Arena, the eighteenth episode of the first season of Star Trek, is a classic one, so much so that I had seen images and quotes well before watching it for the first time. The fight between Kirk and the Gorn, that is a man in a vaguely reptilian rubber costume, has become very famous over the years or, more precisely, very infamous.
But let’s start from the beginning of the episode, which is light years away from the the ridiculous physical confrontation in which Kirk must avoid the very slow strokes of the Gorn. The USS Enterprise arrives at the colony of Cestus III to meet Commodore Travers and the captain descends to the surface accompanied by Spock, McCoy, and three red shirts (two will die, for the record: O’Herlihy – Jerry Ayres – and Lang – James Farley – while Kelowitz – Grant Woods – will incredibly be able to return on board alive). They immediately discover that the colony has been attacked and that there’s only one survivor. At the same time, the ship commanded by Sulu is attacked by an unknown vessel and must leave orbit! Here Kirk notices that his place should be on board, being the captain… in fact, in The Next Generation there will be a rule for landing parties to be led by the second in command, with the captain having to stay on the bridge!
Things look ugly, but when Kirk manages to make the attackers flee he’s able to return on board with the rest of the crew who survived the assault. And here the plot becomes a bit too reminiscent of episode number 14, Balance of terror: Kirk, despite the logical arguments presented by Spock, maintains that the vessel unknown must be destroyed in order to avoid an invasion of the Federation territory and launches himself in pursuit. And when the Enterprise seems to finally reach the enemy vessel, here come the Metrons, very advanced creatures inhabiting a solar system through which the two vessels were passing. They stop both ships using their superior technology and decide to have the dispute resolved with a bare-hands fight between the two captains.
Here’s the most ridiculous part of the episode, reminiscent of the Mighty Power Rangers: polystyrene stones, rubber suits and plastic sticks are abundant in this fight to the death. Fortunately, there’s an intelligent message behind this farce: Kirk in the end doesn’t kill the beaten opponent, despite the initial thirst for revenge. And this draws attention to Roddenberry’s typical thoughts on the need to avoid using violence at all costs. Maybe, Kirk says, the Gorn had some reasons to attack the Federation outpost, maybe he felt himself attacked and invaded! This is an argument also made by Spock on board the Enterprise in which the vicissitudes of Kirk are broadcast in real time by the Metrons (a bit like what happened in the double episode The menagerie).
So what about this Arena? If you manage to go beyond the ridiculousness of some scenes, it’s not a bad episode! A little “been there, done that” in the first part, very funny in the second, but with many clever ideas all around, not least the importance of ingenuity and its superiority over brute force. Ciao!
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