Mark Watches ‘Star Trek’: S01E18 – Arena

In the eighteenth episode of the first season of Star Trek, Kirk must question a violent tactic after it ends up putting himself and the Enterprise at risk. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.

Seriously, this show is getting so good??? After the intense experience of the last couple episodes, “Arena” critically examines the use of violence in the context of the missions the Enterprise are sent on. Actually… that might be incorrect. Are they sent on missions, or do they have a prescribed set of places they’re supposed to go, or do they just go in one direction? I don’t know this! (That’s a rhetorical question, DON’T SPOIL ME.) Regardless, I do know that the Enterprise is supposed to discover: places, peoples, cultures, races, species, whatever it is they find. Their mission is exploratory in nature, and generally speaking, it’s not for the aim of colonization on behalf of the Federation.

That being said, this episode presents Captain Kirk with a conundrum. What if the Federation’s actions were interpreted as an invasion, even if they weren’t intended to be that way?

The opening of “Arena” is easily the most violence we’ve ever seen onscreen in this show. When the recon team is beamed down to Cestus III, an outpost for the Federation, they discover a trap waiting for them. The outpost is utterly destroyed, and only one survivor remains on the surface. The mystery of the destruction ISN’T EVEN THE MAIN FOCUS OF THIS EPISODE. Kirk and Spock roll around in the dirt while shit explodes all around them, and it’s a surprisingly visceral experience. We haven’t had effects like this on the show, and they’re utilized for a fairly intense dramatic effect. Up against an adversary they can’t see (and who tricked them into coming to Cestus III), there are few options left to them. Add in the attack on the Enterprise that’s up in orbit, and it’s a disaster. In the context of all of this, I understood why Captain Kirk relied on violence. From their perspective, this was an act of self-defense. The Federation’s outpost was destroyed, everyone on the grounds was massacred, and the alien force were bombing the shit out of the recon party.

But when Kirk is able to drive off the aliens and beam back up to the Enterprise, his primary concern is one of revenge. He justifies this to Spock by saying that whoever these beings are, they must not believe that they can attack humans without repercussion. Which I get, I do! But holy shit, Spock’s face. Like what we saw in “The Galileo Seven,” Spock believes that violence should always be a last resort. He even recommends that Kirk disable the alien ship, not destroy it. But Kirk, furious at what he saw on Cestus III, refuses to even engage with the idea. He pushes the Enterprise faster and faster in pursuit of the ship that left the planet, much to the dismay of the entire crew, who whip their faces around dramatically on perfect cue. SO MANY DRAMATIC HEAD TURNS.

It’s just upon catching up to the mysterious ship that this episode somehow gets more thrilling and more absurd. LIKE???!?!?!? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? And I love that this twist happens because the story is so unexpected, but so perfect to explore the issue of retributive violence and imperialism. In the midst of this hectic chase, the Enterprise is frozen in space by a third party, the Metrons, who decide that this is an invasion, and they force Captain Kirk into a trial-by-combat with the captain of the Gorn ship. If you’re reading these reviews without having seen the actual episode, have no fear. What I’ve just described isn’t even remotely accurate enough. It is so much more bewildering than I could communicate, and IT WORKS. IT REALLY DOES.

This really did feel like the first time this trope was ever used on television: some omnipotent race judges an “inferior” race for their tendency towards violence. And as hilariously condescending as the Metrons can be, it’s not like what they interpreted here was all that incorrect. Kirk really did want to destroy the Gorn ship without bothering to determine why the Gorns behaved as they did. It’s through the combat arena (A TOTAL PREDECESSOR TO THE HUNGER GAMES OH MY GOD) that Kirk is not only face-to-face with the mysterious alien he was chasing, but he finds out why they attacked in the first place.

But before we get to that, THIS FIGHT. Oh my god, I just un-ironically appreciate everything about it. It’s clearly the same place from “Shore Leave,” and I don’t care. The Gorn is slow and announces its location constantly by hissing. At least Kirk had the advantage there! I was confused by the whole communicator thing. Didn’t the Metron state that it would translate the speech of both parties? Regardless, it’s through that device that Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise find out that the Cestus III outpost was not built on unoccupied land. It was part of the Gorns’ territory, which meant that their attack was self-defense from their perspective.

Look, I appreciate that this episode so willingly engages with this idea. If the Enterprise and the Federation are going to explore space, then it stands to reason that they’ll risk offending other cultures or violating their own laws and standards. It’s a direct criticism of Captain Kirk’s actions. Granted, it’s not until Kirk takes out the Gorn with his MacGyver bazooka thingy that he realizes the importance of mercy and empathy. But it’s still an important lesson nonetheless!

I also un-ironically appreciate the absurdity of the one Metron we do meet. Sparkly gowns and endless condescension: the path to my heart.

The video for “Arena” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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