Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: "Arena"

Stardate: 3045.6

The U.S.S. Enterprise and her crew come under surprise attack at a Federation colony on the frontier, at Cestus III.  

A hostile alien force has destroyed the base, planet-side, and opens fire on the Enterprise while a landing party consisting of Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), McCoy (De Forest Kelley) and others are trapped on the surface.

When the alien attacker attempts escape in a powerful starship, the landing party survivors are beamed aboard, and Kirk orders a high speed pursuit of their enemy. He insists the alien ship must be destroyed, so that the Federation does not look weak, either to its allies or its enemies.

Both vessels enter an uncharted area of space, however, and are immobilized by a highly-advanced race of aliens known as the Metrons.  

The Metrons transport Kirk and his opposite number -- a Gorn -- to a remote asteroid.

There, the two captains will fight to the death, settling their differences on a one-on-one, personal basis.  

Alas, the loser’s starship will also be destroyed…

Fredric Brown’s short story "Arena" was first published in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine in 1944 and it 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 transported 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 among the stars, but on this unique field instead. Carson is then forced to combat a deadly alien representative of the Outsiders, a monstrous, 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.

Although author Frederic Brown was not aware of it when he penned this classic tale during 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.

The first variation on Brown's "Arena" arrived on TV in 1964 when Robert Specht wrote his teleplay "Natural Selection" for 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 another planet.

As was the case 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.”

Gene Coon, producer of the original Star Trek apparently conceived the story for “Arena” without realizing its similarity to Brown’s story. Fortunately, he did the right thing: he actually credited Brown as author of the episode's story.

However, 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 Captain Kirk took a higher road.

In “Arena,” Kirk refuses to kill his lizard-like opponent and thereby demonstrates what the Metrons refer to as the advanced trait of mercy. As on so many TV series, a "valuable" lesson has 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 this Star Trek episode, so the notions in the story were just as timely as they had been when Brown crafted the original.  American men were dying by the thousands for a war considered unjust by many of their countrymen.

Would The Vietnam War still have been fought if just the leaders of America and Vietnam had to fight in it? Would U.S. Presidents sill wage war if their own blood was destined to be spilled on the battlefield?

“Arena” very much makes leaders -- Captain Kirk and the Gorn Captain -- accountable for the campaigns they launch.  If war is so important to them, the reasoning goes, then they should have to fight in that war. 

Importantly, during the course of the battle, Kirk comes to first respect, and then sympathize with his enemy.

Carlson killed his foe, destroying their race, in the short story. By contrast, Kirk refuses to kill the Gorn, and reaches out, in peace, toward his people.  

This behavior reveals Kirk to be an evolved man, and someone who can put the “savagery” of human history behind him. 

This is a key idea in Star Trek, over its three year run. Man has killed before, and he will kill again, but he does not need to kill… “today,” to quote “A Taste of Armageddon.”  He is still “half-savage,” in the words of the Metrons, but he is outgrowing his violent adolescence.

Star Trek’s variant on "Arena" also features another important element in what has become a stock sci-fi TV story: the search to build a primitive weapon to defeat a stronger foe. 

In Trek, it is Kirk's efforts to collect raw materials to forge gunpowder and build a primitive cannon.  This hunt show’s Kirk’s resourcefulness, and his sense of strategy.

In the Space: 1999 (1975-1977) variant, “The Rules of Luton,” Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) collects the materials to build a different weapon: a bola.  

In the Buck Rogers (1979-1981) version, Buck uses Twiki to conduct electricity during his battle with a lightning-bolt hurling warlord, The Traybor, in “Buck’s Duel to the Death.”

I have made note in my reviews here a number of Star Trek parodies, and yet “Arena” may be the most parodied episode of all.  Footage of the Kirk vs. Gorn fight appears in the 1991 film, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and even the episode’s location at Vasquez Rocks recurs. 

 And as late in 2009, William Shatner and the Gorn captain were teaming up on a sofa to play a Star Trek video game in a memorable TV ad.

Part of the reason for the episode’s popularity, perhaps, it its simplicity.  

"Arena" an extended fight between man and lizard man, with a morally-uplifting finale. The Gorn is also one of the most memorable aliens of the entire series, thanks to Ted Cassidy’s vocalizations for the character, and Wah Chang’s incredible monster design/suit. 

Beyond those virtues, the film also features great exterior work, both at the old fort used for Cestus III and at Vasquez Rocks. The episode moves from location to location, battle to battle, without missing a beat. It's an exciting show.

But going deeper, “Arena” is a great episode of Star Trek because it proceeds from the belief that its characters can be wrong...and yet still be heroes. 

Kirk is downright bloodthirsty after the massacre on Cestus III, and out to destroy his enemy. It is not until his experience with the Metrons that Kirk begins to question his own behavior.

Is it possible that the Gorns were in the right? That they were scared? That Cestus III was their territory?  

Suddenly, the certainty over the need for vengeance gives way to an even-handed understanding of the situation.  Kirk learns and grows in "Arena."  He doesn't just lecture an alien about his superior values.  He demonstrates his values...after thinking them through, on the job.

We see Kirk “learning on the job” in future episodes too, like “Errand of Mercy” (and in the film The Undiscovered Country), and I absolutely love this element of the original series.  

Man is not so evolved here that he can’t make mistakes, or have second thoughts about his actions. Kirk is simultaneously a great hero, and very, very human in "Arena," and I love that the original Star Trek is not afraid to reveal the man's foibles, or his struggle to overcome them.

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