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Star Trek Episodes : The Original Series : Season One
Episode number: 18
Production number: 20
Original Airdate: January 19, 1967
mauler's rating: 1 out of 4 stars
Synopsis (Spoiler Alert)
Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise are summoned to a Federation outpost on frontier planet Cestus III so Kirk can have dinner with one Commodore Travers, a man renowned for his hospitality and good taste in food. Apparently, mere commodores can summon ships of the line out to distant outposts at the drop of a hat, just to have a dinner date with the ship's captain.
Anyway upon beaming down to the planet the landing party, including Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and some random crew members, find the outpost has been obliterated. They suddenly come under attack by mortar fire from an unseen enemy. Kirk and the others run around for a while getting bombed by mortars. They find a mortar of their own and shoot it, but the mortar gets shot down in mid flight. In the meantime, two of the random crew members get killed.
Meanwhile in orbit, the Enterprise comes under attack by an unknown vessel, and has to raise shields, meaning they are unable to beam the landing party back up. Nobody takes command of the Enterprise during the battle, so Sulu repeatedly pages Kirk down on the planet to ask which weapons to fire. None of the Enterprise's weapons work on the mystery ship so Sulu, with Kirk's blessing, warps out of orbit.
As soon as he does so, the enemy ship breaks off its attack and heads for home, allowing the Enterprise to return to the planet and beam the landing party back up. Kirk, apparently enraged by the destruction of the outpost and being attacked, immediately orders a pursuit of the unknown ship into uncharted space, pushing the Enterprise dangerously to Warp 7 and then Warp 8 despite Spock and Scotty scoffing and looking incredulous. Kirk declares it his intention to shoot down the enemy ship in order to exact "justice" for what they did to the colony.
Uhura reports that the enterprise is being scanned by long-range sensor beams from a nearby system. Kirk pays this little mind and orders the pursuit to continue. Suddenly the alien vessel comes to a complete stop, apparently dead in space. Not very curious about why this might be Kirk gives an exultant shout - "We've got them!" - and gleefully orders Sulu to blow them away. Just then the Enterprise is also pulled out of warp and stopped, apparently by the sensor beams from the nearby system. The engines go completely dead as do all weapons systems, but other systems remain online.
The main viewscreen turns into a psychadelic kaleidoscope of colors, and a voice identifying itself as "The Metrons" say that space combat is "impermissible" in the vicinity of their system. Instead, Kirk and the enemy captain, identified as a "Gorn," will be transported to a planet where they will fight to the death in a test of "ingenuity vs. ingenuity, brute strength vs. brute strength." The loser will have his ship destroyed as well, as punishment. The Metrons also promise that "all the necessary elements" needed to make "a deadly weapon" will be on the planet's surface.
Kirk vanishes from the Enterprise bridge and reappears on a planet that looks amazingly like Southern California. He immediatly sees his Gorn opponent, a human sized man in a rubber lizard suit who makes a lot of hissing sounds. Combat begins at once. Kirk throws a large foam rock at the Gorn but it bounces off. The Gorn then throws a massive foam boulder about 3 feet, but then it miraculously flies another 30 feet and nearly hits Kirk. Kirk decides he can't fight so instead he runs away. Kirk runs around for a while, narrating his thoughts into a recording device the Metrons have helpfully provided.
The Gorn then "carves" a knife out of obsidian. Meanwhile Kirk keeps running. He runs up a large rock, passing a variety of interesting things along the way, such as a bunch of fist-sized diamonds and some yellow sulphur powder. Reaching the top, he pushes a big foam boulder down upon where the Gorn is carving his knife. It knocks the Gorn over, and the Gorn plays dead. Kirk gleefully runs back down and approaches the Gorn, apparently to check if he is really dead? But then the Gorn gets up and starts shambling after Kirk.
Kirk runs away again, but the Gorn has set up a trap. Kirk is so scared he doesn't see a huge trip rope strung across in front of him and sets off the trap, getting his leg smashed by another foam boulder. The Gorn tries to stab Kirk, but he stabs so slowly that Kirk easily dodges and limps away.
Back Enterprise, McCoy demands that Spock do something to save Kirk. Spock smugly points out that Kirk could be anywhere in the galaxy so he cannot do anything. Undaunted, McCoy asks Spock to "use logic" to save Kirk. Spock declares that logic says they can do nothing. Just then, the psychedelic Metron screen turns on and the Metrons inform the bridge crew that Kirk is about to die, so they should prepare themselves for death. As a courtesy, the Metrons pipe a video feed of Kirks final moments to the bridge viewscreen, so the crew can watch his death.
Watching the screen, Spock seeks Kirk limp up to a pile of white powder, and instantly visually identifies it as potassium nitrate. Kirk tastes the powder and a lightbulb goes off in his head. He limps around gathering the potassium nitrate, the fist-sized diamonds, some lumps of coal, the sulphur, a rope, and a pre-cut cannon-sized bamboo tube. Meanwhile Spock, watching from the Enterprise bridge, starts shouting "Yes. Yes. Yes! He knows. He knows!!!" When McCoy demands to know what Kirk knows, Spock smugly suggests that McCoy try to figure it out for himself.
By now, it is long since completely obvious that Kirk is making a cannon. Sitting down on a rock, he wraps the rope around the tube for reinforcement, throws all the ingredients inside, and lights a fire by banging the recording device against a rock. Just then the Gorn captain appears, and slowly, ever so slowly, shambles toward Kirk with his obsidian knife ready to slowly stab. When he is about 5 feet away, Kirk shoots him with his diamond-shooting cannon, disabling him. Kirk then grabs the obsidian knife and starts to stab the Gorn in the neck, even drawing some blood, but then suddenly stops and shouts at the sky, "I won't do it! Do you hear me, I won't do it!!!"
At that moment, the Gorn captain disappears back to his ship and a youthful Metron wearing a white toga and sandals appears to "congratulate" Kirk not only for his victory, but also for displaying "the advanced trait of mercy." Apparently humans are not the savages the Metrons thought they were. As a final test, the Metron offers to destroy the Gorn ship anyway, but Kirk refuses, saying there might be a chance to work things out with the Gorn peacefully someday. The Metron is impressed, saying, "You are still half savage, but there is hope." The Metron suggests that maybe in 1,000 years, humans will have advanced enough that it will be worth the Metrons interacting with them again, and that the Metrons will contact humanity if they ever decide humanity is ready. With that, Kirk is teleported back to the bridge of the Enterprise, all his injuries healed, and the episode ends.
"Arena" is one of the most famous and iconic episodes in the entire Original Series, and consistently gets good reviews from fans, but having seen it multiple times, I honestly have no idea why. The story is completely ludicrous, and there are so many plot holes, inconsistencies, and weird characterizations that it's going to exhaust me to list even a few of them. For example, in the very opening moments of the episode, Kirk mentions to McCoy, in reference to a starfleet officer having a private chef, that "rank hath its privileges" to which McCoy responds, "Oh boy, we *BOTH* know all about that, don't we?" It's an extremely odd, wink-wink moment that makes no sense. Do Kirk and McCoy run about constantly abusing their rank when the TV cameras are not on them or something?
Another bizarre sequence happens when the Enterprise gets attacked while Kirk and Spock are down on the planet. For some reason, nobody takes command of the ship, or even does anything other than raise shields. Instead Sulu, still sitting at the navigation console, repeatedly pages Kirk down on the planet to ask for instructions on when to fire phasers and how many to fire, and Kirk runs the whole battle from down on the planet, against an opponent he can't even see, while he himself is in the midst of a firefight! It makes no sense. Why is no one in command of the Enterprise? We just saw Scotty in the transporter room. Why doesn't he take command of the ship as he normally does when Kirk and Spock are away? Why can't Sulu fire phasers himself without constant permission from Kirk down on the planet? Then even more bizarrely, Sulu suddenly abandons the landing party and warps out of orbit "to protect the ship" even though the shields are holding and the Enterprise is not taking any damage.
Then when Kirk gets back aboard the Enterprise, he goes mad with power and decides to hunt down and execute the Gorn in the name of "justice." No diplomacy, no dialogue, no attempt to learn about this previously unencountered race first. Nope, he's locking phasers and he's going to blow them out of space, no questions asked. When Spock protests, he rudely blows him off. It's completely out of character for Kirk, who in all other episodes is completely benevolent, extremely patient, and always level-headed. The first time I watched this episode, I honestly suspected he was being mind controlled during these scenes. And making this all the more ludicrous is the fact that just moments before, the Gorn ship was considered so dangerous to the Enterprise that Kirk ordered Sulu to warp out of orbit, rather than try to battle it. So first they run away from the Gorn, and suddenly they overconfidently start chasing them.
And why the heck does the normally stalwart Uhura scream like a schoolgirl when Kirk disappears? She never does this in any other episode where people disappear, including the episode right before this one, when Trelane makes both Kirk and Sulu disappear.
Finally, we come to the actual battle between Kirk and the Gorn captain. This whole sequence is so cheesy and unbelievable, even by 1960s standards. The Gorn costume is a blatant ripoff of Godzilla, and just as cheesy if not moreso. The foam rocks they fight with are incredibly foam-like, and the Gorn moves soooooo slowly that he hardly seems like a legitimate threat to Kirk. At one point, the Gorn's "obsidian" knife, which is supposed to be super scary, is blatantly shown to be a foam prop when he smashes it on a real rock and it bends in half before snapping back into shape. What, nobody in the 1960s noticed that? And then the whole final sequence of Kirk making the cannon is impossibly unrealistic and ludicrous, what with the brightly colored powders and cannon-shaped bamboo tube conveniently scattered about, Spock's agonizingly smug narration and ability to somehow recognize potassium nitrate powder by sight while watching the whole thing from the bridge of the Enterprise (complete with multiple camera angles!), and Kirk's ability to construct the whole thing and fire it all in about 38 seconds flat. Not to mention the hilariously contrived device of the voice recorders in a blatant attempt to allow Kirk to voiceover and explain what he is doing.
The whole episode feels sloppy, at almost every moment. Nothing anybody does makes much sense, from the Enterprise crew to the Gorn to the Metrons, who despite being supposedly so advanced and benevolent, apparently seem to delight manipulating lesser beings into fighting in hand-to-hand combat as part of a bloodsport for their own amusement, and up the excitement by killing an entire crew after each fight. None of the Metrons' bullshit explanations about this somehow being more "humane" make any sense because if they're just going to destroy one of the ships anyway, why interfere at all? Why not just let the ships fight it out in space as they were going to?
Overall, there's nothing in this episode even remotely approaching the moral conundrums, paradoxes, or intellectual puzzles that mark the best episodes of the series, so I can only imagine that all the people who love this episode love it primarily for the bloodsport aspect, which makes them no better than the Metrons. All told, this is one of the worst episodes in the entire Original Series.
- The fight with the Gorn captain was filmed, of course, at iconic Vazquez Rocks near Los Angeles, a site used in several other Original Series episodes.
- This story for this episode is credited to Fredric Brown, who wrote a short story, also titled "Arena", that was first published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1944. However, it turns out that Gene L. Coon was completely unaware of Brown's story when he wrote the script, and only sought permission to "adapt" the story after slight similarities were pointed out to him later. Brown was reportedly thrilled to hear that Star Trek decided to use one of his stories, and probably never found out that Coon had never read his story and it was all just to cover themselves legally.
- In the original script, a line cut from the final filmed episode would have revealed that the Metrons, although saying that they would destroy the loser's ship, actually secretly planned to destroy the winner's ship, because the winner would have been more dangerous. This twist would have made the Metrons seem slightly more benevolent and would have made their decision to "spare" Kirk much more sensical.
- The name "Metron" is reminiscent of Metatron, one of the most powerful of God's angels according to Judaic tradition. The name of the planet Cestus III refers to gladiatorial combat. A cestus (caestus) was a type of leather glove worn by gladiators while fighting in the arena.
Directed by: Joseph Pevney
Written by: Gene L. Coon
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