At its core, “Arena” is an episode that (almost) perfectly encapsulates the things that set Star Trek apart from a lot of shows.
It’s a story about being who we really say we are and overcoming our own internal prejudices. It’s a story that says our first instinct may not always be the right one and that sometimes we need to look at how our actions appear to another.
It’s an essential, philosophical episode of classic Star Trek.
And it’s also one heck of an action/adventure story.
Gene Roddenberry said that one of the goals of Star Trek was to entertain people and maybe slip in a couple of big ideas to make you think along the way. “Arena” more than lives up to that.
The action quotient is more than fulfilled by the opening battle at Cestus III and then Kirk’s fight with the Gorn on the unnamed world. Filmed on location, the battles look great and hold up well to this day, even if the components for Kirk’s weapon are a bit too “in plain sight.”
Angered by alien attackers wiping out a Federation colony and attacking his ship, Kirk pursues them, intent on destroying them. Kirk’s only thought is it must be a prelude to invasion and force must be met with force. Allowing the alien ship to get back home and portray the Federation as weak only opens up the door to more invasions, more slaughter and more brutality. And so, Kirk must destroy the ship.
Given that Kirk clearly is friends with the head of the colony, it seems there is a little more than just wanting to present a strong front to an alien race on display here. Kirk wants revenge for killing his friend — an eye for an eye, if you will.
It’s only after Kirk has the Gorn in his sights and is ready to kill him that he relents a bit. Over the course of the episode, Kirk must overcome his “natural repulsion” of a walking lizard and through the use of a (convenient) translator finds out the Gorn crew had their own justified (to their minds anyway) reasons for attacking the Federation colony. Seems both sides had a claim to the world, one that each side felt was justified and reason enough to wipe out the other. The episode ends with a little hope that perhaps the two civilizations might sit down and talk things out, possibly averting future conflicts in that region. Trek is even sly enough that we find out that a colony endures on the world in DS9 down the road.
But before all that, we get some strong, solid action and a fine example of first season Kirk. This is the hard-edged Kirk, the impulsive Kirk and the one who doesn’t necessarily want to see his orders questioned. The scene between Kirk and Spock in his quarters as they discuss the situation and the “proper” response to it is next to perfect. Spock tries to bring up alternate theories only to see Kirk shut them all down in his desire to send a strong message to the (then) unknown alien attackers. As far as Kirk is concerned, at this point, it’s too late for diplomacy.
Watching “Arena,” I can’t help but wonder how different the story might be if told during the TNG timeline with Picard in command. I remember in season one when Picard is surrendering to the Ferengi in “The Last Outpost” (which borrows a few elements from this episode) if Kirk would have responded in quite the same way. Honestly, I don’t think Kirk would have.
“Arena” is our first full script from Gene Coon. Up to this point, he’s polished a few stories and helped get them screen ready. But from here to the mid-point of season two, Coon is firmly in charge of things and Star Trek really comes into its own. I’d argue that it’s this era of Trek that many people think of when they think of Star Trek. And this episode is probably one of the most famous of all the original series. It certainly has been referenced in pop culture on multiple occasions.
This is also an episode where I feel the remastered effects (in places) have some merit. We get to see the Gorn blink, add a bit more to the colony on Cestus III and see the Enterprise chasing the Gorn ship. I’m still not sure if I necessarily prefer these to the original version, but when an episode gets it right, I’m inclined to point it out.
Others Thoughts On “Arena”: