A Most Promising Species: TOS #19: “Arena”

Kirk is pitted in a one-on-one contest with the reptilian alien captain of a starship that destroyed a Federation outpost.

  • This is the famous episode, filmed on location (again at Vasquez Rocks), in which Kirk battles this green reptilian (though standing upright in humanoid fashion) ‘Gorn’ in hand-to-hand combat, with stunts and effects that look dated 50 years later, but which became classic and remains instantly recognizable. There was nothing else like it, in Trek, or any other show up until then.
  • Fully half the episode, though, is padding—the events leading up to Kirk and the Gorn being isolated. These scenes begin as the Enterprise arrives at a Federation outpost on Cestus III and discovers that the base has been wiped out.
  • (So the voice messages from Commodore Travers on the base inviting them down were faked? There’s a lot of that going around in recent episodes; and this time they must have been faked by the Gorns!)
  • The impressive live set of the Cestus III outpost had been built in 1956 for a TV series about a British Calvary unit in India, per Cushman’s book. It remained for many years before being torn down when Vasquez Rocks became a county park.
  • These early scenes include several innovations, first-time mentions of familiar concepts in Trek, including the first use of ‘photon torpedoes’ (with their distinctive sound) by the Enterprise, and the first mention of the term ‘Federation’, both contributions of scriptwriter Gene L. Coon. We also see Spock wearing an earpiece like Uhura, and uses of the terms ‘azimuth’ (for directions on the ground) and ‘parsecs’ (for distances in space); also some odd nomenclature in which the ship position is specified as 2279 PL, which a planetary system ahead is placed at 2466 PM. No idea what these were supposed to mean.
  • Trek astronomy vs. rote special effects: as the Enterprises approaches a solar system ahead, and stars still stream past in the special effects.
  • The set up scenes strike me as rather hasty in jumping to the conclusion, based on a destroyed base and a fleeing alien ship, that the Federation faces invasion—and, Kirk decides, the Enterprise must therefore pursue and destroy the alien. Spock does caution concern for other sentient life, in a nod toward Trek humanistic values.
  • In a dramatic if implausible scene, both the alien ship and the Federation are forced to an abrupt halt, rapidly decelerating from high warp speeds to a complete standstill. Sulu calls out their falling warp velocities. (Does dropping in warp speed involve everyone on the bridge being thrown forward somewhat, but not enough to splatter them against the front wall of the bridge? Apparently.)
  • And then an alien presence appears on their screen, a Metron, accusing both ships of invading their planet’s territory. We don’t see the alien itself, just some rapidly swirling lights, but hear the voice, in English, a calm, placid, wise voice. Somehow I haven’t remembered, if I ever knew, that the voice here is that of Vic Perrin, most famous for narrating the “Control Voice” opening of the earlier TV series “The Outer Limits” – in fact, here it is — and just as in that narration, the voice says “We are controlling transmission…” in this episode the Metron, explaining the duel to commence, says, “We will control them…”
  • Cushman’s book even states that the producers deliberately wanted to emulate the Outer Limits Control Voice, and so hired Perrin.
  • In a sexist bit, as Kirk vanishes from the bridge, Uhura, the only woman around, screams.
  • The clever and arresting premise of the show, alas, was not original, and famously the screenwriter, producer Gene L. Coon, wrote the first draft over a weekend and sent it to the network, NBC, for initial approval, after which NBC’s staff discovered that the script shared the basic premise and many plot points with a 1944 short story by Fredric Brown with the same name. So the studio contacted Brown for approval. He gave it, and was given retroactive ‘story’ credit for the show. Coon, presumably, had read the story years before and remembered the idea, but not the source.
  • Another new device: both Kirk and the Gorn are given handheld translator devices to communicate with each other. These props turned up in later episodes as standard issue Enterprise equipment, for the same purpose.
  • The groundside battle commences. The Gorn is strong, but slow; Kirk is nimble, but not strong enough to land effective blows.
  • At some point the Enterprise bridge crew is given a view of the battle on their main monitor. They see, as Kirk discovers, deposits of various minerals and other substances strewn among the rocks: white powder, yellow powder, diamonds, coal, bamboo. The Metron advised that resources would be present to make weapons. And so as Kirk deduces what can be done with them, Spock watches in admiration, and says to McCoy: “He knows, Doctor, he has reasoned it out.” (But how many people today, let alone 300 years from now, would know enough basic chemistry to be able to recreate gunpowder?)
  • Meanwhile time Kirk and the Gorn talk, and the Gorn accuses the Federation base of intruding on the Gorn territory. McCoy, watching, is taken aback: “Then we could be in the wrong.” The Gorn were just protecting their territory.
  • This is a nice sentiment, another nod toward Trek values that don’t automatically assign aliens to be the bad guys; but it doesn’t quite excuse why the Gorn would have simply wiped out the human outpost without warning.
  • In the finale, Kirk creates a weapon, a kind of cannon, and brings the Gorn down. Kirk can use a diamond blade to stab the Gorn to death… but does not. He pauses, and calls up into the sky, to the Metrons, No, I won’t do it!
  • And so the Metron appears, in the guise of young boy (with Vic Perrin’s voice), casually mentioning that he is 1500 years old, and expresses admiration for Kirk’s compassion. “By sparing your helpless enemy who surely would have destroyed you, you demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy. Something we hardly expected.” And, “You are still half savage. But there is hope.”
  • This, as with the previous episode, is one of the great Trek reveals, and a signal indicator of the broad vision Trek takes of humankind’s capability for growth, and its junior presence in the galactic scheme of things.
  • And both Kirk and the Gorn captain are returned to their ships, with an implication of later diplomatic contact.
  • In a final, almost gratuitous plot twist (made presumably just to avoid the imminent diplomatic contact just implied), the Enterprise is hurled 500 parsecs across space. Sulu is shocked at the positions of Sirius, Canopus, and Arcanis. (The last star name is fictitious.) And so the Enterprise sets off, back to Cestus III (why?), at warp 1 (i.e. the speed of light, which will entail some 1700 years to travel 500 parsecs; but Trek was never very careful about these issues).
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