Arena begins in a rather jolly way, but this mood doesn’t last. Jim and Bones are both licking their lips in anticipation of their visit to a colony planet called Cestus III. The Commodore (an old friend of Kirk’s) is renowned for the quality of his food and drink (Spock, of course, doesn’t join in with their banter).
This moment of levity is all the more effective for the way the episode sharply gear-changes after Kirk and co beam down and discover that Cestus III is a total ruin. By great good fortune (or plot contrivance) there’s a survivor. Kirk is keen for McCoy to keep him alive – but more because he has vital information about the attack, rather than out of any concern for his well-being.
Kirk might seem a little cold here, but it’s a good indicator of his military training kicking in (something which he hasn’t had to use too often during this first season, Balance of Terror being a notable exception).
The tension ramps up a little more after Sulu reports that the Enterprise is under attack. Another nice Kirk character beat is shown here – he tells Sulu not to lower the shields in order to beam them back. That could leave the Enterprise vulnerable and the ship has to take precedence over individual lives. The needs of the many …
The early part of the episode, operating rather like a war film, is very atypical of the series to date. Most of the adversaries faced so far have either been singular (Charlie, the Salt Monstet, the Squire of Gothos) or abstract (the virus in The Naked Time).
The relentless barrages faced by Kirk and the others (very decent explosions, clearly this episode had a healthy budget) creates a feeling of dread as see see Kirk’s small gang getting picked off by their unseen adversaries.
Arena could have remained on Cestus III, but instead the remains of the landing party are finally able to beam back up (the alien vessel has disengaged). This feels a little pat, but no matter – the preamble is over and we’re now heading into the heart of the story.
It’s interesting the way that Kirk (based on very little evidence) is convinced that the alien’s intention has to be invasion. Spock seems to struggle with this concept for a few seconds before loyally agreeing with his captain.
Kirk decides that if they pursue and destroy the alien ship then the other aliens won’t dare to move against them in the future. Mmm, okay. I can see a few flaws with this line of reasoning, but given the way the story plays out that was no doubt intentional
Kirk, still reeling from the destruction of the colony, appears to have vengeance on his mind. But he also tells Spock that “it’s a matter of policy”, which suggests that he’s not just acting from bloodlust (he’s also obeying standing Starfleet orders).
Kirk’s attempt to blast the alien vessel comes to naught after he and the captain of the other ship, a race we now discover are called the Gorn, are plucked from their respective vessels by the all-powerful Metrons.
The Metrons are somewhat irked to discover that their section of space has been invaded and have decided that Kirk and the Gorn should face each other in single combat. The winner’s ship will be allowed to leave, the loser’s ship destroyed …
It’s usually around this point that I have a hankering to watch the Blakes 7 episode Duel.
When Kirk disappears from the bridge, Uhura lets out a piercing scream. Not the behaviour you’d expect from a trained professional, but it fits with the series’ general treatment of females to date.
And then we meet the Gorn. He looks a bit silly doesn’t he? Maybe it’s all the grrrring and chuckling, or possibly it’s the fact his mask looks a little too much like a mask. His little tabard, which barely covers his alien modesty, is also worthy of a mention.
I have to confess that this is the point in the story where my attention starts to wander, especially since the Gorn isn’t a great conversationalist (at least to begin with). Shatner puts his all into the action scenes (surprisingly his shirt doesn’t get ripped) and also does his best to convince us that the lightweight rocks he tangles with actually weigh a ton. That’s something they can’t teach you in acting school.
Eventually Kirk and the Gorn are able to communicate. Once they do so it’s remarkable how the Gorn becomes less of a monster and more of an individual. The moral of the story then follows – aftet sparing the Gorn’s life, Kirk has proved to the Metrons that mankind might just have a future. Kirk’s refusal to allow the alien ship to be destroyed is another mark in his favour.
But Kirk is still shown to be a flawed hero. His initial desire to destroy the Gorn ship could have triggered a war. Whilst Kirk strong-arms it down on the planet, Spock and McCoy – watching events on the scanner screen – are able to discuss the nuances of their situation. Were the Gorn acting in self-defence on Cestus III? If so, their actions would be a little more understandable.
But that doesn’t explain who sent the faked messages which lured the Enterprise to the destroyed colony. The Gorn? That suggests a degree of cold-blooded calculation which doesn’t square with the Gorn’s claims that the human colonists had invaded their area of space and they only attacked them in self defence (which is a shaky enough argument anyway). Maybe this plot point got overlooked during the various rewrites.
The very silly-looking Gorn is a bit of a problem and the moral is ladled on rather thickly, but there’s still plenty of interest to be found in Arena. Generally anything with Gene L. Coon’s name on it is a sign of quality (I don’t think he should shoulder all the blame for Spock’s Brain).
I still prefer Duel though. It has Isla Blair for one thing …