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By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at September 23, 2005 - 8:36 PM GMT

See Also: 'Arena' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise has been summoned to Cestus III, but upon arriving the crew finds that the outpost has been destroyed. After a brief battle on the surface with unknown adversaries, the ship sets off in pursuit of an alien vessel. Both ships are stopped dead in space by a species called the Metrons, who inform Kirk that the Enterprise has violated their territory. To resolve the conflict, the Metrons place Kirk and the captain of the Gorn ship on a nearby planet, where the two of them must end the conflict by fighting to the death with the raw materials provided. Kirk quickly discovers that his reptilian adversary is very strong but not agile. While the Gorn constructs an obsidian blade and traps with vines and rocks, Kirk finds the uses the elements to make gunpowder, launching diamonds as projectiles at the Gorn. He wounds the alien captain but refuses to kill him, which impresses the Metrons, who say that because he has demonstrated mercy, both ships will be allowed to go free to negotiate an end to hostilities.

Analysis: One in a long series of Star Trek episodes about superior meddling aliens who end up seeming not as civilized as the humans they criticize, "Arena" sets up a classic one-on-one duel in which Kirk must out-think an opponent he clearly cannot overpower physically. Like "Balance of Terror", which has some similarities in terms of watching two captains try to outmaneuver each other, "Arena" is wonderfully paced and has a superb blend of action and character moments. We start with humor, as Kirk and McCoy talk about the meal they are anticipating while Spock raises his eyebrows at McCoy's being a sensualist ("You bet your pointed ears I am!"); then the team beams down to find the colony destroyed and themselves under attack from explosives, briefly cut off from the ship; once aboard, there is a tense chase through space culminating in alien intervention; and the rest of the episode is a sort of theater, with Kirk piecing together what is necessary to defeat the Gorn while his crew watches helplessly on the viewscreen.

We see Kirk in many different aspects in "Arena." At first he's a cheerful captain looking forward to visiting with an officer he knows; then, upon discovering not only that he has been duped but that there has been a massacre, he is furious, unwilling to debate with Spock about whether the anonymous aliens who have committed the atrocities have any independent rights, determined that McCoy keep a survivor alive less for the man's own sake but in the hope of getting information from him. He sets off in hot pursuit after the unknown yet obviously powerful prey with far less consideration than he gave to the question of whether or not to pursue the Romulans for similar violations, putting his ship at risk to go at high warp and stopping only when forced to by more powerful beings.

And then a shift occurs. Kirk begins to see his adversary as someone with whom he might have things in common, even though he dislikes reptiles and is still bitter about the losses on Cestus III. He fights, not because he wants revenge, but because it's the only way to stay alive, and when he wins, he declines the kill. This ends up saving everyone involved, but his decision comes as much from contempt for the Metrons as compassion for the Gorn: "You'll have to get your entertainment someplace else!" This is one of the first examples of Kirk demonstrating extreme distrust of super-powerful beings (the most dramatic being in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, when he attempts to kill "God", though it has antecedents in his attacks on Apollo and Vaal and even his frustration with the Organians). Things end well with the Metrons but they don't seem particularly more civilized than the mind-reading Talosian Keepers. Thus far when Kirk has encountered superior intelligences, even when they turned out to be benevolent as in "The Corbomite Maneuver" or "Shore Leave", things have become quite frightening for awhile.

Spock uses logic to distance himself and can afford to be more curious; because he is not enraged at the seemingly senseless deaths on the colony, he does not instantly seek the destruction of the mysterious Gorn, though he is concerned when Kirk is in danger on the planet and appears to be quite anxious while watching the duel on the viewscreen. Though he would deny the emotion, it seems apparent from his mutterings of "Yes" and "good" that he is frustrated to be unable to help Kirk piece together the ingredients that will allow him to make a weapon. His "He knows, Doctor," is very nearly exultant, before he shows off his knowledge by explaining that the raw materials on the planet will allow Kirk to make gunpowder. (How Kirk manages to guess the right combination of sulfur and potassium nitrate without blowing himself up is not something I have ever understood, but apparently he knows that too.)

As is becoming his frequent role, McCoy is the one who gets to be emotional and express potential viewer frustration as well. He wants Spock to do something, to use logic in a proactive way, and he is the one who begs the Metrons to put a stop to the fighting just before they agree to let the crew watch the outcome of the combat on the planet. His concern at Cestus III is that he may lose the patient he has, not the number of potential casualties that may be incurred among the landing party if they fight the aliens there - indeed, there is a classic red-shirt death early on where Kirk takes the familiar characters with him and sends some poor guy off in a different direction where he is promptly killed. McCoy seems pleased to realize that the attack may have been in what the Gorn considered self-defense; he is very willing to let bygones be bygones, to avoid further bloodshed.

By this episode Star Trek is already falling into a pattern where it is evident that Kirk, Spock and McCoy will be the main players while the other familiar faces will serve in more supporting roles. Scotty's principal lines are to warn the captain that the engines can't take high warp for long; Sulu takes command briefly while Kirk is pinned down on the surface, but we see little of his interaction on the ship, only his communications with Kirk; Uhura works with Spock to try to determine where the energy readings are coming from but her most memorable scenes are screaming when Kirk disappears and holding her hand over his mouth watching him fight.

The message of "Arena" is a little muddled, just as is Voyager's twist on it, "Tsunkatse," for the single-combat is glorified even as the superior aliens and Kirk himself declare violence uncivilized. There's pure fun in watching Kirk climbing on Vasquez Rocks, tossing what on DVD is visibly a Styrofoam rock down onto the Gorn, celebrating his apparent victory, then fleeing in fear and stumbling right into a trap as the Gorn rises unharmed from the assault. Perhaps the more important antecedent here is when Kirk tries to leave a log in the device given him by the Metrons, not realizing that it will be translated and the Gorn will hear and respond. In one of the finest Next Generation episodes, "Darmok", Picard finds himself in a seemingly similar situation in conflict with an alien with whom he believes he cannot communicate while a more powerful alien threat approaches them both, and the captain must ask whether he would sacrifice his life in the hope of communication with seemingly hostile aliens.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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