Star Trek Re-Watch: “Arena”

“Arena”
Written by Gene L. Coon (from a story by Fredric Brown)
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Season 1, Episode 18
Production episode: 1×19
Original air date: January 19, 1967
Star date: 3045.6

Mission summary

Captain Kirk and some of his crew prepare for a fancy dinner on Cestus III, an Earth observation outpost in a largely unexplored area of space. Their host, Commodore Travers, is well known for his hospitality and they’re all looking forward to a good meal and entertainment. Instead, when they beam down they discover that Cestus III has been destroyed—and its literally cold-blooded alien attackers are still there. Since the massacre must have occurred several days before, it seems the invitation from Travers was faked to lure the Enterprise to the planet.

Kirk sends Mr. Lang and Mr. Kellowitz to check the area, but keeps the lone red shirt, O’Herlihy, close by; this might be more for the security officer’s protection than his own, given what usually happens when they wander off alone. Kirk, McCoy, Spock, and O’Herlihy discover a single survivor from the attack, but he’s in bad shape and needs more medical assistance than McCoy can offer. O’Herlihy gets ten feet away from Kirk and calls back, “Captain, I see something!” just before a disruptor vaporizes him.

Pinned down by steady bombing from their unknown aggressors, Kirk calls for transporters, but Sulu tells them the Enterprise is under attack too and he can’t beam up the landing party through the defensive screens (aka, the shields). Kirk orders him not to worry about them, just protect the ship.

The small group on Cestus III realize that their hand phasers are no match for the aliens’ superior disruptors. In what ends up being some interesting foreshadowing, Kirk tells Spock, “We’ll have to make do with what we’ve got.” They take shelter under a ramp and Kirk decides to make a break for the arsenal to get them some better weapons.

The Enterprise is also thwarted by the aliens’ superior technology; their phasers and photon torpedoes have no effect on the enemy shields, er, screens. With Kirk’s support, Sulu decides to warp out of orbit to keep the ship safe. Kirk dodges incoming bombs, confounding the attackers by falling, rolling, and crawling to the arsenal. As Spock joins him, his tricorder begins to hiss and smoke. He throws it away a moment before it explodes, and he’s impressed that the aliens managed to feed its signal back on itself and overload it.

Mr. Kellowitz reappears to help them, reporting that Lang is dead but they never got a look at the aliens. Kirk loads a launcher with uh, little blue balls, and fires in the enemy’s general direction, triggering a violent explosion at close range. All is quiet. Sulu reports the alien ship has activated its transporters and is leaving. They must have scared them off! Kirk orders him to lock onto the enemy ship and send down a search and rescue team to look for more survivors. The landing party then beams back up with the wounded man they found.

Kirk questions the distraught man and learns that the aliens who attacked Cestus III arrived with no warning and didn’t respond to any attempts to contact them, including the outpost’s surrender. It doesn’t make any sense, and the man keeps asking: “Why did they do it? Why? Why did they do it? There has to be a reason. There has to be a reason!”

Kirk thinks he knows the answer:

KIRK: The reason is crystal clear. The Enterprise is the only protection in this section of the Federation. Destroy the Enterprise, and everything is wide open.
SPOCK: You allude to invasion, Captain, yet positive proof–
KIRK: I have all the proof I need on Cestus III.
SPOCK: Not necessarily, sir. Several possible explanations
KIRK: How can you explain a massacre like that? No, Mr. Spock. The threat is clear and immediate. Invasion.

This leaves him with only one choice, to destroy the enemy ship before it can reach its home. They move deeper into unknown space in pursuit of the alien vessel, through an area fraught with tales of strange subspace signals and space legends about the beings who may live there. Their target appears to be faster than the Enterprise and Kirk pushes the engines hard with Scott’s disapproval. Warp factor seven draws looks of alarm, and the crew seems genuinely panicked when he orders warp eight, especially when he seems willing to blow them up in the process. Meanwhile, Spock tries to convince the captain to chill, urging him not to destroy the aliens. Kirk summarily disagrees:

It’s a matter of policy. Out here, we’re the only policemen around. And a crime has been committed. Do I make myself clear?

It turns out there may be other policemen around after all. The two ships approach a solar system and the alien ship changes course to avoid it while the Enterprise is scanned. Suddenly the alien ship drops out of warp and comes to a dead stop. Kirk jubilantly prepares to attack them while they’re defenseless when the same thing happens to the Enterprise. Weapon and propulsion systems don’t respond. Spock surmises that something in the nearby solar system is holding them, but Kirk says it’s impossible. Spock slaps Kirk in the face verbally with, “We are being held.”

Some pretty lights appear on the viewscreen and they hear an eerie voice:

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture; we are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set.

Or something like that.

These aliens identify themselves as the Metrons and the attackers in the other ship as the Gorn. The Metrons object to the violent intentions and tendencies of both ships and say they will control them by setting up a challenge. They will transport Kirk and the Gorn captain to a planet where they can settle their score like uncivilized people, armed only with their ingenuity and brute strength. They’ll be equipped with voice recorders to chronicle the contest as a warning to other space travelers, and are told that there are raw materials on the planet with which they can create a weapon. Two men enter, one man leaves! The loser will be destroyed with his ship, “in the interests of peace.”

It is no sooner said than it is done. Kirk stands opposite a reptilian creature with beautiful eyes but questionable fashion sense and realizes that he has an “instinctive revulsion” to it. They immediately engage in close combat, but the Gorn is obviously stronger, albeit laughably slow-moving. Everything Kirk does, the Gorn can do better. He throws a rock at the creature (it bounces harmlessly off its chest), and the Gorn responds by hurling a boulder at Kirk.

Knowing that he can’t win a contest of physical strength, Kirk explores the asteroid looking for some weapon that will give him an advantage. All he finds are some bamboo sticks, diamonds, and a deposit of sulfur which are individually useless; yet it all sounds strangely familiar to him, if only he could remember… Meanwhile the Gorn lays a primitive trap for him and begins laboriously carving a dagger out of black stone. Kirk uses his recorder to recount his thoughts and efforts, unaware that its actually transmitting and translating everything he says to his opponent. Crafty Metrons!

Kirk manages to drop a boulder onto the Gorn from a cliff, but makes the mistake of checking the body. Finding the Gorn alive, Kirk runs away—right into the Gorn’s trap. He trips a vine that causes a boulder to fall on him. When the Gorn frees him to stab him, Kirk escapes, limping on his injured leg.

On the Enterprise, all Spock can do is wait and try to contact the Metrons, who eventually let them know that Kirk isn’t doing so hot and they should probably prepare a memorial. But out of compassion, they do let them watch Kirk’s final moments on the viewscreen. What they see is not encouraging. Kirk is still hobbling around, incredibly fatigued. The Gorn taunts him through the translator and reveals that they interpreted the colonists on Cestus III as invaders in their territory. Everyone is floored by this news. They were the enemy all along!

Kirk stumbles across something that Spock recognizes as potassium nitrate, even without tasting it as Kirk does. The Vulcan is one step ahead of Kirk and several parsecs ahead of McCoy, making cryptic comments to himself as Kirk revisits his previous locations like he’s in a Sierra adventure game: collecting a tube of bamboo, some sulfur, diamonds, vines, potassium nitrate, and coal. McCoy becomes more and more frustrated with Spock until the science officer explains that Kirk can use those elements to manufacture gunpowder, to fire a primitive bamboo cannon with diamond projectiles.

With the Gorn approaching, Kirk readies the gunpowder and loads the cannon. He uses flint and the Metrons’ translator to light it, just in time to strike the Gorn and incapacitate it. He snatches the alien’s dagger and is about to finish him with it when he relents:

No. No, I won’t kill you. Maybe you thought you were protecting yourself when you attacked the outpost.

He yells to the Metrons that he won’t kill the Gorn and his felled opponent disappears. A young boy materializes, which makes Kirk wary considering his ?track record with powerful children these days; but no worries, the Metron is actually 1500 years old. He congratulates Kirk for showing “the advanced trait of mercy” and tells him they won’t be destroyed. He offers to destroy the Gorn instead, but Kirk declines (or realizes they’re still testing him), and suggests that maybe they can talk through their conflict. The Metron seems pleased:

Very good, Captain. There is hope for you. Perhaps in several thousand years, your people and mine shall meet to reach an agreement. You are still half savage, but there is hope. We will contact you when we are ready.

They return Kirk to the Enterprise, which is suddenly 500 parsecs away from where they were. Spock asks what happened, since they lost the Metrons’ signal.

KIRK: We’re a most promising species, Mr. Spock, as predators go. Did you know that?
SPOCK: I’ve frequently had my doubts.
KIRK: I don’t. Not anymore. And maybe in a thousand years or so, we’ll be able to prove it. Never mind, Mr. Spock. It doesn’t make much sense to me either. Take us back to where we’re supposed to be, Mr. Sulu. Warp factor one.
SULU: Warp factor one.
SPOCK: A thousand years, Captain?
KIRK: Well, that gives us a little time.

Analysis
This is as classic as episodes come, and it’s been referenced everywhere from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (which features the same setting as this episode, the Vasquez Rocks in California) to the film Tropic Thunder. There is something incredibly iconic about Kirk’s one-on-one conflict with the Gorn, both in the real world and in the expanded Star Trek universe; in the Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations,” Sisko remarks that he’d like to ask Kirk about the encounter.

Simply put, this is a strategic battle between a human and a truly alien alien, even more frightening to humans because of our cultural, almost instinctual hatred for serpents and reptiles. Though Kirk wins the battle because of his intelligence, true victory comes from his display of mercy and compassion for his violent opponent. We’re meant to learn a lesson when Kirk overcomes his assumptions about the Gorn, which were based on his appearance and misinterpreted actions, and chooses a peaceful way of settling their dispute. Kirk’s description of his interaction with the Metrons at the end is a little strange, since he seems to agree easily with their assessment of humanity’s potential. Whether they’re right or not, I wondered if the Metron rewarded him with a refreshing glass of Kool-Aid before sending him back to the ship.

This transformation is all the more striking considering Kirk’s initial overblown reaction to the attack on Cestus III. He is naturally angry at the wanton murder and also needs to explain it to himself. The only way he can make sense of it is by casting the Gorn as the villains and seeking revenge, under the pretense of justice and preventing invasion. His belligerent and unreasonable response (perhaps further justified by his past experience with devastated colonies, as we saw in “The Conscience of the King” and will learn about later in “Operation—Annihilate!”) is an interesting counterpoint to his behavior under similar conditions in “Balance of Terror,” where he was reluctant to provoke a war, and his need for incontrovertible proof of guilt in “The Conscience of the King.” This might be inconsistent characterization, or he may have simply changed his mind since then; although it doesn’t seem terribly Kirk-like, it may be overlooked because of the intended effect of showing how he comes to understand his enemy. Spock alone remains true to his values, continuing to push for a “regard for sentient life” as he did in “The Galileo Seven.” Though the humans are admittedly shown in a poor light at first, the revelation that they may have been the invaders is surprising and hopefully has a similar impact on most viewers.

As long as we’re talking about contradictory characterizations, I was surprised and dismayed at Uhura’s scream when Kirk vanishes from the bridge. In the previous episode, there was nary a peep from her when both Kirk and Sulu disappeared, and Sulu’s a good friend of hers. What’s up with that? And Spock infuriated even me with his smug analysis of Kirk’s actions on the asteroid while McCoy is pestering him for answers. Finally, Kirk and McCoy’s utter disbelief that aliens could have disabled their ship from so far away shows a short memory on their parts, considering what the Talosians did, not to mention their pal Trelane. Sadly, this is not the last time an advanced race of beings will use their powers to force peace on the Federation and its enemies. Other species have clearly evolved beyond the need for a policy of non-interference.

Back to the Gorn. Though Kirk and his crew can see how they may have leapt to some hasty conclusions regarding the attack on Cestus III, whether the colonists were in fact invaders in Gorn territory might be irrelevant. The Gorn destroyed the entire outpost with no mercy, under no obvious provocation, and were completely unwilling to negotiate or accept surrender. They were as much in the wrong as Kirk, but they probably didn’t learn the same lesson to ask questions before shooting. Just because they had a reason to attack doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for the brutality of it, does it? Or do we forgive it because that’s their way?

On the level of pure storytelling, I was impressed by the narrative device of having Kirk record his actions on the asteroid, as well as Spock’s later interpretations of the images on the viewscreen, as a means of explaining what was going on to viewers. Otherwise, “Arena” would have been largely dialogue-free, and these are much more elegant solutions than inserting a jarring noirish voiceover or having Kirk talk to himself (though it may have been even more effective as a silent piece as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Hush”).

The Gorn’s costume is really not that bad, though the creature doesn’t seem like much of a threat with its sluggish attacks. I’m sure that the addition of CGI eyelids in the remastered edition makes it even more convincing, though. This episode makes use of some interesting camera work, most notably having the Gorn walk directly toward the screen in one scene, and showing Kirk running away by beginning with an extreme close-up of his butt. I suppose this is meant to put the viewer more in the moment and increase tension. The only real nitpicks I have from a production standpoint is that when Kirk finds the sulfur deposits, his lips clearly do not match the narration, and the viewscreen goes a little wonky during the Metron transmission.

There’s also one intriguing bit of dialogue early on. Before beaming down to Cestus III, Kirk comments that “rank hath its privileges.” McCoy grins and replies, “How well we both know that.” So… what is he referring to? That seemed so odd to me. Moments later Spock accuses the doctor of being a sensualist for wanting non-reconstituted meals, and McCoy agrees, “You bet your pointed ears I am.” Are we missing an episode where Kirk and McCoy abuse their power with decadent pursuits?

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: What does this bring our space douche count up to?

I’m a little puzzled as to why this is such a memorable classic. I though the Gorn commander was visually pretty cool, a sort of Godzilla-meets-the-Kroffts creation, and you know I love me some gratuitous man-fighting, but otherwise it was a big glorious ode to hyper-masculine douchebaggery.

Kirk is practically a lunatic here, wild-eyed and war-mongering. He’s on a one-man crusade to avert a supposed invasion—a plan he literally thought up right that second with no evidence to support it—and uses the devastating loss of life as an excuse for preemptive war with a species he knows nothing about. How is this the same man who saw the destruction of Earth Outposts 2, 3, and 4, and still didn’t want to provoke a full-scale war with the Romulans? Who believed himself to be nearly destroyed by Balok and yet still tried to bring about a peaceful resolution? Spock asks him to have some regard for sentient life, and Kirk snaps back at him: “There’s no time for that. It’s a matter of policy.” Even Uhura in the background looks taken aback. He follows it with an equally chilling line: “Out here, we’re the only policemen around. And a crime has been committed. Do I make myself clear?” Crystal. He’s the corrupt sheriff or praetorian with no one watching, free to do as he pleases. Who watches the watchmen indeed. It feels wrong, very wrong.

He’s not the only one, though: the Gorn are equally violent for no discernible reason. Okay, so maybe the Federation settled in their space, but how about an eviction notice first? The man who survived in the opening scene says that the Gorn just poured in, refusing to discuss the issue or even accept surrender. If someone squats on your property, you tell them to leave before you bring in the calvary, right? The Gorn captain takes particular glee in his successes against Kirk—he’s not fighting in self-defense, he’s enjoying vengeance. I didn’t like it. Kirk mirrors this expression at the end of the episode. He looks so pleased with himself!

On a positive note, the makeshift bamboo gun was inexplicable yet pretty damn cool. What the hell kind of boy scouts troop did he join?? Stay in school, kids! You might need that chem class to fight a lizardman one day.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: McCoy demonstrates his excellent bedside manner: “He’ll be dead in half an hour if we don’t get him some decent care.”

Syndication Edits: Some shots on Cestus III after Sulu decides to take the Enterprise out of orbit: Kirk running into the armory and Spock checking on the survivor before taking a new reading; some of the survivor’s ranting that there must be a reason for the Gorn to have attacked; the captain’s log (3046.2) and Kirk’s discussion with the navigator and Spock that follows it; after going to Warp 8, Kirk ordering all phasers ready and a reaction shot of a troubled Scotty; Kirk’s thoughts on the Gorn as it rips a branch from the tree; Spock conferring with Uhura on sensor readings; part of the conversation between Spock and McCoy about what they’re going to do to help Kirk; Kirk testing out the bamboo sticks that are unfit for his purpose; Kirk breaking a stick to tamp down the gunpowder mixture, and the subsequent action.

Trivia: So much trivia. The dialogue used in the Metrons’ greeting is a nod to the narration of the series The Outer Limits, also voiced by Vic Perrin, who provided many other voices in Star Trek (including Balok from “The Corbomite Maneuver”). Coincidentally, this episode also bears some resemblance to an episode of The Outer Limits titled “Fun and Games,” likely based on Fredric Brown’s story “Arena,” which was credited for this episode though Gene L. Coon was only made aware of it after the script was already written. You can actually read the whole story here for free (in more formats than I’ve ever seen!).

Other notes: Apparently, some dialogue from the script is missing from this episode, which indicated that the Metrons intended to destroy the winner of the conflict, rather than the loser, since he would represent the greater threat. This seems consistent with their decision to spare Kirk after he defeats the Gorn.

The Metrons may be named after the angel Metatron, also called “the Youth” in the Kabbalah, and indeed the alien takes on a somewhat angelic appearance.

Bamboo cannons are real, particularly in Malaysia and the Phillippines (the author of the Nitpicker’s Guide mentions that growing up in the Phillippines they used gasoline).

Cestus III is named after a cestus, or caestus, a Roman battle glove.


Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 17 – “The Squire of Gothos.”

Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 19 – “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.


This post originally appeared on Tor.com.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.