When I was a kid, there was one Star Trek creature for me: the Gorn. Boy howdy, did I love the Gorn. I was teased by my cousin for how much I loved the Gorn but there was something about this creature that I just thought was so special. And in a way, he was. See, I watched Trek late at night as a small child back in the days of only 7 channels. I happened to catch the name of the episode: Arena. When the Gorn turned up, that name was locked indelibly in my mind. And every subsequent episode would be too. That was the start of my memory of names. I thank the heavens for my memory of names as it truly helps me in my job now. But perhaps I should thank the Metrons.
Kirk gets a call from an Earth Observation outpost on Cestus III. Like any good boy scout, he replies. Upon arrival, Kirk realizes “Cestus III has been destroyed”. This is where things go Ahab-shaped for Jim Kirk. Kirk is immediately of the mindset that there’s an invasion plan underway. Even as Spock tries to tell him that there are other possibilities, Kirk is adamant that this is an invasion and the best thing to do is to hunt and kill the white whale. Sorry, I mean the Gorn ship. His actions are probably influenced by the recent events experienced in Balance of Terror, but whatever the reason, when a mysterious third party scans the two ships, Kirk has to confront the error of his ways.
As I like to say, it’s all fun and games until someone loses a rock throwing contest. And that leads to one of the biggest questions of the episode. When Kirk is caught by the Gorn, why does the Gorn not crush Kirk’s lungs. I mean, that crush-hold that the Gorn uses should have been enough to pulverize Kirk’s lungs. I base this on the fact that he can hurl a boulder up a mountain side. But if not that, he has the chance to break Kirk’s leg or bite right through his jugular. How does Kirk survive this? Some evidence is given that he was a fan of old comedies from the 20th Century when he runs “serpentine”, cleverly taking Peter Falk’s advice from The In-Laws (1979). Whether this helped him survive being crushed, I cannot imagine. Kirk also has some strange wishes: he’d give anything for a phaser … or a club. First off, there are things he could use as a clubs scattered all over the planet. But more importantly, that’s like saying “I’d give anything for a nuclear missile… or a rubber band!” I worry about Kirk sometimes. I guess I shouldn’t expect much from a guy who, upon seeing some “strange new life”, he’s reminded of his “instinctive revulsion to reptiles”! For the record, this is the wrong reaction and I really do expect better of our heroes. Good job trying to understand the universe Jimmers!
But then our angelic Metrons aren’t much better. They set up this battle and tell the Enterprise crew that the loser will be “destroyed in the interest of peace”. Um… what? I think, possibly, someone has the wrong idea of what “peace” is! That said, I did something clever before and I bet you didn’t notice it. I said “it’s all fun and games…” When the disembodied Metron was speaking, I was stunned. I knew that voice. I hadn’t heard it in years, but I was certain it was the Control Voice from The Outer Limits. Apt because in 1964, the plot of Arena was used by The Outer Limits in an episode titled Fun and Games. The winner in that story saves his entire species. While that took place in (our) modern times, I’m glad by Kirk’s time, we’ve started to learn that sometimes, wars are founded upon misunderstandings. Sometimes they can be avoided! (Even when the episode costs the lives of two crewmen; a yellow shirt and a red shirt both die as a result of the Gorn! Thankfully, Kirk shows mercy. I bet he’ll regret it when writing that dreadful letter to the families of the deceased!)
Before getting into the learning lessons of the episode, I have to mention McCoy. He and Kirk are talking in the transporter room before beaming down to the planet. Kirk says “Rank has its privileges”. McCoy’s response is dripping with meaning: “How well we both know that!” There is something decidedly dark about the way he says it. What have you been up to lately, Bones? Or dare I ask?
So what are the big take-aways from this episode? I count three things. 1) Brains over brawn. Thinking your way through problems is always the preferred method of heroes. 2) Know thy chemistry! Should you find yourself on an alien planet, or even deserted isle, you may need to know how to build a cannon. Useful things, cannons! You’ll fail epically if you don’t know how to identify these, usually by taste. 3) Angels have high quality TV broadcasting capabilities, so when we die, we can watch all the good things still happening here on Earth. They are even courteous enough to cut from one scene to another so we don’t watch the boring bits. I’m now that much less afraid of missing out when I die! When it’s time to go… beam me up, Metrons! ML
The view from across the pond:
If you’ve never watched Star Trek you will probably still be familiar with the Gorn, and not for the best of reasons. Whenever a television show wants to poke fun at Trek for whatever reason, a clip of Kirk fighting the Gorn is sure to follow. I have never watched the original Trek before now, and yet I must have seen clips from this one about half a dozen times. All I knew about the episode is the monster costume is laughable, and that’s a shame because the costume detracts from what is otherwise one of Trek‘s better ideas for a storyline, with a strong moral at the end.
Before we get to that moral, and Kirk doing the right thing, he first has to create the problem by doing the wrong thing. Kirk going off “in hot pursuit” of the aliens who attacked a colony world is wrong, in the sense that it is inconsistent with what we know about Kirk from before. Back when he first encountered the Romulans he found himself in a very similar situation, with human lives being lost to an unfamiliar enemy, and yet he went out of his way to avoid starting a war. Here he’s a warmonger instead, and never stops to think that the “enemy” might have motivations he is unaware of beyond conquest. Crucially, his enemy is making the same mistake. There is a very neat symmetry in the way the Gorn mistakenly assume the colony is there for conquest and Kirk assumes their destruction of the colony is an aggressive rather than territorially defensive act, but it shouldn’t need Spock to point out the need to have regard for sentient life and at least ask questions first before they go in all guns blazing.
“Out here we’re the only policemen around, and a crime has been committed.”
Somebody needed to call him out on that, because a policeman’s role is to protect the innocent and bring people to justice. A policeman is not a judge, jury and executioner. Fortunately there is a judge on hand to step in, or at the least a referee: another race of aliens called the Metrons. Uhura is depressingly our Screaming Woman #11 in our Trek tally (we also have Minor Crewman Deaths #24 and #25) and Kirk is whisked away to do battle with the Gorn captain.
What follows is interminable. Kirk picks up a stick. The Gorn’s stick is bigger. Kirk picks up a very heavy piece of polystyrene. The Gorn’s polystyrene is bigger.
“Already he has withstood attacks from me that would have killed a human being.”
What, a twig, a hug and a pebble? When Spock says “leave Channel One open lieutenant, just in case”, I was echoing his thoughts. There might be something better to watch on Channel One, maybe Doctor Who? But on it goes. Kirk finds a bigger piece of polystyrene to drop on top of the Gorn. The Gorn has a quick nap and then gets on with things. It’s a mixed bag. There are moments that genuinely work very well, such as the Gorn approaching in the background of the shot, out of focus, while Kirk is trapped in the foreground of the shot, and the battle is oddly compelling at times, despite the world’s worst monster costume, representing a foe who can’t keep up with Kirk even when he’s limping. The exposition is also clumsy. Kirk narrates for us, while Spock commentates.
“Unless I’m mistaken, it’s potassium nitrate.”
He can tell that from seeing some white powder on a screen? That man knows his white powders. It’s handy that all the necessary things to make an explosive are just lying around, without having to dig them out of the ground or anything inconvenient like that. Maybe the Metrons put them there. But at least that brings us to the punchline of the episode, which is Kirk refusing to kill his enemy. A war is stopped before it can get started, and to two enemy leaders decide to talk and stop one tragedy, based on a mistaken assumption, becoming a war started by another. For an era where few people were thinking about the world as anything other than good guys vs bad guys, and that was almost always reflected in television shows, this was a brave and unusual move. I don’t think it’s any accident that the two most popular sci-fi television shows in the world, Star Trek and Doctor Who, both have pacifist heroes who only kill when they absolutely must, and both hail from an era where that was a novel approach to storytelling. Kirk and the Doctor might both stray from the path occasionally, but in the end they both stand for peace and justice. It takes Spock to remind Kirk that justice is not the same thing as revenge. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: Tomorrow is Yesterday