Sunday, May 18, 2008

TOS Rewind #17: "Arena"

Sorry about the long hiatus on Trek.  For some reason, I've been out of the mood to do them, but am still determined so I'm going to write a very short entry and move along.  Eric may have more to say here, but I have to get something out there and move along to the next episode, even if this one gets somewhat short shrift.  So, we have Arena (1/19/1967).  I don't remember what I was drinking, alas.

This episode does have a serious point to make, but it always gets a laugh out of me due to the low-budget alien.  The Gorn looks a lot like some "Creature From The Black Lagoon" retread and it seems hard to believe these guys, who stagger around like...well, like a dude in a stiff rubber suit, can get much of anything done, let alone build spaceships.  Okay, so I'm being a poop about the poor gravely-voiced Gorn, but it seems pretty silly.  Then again, to be fair, I have to give Trek a shred of credit for trying something other than a regular human with a ridged forehead or funky costume. 

"Arena" is one of those episodes where a superior alien race decides to teach us war-like humans a lesson (not to mention those other creeps we're fighting).  The aliens seem to have equal contempt for both groups as they're willing to kill everyone aboard the losing ship.  They claim that this is in the interest of peace.  I'm not sure how this will ensure the peace, but whatever.  Of course, I conclude from the end of this episode that Kirk and co. now at least know why the Earth colony was being attacked.

In the end, what we remember is the big fight between Kirk and the Gorn at that ever-so-useful piece of California real estate.  The Gorn is clever, making that snare that almost kills Kirk, but Kirk makes a gun out of a bamboo tube and some conveniently available sulfur and coal.  Clever humans! 

See, wasn't that "merciful and quick"?!


Gene Roddenberry once said that Star Trek works by presenting an entertaining story, and while audience’s guard is down, slipping in a heavy idea or two. And since it’s all couched in science fiction, it’s easier to get the commentary on current events (and the human condition in general) past the network censors.

“Arena" is a good example of this pattern. Kirk, thanks to a highly advanced race, finds himself on a uninhabited planet squared off against the captain of an alien ship that attacked a Federation colony. This other captain is from a race called the Gorn, which has always looked to me like some kind of evolved dinosaur. (And let’s get the criticism of the Gorn suit and makeup out of the way now--yes, it’s laughably fake, but it was the mid-60s and they were on a shoestring budget.) Anyway, this is an interesting comparison given the episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (4th season) that featured a CGI Gorn that looked much like a velociraptor from “Jurassic Park". Of course, if Kirk had been doing unarmed battle with that Gorn, he would’ve been bloody scraps in about thirty seconds.

But I digress, the good captain does survive. One minor complaint is that the “gunpowder" he concocts shouldn’t have worked. And if it had, his improvised cannon probably would’ve blown up in his face and killed him. Still, this is a good Kirk episode—he’s clever, tough, and in the end, noble. And the story itself is good. There’s lots of action and suspense, and it introduces two new interesting races:  the Metrons and the Gorn.

So “Arena" is an entertaining story, but where are Roddenberry’s heavy ideas? Actually, it’s not hard to identify them. One is the familiar Star Trek theme that an enemy, or a perceived enemy, is rarely pure evil and often, once understood, is not actually an enemy. The other idea is also familiar to Trek and is demonstrated by Kirk at the end of the episode. He spares the life of the Gorn captain and by doing so, shows that mercy can overcome the human instinct for revenge; it just takes the ability to reason and a conscious intention not to give in to anger.

Next time:  “Tomorrow is Yesterday"