(Note: This post is also viewable as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)
Original Air Date: January 19, 1967
Crew Death Count: 2 (tactical personnel from the initial landing party, also, as far as we know, all but one resident of the Federation settlement on Cestus III)
Bellybuttons: 0 (even the Gorn’s combat tunic doesn’t qualify)
Star Trek fans owe a lot to Gene L. Coon. Coon wrote 24 episodes of the series Wagon Train (1957-1965), one of the inspirations for TOS. Coon wrote or revised a number of TOS scripts and introduced, among other things, the Klingons, Khan, and Zefram Cochrane, and, in “Arena,” the first use of the term “Federation.” This was Coon’s first TOS script, adapted, loosely and unintentionally, from a short story by prolific s-f writer Fredric Brown. In “Arena,” a Federation outpost on the planet Cestus III has been destroyed by an unseen alien force. Kirk orders the Enterprise in pursuit. A third species, the Metrons, disrupts both the Enterprise and its opponents, now identified as the Gorn. Rather than let this ugly fighting go on in their space (What?!? The Federation can’t claim everything for itself?!?), the Metrons dictate that the conflict will be decided by physical combat between Kirk and the Gorn captain (voiced by Ted Cassidy and embodied by multiple stuntmen). The winner gets to go home; the loser dies, along with his crew.
The prologue offers a refreshing moment of levity between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, when they think (thanks to a request actually sent by the Gorn) they are joining a Federation commodore on Cestus III. For a few minutes they are simply on a routine social call and we enjoy a little banter between the three friends. It’s one of those occasional TOS reminders that life on the frontier isn’t all work. Soon enough, however, the landing party beams down to Cestus III, bombs are flying, and two Enterprise tactical officers are dead. In a later century, Cestus III will be the home of Captain Sisko’s future wife, Kasidy Yates. Now, however, our characters remind us of the origin of the word: a cestus was a battle glove used by early Greeks and Romans. Analogous to boxing gloves and made of leather strips, they were sometimes augmented with metal balls, spikes, or blades. Cestus fighting, done mostly by slave-gladiators, was so brutal that even the Romans banned it in 393 AD.
In “Arena” the humans, Gorn, and Metrons offer a trio of barely noble savages, each as crude as a cestus in their own way. In playing their different levels of power against each other, they remind us again that power corrupts without exception. Consider the Gorn. We learn that they launched a sneak attack on Cestus III and subsequently tricked the Enterprise into visiting (it’s unclear how the ship’s sensors failed to detect a dramatic loss of life on the planet). The Gorn considered Cestus III theirs, but waited until the Federation colony was fully established before attacking with no warning and no attempt at negotiation. We’re never told how many people were on Cestus III, but there is only one survivor. The establishment was hardly new: the Cestus III survivor talks of visiting ships using their facilities, like a galactic rest area. Imagine if a stranger tried to build a house in your backyard: would you wait until the house was complete, then burn it down, or would you head off the trespassers the moment they arrived? Even if the Federation was intruding on Gorn territory, we have no evidence the Federation’s intentions were hostile, simply ignorant.
Next consider the Federation, as represented by Kirk. The captain instantly interprets the Gorn assault to be the precursor to an invasion. Spock practically begs Kirk to consider other possibilities, but the captain doesn’t listen. He describes the Enterprise crew as the police, similar to Army soldiers defending early settlers in the American west from “attacks” by native inhabitants. This imperialist attitude, that the Federation defines the law in barely explored regions of space, assumes an exclusive authority that it has not earned. If Kirk has his way, events in this part of the galaxy will be decided by force of weapons rather than exploration and negotiation. When Spock encourages a more measured response in regard to sentient life, even Uhura gives a shocked look at Kirk’s thoughtless response: “There’s no time for that.” It’s interesting to note that when Kirk decides the Gorn must be planning an invasion, Spock reaches the same conclusion he did in “Balance of Terror”: the opposing ship must not be allowed to reach home. But what was a recommendation in “Balance of Terror” becomes a sad statement of fact in “Arena.” Spock isn’t promoting the idea this time, but voicing the logical outcome of Kirk’s choice.
Finally, the Metrons. At first, we’re encouraged by their appearance. Here is a species with the power to halt the barbaric tendencies of the Gorn and the Federation, the voice of reason that will not yield to violence. Reducing the Federation/Gorn conflict to an individual level, letting the captains fight it out instead of their crews, is a brilliant strategy. Imagine if our own politicians were forced to do this instead of eagerly sending others to die for the sins of power and glory. I would gladly watch 45 in a boxing match with Xi Jinping. Sadly, our hope is short-lived. The Metrons prove themselves not so superior, after all, when they decree that not only will the losing captain die, but his entire crew as well. Forcing the many to suffer for the defeat of one leader eliminates any benefit of de-escalating the situation. After Kirk wins the one-on-one combat but refuses to kill his opponent, the Metrons still offer to destroy the Gorn ship in tribute. For all their alleged sophistication, the Metrons are no less bloodthirsty.
Still, this triangle is an interesting twist on colonialism and the Cold War power structure that ruled much of the world in the 1960s. In one country after another, the U.S. and Soviet Union manipulated local populations as pawns and rewarded local despots in a global ideological struggle that was more paranoia than substance. After the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, U.S. participation in the 1965-66 killings of hundreds of thousands of communist sympathizers in Indonesia, and with conflict in Vietnam escalating, it’s no surprise that writers wanted to explore inverting the global two-power dynamic. If the Federation and the Gorn represent the U.S. and Soviet Cold War superpowers, imagine the Metrons as a supercharged version of Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, who so successfully disrupted imperialist plans in Indochina, or China’s Mao Zedong, or the mujahideen of Afghanistan. Imagine if indigenous cultures of the Americas had been blessed with the Metrons’ powers against the Portuguese, Spanish, and British. With equal abilities, would those rebels and revolutionaries have been as efficient and merciless as the Metrons? Would they have written the history books differently than their white European colonizers?
“Arena” offers a lot to think about in geopolitical terms, but there are a few storytelling stumbles. The episode is remembered for the one-on-one duel, but in fact Kirk’s struggle with the Gorn takes up less than half the episode. The Enterprise’s pursuit of the Gorn vessel takes too long considering how little time is spent pondering the bigger picture. A brief battle between the two vessels is awkwardly directed by Kirk from the surface of Cestus III, when it should have been handled by Sulu, in temporary command at the time. During the Kirk/Gorn fight, poor Spock is forced to repeat or restate much of his dialogue in order to fill time. (“Perhaps nothing, Doctor. Perhaps everything.”) And it seems astonishing that Kirk would recall the chemical makeup of gunpowder (why would he have known it in the first place?) and be able to fashion a bamboo cannon so quickly. (However, real bamboo cannons are used in festivities in Malaysia and the Philippines.) Conversely, the battle on Cestus III, during the first act, is quite well done in a way that hides the Gorn’s appearance from us until the big reveal. (William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy both suffered tinnitus from explosive charges during the filming of this episode.) We also get an honest acknowledgment from Kirk of his own biases: he suffers “an instinctive revulsion” to reptiles and needs to remind himself that the Gorn captain is “intelligent” and “highly advanced.”
The resolution, as became common with TOS, is too easy, sending us off with a wink and a smile instead of the contemplation the experience deserves (not to mention the deaths of two crew members). We’ll never know what moral the Gorn took from “Arena.” Kirk, however, now has the smug comfort of the Metron spokesperson’s statement that “There may be hope for your kind.” Despite the Metrons’ reminder that “you are still half-savage,” Kirk brags to Spock that he may have doubted earthlings’ potential before, but now he has seen the light: “I don’t. Not any more.” His transformation in “Arena” is entirely the result of being forced to confront his own actions – he accused the Gorn of warmongering until the Metrons rightfully applied the same label to him. Conflict between the Federation and the Gorn may have escalated tragically if the Metrons hadn’t interfered. We can congratulate Kirk for achieving mercy toward his opponent but still question his sincerity in arriving there.
For its flaws, we should be grateful “Arena” doesn’t follow Fredric Brown’s short story too closely. The original story is a blatant tale of cosmic manifest destiny, with a little Jesus complex thrown in for good measure: as humans prepare to wage war on an alien species literally called the Outsiders, an intervening entity chooses one individual to represent each species in direct combat. Thank heaven the human savior wins; the “superior” middleman renders those unreasonable Outsiders extinct (that means all of them), as the narrator declares, “the universe was not a place that could hold them both.” So much for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations! Our TOS version of “Arena” is far superior, but both end on a note of human exceptionalism that suffers no real consequences for its fatal missteps. A lesson not learned, by the Gorn or the Federation, implies we’ll always need to rely on an anti-superhero like the Metrons to intervene. As we’re learning the hard way in our own century, a majority rule based on discrimination and oppression devolves over time into a tyrannical rule of the majority by an extremist minority. Just as Kirk should have listened to Spock before charging off to battle, so we should all heed the logical angels of our nature. Reducing the scope of conflict is always a good start, but we should question why we need the conflict in the first place.
Next: Tomorrow is Yesterday