When the topic of Star Trek is brought up, it calls to mind several iconic images of the classic crew, the Enterprise, and the various alien races. While we all attribute our various interpretations and meanings to the franchise, one prominent image that often reflects quintessential and iconic Star Trek to many people, is the classic battle – Kirk v. Gorn – in the episode, Arena.
Arena, the eighteenth episode of Star Trek‘s first season, begins with a battle between the Enterprise and an unknown assailant. As the battle heats up, it is quickly interrupted by a disembodied voice representing a race self-identifying as the Metrons. The Metrons then explain that they find intrusion into their space to be a high offense, and as punishment, sentence Kirk and the captain of the other ship to a “trial by combat” on the surface of a nearby planet.
Kirk and the Gorn engage in a battle of wits and ultimately hand-to-hand combat while their respective crews can do nothing but watch on their view screens, witnessing the brutality heat up to a boiling point.
While we as viewers are witnessing an increasingly aggressive (well…aggressive for 1967) battle between human and lizard, what we are seeing manifested is an internal struggle that asks: what is our true nature? Are we as humans naturally and innately violent creatures? Is it our instinct to kill in order to survive?
The argument can be made that violence and aggression is a natural piece of human existence. Many would argue that, evolutionarily, it has brought us to where we are today (i.e. the notion that ‘only the strong shall survive’). However, others point out that we have developed with a drive towards cooperation that is equally as strong – if not stronger – than competition. It is often noted that, while humans may have a tendency towards violence, and that this is a natural trait, we also have an evolved sense of rationality, intelligence, and compassion that have the power to prevail over our innate aggression. As philosopher, Dr. David Boersema points out in his section of The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy: The Search for Socrates, “while humans have the capacity for violence, the struggle for survival doesn’t make it inevitable that we must exercise that capacity – our intelligence can help us to live together.”
Much of this is rooted in the early philosophies of Thomas Hobbes; specifically his work in his book, Leviathan.
Hobbes’ writings in Leviathan became the early notions of what grew into social contract theory. Hobbes argued that without a central authority or unified government, humans would resort to constant bloodshed – or “war against all” (Bellum omnium contra omnes) – in each individual’s effort to effectively own everything. To avoid this, we use our capacity for rational thought to “accede to a social contract and establish a civil society.”
This battle between our aggressive and rational states of being is evident throughout Kirk’s battle with the Gorn in Arena. As the two respective captains fight, feeling abandoned on the planet’s surface, they enter a state that is ostracized from their governing principals. They give in to the aggression and abandon rationality.
However, when we reach the end of the episode, there is a moment when Kirk refuses to kill the Gorn captain – a moment when he says, “No. No, I won’t kill you.” This is the point when Kirk recalls the values he stands for as a member of the Federation and as a Captain in Starfleet. In a way, he upholds his social contract to the Federation and refuses to give into Hobbe’s notion of “war against all.”
Star Trek as a franchise has a history of pointing out that our intellect and rationality can win over violence and aggression. It makes a point to say that peace can triumph over war, and that unity can prevail over divisiveness. In Arena, we see that we has humans still have the capacity to let our aggression get the better of us and that we still have to battle to see reason and compassion prevail. However, Kirk’s refusal to kill shows us that it’s a battle that we can win.