Flashback | Recap | Star Trek: The Original Series S1E18: “Arena”

By Tyler Howat
Published: January 17, 2018 (Last updated: January 3, 2024)
Star Trek - Arena - Recap

The Earth Outpost on Cestus III is completely destroyed by an unknown alien vessel that struck viciously and then fled. The Enterprise must give chase. Just as Captain Kirk and his crew are on the cusp of capturing the vessel, they’re stopped by a third party, a seemingly all-powerful race called the Metrons. The Metrons have observed these two ostensibly aggressive races chasing and attempting to kill one another, and they’re determined to make peace. So, they abduct Kirk and his counterpart and send them to an uninhabited planet to duel to the death. The losing Captain’s crew will be obliterated, while the winner may go home again. And the Enterprise crew will watch as their captain battles a large reptilian alien, a Gorn, who is physically superior.

Ultimately, Kirk finds a way to communicate with the Gorn and learns to defeat him using his resources. Kirk shows mercy and does not kill the Gorn. The Metrons then reward Kirk and don’t kill the Gorn when he insists upon further mercy. They declare that there just might be hope for humanity yet.

Arena 5 Trap

Let’s Dig Deeper

This episode regularly finds a place on top five and ten lists of Star Trek episodes (not just The Original Series episodes, but in all of Star Trek) – and it’s entirely deserved. The brunt of the story falls upon William Shatner’s shoulders and acting chops, and he delivers, thoroughly and completely.

The premise here is really simple, yet profound in its execution: mankind tends to alienate the Other, and yet the Other may do the same to us. The moment Kirk sees the Gorn, he gives us his feelings: “Like most Humans, I seem to have an instinctive revulsion to reptiles.” The Gorn is as non-human as possible. Whether we’re talking about aliens in the extraterrestrial sense or in the extra-national sense, we stereotype, we generalize, we fear those who are different than us. And yet we’re all people. Even those differences – and our fear of them – unite us. The sooner we realize that, the better we all are.

We learn that both Kirk and the Gorn believed that there were no other options. They view one another as invaders in their space. They’re nearly equally matched in intelligence, firepower, and cunning. One has to give. However, instead of one simply beating the other into submission, the victor submits. He has mercy. He sees the humanity in the Other.

Arena 3 Metron

And deeper…

This attracts the attention of the Metrons, this time in a positive way. They choose not to kill the humans or the Gorn, because Kirk has shown compassion. One of the Metrons then arrives and commends Kirk: “By sparing your helpless enemy who surely would have destroyed you, you demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy. Something we hardly expected.” This demonstrates to the Metrons that the humans aren’t as evil as they seem, and they’re allowed to go on their way. “You are still half savage. But there is hope,” the Metron tags onto the end, reminding Kirk of his place in the universe.

I find it highly ironic that the Metrons, as enlightened and omnipotent as they seem to be, choose this contest as the method of determining worth. They’re utterly peaceful (so they say), yet a duel to the death will solve the problem. On top of that, “the winner of the contest will be permitted to go his way unharmed. The loser, along with his ship, shall be destroyed in the interest of peace.” Hundreds of lives hang in the balance, and the enlightened beings will kill all of them if the captain loses. Seems like the Metrons have some learning to do.

Unfortunately, we really never hear from the Gorn again, and it’s unclear how Kirk affected the Gorn as a whole. Kirk walks away from the encounter a tad more enlightened, while the Gorn just may not. But that’s entirely normal, too: change takes time. What we do discover in Deep Space Nine is that Cestus III has been rebuilt and is thriving. They even have a baseball team! So at least the Gorn haven’t been back.

Well that’s good to hear.

Oddly, despite the amazingness of this episode, that’s what makes it so difficult to expound upon. It’s very straightforward – there’s not a lot to critique or attempt to take apart.

There’s no ham-fisted or hackneyed message. Shatner does a spectacular job dashing around Vasquez Rocks, essentially narrating the episode. For all the stereotyping and parody that Shatner has garnered over the years, this is not an episode that earns such commentary. He is strong and clear-eyed, in command of the situation, holding his own against what must have been a tough scene partner.

Arena 2 Redshirt

Random Thoughts on Star Trek

Blatant redshirt death: 1

Frederic Brown receives a writing credit here because of his short story, also titled “Arena.” It’s not originally a Star Trek story but was adapted to fit the series. The premise is the same, and it’s just as excellent a read. You can find it here.

I love the huge location shoot, from the destroyed colony of Cestus III (I’m fairly sure that the MASH 4077 camp is just behind the ruins) to the iconic Vasquez Rocks, which are seen throughout nearly every series of Star Trek.

Arena 1 Discovery Gorn

In “Context is for Kings,” the third episode of Star Trek: Discovery, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) enters Captain Lorca’s (Jason Isaacs) menagerie – his lab of alien oddities. Lorca has a myriad of military objects and bits and pieces from other cultures: one of which is the skeleton of a Gorn. This doesn’t work, timeline-wise, unless some of the speculation of Lorca being from another universe, possibly bringing some trinkets with him, is true. Regardless of continuity and canon (Discovery plays fast and loose with this at times…), it’s an interesting connection.

Just how many all-powerful beings are there in the universe? Do they bump into one another? Do they hang out? What are their parties like?

Memorable Quotes from Arena

Spock: “Doctor, you are a sensualist.”
McCoy: “You bet your pointed ears I am.”

–McCoy is really excited about having real food, cooked by a Commodore’s chef. Spock disapproves.

Keep Watching?

Much like “Balance of Terror,” if you’re not sold after this episode, just move on. Go watch The Orville or Babylon 5. Or just sit and think about your life choices. Then rewatch “Arena.” I’ll wait.

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