One of my favorite videos from “The Onion” came out right before the 2009 Star Trek film, and is entitled “Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film as ‘Fun, Watchable.” It’s a canny bit of humor that riffs perfectly on why Star Trek still appeals to people. However, right in the middle, there’s a ridiculously choreographed clip of Kirk fist fighting a guy in a Godzilla-esque rubber suit. It’s totally ridiculous, hilarious and a little sad all at the same time.
Also, it’s a Gorn.
Today’s episode starts off with a bang. The Enterprise arrives at Cestus III in what turns out to be a trap. As soon as they arrive at the ruined Federation base, they come under fire, with shelling going off all around the landing party as they attempt to fire back and protect the injured. While the ground party is occupied, the Gorn attack the Enterprise, putting even more people in danger. Kirk finally drives the attackers away with a mortar of his own, and the landing party escapes to the ship where they decide that they must pursue the ship that destroyed the Cestus colony.
There’s a little bit of back and forth as to whether the attack of the Gorn was a prelude to an invasion of Cestus and other Federation colonies, but Kirk eventually gives chase, pushing his ship to greater and more dangerous speeds in an attempt to catch up with his fleeing enemy. Finally both ships are brought to a halt by an otherworldly force that decides that both races are barbaric and that their captains will duel for the survival of their respective ships. Without being able to utter a word of complaint, Kirk and the Gorn captain are beamed to some suspiciously familiar rocks (“Shore Leave” anyone?) and forced to do battle with his reptilian opponent.
There’s a lot to like in “Arena.” It’s a little bit goofy and a little bit iconic, but it’s mainly a pretty fun episode to watch. Like in “Shore Leave,” Star Trek always benefits from getting to shoot on location. Some of the paintings on sets are nice, but having a very organic environment to look at really helps the series to establish some legitimacy.
Also, there’s the Gorn. I was kind of surprised that the series had never really dipped into any reptilian aliens until this point, but they are just a really odd race. Kirk mentions that “”Like most humans, I seem to have an instinctive revulsion to reptiles,” and it just helps kind of drive the intrinsic weirdness home. Also, the Gorn physically looks like a bully. He’s got a couple of inches up on Kirk, walks around in a Flintstones costume and holds his communicator like a wrestler’s microphone as he tells Kirk that his death will be swift and painless. He’s an imposing and immediate threat that the show really manages to use well.
Kirk works well under pressure too, especially when the problem he faces is not one he can solve with a phaser or a quick lie. He’s thinking on his feet, and the stakes for failure are his life. He does a lot of running around, but the scenes where he is assembling the cannon are tense and interesting enough that it makes up for some of the awkwardness that’s in the earlier parts of the episode.
If anything can be taken from “Arena,” it’s the message that serves really as the counter to the mission of the Enterprise. Boldly going where no man has gone before is dangerous work. As far as I understand, humanity and the Federation have not been along for long. There are races that have traveled the stars before, have found their own planets, have built their own civilization. Humanity is a meddler, finding new worlds and spreading their own agenda. They take resources and build, often with no regards to who has been there before.
At one point in the episode, Kirk and Spock contemplate the stake the Gorn has on Cestus III from completely different perspectives. Kirk is at the position of the settlers on the destroyed planet. He understands the sacrifice that the settlers of the planet made when the Gorn attacked, and he has to deal with the same threat that they faced before they were destroyed. Spock has the means to be more analytical about the Gorn’s actions. Yes, the humans may have intruded on land that was not theirs, but was the Gorn’s counter-attack still one of aggression, or simply defense? The episode, to it’s credit, doesn’t give a definitive answer, unless you solely believe the Gorn captain, but it posits that the two civilizations will be able to communicate and make compromises. It certainly deals with the intrusion of humanity in a more concise and nuanced way than earlier episodes like “The Man Trap” attempted to.
There are a couple of complaints that can be made about “Arena” still. There’s an awful lot of doing nothing. I understand that to some degree, there are going to be scenes when Kirk is just trying to put room between himself and the Gorn and that the show is going to detail him moving over rocks and hiding. My problem is in just how much of the episode that this takes up. The times when the Gorn and Kirk are together are way to short to justify this much time with them apart. Instead of being tense, it’s more than a little boring. Viewers miss the Gorn when it’s not on screen, and the scenes of Kirk climbing are just not as important or interesting.
Also, I’m getting fucking sick of every episode ending in a literal dues ex machina. At least we know that the Metron is coming in this one and that we are going to have to deal with some godly being deciding what will come of the crew of the Enterprise, but it’s still lazy and this is the fourth time an episode has ended this way.
None the less, I like “Arena” quite a bit. It would be a pretty solid gateway episode for someone new to the series, and it’s thrilling and iconic enough to keep people interested.
Somebody in the writers room really had a thing for Greco-Roman Mythology. I’m getting sick of it, but it works.
Sulu’s here! And he gets to use the phasers and act quizzical.
I don’t care what that MythBusters douchebags say, I desire that cannon to work, and Shatner is on my side.
Next Up: “Tomorrow is Yesterday” which will be about time travel and I will probably be disappointed.