I know I said in the last entry that Star Trek seemed inclined to reward more thoughtful ideals over action and combat scenes. That certainly was true for “The Squire of Gothos”. But then we have “Arena” and that seems to turn that whole idea for Star Trek on its head as it is mostly an action-based episode.
Yes, after telling Trelane that fighting and war aren’t cool, we’re thrust into Kirk’s first (and, unless there some stuff in various extended universe novels or some such, only) encounter with the Gorn.
As aliens go, the Gorn are both more and less impressive than most aliens that appear on Star Trek. On the one hand, outside of their basic shape since someone had to wear the suit, they don’t look very human. On the other, they’re basically just alligator men. Heck, even the leopard skin-style uniform the Gorn captain is wearing looks like it came from some low budget jungle movie. The Gorn, voiced when he does speak by returning guest star Ted Cassidy, breathes heavily and would probably be drooling if someone back then could have figured out how to do it consistently. He hisses, he moves ominously, and he can lift and throw a boulder while taking a rock to the skull with little apparent damage. Kirk describes him as stronger and sturdier, though Kirk himself is faster and more agile.
Truthfully, it’s maybe not much of a mystery why these aliens didn’t appear again. Most reoccurring nonhuman foes, like the Romulans and the Klingons from this era, were cheaper as they looked more human than anything else. The Klingon forehead ridges were still a few decades away.
Still, seeing Kirk on the warpath for the first half or so of the episode is a different change of pace, and Star Trek actually does the action scenes well. Something attacked and obliterated a Federation outpost almost to the man by a mysterious alien foe that Spock’s tricorder only seems to register as “cold blooded”. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and some nameless (for all practical purposes) security guys go down and get into a firefight with the unseen foes, a fight that ends only when Kirk and Spock find what amounts to a mortar to shell the attackers with.
Once back on his ship, Kirk opts to chase the fleeing alien ship down and destroy it as retribution for the destruction of the outpost, an attack that killed numerous Starfleet personnel as well as women and children. The attack, as far as Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise knows, was entirely unprovoked. That means Kirk will have Scotty push the engines far past the normal limits, and Kirk will likewise disregard Spock’s concerns that there may be more to the attack than meets the eye. A vengeful Kirk is not what we’ve seen up to this point. That even seems to surprise some of the crew. No one tries to disobey him, but they voice concerns. Kirk is just so single-minded, he opts to ignore the concerns.
And then some other, more advanced aliens involve themselves to put a stop to both the Gorn ship and the Enterprise.
What follows is the most famous part of the episode. Kirk and the Gorn battle it out on the surface of an asteroid. The Gorn doesn’t seem to be having any problems, and Kirk’s attempts to record his own private thoughts and musings are overheard by his enemy. Kirk even drops a large rock from a cliff onto the Gorn and that does…not much. The music blares, Kirk flails when he gets too close, and the Gorn just keeps following him. Heck, the Gorn isn’t stupid either. He sets up a booby trap or two of his own while Kirk searches for the promised weapons. Fortunately, Kirk took some kind of chemistry class at some point. He actually knows how to make gunpowder.
Spock, watching from the Enterprise, approves. And since Kirk knows the Gorn is listening by then, Spock keeps the audience informed as well.
However, the explosive diamond rig Kirk puts together doesn’t kill the Gorn. Instead, he opts to spare his opponent. That’s a big step for Kirk. First, he wanted to kill all the Gorn because of the outpost attack. That was the height of his ignorance. He didn’t even know they were “the Gorn” yet. After he learned that and first saw one, he felt repulsed. He described the Gorn as something he instinctively felt was a creature he had to put down. Sparing the Gorn shows he is capable of mercy and learning.
That actually earns both ships a pass from the alien Metrons. Humans may even be worth speaking to in another thousand years as the Metrons see it.
Why show mercy? Because Kirk learned the Gorn did have a reason to attack. That outpost was encroaching on Gorn territory. The Gorn weren’t, as assumed earlier, invading Federation space. They thought the Federation was invading theirs.
Even McCoy ponders that they might be the ones at fault. Spock simply says that’s for diplomats to figure out.
Considering the Federation apparently didn’t know the Gorn existed before, I’d say that’s true. Granted, the Gorn are no better as far as we know. Both sides assumed the worst, and bad things happened. The Gorns’ action are worse, but Kirk’s assumption that it was the first step for an invasion was incorrect.
So, it seems that after about forty-five minutes of action, we get a more thoughtful conclusion. Humanity is better than just killing other beings. Star Trek always believed that. It just had to remind the audience that after a more action-oriented episode. Heck, Kirk maybe needed that reminder, too.
Maybe it’s a bit too bad the Gorn don’t really return. It might have been nice to see how future relations with them went. What little I see here seems like the sort of stuff the Klingons will provide in the future, that implacable foe who won’t ever be a real friend due to cultural differences.