Happy 52nd Birthday, “Arena!”

On January 19th, 1967, Captain James T. Kirk faced off against a formidable foe. Trapped on a barren planetoid, he has no choice but to find some way to defeat his enemy in a battle for the ages.

I have many favorite episodes of the original Star Trek series, but “Arena,” the 18th episode of the show’s first season, is at the top of my list. When I was a kid, the draw was Captain Kirk being a badass, facing off against a scary enemy that’s as cunning as he is while outmatching him in strength and ferocity. As I grew older and started to see the different layers baked into various episodes, I gained a new appreciation for this particular story.

Written by Gene L. Coon, one of the original series’ tragically underappreciated contributors, “Arena” is also based on a short story written by Frederic Brown. It’s a prime example of what’s become a classic Star Trek trope, with our heroes encountering something mysterious, misunderstood, and perhaps dangerous only to learn something new about themselves while discovering the truth. The episode opens with a terrific action sequence and proceeds from there as Kirk turns almost obsessive in his desire to hunt down the alien ship which has just destroyed a Federation colony. The pursuit runs the Enterprise afoul of a previously unknown and very powerful alien race, the Metrons, who don’t like this confrontation that’s now on their doorstep. In response, they deposit Kirk and the captain of the alien ship, a reptilian Gorn, on the surface of a small planet and force them to fight one another to the death:

METRON: We are the Metrons. You are one of two crafts which have come into our space on a mission of violence. This is not permissible. Yet we have analyzed you and have learned that your violent tendencies are inherent. So be it. We will control them. We will resolve your conflict in the way most suited to your limited mentalities. Captain James Kirk.

KIRK: This is Kirk. 

METRON: We have prepared a planet with a suitable atmosphere. You will be taken there, as will the Captain of the Gorn ship which you have been pursuing. There you will settle your dispute.

KIRK: I don’t understand.

METRON: You will be provided with a recording-translating device, in hopes that a chronicle of this contest will serve to dissuade others of your kind from entering our system, but you will not be permitted to communicate with your ship. You will each be totally alone.

KIRK: What makes you think you can interfere with–

METRON: It is you who are interfering. We are simply putting a stop to it. The place we have prepared for you contains sufficient elements for either of you to construct weapons lethal enough to destroy the other, which seems to be your intention. The winner of the contest will be permitted to go his way unharmed. The loser, along with his ship, shall be destroyed in the interests of peace. The contest will be one of ingenuity against ingenuity, brute strength against brute strength. The results will be final. 

Oh, it’s on now.

Pretty much everyone knows how this story ends, with Kirk figuring out how to rig a crude bamboo cannon while fashioning gunpowder from the “sufficient elements” provided by the Metrons. He blasts the Gorn but doesn’t kill him, and at the last moment decides to spare the alien captain’s life. This is enough to impress the Metron and spare the crews of both ships:

METRON: By sparing your helpless enemy who surely would have destroyed you, you demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something we hardly expected. We feel there may be hope for your kind. Therefore, you will not be destroyed. It would not be civilized.

KIRK: What happened to the Gorn? 

GORN: I sent him back to his ship. If you like, I shall destroy him for you.

KIRK: No. That won’t be necessary. We can talk. Maybe reach an agreement.

METRON: Very good, Captain. There is hope for you. Perhaps in several thousand years, your people and mine shall meet to reach an agreement. You are still half savage, but there is hope. We will contact you when we are ready.

So, Kirk has that going for him, which is nice.

Yes, you can tell me that by modern production standards, “Arena” – like much of the series itself – looks hopelessly dated, but I don’t care. The strength of the story carries the day, here, triumphing over skimpy budgets and the limitations in costuming, prosthetic make-up, and physical and visual effects of the era in which it was made. I still love this episode, and it’s one of the those I list off whenever somebody is new to the show and wants to see what makes it tick. In so many ways, it is quintessentially Star Trek.

KIRK: We’re a most promising species, Mister Spock, as predators go. Did you know that?

SPOCK: I’ve frequently had my doubts. 

KIRK: I don’t. Not anymore. And maybe in a thousand years or so, we’ll be able to prove it. Never mind, Mister Spock. It doesn’t make much sense to me either. Take us back to where we’re supposed to be, Mister Sulu. Warp factor one.

SULU: Warp factor one.

SPOCK: A thousand years, Captain?

KIRK: Well, that gives us a little time.

4 thoughts on “Happy 52nd Birthday, “Arena!”

  1. I was a wee lad of 8 when I watched the original airing of this episode. I agree with you that is is one of the best, and at the time, I found it frightening. The prospect of alien intelligences greater than ours, and still others that are larger and stronger than humanity, sharing the universe in a not entirely friendly manner, was a lot for my young mind to process. That being said things worked out well in the end. Kirk displayed his humanity. The Metrons downgraded us from a mindless predator species to something more hopeful. The Gorn captain was sent on his way, having been spared in, what was and still is, an unusual act of grace and nobility given what normally appears on TV. I lamented then, and still do now, exactly how little was done with the original species. Having introduced them to us, the series moved on and never even revisited many of them. The Gorn, the Tholians, and even the semi mythological Tzenkethi have appeared in the universe and then failed to be developed. I remain curious about what might be done with a young Ben Sisko, Miles O’Brian, Picard, Janeway or Tuvok all of who might have made an appearance fighting in the Tzenkethi war or wars.This a relatively weak area of cannon, but ripe for exploration. The time period would also potentially be quite long as there is some reason to believe that there were in fact several wars fought between the Federation and the Tzenkethi Coalition. Perhaps a collaboration of writers each taking on a different war and a different cast of characters, in some cases overlapping, sharing common themes, spread out over time, but tieing the whole together. But here I am again, pitching ideas to a writer, and that’s your job. Can I help it if I see these excellent, past, stand alone stories as potentially full blown arcs, begging for, but never being given their due?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to say, I’ve had it with hateful criticism of effects and all the canon (as opposed to cannon) nonsense. You are spot on, sir, in pointing out how story carries the day. It is true for TOS, and it is true for DISCO, and it is true for everything in between.

    Liked by 1 person

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