Star Trek: The Original Series

"Arena"

*1/2

Air date: 1/19/1967
Teleplay by Gene L. Coon
Story by Fredric Brown
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

When an Earth outpost is attacked and destroyed by a race called the Gorn, Kirk orders the Enterprise to pursue the Gorn ship with the intent of destroying it. In the midst of this high-warp chase, both the Gorn ship and the Enterprise wander into the territory of the powerful Metrons, who halt both ships and express their disdain for violent ways. The Metrons force Kirk and the Gorn captain to a planet where they must battle to the death using whatever primitive weapons they can find or create. The battle's winner's ship will go free; the loser's will be destroyed.

"Arena's" anti-violent, show-mercy-to-all message is heavy-handed, featuring a final scene that explains the message with the grace of a brick shattering on pavement. The use of Yet Another All-Powerful Alien Species [TM] to pass judgment on primitive humans is quickly becoming a cliché. In the meantime, the action sequences are laughably inept, even for late ‘60s Trek. Kirk's nemesis, the Gorn captain, never comes off as anything more than a klutzy man in a cheap rubber suit, performing "stunt scenes" that often have unintentionally comical results. (Ironically, considering the outdoor locations, it must've cost a lot of money to film this episode.)

The "cleverness factor" that is supposed to emerge from Kirk's situation doesn't pan out; Kirk's attempts to gain the upper hand with resourcefulness are undermined by bad pacing and a lack of suspense. And the notion of the Enterprise crew watching the entire fight on the viewscreen is both logically dubious and dramatically useless. The story scores a few points for being well-intentioned, but it was very poorly conceived.

Previous episode: The Squire of Gothos
Next episode: Tomorrow Is Yesterday

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20 comments on this review

Adam
Sun, Mar 16, 2008, 11:40pm (UTC -6)
I think that you are right on in your "Arena" review. If they had just followed the original short story (which is considered to be one of the best ever written in the sci fi genre) it would have been a great episode. Fredric Brown is credited with the story, but I wonder how much he was involved in the actual episode; or if it is just a reference to his short story that the show is based on, with the teleplay being a major rewrite.
JC
Sun, May 17, 2009, 8:08pm (UTC -6)
ahhh .. Arena ..was my FAVE when I was ... 9 years old ... lol...
Will
Tue, Dec 15, 2009, 2:13pm (UTC -6)
"Arena" is one of my dad's favourite episodes of TOS. Also, on a completely unrelated matter to that statement, there's a video on YouTube called "Worst Fight Scene Ever". If you're an Original Series fan I highly recommend you check it out.
Jashuh
Fri, Apr 2, 2010, 10:27am (UTC -6)
I still think "the Doosday Machine" is the best overall Trek episode, but after lots of years "Arena" was all that bad either. I wish someday they would clean up (digitally) some of the cheasy rubber suit on the Gorn...
Jeffrey Bedard
Mon, Sep 24, 2012, 9:32am (UTC -6)
This has always been one of my favorites. Just seeing Kirk grappling with the Gorn is one of the most indelible images of TOS.

Yes, the Gorn costume is a bit silly, but it's still remarkably detailed considering the TOS episode budget and is still vastly superior to anything LOST IN SPACE ever did regarding non-humanoid aliens.

I love the action set piece at the beginning, especially enjoying the fact that Shatner and Nimoy are doing some of their own stunts which adds to the believability.

The chase of the Gorn ship is suspenseful despite never seeing the Gorn ship itself (I know that in the remastered version there is now a Gorn ship).

The multi colored light effect for the Metrons is cool and using Vic Perrin for the voice is effective.

Some of the fight scene between Kirk and the Gorn works really well, some of it is a bit silly. I don't understand why the guy wearing the Gorn suit moved so slowly in the early part of the fight. Was that due to limited mobility in the suit, a choice by the director, or perhaps showing us that the Gorn had physical speed limitations on this particular planet? It does distract from the early part of the fight 'cause the Gorn is moving painfully slow.

Not a perfect episode perhaps, but I'd at least give this three stars. We get an out of doors action sequence, a space ship chase, two non-humanoid alien species (despite the human boy version of the Metrons at the end) and a nice illustration of TREK's "humanity can improve on itself" message with Kirk showing mercy to the Gorn. A great closing conversation between Spock and Kirk and a showing of a rare black eye to the Federation in the TOS era and what's not to love?
Kang
Mon, Mar 11, 2013, 10:47pm (UTC -6)
While I might not see it in as favorable a light as I did in my childhood, I still believe Arena is worthy of three stars. Sure, the fight with the Gorn is cheesy when viewed in a modern light and is plagued by some bad pacing, but it remains an iconic cultural image. I actually found the rest of the episode to be quite entertaining; the battle with the unknown and unseen enemy on the deserted outpost and the subsequent chasing of the Gorn ship being prime examples. Overall, for me a good episode.
craig
Fri, Apr 26, 2013, 6:41am (UTC -6)
Arena is definitely overrated.

The morals in this episode are total BS. When the Gorn states his reasons "You were invaders!" McCoy exclaims "Could he be right.", expressing moral self-doubt.
No, that's not even close to a justification.
If group of Cubans settled and island off the coast of Texas which belonged to the US, it wouldn't make it ok for Americans to just start killing them, without any notice or negotiations.

How superior can the Metrons be. Forcing two aliens to fight to the death and promising the execute the loser's crew is hardly the act of a superior being.

The good part is actually the ridiculous slow motion fight scene between Kirk and the Gorn. That is a laught a minute.
Lorene
Sat, Aug 24, 2013, 11:00pm (UTC -6)
To analyze this episode you must go back to the first time you saw it. The numerous surprises in the plot from the hoax to get them down on the planet, to finding out there were invaders, to chasing them across the galaxy, to suddenly being stopped by the Metrons, to transport to the "arena" for the competition and first discover what a "Gorn" is, and lastly to see that awesome looking "Metron" and learn about their advanced state of being was, as Spock would say, "fascinating". Kirk's final expression of humility and then hope was a superb ending. Four stars for me.
Adam82
Thu, Nov 14, 2013, 12:47am (UTC -6)
Arena is one of my favourite episodes of TOS. It might not be incredibly deep, and it is quite cheesy by modern standards, but the Gorn is iconic, dammit! One of the most iconic images of the series
Corey
Fri, Mar 14, 2014, 7:24pm (UTC -6)
I thought the pacifist message was quite radical and powerful. This episode opens with the slaughter of a human outpost and then positions you to accept this as being "our fault". This is quite a brave stance. The episode positions you to side and sympathise with a group who have commited a massacre.
Corey
Wed, Mar 19, 2014, 10:20pm (UTC -6)
Unlike later Treks, the Original Series always had genuinely alien looking aliens.
redshirt28
Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 9:31pm (UTC -6)
Whats not to love? Mortars, car chase, scavenger hunt, fight to death, speed vs Brawn, iconic alien.

Oh yeah, there was that androgynous liberal at the end... OK well bump it down to 3.5 stars for that. Classic trek.
NCC-1701-Z
Sun, Apr 13, 2014, 4:02am (UTC -6)
The redshirt guard accompanying the captain down to Cestus III earns the dubious distinction of Dumbest Red Shirt Ever in my book. Today's lesson: If you're in a war zone and see the bad guys, scream really loudly and stand up tall. That always goes over well.

"CAPTAIN, I SEE SOMETHING!" [ZAAAAAAP!] [instantly vaporized]
Gil
Fri, Jan 23, 2015, 7:28pm (UTC -6)
Definitely one of those episodes best watched as an 8 year old.
The Man
Sun, Jun 7, 2015, 8:17pm (UTC -6)
The amazing part is how a "superior" race could have two beings fight to the death and have the losers' ship execute yet refer to humans as half-savage. I think the writers missed the boat on that.
A fellow Kalandan
Tue, Oct 27, 2015, 3:20am (UTC -6)
Look, I get it, you're a (wannabe) critic. But you've got to take it for what it is: a fun TV show, produced in 1966. This is not a mega-buck movie where the premise and script is honed over months/years and there's plenty of budget for special effects and costumes. [And with this in mind, what's your opinion on Star Wars, Eps 1-3...?]

This is a classic episode, the Gorn an iconic alien. While I did watch Arena for the first time way back when I was a kid, it is still an episode that when I come across it on TV, I will stay and watch until the end. Great entertainment! --Making gunpowder out of the component minerals! Awesome!

Using your metric, I give it all 4 stars.
Dougie
Sun, Jun 26, 2016, 1:22am (UTC -6)
"Can you manufacture some sort of rudimentary gun?!"

Considering a great scene from Galaxy Quest owes itself to this episode, I think it deserves a higher rating. Agree with the others this was in my top 3 as a youngster.
The Man
Sun, Jul 3, 2016, 3:40pm (UTC -6)
Let me see, an alien race murders a colony and then tricks a ship into coming just to murder them but it might be humans' fault because they accidently settled into their section of space? They defend themselves by sneak attacking without communication and taking out weapons and slaughtering people. And then a "superior" race considers Humans half-savage. And they deal with this by having a human cock fight and promising to execute and murder the losing side. The writers fell asleep on this one.
The Man
Sun, Jul 3, 2016, 3:43pm (UTC -6)
I also find it ironic that they judge humans on the "advanced trait of mercy" yet they were originally not going to show mercy. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black on that one. What were the writers thinking?
Skeptical
Mon, Aug 8, 2016, 6:30pm (UTC -6)
It's probably a good thing I wasn't the captain of the Enterprise (besides the fact that the Gorn would probably kill me...). When the Metron appeared and talked about their superior morality and how humans would one day become as moral as them, I would have laughed in his face. And probably continued laughing at him until he got annoyed enough to blow up the Enterprise. Because this episode's morality was a giant load of malarkey.

Just look at at the much ballyhooed comment from McCoy: "could he be right?" Excuse me? Craig gave an example of the US blasting a Cuban colony right off the coast of Texas, but that's an improper analogy. It would be the US blasting a Cuban colony in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Was there any evidence, anywhere, of Gorn settlements on the planet? Was there any evidence of Gorn settlements in the solar system? In the neighboring solar systems? When Kirk chased the Gorn ship off, he was 30 parsecs behind them. 30 parsecs! They were going at breakneck speed, and given that TOS talked about traveling to the edge of the galaxy with no problems, that must be a very high speed. No other Gorn ship intercepted them. In other words, there was no evidence that the Gorn had any territory anywhere near this outpost. So by what right do the Gorn claim this land? Can you claim a faraway land that you aren't even trying to colonize, or mine, or anything?

And even if you do claim it, without putting up a sign or anything, how the heck is anyone else supposed to know? If you claim an acre in the desert, with no sign or fence around, can you really complain if someone trespasses? Ah, but it's not just complaining that the Gorn did. They killed everyone. Even the civilians. Even after the Federation officer declared their surrender. And then tricked the Enterprise crew members into beaming down and ambushing them. There was no mistake or miscommunication here. The Gorn knew full well what they were doing when they killed everyone.

Fine, maybe that was perfectly acceptable in the Gorn's mind. Maybe they think they are perfectly within their rights to do what they did. But not all moral codes are created equal, and we have no obligation to respect a moral code that doesn't respect ours. And clearly, the Gorn's actions here crossed the line when it comes to respecting us. So the Metrons pretending that everyone is equally bad was just silly. To say nothing of the Metrons moral code being a fight to the death between two people in order to kill everyone else on the loser's team being utterly absurd.

Meanwhile, while all of this is going on, the writers dumped on Kirk's characterization. In their desperate attempt to be preachy and create moral uncertainties, they turned Kirk into a crazed bloodthirsty Ahab rather than the cool collected captain. His statement, that he is the only policeman and something must be done, is absolutely correct. But the way he goes about it, trying to destroy the Gorn ship rather than even trying to communicate or disable it, does not ring true. Is there any doubt that Picard would at least hail them first? Of course he would. And of course Kirk would, too! We know Kirk is acting irrationally, because the wise old Spock kept talking about being troubled by his actions, and we know Spock is the calm logical one. But we had to show Kirk being in the wrong and pretending that the Gorn had a point in order to make the stupid Metrons look wise.

And that, my friends, is why "message" shows are awful. Because you end up shoehorning characters into your message, rather than letting the story flow naturally. Who cares if Kirk's actions are not consistent with his character, the message must prevail. Who cares if the Gorn's justifications don't hold up to scrutiny, we have to pretend they have a point. Who cares if the Metrons superiority is laughable, we need someone to stand in for the writers and preach to us. When the message is elevated above the story and characters, the story and characters inevitably suffer. And you can't blame that on cheesy rubber outfits.

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