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Star Trek – Arena (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

Arena is a fascinating piece of Star Trek, because it’s such an iconic and important piece of franchise history, despite the fact that it’s far from the best that the show has to offer. Indeed, the basic premise of the show is rather generic science-fiction B-movie stuff. Kirk is forced to compete against a lizard-like alien by some god-like beings to ensure the survival of his crew. The script, by producer Gene L. Coon, is credited to a story written by Fredric Brown. Despite its similarities to Brown’s short story of the same name, Arena also shares quite a few plot points with a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits, Fun & Games. None of this is to suggest that Coon was consciously channelling these sources when he wrote the teleplay, just to illustrate how generic the basic plot is.

However, despite (or perhaps because of) this rather straightforward and familiar set-up, Arena is a truly memorable episode of Star Trek. Like quite a few other episodes of the original Star Trek, the episode produced images and concepts that have resonated well outside Star Trek fandom, to the point where elements like the Gorn or Kirk’s highly dubious improvised weapon will be recognisable to people who have never actually seen the episode. However, the episode is also vitally important to the Star Trek franchise itself, as it offers a more thorough expansion and exploration of the back story that has been inconsistently hinted at throughout this first season. Arena is really the first episode to feature a fully-formed framework for the internal logic of the Star Trek universe, one that has informed half-a-century of the franchise.

Plus, you know, Kirk wrestles a lizard man.

Don't pretend you aren't loving every minute of this, Shatner!

Don’t pretend you aren’t loving every minute of this, Shatner!

I’m quite prone to pointing out the people working behind the scenes on Star Trek that never get enough credit. Gene Roddenberry is the creator of the show, and an incredible visionary, but it’s easy to overlook the skill of the people who shaped and crafted that idea into an iconic television show. I’ve already talked quite a bit about Dorothy Fontana, and I’ll undoubtedly come back to talking about her place in the pantheon of “great people who worked on Star Trek.” However, let’s share the love a bit here. Let’s talk about Gene L. Coon.

Coon died relatively young, at the age of 49. However, he made a lasting impression. His distinguished writing career included the script The Killers, Ronald Reagan’s last acting job before moving into the world of politics. When it comes to Star Trek, however, Coon was one of the defining influences. The writer was credited with eight scripts under his own name, and four more scripts under the pseudonym Lee Cronin in the third season. Given the production difficulties facing the third season (and the use of a pseudonym), it’s hard to blame Coon for how Spock’s Brain turned out.

A red-hot red shirt...

A red-hot red shirt…

Coon worked uncredited on a lot of other scripts during his tenure on Star Trek, much like did working on The Wild Wild West. However, even restricting our discussion to the scripts credited to his name, it’s clear that Coon was a massive influence in defining and shaping Star TrekArena is the writer’s first credit for the show, and it’s quite clear that – as soon as Coon started writing for the show consistently – the mythology and the back story of Star Trek became a lot firmer and more rigidly defined.

He was responsible for turning Space Seed from a mess of a story (featuring a revived Aryan gangster) into a Star Trek masterpiece. For those interested in Coon’s development of the shared universe, that episode established the Eugenics Wars and offered a justification for the franchise’s relatively subtle distaste for trans-humanism, a science-fiction staple. He apparently wrote The Devil in the Dark in four days, which is another classic of this pretty solid first season. He also created the Klingons in Errand of Mercy, and added a bit of history to the development of faster-than-light technology in Metamorphisis.

Solid like a rock...

Solid like a rock…

Outside of Coon’s credited Star Trek episodes, it has also been suggested that the lead character from his aborted television show The Questor Tapes may have inspired the creation of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. That’s a fairly impressive resume, if you choose to measure a writer’s success by their lasting contribution to canon. More than that, though, Coon had a wonderful grasp of the sort of the B-movie mentality that made the classic Star Trek so charming, and arguably the aspect of the show most sorely missing from the misguided attempt to imitate the original series during the first couple of years of The Next Generation.

Coon is, after all, the writer who gave us the Gorn – a species with remarkable pop cultural awareness, given their next on-screen appearance would occur in In a Mirror, Darkly in 2005. He’s also responsible for both the space!Romans (in Bread & Circuses, co-written with Roddenberry) and space!gangsters (in A Piece of the Action). Even in the third season, writing under a pseudonym, Coon gave us the wonderfully eerie space!western vibe of Spectre of the Gun and the cautionary space!racism morality tale of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

It's the sixties all right...

It’s the sixties all right…

Apparently, Coon wrote Arena without realising that he was drawing on Fredric Brown’s short story. As discussed in Great Birds of the Galaxy:

According to the on-air credits, the script for “Arena” was based on the Fredric Brown short story of the same name. “What happened,” says Dorothy Fontana, “is that Gene wrote the script as an original. When it was read by research, they said, ‘Oh, this is very much like the Fredric Brown story.’ Gene said, ‘Yes, you’re right. I must have read it and just didn’t realize it.'” So he instantly gave story credit to Fredric Brown and Mr. Brown was properly paid.

It’s a nice story, and – based on Coon’s delightfully pulpy aesthetic – it’s not too hard to believe that he’d stumbled across the idea of Kirk fighting an alien to the death without realising that he was drawing on a short story from 1944.

Been and Gorn...

Been and Gorn…

Despite the somewhat basic premise and set-up, there’s a lot to like here. The Gorn, for example, is an absolutely wonderful creation. It’s one of the few Star Trek aliens that wouldn’t look out of place in a schlock horror film. It’s very clearly just a guy in a suit, but the up-front absurdity of it all is hard to resist. We are discussing space!dinosaurs who can fly space craft while wearing loinclothes.

It’s hard to ignore the B-movie appeal of that image, and it’s probably a reason why the Gorn have become such an iconic alien despite only appearing once during the entire original Star Trek run. (Okay, and briefly in an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series). Still, the Gorn stand among the most distinctive and recognisable of the classic Star Trek aliens, to the point where a trailer for the 2013 Star Trek game even features an affectionate reunion of William Shatner and the Gorn.

Talk about scorched earth...

Talk about scorched earth…

The Gorn have featured quite heavily in spin-off media, with The Gorn Crisis exploring the obviously pressing question of what the Gorn were doing during the Dominion War at the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. They’ve played a crucial part in the expanded universe, as part of the Typhon Pact series of novels by Pocket Books. They feature heavily in one line of Star Trek video games, the Star Fleet Universe strategy games. They’ve even cameoed in a scene cut from the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Not bad at all, eh?

Of course, the fight itself is part of pop culture history. Even the filming location has become a piece of pop geography, with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back celebrating the use of the same location by setting a scene at the “Arena” diner. In Galaxy Quest, the script can incorporate a shout-out to Arena without even naming the episode. When the movie’s Shatner-esque lead finds himself confronting a monster in a desert locale, the only member of the team to have watched the show offers sage advice. “Look around, can you form some sort of rudimentary lathe?” The lathe itself has been the subject of a Mythbusters episode.

Gorn, you will go on my first whistle...

Gorn, you will go on my first whistle…

And, despite the fact that the villain is an extra wandering around in a lizard suit, Arena still manages to stay true to Roddenberry’s Star Trek ideals, by allowing Kirk to refuse to kill his defeated opponent and by making it clear that the Gorn is not a monster. Coon’s script is careful to justify the Gorn aggression, rather than presenting the creature as a mindless brute. While massacring an entire colony without warning is hardly a civilised act, Arena does offer some excuse for the atrocity, with McCoy observing, “Then we could be in the wrong.”

That said, the massacre of innocent colonists without any warning or prior contact is hard to justify no matter what external factors are at play. It seems like Kirk and McCoy are too easy to forgive the brutal attack made on a base that welcomed the Gorn ship with open arms. Still, it’s nice that Arena makes some effort (however small) to humanise the Gorn and to clarify that they aren’t mindless killing machines. This would become something of a speciality for Coon, with The Devil in the Dark revolving around the revelation that the Horta is not – despite its appearance – a monster.

Dagger of the... chest, I guess...

Dagger of the… chest, I guess…

Kirk’s refusal to kill the Gorn is also a nice moment, even if forgiving the creature seems a little too much to ask. Kirk’s decision not to kill the alien would have carried more weight had the show acknowledged that – whatever their justifications – the Gorn were still mass-murderers. Given Kirk’s earlier emotional response to the atrocity, it would be nice if he’d seemed more conflicted, or if the show made it clear that he was unwilling to commit cold-blooded murder in any circumstance, rather than because this alien had a valid excuse for his violence.

Interestingly, the final scene omits an interesting piece of plot, which is included in James Blish’s Star Trek episode novelisations, after Kirk spares the life of the Gorn:

Then there was a humming, much like that he had heard so long ago aboard ship, when the screen had been scrambled. He turned. A figure was materializing under the overhang. It was not very formidable — certainly nothing so ominous, so awe-inspiring as its voice had suggested. Also, it was very beautiful. It looked like a boy of perhaps eighteen.

“You’re a Metron,” Kirk said listlessly.

“True,” said the figure. “And you have surprised us, Captain.”

“How?” Kirk said, not much interested. “By winning?”

“No. We had no preconceptions as to which of you would win. You surprised us by refusing to kill, although you had pursued the Gorn craft into our space with the intention of destroying it.”

“That was different,” Kirk said. “That was necessary.”

“Perhaps it was. It is a new thought. Under the circumstances, it is only fair to tell you that we lied to you.”

“In what way?”

“We said that the ship of the loser of this personal combat would be destroyed,” said the Metron. “After all, it would be the winner— the stronger, the more resourceful race— who would pose the greatest threat to us. It was the winner we planned to destroy.”

Kirk lurched to his feet. “Not my ship,” he said dangerously.

“No, Captain. We have changed our minds. By sparing your helpless enemy — who would surely have killed you in like circumstances — you demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy. This we hardly expected — and it leaves us with no clear winner.”

It’s a nice, nuanced touch which suggests that there’s more going on here than might first appear, and the episode feels a little bit simpler for the fact that the scene was cut.

No comment.

No comment.

Arena is also the first episode to establish the Federation. Early on, episodes like Where No Man Has Gone Before, Mudd’s Women, The Corbomite Manoeuvre, What Are Little Girls Made Of? and The Man Trap painted space as this large and empty void. Even the previous episode, The Squire of Gothos, featured a desolate “star desert.” In those episodes, space seemed inherently hostile and mostly empty.

Only with episodes like The Conscience of a King and Court Martial did we begin to get a sense that Kirk and his crew were actually part of a much larger framework, and weren’t really that isolated and alone in the cosmos. Indeed, Court Martial was the first episode to mention “Starfleet.” The authority that Kirk reported to had been somewhat ambiguous throughout the season, with quite a few episodes suggesting that the Enterprise was an “Earth” ship. That creates the impression of one solitary planet reaching out into an impossible expanse of space.

A cold-blooded killer...

A cold-blooded killer…

Arena expands on the idea of a large centralised authority from episodes like Court Martial and The Menagerie. The Federation is one of the core ideas of the Star Trek franchise, and it feels strange that it would only appear so late in a season that established so much so quickly. More than many earlier episodes, Arena seems to reflect the mood and atmosphere that would become prevalent throughout the rest of the franchise.

For the first time, space is presented as something that really shouldn’t be a hostile environment occupied by god-like beings and monsters. The Federation, it seems, is taming the frontier. The colony here seems to be completely surprised by the ambush, as if this sort of behaviour is completely alien to Federation values. “Scanners reported a ship approaching,” the survivor tells Kirk. “We get them now and then. They’re all welcome to use our facilities. You know that.” It suggests a measure of blind trust which seems out of place in the generally hostile wilderness we’ve seen in other adventures.

A net loss?

A net loss?

In contrast, the Gorn seem to come from that hostile darkness we saw in earlier episodes. “We have beamed back to the Enterprise and immediately set out in pursuit of the alien vessel,” Kirk reports in his log. “It appears to be headed toward a largely unexplored section of the galaxy.” This suggests that there is in fact a great deal of explored space, space that has been claimed and charted and researched. This seems more in keeping with the depiction of space seen in the Star Trek films and in The Next Generation than with some of the earlier episodes.

Indeed, Arena sees a bit of a subtle shift in the Enterprise’s role. The crew are no longer cowboys exploring a brave new frontier. Instead, they are police men trying to impose order on a part of the universe that they have claimed and tamed. “Out here,” Kirk explains at one point, “we’re the only policemen around. And a crime has been committed.” There’s fear of “invasion”, which relies on the idea that the Enterprise is part of some relatively large galactic power, rather than a few scattered colonies dotted throughout the cosmos.

No time for a love bite...

No time for a love bite…

This might have been implicit in stories like The Conscience of a King, Court Martial or even Dagger of the Mind, but it’s explicit here. In fact, much like Dagger of the Mind and Shore Leave, Arena seems somewhat critical of these institutions. The script’s sympathy for the extreme actions of the Gorn suggests that the Federation’s actions should be read as imperialist – albeit accidentally. “Was Cestus III an intrusion on their space?” McCoy asks, with the episode suggesting that the Federation’s expansion had been rushed and ill-advised.

After all, the fact that the Federation seemed so comfortable and so secure on Cestus III suggests a certain amount of arrogance, and a clear lack of consideration. It isn’t that the Federation laid claim to something which didn’t belong to them, it’s that they never stopped to think that it could belong to anybody else. The Federation didn’t annex or invade Cestus III, but they still behaved like a colonial power, with little regard for what nearby civilisations might make of their colonies.

James Kirk: fighting aliens through the power of applied chemistry!

James Kirk: fighting aliens through the power of applied chemistry!

In fact, it has been argued that the depiction of the Federation in Arena is a criticism of colonial values:

Arena raises questions that depict the underlying shadow of the colonial period in which indigenous populations attack invaders in response to colonial encroachment. In the episode Captain Kirk faces a member of the alien species, Gorn, a bipedal reptilian humanoid from a technologically advanced race, in a battle to the death as imposed by the seemingly supernatural, advanced Metron race. In the case of the Enterprise/Gorn dispute, it is noteworthy that the Federation (Kirk and his Crew), are portrayed as transgressors by attempting to encroach into a Gorn planet. As is implied by the name, Arena brings forth the primal concept of survival amongst two captains, battling on apparently equal grounds. In the process of battling the Gorn, Kirk’s aside acknowledges the Gorn’s contemporaneous equality and concedes that he is a powerful adversary, acknowledging his own bias by saying: “I find it hard to conceive that this reptilian creature so different from me, is also an educated captain of a starship, not inferior but technologically advanced as well” (Coon & Pevney, 1967). In the end, Kirk is victorious after fashioning a rudimentary cannon and gunpowder from the resources made available to him on the planet’s surface and his use of modern natural science. Similarly, though ultimately defeated (but not killed), the Gorn manages to create an Oldowan-like axe made of stone. In this respect, Kirk is portrayed as superior due to his use of modern science by creating a projectile weapon as opposed to the Gorn, who is placed in a more primitive state by his use of a stone axe, a symbol of the premodern human state of evolution.

It’s fascinating that so many of these sixties episodes are so clearly critical of these future institutions, another sign that Star Trek was channelling the growing discomfort with authority that was a massive part of late-sixties counter-culture.

A glowing review...

A glowing review…

In Court Martial, Starfleet was presented as institutionally corrupt, willing to cover up the death of an officer to avoid embarrassment. In Dagger of the Mind, Earth was implicitly responsible for allowing Doctor Adams to abuse those in his care. Here, the Federation is shown to be imperialist and expansionist. It’s a portrayal that Roddenberry would shy away from while producing The Next Generation, but it’s also something that writers like Ronald D. Moore and Ira Steven Behr would develop further while working on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It’s also worth noting that Arena represents the first time that Star Trek has really tackled the implications of using a “space western” to explore Roddenberry’s futuristic ideals. After all, the western is an American mythology that is built around some morally questionable practices – the brutal subjugation of the native people by European settlers chief among them, with institutionalised and systemic attempts to displace and to marginalise those cultures. Arena hinges on that often-overlooked piece of history, the reality that is glossed over with romanticism.

He's dead, Jim...

He’s dead, Jim…

Early episodes of Star Trek had avoided the colonial subtext of the western genre by suggesting that the universe was a big empty place – that mankind was only really strolling in the ruins of long-dead societies and civilisation. It’s worth noting that the first half of the first season features relatively few alien civilisations. From here on out, alien cultures become a lot more common, so the issue of the Enterprise’s potential imperialist attitudes needs to be tackled head-on.

While The Man Trap alluded to the near-extinction of the buffalo, that episode ended with the death of the buffalo analogue. It’s hard to read it is an explicit criticism of that sort of colonial attitude, as Kirk goes out of his way to dismiss the person making the comparison as insane. As such, Arena is the first time the show really grapples with that idea, and it does so remarkably well. While the episode probably lets the Gorn off relatively easily for mass slaughter, it accepts that sometimes humanity’s self-centred view of the universe can allow us to overlook acts that undermine or damage other cultures.

Kirk smash!

Kirk smash!

Arena is a wonderful piece of Star Trek, despite the fact that its plot is something out of a cheesy science-fiction B-movie. There’s a lot of charm to the idea of Kirk and an alien captain resolving their differences mano-a-mano, and it demonstrates the wonderful way that sixties Star Trek could have its cake and eat it too. A criticism of colonial values, Arena also works as a visceral pulpy action adventure. It’s a testament to the show, and also a triumph for writer Gene L. Coon.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

8 Responses

  1. I once had a mind to create a short film about a university student who’s so utterly obsessed with this episode that he becomes convinced he’s in a life or death struggle with his roommate. He, of course, then proceeds to create weaponry from his dorm room surroundings.

    • It’s just a classic piece of pulpy sci-fi, isn’t it? I mean, it’s instantly recognisable under any circumstance. Just drop that guy into anything, especially a desert, and people will go “huh, that’s familiar.”

  2. Late response… sorry… but, as always, this was a superb analysis. A agree with you about Gene L. Coon. His contributions to the Star Trek mythos, and to the moral complexity of the series (along with its spin-offs) are unfortunately all too often underrated. He did a fantastic job of universe-building utilizing the basic foundation set down by Gene Roddenberry.

    • It’s never too late! I can see all the comments, so I can respond to them whenever and wherever they are.

      I agree Coon is horribly, horribly underrated. (See also, to a lesser degree, if only because they lived longer and thus stayed involved longer: D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold.)

  3. I really feel that you’re building far too much on one unsubstantiated statement by the Gorn captain. Imperialism on Earth has always involved conquest and oppression of native populations, but it’s difficult to believe that there were any Gorn living on Cestus III, or that the Gorn had made their claim to the planet clear, considering that the crew didn’t recognize either the Gorn ship or the Gorn themselves and the attack seemed to have come as a complete surprise. Even if the Gorn claim is legitimate, which, again, we don’t know for sure, the Federation offense is more like trespassing on unmarked property than outright imperialism, given which I feel that your criticism is unduly harsh.

    • I definitely think that it is intentional, even just looking at Gene L. Coon’s other work in contemporary episodes like The Devil in the Dark and Errand of Mercy, and even the General Order mentioned in A Taste of Armageddon.

      Kirk’s Federation was an extension of Kennedy’s American. Gene Roddenberry seemed to think that this was the coolest thing ever, while Coon was more skeptical. I think, given all of that context, and the fact that if you have a character on sixties television lie then you generally make that explicit, it’s fair to suppose that the Gorn have a reasonable and legitimate claim and that the Federation was… at best careless and at worst indifferent to their colonialism.

  4. What always seemed weird to me isn’t how the episode handles the potential culpability of the Gorn, but rather that of the Metrons.

    These incredibly powerful beings pitting the two ships’ captains against each other in a brutal life-and-death conflict on a planet the Metrons control, for any reason offered or concealed, seems like the amoral experimentation of “The Savage Curtain” at best, the childish torture from “The Squire of Gothos” at worst. It appears to demand the same sort of critique from Kirk that those other episodes’ vaguely powerful beings prompted, and that recurs all over this series: what exactly is superior, or even worth respecting, about employing barbarous methods for dubious ends?

    When Kirk calls out to the Metrons at the end, and one appears, it seems for a few moments that we might get that story; Kirk shouts that the Metrons will “have to get [their] entertainment somewhere else” and remarks that the Metron looks like a child to his eyes. But instead we get a not-very-twisty twist about the supposed purpose of the Metrons kidnapping two people for a pit fight on a planet, which does nothing at all to justify it, and suddenly Kirk seems to believe the Metrons had good reason to do what they were doing. None of that seems remotely justified by what we see or hear.

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