep under “two suns”, but why would that leave him with a sunburn on only one side of his face? You’d think two suns would provide ample coverage. Also, why would he put a huge bowl of his sunburn treatment right next to the food he’s serving to the crew?
Thankfully, Chakotay and B’Elanna change the subject to the “Tsunkatse” matches they’ve been enjoying. Seven of Nine and Tuvok happen to be nearby and overhear, and B’Elanna invites them along, but it seems the two would rather go check out a nearby “micronebula” that’s on the verge of collapsing. Neelix reminds them they’re on shore leave, but apparently neither Seven nor Tuvok are very interested in this “fun” thing that the rest of the crew keep harping on.
Cut to Seven in the cargo bay loading up some bags for the trip, and Tom Paris enters just so that he can note that she’s “overpacking” like B’Elanna always does, and that B’Elanna usually brings a stuffed animal (“Toby the Targ”) wherever she goes. Seven is not terribly amused by or interested in this, and I’m guessing neither were any of the wrestling fans who tuned into this episode.
In the corridor, Seven happens upon the Doctor. He reminds her that they talked about shore leave, and how she should be spending it with the rest of the crew to improve her “social skills”. Instead, Seven invites the Doctor along on their mission to the micronebula, but he refuses.
Tuvok and Seven are soon on a shuttlecraft, and apparently they’re quite the chatty Cathies, because Seven notes it’s been over two hours since they last spoke to each other. She says the Doctor always encourages her to make small talk during “awkward silences”, but Tuvok replies that the silence between them wasn’t awkward. Well, yeah, if you’re in a confined space with one other person, I’d say not speaking for hours goes well past “awkward” and into “unsettling”. Thankfully, this dull attempt at a bonding moment comes to an end when they detect another ship on an intercept course.
The other ship sends out a “dampening field” that disables their shields and weapons, and then a random object gets beamed aboard their shuttle. Judging by the blinking red light, it’s probably not a welcome gift basket. Tuvok figures out it’s a bomb, but before he can disarm it, it explodes and fills the frame with blinding light.
Seven wakes up on a cot in a gymnasium-like chamber. She’s being scanned by an alien with wacky facial hair, whose voice is unmistakable: it’s Jeffrey Combs, who prior to this had two different recurring roles (Weyoun and Brunt) on Deep Space Nine, and would later go on to play Shran the Andorian on Enterprise.
Combs’ character is named Penk, and he’s in charge of the Tsunkatse matches, and Seven has just been drafted to fight in the games. He’s pleased to find out she’s a former Borg, because she’ll be the first drone to compete and thus a “very popular attraction”. Seven demands to see Tuvok, and he’s brought in, looking all banged up. He needs medical attention, but Penk will only treat him if Seven agrees to fight.
Tuvok tells her not to do it, and Penk admires his defiant attitude and says he’d be good for a “Red Match”. Someone else in the room pipes up that a “Red Match” is a fight to the death. And that someone is the Hirogen fighter we saw earlier, who’s played by J.G. Hertzler, another recurring Deep Space Nine actor who played the Klingon captain Martok. Another fun fact: this episode is the first and only time Combs and Hertzler ever appeared in scenes together.
The Hirogen also reinforces the fact that Tsunkatse fighters aren’t willing participants. So, why would Penk have beamed a bomb onto their shuttle? If he’s looking for fighters, it seems pretty dumb to potentially kill or maim them, with Tuvok’s current incapacity being the prime example.
Back on Voyager, Chakotay and B’Elanna and Tom and Harry can’t stop talking about Tsunkatse, and who their favorite Tsunkatse fighters are and so forth. And it’s clear they’re completely unaware that Tsunkatse occasionally includes fights to the death. How could they be having superfan-level conversations about this sport without being aware of this?
Chakotay says he knows who the strongest contenders are, claiming expertise due to his past boxing career, so Harry hauls out his own athletic credentials: he was a “three-time Academy champion” at the made-up Star Trek sport of “parisses squares”, which gets mentioned a lot on this show and The Next Generation without ever being seen, but is always implied to be ridiculously violent. Chakotay says he’s tougher than any parisses player, and Harry wonders if that’s a challenge, to which Tom warns Harry not to do anything that could possibly “bruise his clarinet fingers”. Okay, I laughed. Was there ever a random character detail on Trek more embarrassing than Harry Kim knowing how to play the clarinet? In comparison, Riker’s trombone was a total pussy magnet.
They continue to joke around with each other in that forced, uncomfortable way Voyager characters always joked around with each other. Later, Chakotay tells B’Elanna she’s got bridge duty tonight, and she realizes he arranged it so he can go to the fight instead of her. He throws, “I’m delegating,” back in her face. Voyager office politics; they sure are riveting stuff.
Meanwhile in Sickbay, Neelix now has bumps all over his face, and the Doctor says it’s a reaction to that leola ointment. There really is no point to any of this. I can only imagine what all the WWF fans were thinking after they tuned in to see the Rock kick the hot Borg chick’s ass and instead got ten minutes devoted to Neelix’s sunburn.
The Doctor orders him to stay indoors, so Neelix says he might go watch the Tsunkatse matches. The Doctor is appalled at the thought of people beating each other senseless, and invites Neelix to instead join him at the “Norcadian Museum of Entomology”. Neelix considers whether he’d rather look at alien insects or watch aliens fighting, and then we get a “hilarious” smash-cut to him at a Tsunkatse match, cheering on the combatants.
More random aliens fight while the Voyager guys watch from the stands. Neelix says he doesn’t understand the rules, so Chakotay explains it for him and us: there are “polaron disrupters” on the fighters’ hands and feet which cause a “bioplasmic charge” when it hits their opponent’s “target sensors”. So, the glowing things on their hands cause cartoon electricity to course through the other fighter’s body. That’s what I said.
The next fighter emerges from the tunnel, and finally appearing with his own alien forehead ridges and shiny spandex suit is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He looks up at the crowd and even does the trademark Rock raised eyebrow, which my research just now tells me is a move that actually has a name: “The People’s Eyebrow”.
Despite appearances, the Rock is not just playing the Rock here, but rather a character billed as “Pendari Fighter”. Out in the crowd, the Voyager guys discuss how the Pendari are known for their strength. Harry comments, “They have a tendency to throw their opponents into the stands!” Oh, just like pro wrestling! I get it.
And then his opponent comes out, and of course it’s Seven of Nine, standing there in her own silver spandex suit. The Voyager guys look stunned by this turn of events. They try to call out to Seven, but nothing gets her attention.
The Rock looks Seven over and scoffs that she’s “no bigger than a Tarkanian field mouse” and it’s an insult to him that Penk matched them up. But Seven warns him of her “superior strength” due to her Borg implants, and—sigh—she even uses “resistance is futile” as her wrestling catchphrase. They start to have another choreographed martial arts fight, and while it’s obvious Jeri Ryan’s double is handling most of Seven’s moves here, the Rock is doing all his own fighting.
In the crowd, Chakotay contacts B’Elanna up on Voyager’s bridge and tells her to beam Seven up, but it turns out Seven is not really here. They finally figure out the Tsunkate fights are being held in some other location, and holographically transmitted to multiple arenas. Boy, they sure did their homework on this sport before getting all obsessed with it.
Cut to the Rock and Seven fighting in another arena (which is surely not just the same set, devoid of extras), with no spectators in sight other than Penk. Seven is about to finish off the Rock but she hesitates, giving him the opportunity to perform what my research tells me is another of the Rock’s signature moves: the Rock Bottom. I’m beginning to suspect every physical motion the Rock ever performed had its own name (“The People’s Sneeze!”).
Seven is knocked unconscious, while the crowd chants “Tsunkat! Tsunkat! Tsunkat!” and all the Starfleet people look concerned. Chakotay says there’s not much they can do here and tells B’Elanna, “Four to beam up.” Wait, what about all those other Voyager crew members in the crowd right now? I guess they’re on their own.
And now I’m going to reveal something that’s pretty risky for me to reveal, because you might just stop reading this recap right now. Are you ready? This is the end of the Rock’s appearance. I’m serious. After all the hype, it appears Dwayne Johnson’s screentime in “Tsunkatse” totals about two minutes. Of course, there’s no indication in this scene that he’s never coming back, and it’s even mildly implied later that he’s going to fight Seven again, but nope. This is it. There was always a lot of bait-and-switch going on in previews for next week’s Voyager episode, but this is on a whole new level.
Cut to Chakotay contacting Janeway on her private Delta Flyer mission to apprise her of the situation. He says they’re trying to trace the source of the transmission and locate Seven and Tuvok, but no luck so far. Also, he tells her that Neelix is trying “diplomatic channels” to track them down. Oh yeah, this is one of those episodes where they pretend Neelix has special skills in diplomacy or some shit, when he couldn’t even carry on a relationship with Kes without flying into a petulant rage every other week.
Meanwhile, Seven is being tended to by the Hirogen in that same chamber, which is apparently like the locker room and/or green room for Tsunkatse matches. The Hirogen says he wants to train Seven to be a “champion”, because he saw her match and recognizes her as a “fellow hunter”. Penk enters to share the good news: there’s so much anti-Borg hatred in this sector that people were lining up in droves to watch a former drone get her ass kicked. So he’s decided to enter Seven into a Red Match scheduled for two days from now, because he’s sure that just as many people will “pay to see you die”.
Once he’s gone, the Hirogen assures Seven he can train her to win the Red Match because “I know your opponent… I know his weaknesses!” And now that you know that the opponent in question is not the Rock, please don’t try to figure out the super-shocking twist in store for us later. Seven is steadfastly against killing someone, but the Hirogen points out that the only alternative is being killed herself.
Cut to the Hirogen training Seven, and it boils down to the same boilerplate training scene you’ve watched in a million martial arts movies. They do a bit of sparring, and the Hirogen says Seven has to feel Tsunkatse deep in her heart; she can’t study it or analyze it. So she strikes out at him, hitting him in a soft spot, noting that he always protects his left side. He says he was wounded “19 years ago” and it never properly healed. It happened when was he abducted during his “son’s first hunt”, and he talks about how he never saw his son again. Seven experiences a brief moment of compassion, so naturally, the Hirogen takes advantage and goes on the attack. He warns her to “never sympathize with your prey,” blah blah blah, it’s entirely possible this script was written by a computer.
Cut to Neelix beaming back to Voyager after his (predictably) unsuccessful diplomatic mission, reporting that the Norcadians were shocked—shocked!—to learn that Tsunkatse is going on in this establishment. Clearly, they’re fully aware of “off-worlders” being abducted and forced to fight, but are feigning ignorance thanks to all that sweet Tsunkatse money. Down in Astrometrics, B’Elanna has determined that the matches are being transmitted from a ship constantly traveling throughout the sector. But the ship is heavily armed and “way out of our weight class”. Chakotay keeps up the dumb boxing metaphor with, “The bigger they come, Lieutenant.”
Cut to that ship as Seven continues her martial arts training. To the Hirogen’s satisfaction, she’s now totally about hunting her “prey”, so her training is complete. She goes over to Tuvok, who has a panel open and is trying to… well, he’s probably trying to deactivate the ship’s shields or something, but that’s only a guess. Seven is ready for the match, but she’s still horrified at the prospect of killing someone for the entertainment of others. And once again, Tuvok has to remind her there’s really only one other option, and it’s not one she’ll like.
And now it’s time for the Red Match, and we return to the arena where the lights glow red and so do the “polaron disrupters” on Seven’s hands. She enters to boos, and then her opponent comes out of the opposite tunnel. One guess who it is.
Yep, it’s the same Hirogen who trained her. He says that that after 19 years, he’s tired of fighting, and he wants to die an honorable death in the arena. Seven refuses to kill him, so the Hirogen says he has no choice but to kill her, and they begin to fight.
Cut to Voyager arriving at the Tsunkatse Ship, where Chakotay hails Penk and demands that he release Seven and Tuvok. Penk just laughs at him and ends the call. So Voyager fires on the ship, and despite us being told numerous times that they’re outclassed here, they’re able to disable part of the shields and get a lock on Tuvok and beam him out. So I guess the “bigger they come” strategy is actually working.
In Sickbay, Tuvok tells them where Seven is, but they can’t penetrate the force fields on that part of the ship. Meanwhile, the enemy fires back, causing the expected shower of sparks on the bridge right above everybody’s heads. They decide to try a different tack: they’ll shut down the Tsunkatse transmission, in the hopes that this will stop the fight. They target the ship’s “signal generators” while Harry yells out, “Hull breach on Deck 11!” and Chakotay yells back, “Seal it!” Oh golly gee wow, I never would have thought of doing that without you, Commander!
They detect another ship approaching, and it turns out to be Janeway on the Delta Flyer coming to the rescue. Chakotay tells her to target the signal generators, which look like big satellite dishes. Janeway succeeds in interrupting the transmission, so Penk orders his men to redirect power to the remaining signal generators, which allows Voyager to get a lock on Seven and the Hirogen.
Meanwhile in the arena, Seven is briefly losing to the Hirogen, when suddenly she’s inspired by his taunts to fight even harder. She eventually knocks him out by pressing A-B-up-down-A-A-left-right-B for a wicked combo. She’s about to deliver the death blow, when suddenly they’re both beamed up to Voyager.
Janeway’s supplemental log informs us that shore leave is over (I’ll say!), and they’re on their way back to the Alpha Quadrant, and as usual, there are no repercussions whatsoever for the alien race that kidnapped and almost killed a couple of her crew members. I mean, obviously Voyager wouldn’t be able to take on all the planets in the Norcadian sector, but why do they keep getting deeply involved with these alien races when there’s absolutely nothing they can do if they turn out to be evil?
In Sickbay, Chakotay tells the Hirogen that they’ve located a “hunting party” nearby, and they’re going to return him to his people. He leaves and the Hirogen gives Seven the sensor disc from his chest as a “trophy”. He says he no longer has any desire to search for prey, and instead he’s going to search for his son. But he has one final question: Would Seven have really killed him in the arena? She’s not sure, and by this point nobody cares anyway, so we cut to the final scene.
Tuvok goes to Astrometrics to help Seven do… whatever she does down here. Tuvok expresses gratitude that Seven agreed to fight in the matches to save his life. He asks about her current mental state. She admits to being terrified, because she lost control and nearly killed someone, and she fears that after all this time spent trying to reclaim her humanity, she may have lost it in that arena. But Tuvok keenly notes that with everything she’s feeling now, “You haven’t lost your humanity. You have reaffirmed it.”
Well, it’s not a terrible ending. It does take on some unexpected (and probably unintentional) depth when you remember that “humanity” means something very different to Tuvok. Most Vulcans take a dim view of emotions, but Tuvok grasps that experiencing and “reaffirming” them obviously means a lot to his friend Seven, and that’s all that matters.
As a Voyager episode, “Tsunkatse” is far from the bottom of the barrel; Combs and especially Hertzler do a lot to elevate a hackneyed “gladiator games” plot we’ve seen on Trek many times before (“Gamesters of Triskelion”, “Bread and Circuses”, “By Inferno’s Light”, etc.). But for its intended purpose of bringing in new viewers, it’s hopelessly lame. If the idea was to appeal to people who have never seen the show before, why would they kick things off with fifteen minutes of the crew goofing off before getting to the actual plot? Think of it this way: If you were a Star Trek fan looking to introduce somebody to the franchise for the first time, would you ever in a million years consider starting with “Tsunkatse”?
But guess what? The cynical ratings ploy kind of worked: This was the highest rated Star Trek: Voyager episode of the season. But ratings went back to normal the following week and continued their slow decline until the series’ end. So obviously, anyone drawn in by the Rock’s appearance didn’t stick around long. But to be fair, UPN itself didn’t stick around much longer, either. I’m guessing an attempt to cross over Star Trek with pro wrestling was just one of many boneheaded decisions that ultimately led to the network’s demise.