As 2022 ends, it’s hard to say that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has had a more influential year in his acting career, even if that influence was his long-in-the-making Black Adam movie almost singlehandedly tearing apart the DC cinema slate for years. But was it his year as an actor? Absolutely not, because that is, was, and forever will be, 2000.
Because that’s when “Tsunkatse,” the 15th episode of Star Trek: Voyager’s penultimate sixth season aired, marking the debut of Johnson’s acting career before he would truly explode onto the scene a year later in The Mummy Returns. Born of an absurd idea for broadcaster UPN to cross over two of its biggest shows—Voyager and WWF nee WWE Smackdown—Johnson plays a major role in the episode as the Pendari Champion, a hulking combatant in the melee bloodsport Tsunkatse that goes toe-to-toe with a captured Seven of Nine.
It’s deeply silly, if only because for Star Trek fans The Rock is perhaps only the third most notable guest star—Deep Space Nine legends J.G. Hertzler and Jeffrey Combs, best known for playing General Martok and Weyoun (among many other roles!) respectively, on Voyager’s predecessor have guest turns too. Hertzler plays a fellow combatant in the ring of this wildly popular deathmatch, a Hirogen—a race of Predator-esque hunters Voyager had previously encountered—who trains the captive Seven in the arts of Tsunkatse so she can survive long enough to be rescued by the crew, while Combs dazzles as Penk, the slimy overlord of the Tsunkatse tournaments that captured Seven as his new ultimate warrior.
But we’re to expect delight from Star Trek legends like these stars. The Rock, for Star Trek and for the world at large beyond his turn as one of the most iconic wrestlers of his age, was an untested, unproven acting chameleon, at this point just starting out a journey that would lead to box office dominance and, well, Johnson just kind of playing a heightened approximation of himself across a sea of action movies. Sometimes, that’s all you need, and it’s all well and good, but outside of a few specific roles, it’s hard to particularly argue that Johnson has forged an acting career for himself that challenges him dramatically, instead largely challenging him by how many stunts he can do, how many tight button up shirts he can fit his giant arms into the rolled sleeves of, how many times he can blur the line between the character he’s meant to be playing and the persona of the Rock in the audience’s head.
The Pendari Champion is the predecessor to what Johnson’s career would become literally and and spiritually, because they are literally just the Rock with some Star Trek alien forehead makeup applied. Perhaps then, it is the ideal form of Johnson’s highly specific niche. The idea at its purest, when the Rock being the Rock, But Askance, was a novel thing. You could even say that Johnson has spent almost two and a half decade long acting career chasing the same high as “Tsunkatse,” but finds himself unable replicate the joy of the first time he could turn the Rock into a trans-medium performance.
Everything that Dwayne Johnson is—at the height of his wrestling career then, at the height of his acting one now—is in the Pendari Champion. The taciturn nature, breaking ever so slightly for a trademark People’s Eyebrow. The canonization of the Rock Bottom as the second greatest act of martial combat in Star Trek, just behind the double-fisted punch. The fact that he barely has dialogue, the fact that his costume had to have a very cheap harness put in so he actually looked slightly different than he does on any regular episode of Smackdown. It is the embrace of Johnson entirely into a bizarro Star Trek plot about trying to escape a dangerous alien fight club: he is there to be Johnson, and yet not Johnson. Is Dwayne Johnson the Pendari Champion, or is the Rock the Pendari Champion?
We have Star Trek: Voyager to thank for this timeless question, the humble, ridiculous episode of television that launched the only career capable of tanking an entire superhero movie universe in one go. At least Seven of Nine survived a Rock Bottom the DCEU couldn’t.
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