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At the beginning of the episode, Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov are going to beam down for a routine check of a robotic station. It's not clear why these three crewmembers are needed. However, before the Enterprise's transporter begins functioning, they instantaneously disappear and reappear on another planet. Some nice observations by Kirk (such as the trinary sun) demonstrate that they are not on the planet they expected to be on.
In short order, some armed natives appear and subdue them. An odd-looking man named Galt arrives and tells them that they are now "thralls". Galt forces collars to be put on them. When they make an inevitable break for escape, they find out that the collars are devices which somehow transmit pain to them. The pain is so strong that the victim can do little more than writhe around when the collars are activated. I did like how Uhura and Chekov were alert and waiting for Kirk's signal to make an escape attempt - the crew is well trained.
Galt explains their situation: they will be trained to fight, and once they are trained, one of the "Providers" will buy them and make them part of its "herd". Apparently all of the humanoids on the planet exist only as thralls that fight staged battles for the amusement of the Providers, who gamble on the outcome. Some of the humanoids on the planet were born there from previous generations of thralls, and some have been abducted as the Enterprise crewmen were.
Each of them has been assigned a drill thrall to train them. Uhura's drill thrall, Lars, has also been "selected" for her, which apparently means they are to mate. Lars enters Uhura's cell and seemingly begins groping her, presumably with the intent of rape, and Uhura fights back. Kirk yells in protest, but he's ineffective in his cell. Because of the commercial break and change in direction, it's unclear whether Uhura was actually raped, or whether Lars gave up for the moment.
Chekov's drill thrall is a purposely unattractive female named Tamoon. Tamoon is smitten with Chekov and tells him she would like for them to be selected for each other. Chekov tries to put a good face on things, but obviously is uncomfortable. This scene is played for laughs, but it's hard to laugh after the assault on Uhura.
Kirk's drill thrall is, predictably, a beautiful woman named Shahna. Kirk immediately begins his trademark attack on alien women: he tells her she's beautiful, and must explain what he means.
They are all summoned to the arena for practice. A thrall who disobeyed orders is brought in to be "practice target" as punishment: the other fighters will strike them with their weapons as they practice. From later conversation, we learn that this will continue until he is dead. The target thrall is a black man, and Uhura is the first one ordered to strike him. She is understandably outraged and refuses, and Kirk refuses on all of their behalfs.
Since Kirk assumes responsibility for all of them, Galt orders Kirk to the the practice target instead, and his hands are bound. This is odd, because only one thrall "practices" on him: a primitive-looking thrall begins beating him with a whip. During a break in the fight, Shahna gives him advice on fighting the other thrall, and Kirk manages to free his hands. He eventually is able to begin choking the other thrall, but the Providers call things to a halt before the thrall is dead.
The Providers are excited by Kirk and the others' unusual characteristics and begin bidding on them. Provider 1 wins the bid, and they all become his thralls; Shahna is also in this "herd". This apparently puts and end to Kirk's stint as practice target.
In the meantime, on the Enterprise, Spock and the rest of the crew are trying to figure out what happened to Kirk and the others. When a search of the planet comes up negative, they begin investigating other possibilities. The only oddity they come up with is unusual ionization in an interstellar gas cloud, which Spock speculates could have been caused by a transporter beam going through it. It's very unlikely, since the line-of-sight destination of such a beam would be light-years away, but Spock orders them to proceed there.
This plot is mostly annoying, since McCoy and Scotty spend most of their time complaining the Spock is on a wild goose chase, but they can't offer a better suggestion. I think they are way too public with these complaints, which could undermine moral and confidence in Spock's command, but this is pretty standard for TOS episodes. I did enjoy the demonstration of Spock's improving people-skills: first he mock-whispers and asks if they plan to mutiny, then after putting them on the defensive, he offers a compromise plan. Very effective. Of course, they are on the right track; they just need time to get to Triskelion.
On Triskelion, Shahna has taken Kirk for a training run. They reach some ruins when Kirk calls for a breather, ostensibly to catch his breath, but really so that he can work on Shahna. I appreciated how calculated his conversation was. He begins by asking her about where the ruins came from - did the Providers live on the planet's surface once?
When Shahna becomes uncomfortable with this conversation, he changes tacks and asks her about the "lights in the sky", revealing that the lights are stars, and many of the stars have planets. This leads him into talking about Earth and how everyone on Earth is free to live and love how they choose.
When Shahna becomes uncomfortable with that line of conversation, he changes course again to ask if she knows what the Providers are like now physically. She begins telling him about rumors when her collar activates and puts her in excruciating pain. Kirk pleads with the unseen Providers to spare her, since he caused her to talk about the forbidden topics.
The Providers eventually stop the pain, but it apparently went far beyond what Shahna had previously experienced, and she's devastated. Of course, Kirk takes the opportunity to kiss her. Galt appears to break them up and send them back to the compound. In some sense, however, he's too late, because Kirk has entranced Shahna, who is amazed that Kirk spoke up for her, and didn't realize how nice things could be between people.
Kirk is known for being a ladies' man on TOS, but in some cases, his romantic actions are clearly very calculated. His only source of knowledge about Triskelion and the Providers is Shahna, and she is also his direct "boss". It makes sense for him to manipulate her with the weapons his has on hand, so to speak.
Somehow, Kirk has coordinated another escape attempt with Uhura and Chekov, and they all manage to neutralize or get rid of their drill thralls at the same time and escape their cells. They search for their communicators and phasers, but end up wandering into the arena, where Galt finds them and begins punishing them.
The Providers stop the punishment, saying that they find the Enterprise crewmen too interesting to kill. The Enterprise itself has just arrived in orbit, and the Providers immediately take over control of the ship. They begin conversing with Spock and for some reason provide a communication conduit between Kirk and the ship. The Providers explain the situation, with Kirk adding his own commentary. The Providers intend to incorporate the Starfleet crew into their herds, but Kirk has no intention of allowing that.
Kirk taunts the Providers into showing what they look like, and he is transported 1 km underground to where the three Providers exist as three brains on life-support. They claim to have evolved into highly mentally-developed beings whose physical bodies were no longer necessary. Despite this claim, apparently they've exhausted all their mental amusements, and now they are only entertained by the unpredictability of combat between the thralls.
Their jadedness and mental thrill-seeking is the weakness Kirk jumps on, and he proposes a wager on a fight. If he wins, the thralls will be freed, and the Providers will train the thralls in how to build a society. If he loses, the Enterprise crew will become thralls without protest. The Providers accept, on the condition that the fight will be between him and three thralls of their choosing.
Kirk faces off against the barbarian with the whip, Lars, and an Andorian. He kills Lars with a spear, and then gets the Andorian to accidentally kill the barbarian with a spear. He injures the Andorian, which means he is replaced by Shahna. Eventually he gets the advantage of Shahna and has a knife to her throat. Shahna surrenders on behalf of the thralls.
The Providers seem to fulfill their part of the bet: the collars are removed from all the thralls, and the Providers say they will teach the thralls. Shahna wants to leave the planet with Kirk, but he gives her the somewhat glib reply that she needs to stay and learn. The Enterprise crewmembers return to the ship.
This is not a good episode, but in my opinion it's not because of one huge problem, but lots of little things. First, the fighting is horribly fake, slow, and not at all dangerous in appearance. For people that have been trained all their lives to fight, they really suck at it. The props didn't help - the spears didn't even look sharp!
Next, the arena-style fighting is very similar to what we saw in "Bread and Circuses", which made it more tedious. There was even less purpose to the fighting in this episode - at least in "Bread and Circuses" it was a cultural tradition. The violence in this episode was more graphic (if you can call it that, by today's standards) and less meaningful.
The idea of the Providers was awful - disembodied brains? And it's hard to believe that if they are so smart that they couldn't have come up with a more profitable use of their time - in exploration, for example.
The ending of the episode was far too simple; I cannot believe that in the long run the Providers will keep their end of the bargain. After all, the thralls now have freedom, which many of them have never experienced. Once they realize they can do anything, it's likely that many of them will begin taking advantage of others in any number of ways. This situation is similar to that at the end of "The Apple", except that the freed thralls are also trained in violence. How long before disagreements lead to murder? The Providers are going to somehow have to get the thralls to restructure their society, even though the Providers have no means to act physically (except perhaps through some technology, such as their transporters). I would think the Providers would give up on the "building a society" idea pretty quickly and enslave the thralls again.
How will Starfleet react to Kirk's report of Triskelion and the Providers? The Providers are extremely powerful, as was demonstrated by their quick takeover of the Enterprise; I can't believe Starfleet would be comfortable with that kind of possibly malevolent power nearby. If the Providers do renege on the bet, how could Starfleet do anything about it? The Providers have also been abducting beings from all over the galaxy. Once Kirk reports where they are, some civilizations might come looking for their missing citizens - what will happen then?
I'm also bothered by the scene with Uhura's attempted rape. This is the second episode with such an assault (the previous was in "A Private Little War"), and again it's pretty much ignored. We don't see any effect on Uhura, nor did anyone else seem to remember it. I have no problem with the idea that the galaxy is not a safe place and bad things could happen - but if they do, don't brush them under the rug!