Arena is another fundamentally bad episode that’s saved by its magnificent pacing.
As we open, we’re in the Enterprise transporter room as Kirk, Spock, McCoy and their tactical team are readying to beam down to Cestus III – a colony on the remote edge of Federation space. McCoy in particular is happy about this because the commander of the colony apparently throws a good party, and McCoy could do with some home-cooked food. One thing, though – it’s a bit odd that he kept insisting they bring their tactical team.
They beam down to find out why: Cestus III is completely destroyed, and they’ve beamed into a warzone. As they’re taking stock of the situation, the Enterprise itself comes under attack. After some redshirts are killed and a survivor is found, Kirk blows up the attackers with a grenade launcher that launches those blue panty-hose eggs they had in the 80s. (Now why didn’t Cestus III think of that?)
Eventually, they’re able to beam back up, and they immediately chase the attacking ship. Mr. Spock is concerned that Kirk is acting too rashly. To prove Mr. Spock’s point, Kirk pulls rank on him and basically orders that the current interpretation of events is that the colony was attacked for no reason, the Enterprise is the law in this sector, and it’s their duty to destroy the attacker. Is that clear? It’s clear. Somewhere in all this we find time to talk to the lone survivor in sickbay, and he drops some truly attrocious acting on us. I mean man, is it terrible! But it’s also important later – the wounded man won’t accept that the attack was done without reason.
Anyway, the pursuit is a stunning success: the Enterprise is able to close the distance by going to (gasp!) warp 8, giving Mr. Scott his first of what we know will be many chances to warn Kirk about tearing the ship apart. The alien ship stops dead in space, and here we get a kind of great character moment. Kirk is so focused on killing them that he doesn’t stop to think there’s anything odd about that. He’s ready to blow them out of the sky. Of course, it’s not that simple. The ship stopped dead in space because a race called the Metrons – one of endless iterations of the mysterious, possible incorporeal god-like species that has no use for humanity and its barbarous ways – has stopped it there. They also stop the Enterprise seconds later. Then they whisk Kirk and the commander of the other ship to a desert planet that looks a lot like California and tell them to fight to the death.
The other race is called the Gorn, apparently, and they’re bipedal, humanoid dinosaurs. We quickly establish that the Gorn are much, MUCH stronger than humans, but also clumsy and slow. The Metrons mention that there are weapons on the planet if the opponents can find them.
From here, it’s a lot of running around and chasing – though there are odd pockets of mineral deposits here and there. At one point, Kirk manages to lob a boulder off of a cliff and pin down the Gorn, but when he goes over to finish him the Gorn shoves aside the rock and chased him into a trap he’s set up.
The Metrons decide this constitutes Kirk losin, so they tie in the Enterprise‘ viewscreen so everyone on board can watch Kirk die. At this point, just a bit before Kirk does, Spock figures out that the mineral deposits happen to be exactly the ingredients for a makeshift cannon. Kirk puts this together too, makes the cannon, sets it up, and fires it at the Gorn – incapacitating him, but not quite killing him. As he goes over to finish him off with his own weapon (a makeshift dagger the Gorn fashioned out of rock), Kirk thinks the better of it and resigns, loudly refusing to kill the Gorn. The Metrons then appear again, this time in human form, and congratulate Kirk on his restraint, saying that there is hope for humanity after all. Kirk and the Gorn are returned to their ships, and the Enterprise is transported lightyears away – as, presumably, is the Gorn ship. That will give them time to think about the other’s position. The Gorn, it came out in the duel, believed that the Federation had invaded their space with its colony on Cestus III.
The episode is mostly pretty clumsy. For one thing, despite the writers’ intention to set up a misunderstanding between the Gorn and the Federation, it’s pretty clear that the Gorn are in the wrong. Without having staked some obvious claim to Cestus III, they can’t reasonably expect the Federation to avoid it, the colony doesn’t seem to be that well defended (so the Gorn have no grounds, really, for calling this an invasion on the Federation’s part), and most of all you don’t just oblitterate a colony without sending an eviction notice first. If the Metrons were paying any attention, they could have just intervened on behalf of the Federation. For another thing, the contest seems pretty ill-suited to settling the issue. As always with these things on Star Trek, it’s not clear what the Metrons are testing for, or how this setup is supposed to achieve it. Since the weapons have to be fashioned out of raw materials, I guess the answer would be they’re looking for the more intelligent and enterprising of the two species. But there are so many ways this test can go wrong – starting with the fact that the recipe for gunpowder can hardly be expected to be on the academy curriculum! By some miraculous stroke of luck, Kirk gets the ratios right (this despite having refered to gunpowder earlier in the episode as “something very old” – making it unlikely that this was part of his StarFleet Academy training, to put a fine point on it), but if he hadn’t, he’d have either blown himself up or blown nothing up and died at the hands of the advancing Gorn. And then what if he’d missed? There may or may not have been time to reload. So, it really won’t do. This contest is as much about luck as anything. More than that, don’t the Metrons already know from their scans which of the two is more intelligent and enterprising? Having done thorough scans of both ships, what do they need the contest for? Worst of all, if what they really want is for Kirk to show some mercy, some willingness to engage in dialogue with the Gorn, why are they setting the two at each others’ throats? And why, oh why, does the Metron offer to kill the Gorn for Kirk at the end of the contest? Life mattes, I guess, but only at the same(-ish) level of civilization? It would be OK for the Metrons to kill the Gorn, and yet if Kirk does it it’s evidence of barbarism? Double standard much?
What works about this episode – I mean really works – is, as usual, the pacing. There’s something really invigorating about watching the crew snap into action as soon as they’ve realized Cestus III has been destroyed and they’re under attack, and it doesn’t let up from there. There is absolutely no wasted time in this episode: each scene moves seemlessly into the next. The only thing that comes close to being a misstep is cutting to commercial while Kirk is trapped and then having him escape offscreen.
Another thing that works about it is the character development. I’ve seen it pointed out several places that this is the episode that really commits the show to being about Kirk, Spock and McCoy, rather than the more ensemble approach it’s taken up to this point. Personally, I would have prefered the more ensemble show – one where Scotty, Sulu and Uhura got to play a part too – but if they’re going to do a show about the central trio, they do a good job introducing you to the characters here. Kirk acts rashly, refusing to hear any dissent about the Gorn and his decisions. He’s a man of action, but he’s sometimes wrongheaded, and it’s good to see that flaw. Once he gets some distance between himself and the situation, he is able to act more appropriately. McCoy has an equally emotional reaction, but with the opposite polarity. Kirk wants to kill, kill, kill; McCoy is mostly concered about his patient. Likewise, McCoy is the one who questions least the idea that the Gorn may be in the right. Really, he’s casting about for excuses to stop the violence – something that will become a pattern with him. Mr. Spock is convincingly unemotional in the sense of having his feelings under control, but we get solid evidence that he has feelings when watching Kirk’s contest on the viewscreen. All those cryptic statements to McCoy about how “he has reasoned it out, Doctor!” betray an inner frustration that Spock can’t signal to Kirk what to do to win the contest.
So, it’s “one of those” that’s better than it’s supposed to be. If not for the excellent pacing, we would notice faster than we do that the setup is a sham. If not for the sensitive treatment of its characters, it would be a pointless puzzle story. As it is, it’s a …
Overall Rating: B+