“Arena,” in many ways, is old-school Star Trek at its most iconic. We’ve got high-minded non-corporeal alien beings, a classic Star Trek-fight, loads of dramatic Shatner moments, torn shirts, quintessential Trek philosophy, and, of course, the Gorn!
It’s an episode that’s both loved and poked fun of in the pop. culture zeitgeist – parodied on multiple occasions, yet still endearingly celebrated in the fandom for what it brought to the franchise and the morals it espoused.
“Arena” initially positions Kirk in an Ahab-like role; wanting at all-costs to get revenge on a mysterious alien ship that nearly destroyed a peaceful Federation colony. Despite warnings that they may not have all the facts, Kirk leads the Enterprise in a chase that ultimately brings them into what they soon discover to be Metron-controlled space. The Metrons, it’s soon revealed, are the previously mentioned non-corporeal, energy-type aliens Star Trek loved to use at the time. They’re shown to have a strict isolationist policy, and since the Enterprise and the fleeing alien starship have crossed into their space, they sentence the two ship captains to a “trial by combat” of sorts on the surface of a nearby planet.
It’s here that we get our first good look at the infamous Gorn captain – a tall, muscular dinosaur-like, bipedal creature in a sparkly and relatively revealing red and gold toga-esque uniform. And while the image of the Gorn captain against the backdrop of a planet that looks a lot like the Vasquez Rocks area outside of Los Angeles has been seared into the collective consciousness of Trek fandom as a whole, at the time it must’ve been a jarring site. It was quite different from the mostly human looking aliens that had been primarily featured in the show at this point. It was only the second time Star Trek managed to wade into the territory of what I like to call the creature feature (the first being the crew’s encounter with the Salt Vampire in the show’s debut episode, “The Man Trap”).
What follows is a climactic, silly, brutal, cheesy, and generally fun sci-fi battle of wits and hand-to-hand combat between the two starkly different captains while their respective crews can do nothing but watch on their viewscreens.
The Gorn costume itself was another creature design from prop and creature designer, Wah Ming Chang, who had previously designed the aforementioned Salt Vampire costume. According to the all-knowing Memory Alpha, “The original Gorn was played by several people, including Bobby Clark, Gary Combs, and Bill Blackburn. The voice was provided by Ted Cassidy.”
While the actual design of the costume was advanced and unique for the time, it was quite bulky, slow, and challenging to move around in. As explained by Bobby Clark (again, from the Memory Alpha entry on the Gorn), “Because the costume was thick rubber, it had big muscles – you couldn’t bend your arms. You couldn’t walk fast because the feet would hold you back. You couldn’t run, because you’d be walking like you had two swimming fins on your feet. And we were walking in brush a lot, so that was tough… [The producers have] said several times that, in their estimation, it was the slowest fight they’d ever seen. Well, yes, it was slow. If it was fast, it would’ve been the funniest fight they’d ever seen.”
Movies and shows that fall under the category of the Creature feature tend to run the gamut from B-movies, to dark fairly tales, to just old-fashioned monster stories. The best of them, however, pair their creative creature conceptions with something important or interesting to say. So with “Arena,” we’ve got a decently cool (albeit a bit dated) creature costume, but does the script come through with something to say to go with it?
The answer to that, I’d argue, is yes.
In many ways, the battle between Kirk and the Gorn represents the very human struggle between reason and aggression or compassion and violence. It has been 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 empathy that have the power to prevail over our innate aggressions. 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.”
This notion harkens back to the early philosophies of Thomas Hobbes – particularly his work in the book, Leviathan, and what ultimately became known as social contract theory. Hobbes argued that without a central authority or unified government, humans would resort to constant bloodshed, or ‘war against all,’ 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 the increasingly brutal and cutthroat fight between Kirk and the Gorn captain. As the fighting rages on, a sense of isolation and abandonment creeps in. The two grow further distanced from their governing principals, seemingly giving in to aggression and abandoning rationality.
However, as we reach the end of the episode, Kirk refuses to deal a killing blow to Gorn captain, saying, “No. No, I won’t kill you.” Kirk is able to recall is core beliefs in the moral philosophies of the Federation and choose to ultimately hold them above his initial desire for revenge and violence. In essence, he overcomes his initial convictions and changes the feelings toward the Gorn captain he’d previously clung to. As stated by Dr. Timothy Harvie in an article on this episode for the official Star Trek site, “The ability to change one’s views is central to the ethic of the Federation. The ability to slow ourselves and reconsider our passionately held and deeply entrenched positions is exactly what made Kirk a good captain.”
And ultimately, all of this is what makes “Arena” not just a good creature feature, but good Star Trek.