By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Jessica Ritchey, Anthony Strand, J. Walker, and Cameron White
Season 1, Episode 18: “Arena”
Original airdate: January 19, 1967
J.: When pop culture at large thinks of TV science fiction, they think of Star Trek. This is both to the good and the bad—for every thought-provoking examination of human nature, there’s a cheesy romp about evil aliens in cheap costumes. Fortunately for us, “Arena” is both at the same time: an action-adventure piece that, in the end, proves to have much more going on behind its rubber mask. It’s fortuitous that we’re watching this just a couple of weeks after sampling the old Flash Gordon serials, because they have a fair amount in common—William Shatner does the square-jawed-hero bit pretty well, and, hey, lizard monsters!—but the Star Trek episode shines with a smart, brilliantly paced script.
The first smart decision is to the hide the Gorn away until the episode’s second half. Most likely knowing the goofy monster suit would never pass the initial laugh test, “Arena” only shows us their handiwork: they sneak attack a harmless human colony, then draw the Enterprise into an ambush and set about trying to slaughter Kirk and his away team. They zap them with disruptors, they set up off explosives, all while hiding out of sight. They even off a Red Shirt. Before we even lay eyes on a Gorn, we’ve already been conditioned to hate them—when Spock suggests trying to find a solution that doesn’t involve further violence, we’re ready to dismiss it before Kirk does. But then, the episode is halted in its track —literally!—and forced to spin in another direction.
The final two acts, with Kirk battling the Gorn one-on-one, were all I remembered from watching this episode as a kid. I recalled the slow, lumbering Gorn shrugging off Kirk’s harmless attacks. But what I’d forgotten is how that long, drawn-out fight saps you of your hatred and desire for violence. I didn’t remember the sick, reptilian (ahem) grin that spreads over Kirk’s face when he thinks he’s succeeded in crushing the Gorn under a boulder, and the way it undercuts any triumph that could have been found in the moment. And I had definitely forgotten the scene that blew my mind: in the middle of this implication of the television audience’s depraved want for violence, we cut away to the bridge crew of the Enterprise watching it all unfold on television. Even Spock, the pacifist Vulcan, cheers Kirk on to a victory. And in a far cry from the Flash Gordon days of old, Kirk rejects murder. He throws his weapon away and has a “Are you not entertained?” moment with his audience (meaning the Metrons, the mysterious aliens who engineered this WWE-style rumble).
There’s more to talk about—like the Metrons themselves, and the casual misogyny in the show’s treatment of Uhura—so I’ll turn it over to rest of you. Were you as taken by “Arena” as I was, or was this one rubber lizard suit too many?
(Oh, and before I go: I watched this on Netflix, and was dismayed to see that it was the “remastered” presentation, which features unnecessary “updating” of the spaceship effects, replacing the models with CGI. Blech. Anyone else have that version?)
Cameron: Oh, J. Are you just jaded by the march of technology? My Netflix streaming version was “Remastered” and I thought it looked wonderful. (I may be biased though; I never saw this episode in its original format.)
“Arena” hits on two big ideas about science fiction that I particularly love. The first has to do with the “science” part of “science fiction.” Kirk tends to get misremembered as someone who busts caps and does not apologize, but “Arena” is one of several episodes that forces him to show his cerebral strengths, which are frequently forgotten in casual conversations about Star Trek (yes, such things do exist). The episode has some pretty good action sequences, but the meat of the show is when Kirk talks into what he assumes is a recording device for his thoughts, and when Spock, watching from the ship, reasons out the conclusion about the Gorn that Kirk ultimately comes to when faced with the possibility of killing his foe. It’s a trait I find most attractive in science fiction as a whole: while science shares bed-space with the military and less savory uses like cooking up recreational drugs (that one’s for all the Breaking Bad fans out there), it’s also an area of knowledge associated with intelligence, and as a result, science fiction is filled with characters and plots that rely more on the strength of knowledge than on physical strength alone.
That feeds well into the second thing I loved about “Arena,” which is the theme of violence and diplomacy. The exact scope of the conflict between the Federation and the Gorn isn’t explained here, but is instead boiled down to a simple “invasion of native land” narrative, familiar to viewers of the time for its similarities to the mistreatment of Native Americans culminating in the American Indian Movement later on in the ’70s. But that narrative is paired with an important point about humanity. It’s easy for any living creature, on Earth or anywhere else, to give into its nature and succumb to the Darwinian needs of life. It’s much harder to call for a truce, to say that enough is enough and hey, we can be friends again. The first half of the episode, with Kirk gunning for the Gorn’s heads as retaliation for the attack on Cestus III, plays like a decades-long foreshadow of the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11. But the second half wears down both Kirk and the Gorn physically and mentally, leading them, the Enterprise, and the audience to the same conclusion: misunderstandings don’t have to lead to violence. “We can talk,” Kirk says. After all, aren’t most of humanity’s problems driven by a lack of good communication?
This notion of brains-over-brawn comes up again and again in science fiction, particularly in several of the episodes we’ve chosen to watch. (In fact, Doctor Who is built entirely on, as Craig Ferguson put it, “the triumph of intellect and romanticism over brute force and cynicism.”) It’s always been bizarre to me that science fiction (and thus by association Star Trek) has such a stigma about it; to me, it’s a genre whose reliance on the human mind generates stories that hit closer to the truth of the human condition than most “realistic” stories. And Star Trek was never a show willing to back down from social issues, nor did it suffer any serious damages to the quality of the show because of that pursuit. Spock has pieced together how Kirk can survive his encounter with the Gorn through science, but he’s also fascinated by the construct, pondering the mystery of these Metrons and their attempts to meet humanity on what it assumes is its natural state: violence.
Television is sorely missing a sci-fi show like Star Trek these days.
Anthony: Cameron, absolutely! I agree completely. I’ve often wished for a new Star Trek series in the vein of the current Doctor Who.
While watching the opening scene—in which Dr. McCoy cracks gleeful jokes about getting a rare chance to eat real food for once—I was reminded how human the characters on Star Trek were. Not to ignite an old, pointless battle, but I always felt that the Original Series was much better than The Next Generation at allowing its characters to talk to each other like real people. (Editor’s note: A discussion I’m sure we’ll revisit in the upcoming weeks once it’s TNG‘s turn at the table – LC.) The affection they share is clear. I’d love to see a new Trek series with the same balance of heart and big ideas.
I’m also with Cameron on the remastered effects. I only saw the original versions of the episodes once, but the updated effects never bothered me. I’d prefer the show unaltered, but the new effects integrate seamlessly enough that it never takes me too far out of the action.
Going into the episode, I was worried that the Gorn itself would take me out of the action, but that didn’t happen either. It might be a bit of a cheat that Kirk specifically calls the Gorn captain “strong, but not agile,” but it really helps the illusion. This isn’t just some lumbering, awkward man in a clunky suit, the show tells us: it’s a member of a lumbering, slow-moving species! By making the awkwardness apparently intentional, the show allows us to see the conflict through Kirk’s eyes and see this is a genuinely deadly foe—Kirk’s standard physical attacks don’t hurt him. That leads to the meat of the episode—as you guys mentioned, this is an episode about Kirk using his brains to overcome a stronger opponent without killing him. J., I agree that it’s startling to watch the Enterprise crew getting all excited to watch Kirk kill the Gorn captain, especially Spock’s inability to restrain his enjoyment (I always like it when Spock’s emotions come to the surface.)
On the whole, I think it’s a very tense, exciting episode. But the Metron reveal at the end always felt like a cheat to me, for two reasons. First, we encountered more than our share of peaceful God-like beings during the run of Star Trek, and nothing about the Metrons seems unique. They’re just another generic pacifist deity race, plopped at the end of this episode because that’s something they do on Star Trek. Secondly, the episode just doesn’t need to sledge-hammer that theme like it does. Kirk learns for himself that he doesn’t want to kill, and the audience can see that. He doesn’t need the Metron to teach him that lesson, so it just feels like overkill when the Metron goes ahead and tempts him a couple of times to make sure he isn’t going to relapse.
Les: As someone who grew up a Star Wars fan and has only had sporadic involvement with the original Star Trek canon, I was looking forward to engaging with an episode like this one, and it did not disappoint. What we see here is the adventuresome side of space travel, something that’s been absent in what we’ve seen in the early installments. Those were more serious exploits, as Flash Gordon was on a mission to save his planet while the Robinsons were searching for a way to get back to it. The Enterprise, on the other hand, is out there of their own volition, as the opening narration explains: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
As such, there’s a sense of fun to the show, despite the deeper questions of violence and war in this particular episode. It’s certainly easy to make fun of William Shatner’s performance—I chuckled at the pacing of his dictation, as I’m sure everyone did at one point—but he makes Kirk seem like a man who both enjoys the challenge that is in front of him and can inspire the crew to follow him on that path. Stranding Kirk on the unknown world and the tension of the Gorn battle occupied most of the episode’s attention, but I thought the serious conversations Bones and Spock shared showed how the crew has the affection Anthony illustrated but also a more human tension, particularly in the absence of their beloved captain. J. mentioned the casual misogyny in how the show treated Uhura, and sadly other than making me wonder why the female Starfleet uniforms don’t have pants I don’t think she was in the episode enough for me to make a statement.
Not that it was straightforward adventure, for many of the reasons already discussed. Cameron, you talked about the episode’s treatment of violence and diplomacy, and the interesting part to me was the difference in perspective in how the events on Cestus III panned out. Kirk thinks he and the Federation are in the right to pursue the Gorn, because a settlement of complete innocents who were wiped out without provocation and the threat needs to be eliminated. But the Gorn have a completely different interpretation, seeing the Federation as trespassing within their boundaries, a potential threat that needed to be dealt with. It leads to one extreme after another—the Gorn wiped out the settlers and called the Enterprise to send a message, and Kirk feels the Gorn need to be completely wiped out to send another message.
Even the Metrons are guilty of engaging in something beyond their understanding, disabling both the Enterprise and the Gorn vessel and staging gladiatorial combat to make the decision of who lives and who dies. Despite their lofty talk of having evolved beyond war, they’re essentially making a decision on how the human/Gorn conflict will play out, a battle that they have no stake in beyond two of its members passing by their system. (Unless of course you see the whole conflict as a test that Kirk passed, and they would have wiped out both ships had he killed the other captain outright. Hm.)
It says something about the dangers of engaging with a universe that you may know nothing about, and the universal truth about how misunderstandings can trigger disastrous consequences. Kirk and his crew are venturing into the great unknown, which is (and should be) a bold and exciting adventure, but the word “unknown” should never be too far out of their minds.
Cory: Not to be the sarcastic rain on everyone’s parade, but I’ve probably seen a dozen episodes of Star Trek, across all the various series, and I swear that every single one of them is concerned with whether or not human beings deserve to exist any longer. Although this is clearly one of the franchise’s biggest themes, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the end of the episode once the Metron “boy” delivered his monologue to Kirk. I think that moment, and the hilarity that is the rubber Gorn suit, took me out of an episode that, as you guys have mentioned, had some moderately interesting things to say about diplomacy, violence, interference, etc. Yet again though, that’s pretty much how I would, in my brief experience, define most episodes of this show. So perhaps this is a perfect representative!
More seriously, while there are some really great things here (I’m weirdly fascinated by the final sequence, not because of what happens on the planet, but because of the goofy way everyone on Enterprise just watches a beautifully mediated version of the events on the screen), watching a show this old displays how much storytelling and pacing have changed over the last few decades. By the time the episode gets to Kirk’s “aha!” moment about creating homemade gun powder, “Arena” hopes that the viewer is on the edge of their seat. A year ago, we probably were; but now, I’ve been trained too hard for too long by contemporary storytelling techniques and Shatner walking around a California desert while being chased by a rubber suit for 12 minutes of real running time simply doesn’t hold up—in that regard, at least.
This isn’t to say I can’t enjoy Star Trek, and I’m certainly not advocating that we hold its technical limitations against it in retrospect. Shatner’s pretty great as Kirk and Anthony’s point about the chemistry between the cast/character is very valid. However, my impression of Star Trek, particularly the original series, is how often the show overcame those technical limitations by telling an inventive, appealing story each episode. “Arena” doesn’t quite accomplish this goal, but still manages to be entertaining (both on-purpose and accidentally).
Jessica: I love Star Trek, particularly the original series, so it’s always interesting for me to parse something that really had a problem with writing women well. “Arena” is a great episode, but I think it’s hampered by being yet another Boy’s Own Space Adventure, with Uhura relegated to watching in terror. She’s nominally the ship’s communications officer, a role that you would think would lead to some good things to say about the damage done when we operate on shoot first ask questions later mentalities. The episode says a lot of very good things on the importance of peoples and species talking to each other in this brave new world, but it’ll be for nothing if men and women don’t talk and listen to each other too.
As for the battle of wits and wills itself, I thought its baggy pace was intentional. Not just the pacing and technical limitations of the age, but rather a honest glimpse at the dispiriting, pointless march to your own oblivion a quest for vengeance is. All of that trudging and fighting and the colony is still in ashes and your ship is still far away, and your sworn enemy is just as tired and hopeless as you. I agree that having the God Like Aliens of the Week pop up puts a crimp on it. Just because you’ve evolved to the point of dressing like you’re going to a Bowie concert doesn’t give you the right to tinker with other species in a way just as invasive as our own war mongering.
But it’s an iconic episode for a reason, containing the good, the bad, and the lizard men in kicky gold mini-dresses that define TOS. And as much as I love the gloom and rough sex of the Battlestar Galactica reboot I think there’s a place for the cautious optimism and camaraderie of Trek. For the one thing I find irresistible about the entire franchise is the hope that as much as things can go wrong we have the power in our ability to reason, to think, to repair them and make them go boldly right.
As a reminder, we’ll be sampling a different series every week for the next few weeks:
2/7: Doctor Who, “The Ark in Space” (season 12, serial 20); available through Netflix Instant
2/14: Battlestar Galactica (original series), “The Long Patrol” (season 1, episode 7), available through Netflix Instant
2/21: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, “Space Vampire” (season 1, episode 14), available through Netflix Instant
2/28: Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Defector” (season 3, episode 10); available through Netflix Instant and Hulu
3/7: Red Dwarf, “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” (series 6, episode 3); available through Netflix Instant
3/14: Farscape, “PK Tech Girl” (season 1, episode 7): available through Hulu
3/21: Battlestar Galactica (reboot), “33″ (season 1, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant and Hulu