Originally, I wanted to do a list of the top ten examples of undue influence across the entire original series, but found that brevity, if not sanity, prohibited such an exploration. So, I chose one episode to focus on: The Gamesters of Triskelion.
Kirk, Uhura, and Checkov find themselves mysteriously transported to a strange planet, where they are quickly subdued by a group of aliens from a cross-section of the galaxy and forcibly equipped with collars which deliver a debilitating jolt of pain if they protest. They are told that they were captured to participate in gladiatorial contests, which are wagered on by three disembodied voices, called the Providers.
The collars are the most visible aspect of control, but there is much more to the coercion than the threat of pain, the training halters, or even the bars in the pink cellblock where the crew spends their time between “training exercises.” Although many of the slaves – or “Thralls” – were kidnapped from other planets, Kirk learns that there are also plenty of slave-gladiators who were born in captivity and know no other life. These are the “born-ins” found in high-control groups and relationships. With this mix of native Thralls and new captives from all corners of the galaxy, heavy societal controls must be in place before physical controls are possible. Beyond the indoctrination of the three prisoners, we have no in-depth look at the culture, but we do garner a few clues to the extent of these societal controls: the native drill Thrall, Shahna (who functions as Kirk’s love interest du jour), expresses a detachment from her mother heartbreakingly familiar to anyone raised in an abusive group: “She who bore me was killed in a training exercise,” she informs Kirk dispassionately.
In the simplistic speech of the Thralls – where food is simply “nutrition” – there is a marked suppression of either creativity or curiosity. Even though questions about the nature of the Providers are punished with a swift jolt of agony, it seems that any curiosity amongst the Thralls – at least those native to Triskelion – has been muffled with centuries of cultural thought-stopping. From such phrases as, “one does not talk of such things,” in answer to what the Providers look like, to “I do not think your words are allowed,” it becomes painfully clear that discussion is not an option. Even options are not an option: when Kirk brings up the idea of not fighting for the Providers’ amusement, Shahna asks earnestly: “What else would one do?” These words could easily be dismissed as merely a fictional device to advance the dialogue – if they did not echo the words of so many real-life slaves, cult members, and abused spouses, still in the grip of their captivity: “Where else would I go?”
As in many high-control groups, there is no time to think, either – the constant battles are for more than the amusement of the disembodied Providers: swept up in the whirlwind of training exercises and mortal combat, the Thralls are left with no place for the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: there is no self-actualization, beauty, no art, no recreation – and no love; although this ignorance of romance is used as a transparent setup for the inevitable love scene, it is a powerful control indeed to have one’s mate “chosen” by someone whose interest is only in “increasing the herd” – and it echoes a nightmare millions of young people face in abusive groups worldwide.
The Providers, when finally confronted by Kirk, betray the same lack of consideration for their Thralls as the worst cult leader for his followers: they are all “inferior species,” who would starve to death in anarchy, if freed. Although the Providers ultimately give their word to Kirk that they will now begin “educating” the Thralls to govern themselves, it is more likely that, once the Enterprise left orbit, Shahna and her fellow Thralls would still have an uphill battle against the Providers – and the totalist culture they created – before they could count themselves as truly free.
Popular culture gives us much of our information about the world. It is an extremely important way to educate people about undue influence. Feel welcome to leave comments below about other explorations that boldly go into the methods of manipulation!
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Would you like to see another look at undue influence through the lens of popular culture? We’d love to hear from you!