Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Star Trek at 50: Arena

Season 1
Episode 19: Arena
Filmed: November 1966 
First Air Date: January 19, 1967

Karen: He's here at last: the Gorn! Easily one of the most recognizable Star Trek aliens, and a fan favorite, we have finally reached "Arena," a hallmark episode. Besides the memorable alien, there is a story here about the desire for vengeance, and the need for understanding and mercy. Everything seemed to come together in this episode to give us a story that is exciting and thought-provoking.

Karen: This episode was written by producer Gene Coon. He put together the first teleplay and it was substantially similar to what was filmed. However -during review of the teleplay, personnel at Kellam Deforest Research discovered that the plot points matched up closely to a story by Frederic Brown, also called "Arena," published in Astounding magazine in 1944. Coon had read the story but had apparently forgotten about it. Obviously the story was too similar to Brown's, so Desilu's legal department contacted Brown to buy the rights to his work. Brown was amenable, and  would get screen credit for the story. 

Karen: "Arena" is a favorite of mine. Yes, the battle between Kirk and the Gorn is exciting, but I find the exchanges between Kirk and Spock to also be highlights. After they return to the Enterprise from the attack on Cestus III, the Captain and First Officer discuss the situation in Kirk's quarters. Kirk is dead certain that the destruction of the outpost by the aliens can only mean one thing: they intend to invade. Spock protests, saying there could be other reasons, but Kirk will have none of it; he is adamant that there is no other explanation. The Captain seems unusually bloodthirsty. Spock appears ill at ease with this conclusion but if this is what Kirk believes, then he must ensure the alien (whom they are pursuing) never reaches his home base. Kirk says he intends to. He pushes the ship to high warp speed in the pursuit. On the bridge, Spock again asks Kirk if the destruction of the alien is necessary. "A regard for sentient life," he starts out when Kirk cuts him off, "There's no time for that." After some odd looks from Uhura and Spock, Kirk explains weakly that they are the only policeman around. It is one of the few times where Kirk is shown  off-balance. He has a point, but so does Spock.

"They've locked onto my tricorder..."

Karen: Before they can catch the aliens, both ships are halted by an unseen force. They have blundered into the territory of the Metrons. A voice informs them that their conflict will be resolved in a way best suited to their limited mentalities. And with this, Kirk and the captain of the Gorn ship are transported to a mysterious planet, to battle each other to the death.

Karen: That mysterious planet was Vasquez Rocks, a park in northern Los Angeles county. At the time this episode was filmed it was privately owned. Vasquez Rocks,with its unusual angled rock formations, has appeared in many TV and motion picture productions. Star Trek filmed there several times, but "Arena"  is probably the episode that most people associate it with. I made the trip out to the park a couple of years ago and it was a real thrill to be standing in the same spot where Kirk and the Gorn had fought! If you ever go, be sure to check out the visitor center -they are well aware of the Trekkie interest in the park.

Kirk meets Gorn...

and so do I!

Karen: Kirk's opponent, the Gorn, was a complete suit created by effects man Wah Chang, who had also created the Salt Vampire for "The Man Trap" and the Romulan ship, as well as numerous monsters for The Outer Limits. Although it seems to come under ridicule today, for the time, it was a striking image (personally, I still find it impressive). Stuntman Bobby Clark alternated with Gary Combs in the suit, with actor Bill Blackburn, who was usually in the background at either the navigation or helm positions, putting on the outfit for a few shots. The suit consisted of a wet suit with a muscle overlay, gauntlets, and huge 16" feet. It wasn't easy moving or even seeing in the suit, but the three men got the job done. Admittedly, the Gorn moved ludicrously slow -when he swipes at Kirk and it takes half a minute, it strains credibility. But still, the Gorn does have an air of menace. As Kirk says into his recording device, "Like most humans I seem to have an instinctive revulsion to reptiles."

Karen: The Metrons informed both Kirk and the Gorn that there would be raw materials to make weapons on the planet. But Kirk is unable to turn up anything useful. However he comes across a variety of mineral deposits. This puzzles Kirk; he feels like there's something he should know. However, the Gorn has made a knife and set snares, and pins Kirk under an incredibly fake-looking boulder. Just like in The Galileo Seven, we are faced with the peril of styrofoam boulders. However, Kirk manages to escape. By this point, the Metrons have allowed the Enterprise crew to watch the action on the ship's viewscreen. The Gorn reveals that he has heard every word Kirk has said into his recording device. He offers a merciful death for Kirk. When Kirk fires back, asking if it was mercy they showed the colonists on Cestus III, the Gorn captain says they were defending themselves against invaders. McCoy, on the bridge, appears startled and turns to Spock and says if that's true, "We could be in the wrong." This is what Spock had been trying to get across earlier, with no success. 

Karen: Kirk and Spock both seem to figure out what to do with all those raw chemicals and minerals that are just lying around on the planet. As a kid when I saw it, I felt like I really should study chemistry more! The legend of Kirk's amazing hand cannon lives on; even the Mythbusters have tried to make one. Of course the Captain does manage to overcome his more powerful foe, actually shooting diamonds into his chest. No wonder Kirk is a legend in Starfleet. With the Gorn helpless, Kirk picks up his foe's knife and prepares to make the killing blow -and stops. He says, "No, no I won't kill you. Maybe you thought you were protecting yourself when you attacked the outpost." He faces skyward and shouts, "No, I won't kill him!" On the hill above him a shimmering being appears. It is a Metron. It looks like a fairy. Honestly, I would swear I can almost make out the outline of glittering wings on his back. In any case, it is quite ethereal. The Metron states  that Kirk has demonstrated the advanced quality of mercy. He offers to destroy the Gorn ship but Kirk says no, they will try to work things out. The Metron smiles and says very good. Maybe in a thousand years or so, mankind will be ready to meet with his people.Kirk is transported back to the ship, where the crew are both perplexed and delighted to see him -they did not see the last few minutes of what occurred. Kirk merely tells them that humanity is a very promising species.

Karen: "Arena" highlights one of Trek's main concepts: humanity overcoming our baser instincts. Kirk recognizes his prejudice, his anger, and in the end, moves past it. I am so impressed with this episode even now. It has great pacing, and provides practically everything you could ask for: action, conflict, drama, suspense, and a real, emotional core. It's almost a shame that we didn't get to see if a peace treaty was ever made between the Federation and the Gorn. William Shatner is still hanging around with the Gorn Captain, and the two of them are still having trouble getting along...


Humanbelly said...

GreatgreatgreatGREAT episode, yes!
I was still so young the first two or three times I saw it that I never remembered how the heck it resolved-- and I'm pretty sure I didn't "get" the resolution even then.

Yeah, the Metrons-! I know we touched on this already, but. . . HOW many near-omniscient, omnipotent races has the Enterprise alone now encountered?? Beings that can blithely control the entire space/time continuum? That have power to restore a vanished life? Most of whom seem to have eschewed a corporeal existence entirely? They must be packed shoulder to ethereal shoulder out there in the 5th or 6th dimension. . . And they all seem to be intent on playing with that little PetCo ant-farm known as the Human Race (well, presumably along with their collections of Gorn, Klingons, Romuluns and a few others. . . ).

And even though it's one of my favorite episodes as well, I TOTALLY remember watching it the first time and, even though the Gorn captain was truly terrifying to me, thinking that he was just ridiculously slow-moving. "Just run away! Don't keep getting so close to him!!!", I'd yell at the screen. Cripes, how do you let a turtle out-maneuver you? ('Course, if ever there was a "hare" personality in science fiction, I think he's wearin' the gold shirt, here. . . )

I also remember asking my Dad if all of that stuff to make gunpowder was in our yard, too? Or maybe in the hard-scrabble vacant lot we called "the sandpit"-? He said no, he was pretty sure you couldn't just scrape it up off the ground like that. . .


Anonymous said...

Hi Karen,

A great and memorable episode. One of those episodes which is so representative of what ST was about that if a novice asked you for a recommendation, this would be high on the list.

Question: how far through it does Kirk start noticing the minerals, etc? I remember when I watched this the first time, my Mum (who, in fairness to the rest of us, is exceptionally bright), realised amazingly early on that Kirk could make gunpowder from the saltpetre and I remember being shocked when that turned out to be the solution.


Pat Henry said...

Perhaps what contributes to the sense Kirk is “off balance” is the post WWII, Cold War ethic that permeates this series. “We’re better than that,” after all, in the Far Future; but we still must be vigilant. Viewers at the time probably understood Kirk as an Eisenhower type, Spock maybe as an Adlai Stevenson type.

Shorn of that context Kirk seems a bit unhinged in early scenes.

Interestingly, our modern thoughts seem to align more with Spock, but I imagine that at the time of this filming Kirk’s direct and bold pragmatism was the norm and Spock’s hesitant restraint was charmingly unusual. Our values have actually become more "like Star Trek" than they were when Star Trek first offered its vision—and I can't help but think the popular series, viewed so long by so many, actually assisted with that.

dbutler16 said...

I watched this a few months ago, and I got chills when Kirk made that gun!

J.A. Morris said...

Thanks Karen, I love this episode and I love your "battle" against the Gorn. My favorite episodes were tend to be the ones that were shot on location at places like Vasquez Rocks.

Pat Henry said...

One thing that surprises on a rewatch is how much of this episode takes place in the tactical situation on Cestus III versus how much time is spent on Kirk's situation with the Gorn. Memory seems to suggest the Cestus III stuff is very brief and the physical engagement at Vasquez Rocks takes up most of the hour. Not so; the settings seem to take up about an equal amount of time to resolve. Guess that says something about dramatic pacing.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, this one's a classic! I too loved Kirk's ingenuity in making a crude gun, and his decision to spare the Gorn in the end. I can't help wondering what the episode would've been like if Spock had been the one stranded on the planet...he'd have tried for the peaceful solution from the start, but maybe would've concluded that the most logical course was to kill, so maybe we'd have gotten the opposite result? It would've been an interesting dilemma for Spock either way.

(By the way Karen, how did YOU defeat the Gorn? Or did you work out a peaceful solution of your own? :))

Mike Wilson

Edo Bosnar said...

Mike W., re: Karen defeating the Gorn - she gave him the slip, since he's ridiculously slow, got into that shuttle craft parked in background, and then took off and phasered him (set to stun, I'm sure).

Otherwise, Karen, yes! Or as the Gorn would say, "Yessssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss, ssssssssssssss, harrawarrawerrrr!"
Like everyone here, and pretty much any Trek fan in existence, I love this one. And what a great rundown. Also glad you included that Shatner/Gorn commercial at the end (I was just getting ready to link it before I scrolled down). My favorite part is at the end, when Shatner tells him he's over-acting. Priceless.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Karen for a great write-up of a great episode. Love your Gorn battle pic and the Shat/Gorn commercial. And I actually have a Gorn figurine that adorns my Christmas tree every year.


Karen said...

Glad you all could be here for "Arena"! It's such a key Trek moment. Amazing in retrospect since so much of it takes place away from the Enterprise, with Kirk separated from the rest of the crew. There are aspects of it which are like "Balance of Terror" -the destruction of Federation outposts, the pursuit of the alien invader -but from that point it changes dramatically. While so many recall the confrontations with the Gorn, and especially the hand cannon, it seems like many tend to overlook the resolution, where Kirk ultimately chooses mercy over violence. As Richard says, this episode really sums up what Trek was all about.

Pat, I was also surprised by how much of the episode was NOT on the planet with Kirk and the Gorn. There was considerable time spent on Cestus III, then back on the ship. I didn't time it but I'd say at least the first 15 minutes are spent in this build up to the 'arena'. And it seems like Kirk only figures out the gunpowder solution in the last ten minutes or so.

I went through so many versions of this post, I chopped out my mention that it was Ted Cassidy, 'Lurch' of The Addams Family and Ruk from the episode "What are Little Girls Made Of?", doing the voice of the Gorn -quite over the top if I might say. The voice of the Metron was supplied by Vic Perrin, who provided the Control Voice for Outer Limits, and appeared as the head Halkon in the Trek episode "Mirror Mirror."

Like Kirk, I decided to work things out with the Gorn. We both agreed it was too hot to fight, so we drove off to Burbank and had lunch at Bob's Big Boy, and buried the hatchet. (On the serious side, we were all rather annoyed with the dimwit who decided to park his minivan right smack dab in front of "Kirk's Mountain"! There was parking on the other end of the lot, so no excuse. So all my pics have that stupid van in them...)

Martinex1 said...

I don't have much to add but wanted to mention that having seen this episode for the first time just a month or so ago, it was quite entertaining even today. I had no nostalgia for it but really enjoyed it and the Gorn costume did not bother me at all.

I also like how literary the show is... Just little things like a cestus being a gladiator's boxing glove and the name of the planet. I like that stuff.

Garett said...

Great episode, great review Karen!

Anonymous said...

Check out the first season Outer Limits episode "Fun and Games". I have the show on DVD and while watching the opening moments of the episode I thought the story seemed awfully familiar then I realized it was a variation of Arena. I don't believe they credit the original story or author as Trek did. In the Outer Limits version a man and woman from Earth are transported to an arena planet to do battle against an alien pair for the amusement of yet another "superior" alien race.


Karen said...

Kevin -good point about that Outer Limits episode. I wonder how many early SF TV shows were influenced -consciously or not -by stories from SF magazines from the 30s and 40s? It's not unusual for writers of any time period to be heavily influenced by things they read in their youth. I just read the Wikipedia entry for Fun and Games, and the original script sounds even more interesting than what was made, with an almost "Planet of the Apes" twist at the end!

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