Monday, August 07, 2006

Your "Arena" or Mine?

Anybody who appreciates genre television history also probably understands that the very medium of television - a massive gobbler of hours and stories - tends to repeat the same formula and conventions again and again. Decade after decade. Ad infinitum.

That's probably why we've had so many "civilization of the week" programs such as The Starlost (1973), The Fantastic Journey (1977), Logan's Run (1977) and Otherworld (1985). Yet science fiction TV doesn't just repeat formats, it very often goes further than that; repeating specific episodes (sometimes alarmingly so...). Variations on a theme, or rip-offs? Discuss amongst yourselves...

One old chestnut that has been repeated quite a bit since the 1960s is a variation on the brilliant short story "Arena," written by Frederic Brown. This story has probably been repeated more frequently even than that other cliche: the most dangerous game.

The original "Arena" first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine in 1944 and concerned the war for survival in outer space between two equally matched forces: the human race and the aliens known as "The Outsiders." During the final space battle of a long interstellar war, a human pilot named Carson is miraculously plucked from the cockpit of his one-man scouter and teleported to an arena of blue sand and bizarre, speaking lizards.

He is contacted there by an omnipotent alien who informs him that the space war will not be settled amongst the stars, but on this unique field instead. Carson is then forced to combat a deadly alien representative of the Outsiders, a repellant, round tentacled organism called "The Roller." Naturally, the battle is to the death. If Carson loses this vital contest, mankind stands to be wiped right out of existence. If Carson wins the fight, however, the human race inherits control of the galaxy. Talk about the weight of the world on your shoulders, huh?

In the short story "Arena," what followed this brilliant and elegant set-up was a tense, Darwinian tale of mental and physical conflict between two species in a battlefield replete with an impenetrable force field. Although author Frederic Brown was not aware of it when he penned this classic tale in the World War II era, his vignette would someday become the most cherished "stock" story in science fiction TV, at least in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Perhaps the first variation on Brown's "Arena" arrived on TV in 1964 when Robert Specht wrote his teleplay "Natural Selection" for the anthology series called The Outer Limits. The episode became "Fun and Games" for air, and producer Joseph Stefano claimed never to have read Brown's original work. Specht's variation on the genre standard involved Earthlings who were transported away from their lives to fight a deadly alien competitor on an another planet and - of course - in a kind of arena.

As in the original story, the victor in this Outer Limits battle (and his species) would be permitted to survive and the loser, along with his people, faced annihilation. In this case, the battle occurred on a world known as "Andera," which is a jumbling of the title "Arena," isn't it? See the similarities?

Gene Coon, producer of the original Star Trek realized that "Arena" was too good a concept to pass up during the first season of that classic series in 1966-67. He authored a teleplay appropriately called "Arena" and did the right thing: he actually credited Brown as his co-writer on it. During this particular voyage of the starship Enterprise, the stakes for survival had changed. If Captain Kirk lost his battle with a reptilian Gorn captain (after a massacre at the planet, Cestus III), the Enterprise would be destroyed - but humanity would still survive. And vice versa.

At the end of the Trek adventure, a new twist entered the "Arena" mythos. Where Brown had described survival as a moral imperative and had seen his protagonist Carlson execute the evil Roller, a creature he likened to an intelligent spider, William Shatner's dashing and demonstrative Captain Kirk took a higher road. He refused to kill his lizard-like opponent and thereby demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy. As on so many TV series, a "valuable" lesson had been learned. In this case, I don't mean valuable lesson in a cynical fashion. Remember, America was getting deeper into the Vietnam War at the time of Star Trek, so the notions in the story were just as timely as they had been when Brown crafted the original.

The Star Trek variant on "Arena" also featured another important element in what has become a stock story: the search to build a primitive weapon to defeat a stronger foe. In Trek, it was Kirk's efforts to collect raw materials to forge gunpowder and build a primitive cannon. That element also stuck in the memory of many future episode writers.

When the stock "Arena" story re-appeared on Year Two of the British space opera, Space: 1999 in 1976, it was deja vu all over again. This time, the story was called "The Rules of Luton." It was written by Charles Woodgrove (a pseudonym for producer Freddie Freiberger...Star Trek's third season producer!), and saw Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) and Science Officer Maya (Catherine Schell) facing off against three alien criminals when they committed a so-called "crime" on the planet Luton - eating a berry. Yes, it was a planet of intelligent vegetables and eating a berry was tantamount to murder. What do you want, it was the seventies, okay?

On Space: 1999 there was no threat to the galaxy, or even Moonbase Alpha. At stake were merely the lives of Koenig and Maya if they lost. Interestingly, the three bad aliens (a teleport, an invisible alien and a super strong fella), were not the real bad guys at all. Instead, the supervisors of the arena became the primary antagonist because of their blood lust. Again, this was a new twist. The villainy had shifted from those the heroes had to fight against to those who were orchestrating the fighting. Perhaps this is symbolic of 1970s post-Watergate anti-authoritarianism.

Also, instead of building a makeshift cannon to defeat his foes, the resourceful Koenig made a bolo. Now if only Captain Kirk and Commander Koenig would fight in an arena, cannon against bolo. Landau vs. Shatner...man to man. One has an Oscar, the other an Emmy...

In 1978, another British space series, Blake's 7 recycled the "Arena" concept one more time. The first season episode "Duel" found freedom fighter Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) battling his nemesis, the one-eyed, cyborg Travis, in an arena supervised by another superior (and condescending) life form. On Star Trek it was the Metrons. On 1999 the Lutons. Here it was a Keeper called "Giroc" and a guardian called "Sinofar." Sinofar and Giroc's people had destroyed all life on their planet centuries earlier in a useless war, and were now doomed for eternity to teach other battling humanoids the same lesson in destruction.

In this case, Blake and his pilot Jenna forged primitives lances and spears out of the local brush (see how the same concepts keep sneaking in?). Blake also followed the example of Kirk and Koenig before him, refusing to kill his enemy. However, In typically cynical fashion (the rule on Blake's 7 rather than the exception...), Blake allowed Travis to live because he knew he could beat Travis, not out of any glorious human instincts or quality of mercy.

And so it has gone, over the years.

In 1979-80, Gil Gerard's out-of-time hero, Buck Rogers ended up in arena to fight a villain called the Traybor in an episode of that series, entitled "Buck's Duel to the Death." There was no superior overlord, but the battle in an arena still decided the fate of a society. Here, the Traybor could shoot bolts of electricity out of his hands, and Buck had to utilize Twiki as a kind of inhuman shield who got the bolts. Bidi-bidi-bidi. In the end, Buck won and freed the planet, telling the people that democracy was in their hands, not the Traybors'...or his.

Even Star Trek eventually regurgitated the "Arena" concept as late as 1987, when the fourth episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation vetted an (uncredited...) re-make called "The Last Outpost.' This time, the avaricious Ferengi (in their first appearance) subbed for the Gorns, and the Metrons were replaced by an old, cloaked alien from the mysterious T'Kon empire, called "Portal."

As before, the Federation and an enemy were locked in hostilities over "ownership" of territory or equipment, both ships were paralyzed in space by the superior race, and the answer to the riddle was to be found on a planet below. Portal stood in judgment over the combatants, and tested them for worthiness. I hasten to add, there have been cheesier variations of of the "Arena" story, but none that ended as anti-climactically as this installment. Riker beat the Ferengi simply by quoting Sun Tzu to Portal. Cop-out! Cop-out! This was also the second time in four episodes that Picard had surrendered the Enterprise, the Federation's flag ship. Jeez...Kirk must have been spinning in the Nexus over that.

But I digress. The core of the timeless "Arena" story, the idea that is resurrected over and over again across the decades on genre TV, is obviously a powerful one on an emotional level, which perhaps explains its longevity. Human beings are (apparently...) intrinsically violent creatures, and our violence makes us do stupid things. In the "Arena" template, aliens - sometimes with good motives, sometimes not - make us face the consequences of our stupidity. A superior force, like God in some fashion, stops us in our tracks and makes us confront the truth about our brutal natures. (I think this idea is also at the core of Star Trek's "Errand of Mercy," which also concerns the notion of war, and a third party stepping in to stop the killing.)

Perhaps there is also an element of wish-fulfilmment in the idea of two enemies battling it out personally, rather than with the might of governments behind them. Instead of millions dying in a conflict organized and orchestrated by a few planners, only representative leaders would face physical harm. I think we'd like to believe things could be so simple; that the fate of the universe could be settled by a good right hook.

Now I just wonder, how can I fit the "Arena" template into my series, The House Between? I probably shouldn't try, but it's fun to think about. Fredric Brown's story - forged in war time, when populations were being bombed from above by V2 rockets - will continue to carry meaning for us so long as humans wage war, and find more and more antiseptic ways to do so. How would you write a variation on "Arena" in 2006? What points would a clever writer make now, in light of the War on Terror and other conflicts raging across the globe? I wonder.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:49 PM

    Don't forget that the 60's Outer Limits did their version of 'Arena' before Trek in the ep "Fun and Games". The creature from the OL ep turned up in The Cage (Captain Pike strangles it).

    Space:1999 did the worst variation of the story. Talking trees!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Lee Hansen2:29 AM

    Kind of did that in the Farscape episode, "That Old Black Magic" where the sorcerer Maldis has Crichton and Crais fight each other as he leeches their anger and fear from them.

    ReplyDelete