Written by Gene L. Coon, Frederic Brown, and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Sometimes, when I watch previews of Star Trek episodes, I get a feeling based on these snippets of whether they will be good or groaners. A lot of it will usually have to do with the alien of the week. In the case of Arena, I definitely groaned when I saw the man running around in a giant lizard suit. Happily, the episode was much better than that.
At an isolated colony on Cestus III, Captain Kirk (portrayed by William Shatner) beams down at the behest of the colony’s head to meet with him. “The Commodore” as he’s known (we never actually see him, only hear him), insists Kirk brings his tacticians with him. When the team arrives at the Colony, they find it has been completely destroyed.
A survivor is in the wreckage, gravely injured. Soon the landing party finds themselves under attack and unable beam back up to the ship, which is also under attack. Unable to fight off what is attacking them, Sulu (portrayed by George Takei) is at the helm and takes the Enterprise out of orbit. Kirk manages to lob a grenade that seems to wipe out their attackers. When the other ship breaks off attack as well, Sulu returns and brings them back on board, including the injured man. The survivor tells them the attack was for no apparent reason.
Fearing invasion, Kirk has the Enterprise set off in pursuit of the alien vessel. When the two vessels wander into another solar system, the species that resides there, the Metrons, decides to have the two ships settle their dispute, believing their species are inherently violent. Captain Kirk and the leader of the Gorn ship are brought to the surface of a planet to fight to the death using only what is available to them on the planet. The Metrons will pronounce sentence at the end of their fight. The loser will have their ship destroyed while the winner will be allowed to leave peaceably.
There are many things good about Arena, and only a few problems. The biggest issue is just how fake the man in the lizard suit looks. The Gorn as they are depicted here do not make a convincing villain or alien race. In addition to just not looking all that convincing, it doesn’t seem to be able to move in a manner that would really pose a threat to humans. It does appear to be stronger than a human, but the flow of movement should allow Captain Kirk to waylay the alien quite easily.
That said, the story is pretty good where a species that sees itself on a higher plane essentially decides to put two sub-species on trial to determine who deserves to survive. In the original script, the ending was that the Metrons decided to exterminate the winner rather than the loser, believing that this species represented the greatest threat to them. In a way, I like this a lot better as a motivation for the events as well as showing how actions can sometimes be an act of saving yourself, even though it doesn’t seem so at the time.
A line of dialogue that seems like a throwaway line by Shatner really provides great insight. At one point the talks of being repulsed by the Gorn due to its appearance. Isn’t that what has motivated so many conflicts throughout the centuries – prejudice against someone or a people just due to their differences in appearance and/or cultural values? It would seem that it’s something inherent in the human species and carries into the future despite Gene Roddenberry’s utopian ideals.
Shatner does well in the role. These early episodes provide a great example of why he was chosen for the part, and it’s a shame that in later years he would want to be the center of the plot and be so consumed by worry that other actors in the cast were getting better parts than he that it would end up spoiling some good stories. Here he is the center of the plot but it works because he doesn’t play Kirk as necessarily being the greatest thing to ever cross the galaxy.
In Arena, Shatner gives his all in some physically demanding roles. Most of the show is not spent reciting dialogue, but rather climbing all over the rocky planet while battling the Gorn Captain. It’s also worthy to note that both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy now suffer from tinnitus believed to have been brought on by the explosions during the battle with the Gorn in the colony.
There is some dialogue which doesn’t fit to later in the series. During the defense of the Enterprise “screens” are referred to rather than “shields” as they will become known later in the series. The weapon known as photon torpedoes is first discussed and used here when phasers appear to be ineffective versus the Gorn vessel.
An interesting aside was watching Kirk use his hand-held communicator as a personal recording device for the Captain’s logs. This is something of a forerunner to many personal recording devices we would see in ensuing years.
Arena is a simple story that works largely due to the emotional investment that there is in the characters at this point in the series. It might not have worked earlier in the series, but the timing was great. It does manage to very subtly and effectively raise the issue of humanity’s prejudices against things that are different from us.
The ending resolves it quite nicely with a good promise for the future based on the Metrons opinion of the events that took place. It’s a good, accessible episode that is incredibly simple in its premise while entertaining.