Star Trek 1.18: Arena

ArenaArena“! One of the all-time classic episodes, this one is highly memorable for the one-on-one duel between Kirk and the reptilian Gorn captain.

Well, I thought I knew what this episode was when I began watching it, but it quickly became clear that I didn’t remember how it began. In fact for about the first 10 minutes I was doubting that this was the “Gorn” episode at all. It begins with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and some assorted hangers-on beaming down to an Earth outpost on Cestus III at the invitation of the commander there. McCoy expresses delight at finally being able to taste a “non-reconstituted meal”. So everyone on the Enterprise lives on reconstituted food? Hmmm.

The name Cestus III is an obvious reference to the ancient Greek and Roman cestus – a glove designed to increase the damage done by bare-fisted fighting. An apt reference to make in this episode, hinging as it does on lust for warfare and gladiatorial combat. On the planet, the landing party find the smoking ruins of the outpost, obviously a victim of an attack. Apparently the attack was powerful enough to convert solid masonry into chunks of half-melted styrofoam.

McCoy beams up with a lone survivor, but the others are stranded when the Enterprise is attacked and Sulu reports they had to raise “screens” to prevent attack – these obviously haven’t been christened “shields” yet. They also handily prevent beaming the rest of the landing party up – another example of the writers having to disable the transporters to prevent them being used to rescue people from trouble. Sulu also reports that, although they are exchanging fire with the enemy vessel, it is “too far away” for visual contact. This is a bizarre piece of unphysical weirdness – they’re close enough to shoot at but not to see? Okay,they have other sensors that might be able to detect things at extreme ranges, but light has a pretty good range too, and they’re firing phasers – if they can expect to hit a target with a beam weapon, how can they be too far away to see it?

Meanwhile, on Cestus III, the landing party comes under attack from an unseen enemy, bombarding them from a nearby hill. Red-shirted Ensign O’Herlihy gets summarily disintegrated in the first two seconds of the attack, and Lieutenant Commander Lang doesn’t last much longer. Kirk wards off the attack with a strong case of foreshadowing by using a mortar to fire an explosive device towards the hill. The enemy vessel races off, the Enterprise picks up the landing party survivors and gives chase.

Kirk displays another bout of Ahab-like obsession with punishment in the name of justice, pushing the Enterprise to warp factor 8, a speed so great that it causes Scotty, Spock, and Sulu to appear in rapid-fire close-ups looking at Kirk with incredulity. When Kirk asks Spock for any information on aliens in the current sector, Spock replies that there is no hard information, there are only rumours and “space legends“.

The chase takes them past an unexplored planet, which is the home of the Metrons, yet another nigh omnipotent race of aliens, who espouse peace and decide to settle the differences of the Enterprise and the still-unseen aliens by placing the captain of each ship on a world specially prepared with the raw materials to make weapons, and letting them duke it out to the death. The winner gets to not have his ship and crew destroyed.

Kirk appears on the planet and we finally get our first look at the Gorn captain, in a supreme moment of dramatic revelation. Even now, when the costume looks incredibly hokey, it still has an impact to see that Kirk is up against a huge, muscular, lizard man! What follows is one of the most iconic fights in Star Trek, as Kirk struggles through an attempted fist fight, then races off to find a way to defeat the stronger Gorn. We see the usual Star Trek rocks that we’ve already seen in “Shore Leave”, and again there are obvious multiple shadows as Kirk races through the beams of light reflectors – this time the reflected light visibly moves across the rocks even.

Back on the Enterprise, the Metrons give the crew a video feed of the battle. Kirk stops near some white powdery stuff, and Spock recognises it immediately as potassium nitrate. Despite the fact that it looks exactly like any of dozens of other random white crystalline salts, or even sugar. See, this is why Spock is the science officer – he can recognise potassium nitrate by sight! Kirk has already passed a sulphur deposit, and a bunch of enormous diamonds just lying around. Spock points out that if he can find charcoal, or even just coal, he can make gunpowder. Kirk does so, and packs it into a crude mortar (foreshadowed!) made from a fat chunk of bamboo or something, and loads it up with diamond shot. This is amazingly effective, and blasts the Gorn captain to near-death.

But Kirk shows mercy and doesn’t finish him off, which proves to the Metrons that humans are worthy to live after all. A Metron reveals himself, wearing a toga. The moral, as Kirk realises, is that the Gorn weren’t attacking Cestus III out of sheer hostility, but because Cestus III was within their territory and they felt threatened, giving Kirk a “we were the bad guys” moment. The Metron spares the Gorn at Kirk’s request and decides humans aren’t that bad after all.

Still an iconic episode after all these years. Despite the poor special effects and sloppy fight choreography, you can’t help getting immersed and feeling that this is a great fight between Kirk and a physically superior opponent. A winner.

Body count: Entire population of Cestus III outpost except one survivor (off-screen), Ensign O’Herlihy, Lieutenant Commander Lang.
Tropes: Red Shirt, Foreshadowing, Pay Evil Unto Evil, Eye Take, Space X, Sufficiently Advanced Alien, Involuntary Battle To The Death, People In Rubber Suits, Lizard Folk, Kirk’s Rock, Styrofoam Rocks, MacGyvering, Bamboo Technology, Humanity On Trial, Crystal Spires And Togas, Heel Realisation.
(Image © 1966 Paramount Studios, used under Fair Use.)

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