In the early Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Hide and Q,” the omnipotent Q (John De Lancie) suggested that “nothing reveals humanity so well as the games it plays.” He later modifies the quote to suggest that “how” we play may be even more important than what we play.
In cult television history, there have been a lot of games, and thus much revealing of humanity.
Star Trek (1966 – 1969) introduced the world to 3-D chess, for instance. In the very first episode featuring Captain Kirk (William Shatner), “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” we see Kirk and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) locked in a chess game, with Spock showing “irritation” at Kirk’s impulsive, unpredictable playing. If you think about it, this scene sets up much of the core character dynamic of the series. Is it better to play chess emotionally, impulsively, riskily? Or coolly, logically and analytically?
Not coincidentally, those are the very qualities these two heroes possess. Because they are allies, Kirk and Spock combine their capacities – at war in chess– to better their universe in life. I always wondered: what if Spock and Kirk were pitted against each other as enemies in battle? Who would win that “chess” match? I know that Shatner actually proposed that idea for Star Trek VI, but it didn’t go anywhere. Perhaps if the Mirror Universe had been involved…
Chess, also of the 3-D variety, appeared in Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970) in the pilots’ chamber on moonbase and in the Filmation series Ark II (1976). Non-3-D chess appeared in episodes of the same creator’s Space: 1999 (1975-1977). In “Dragon’s Domain,” for instance, Koenig (Martin Landau) and David Kano (Clifton Jones) play a game of chess in Main Mission, during the wee hours of the morning. Interestingly, Kano possesses something of Spock’s “computer-like” mind, and clearly boasts an affinity for logic. By comparison, Koenig is a bit less rakish and impulsive than Kirk is on Star Trek, though he did, in one episode (“Missing Link”) note that it was more important to “feel” than to “think.”
Once more, we’re seeing a dynamic play out not just involving a game, but the personalities behind the game.
In some series, as in the aforementioned “Hide and Q,” aliens use a game to better understand humanity. In Deep Space Nine’s early “Move Along Home,” the Wadi — the first “official” alien delegation to visit the Alpha Quadrant from the Gamma Quadrant — introduces the station crew to a game in which they actually become board pieces in a three dimension game “reality.” The game is baffling, and the episode is not particularly well-remembered today. Still, the idea of a game as a first contact tactic is intriguing to me. If we play an alien game, we learn about their idea of fun, rules, strategy and gamesmanship. And the aliens learn how we adapt and interpret their symbols and world view.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Game,” a Ktarian woman, Etana Jol (Katherine Moffat) uses a game with…physicalside-effects (*ahem*) to seduce the crew of the Enterprise and assume control of the ship. Again, I don’t think this is a very popular episode of The Next Generation, but I rather like it, in part because it shows the crew’s imperfections. Picard, Crusher, Riker and others all get “hooked” on the game, and there’s something very human about that. We can’t all be perfect every hour of every day, and I liked the idea of a stealth attack on the ship that the crew didn’t puzzle out instantly.
In much more generic terms, games of chance like Pyramid (Battlestar Galactica), ten and eleven (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: “Vegas in Space”) and Dabo and darts on Deep Space Nine reveal how the characters interact with others in off-duty capacities. We know Starbuck is an incurable gambler, for instance, and that reveals something about his/her nature. Miles and Dr. Bashir bond over darts, a friendly but fierce competition, and Buck Rogers is the only one in the 25thcentury who sees through the computerized games of chance on the satellite of Sinoloa. In all these circumstances we understand that games are part of the human equation.