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.
The Metrons transport Kirk and his opposite number -- a Gorn -- to a remote asteroid.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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?
Importantly, during the course of the battle, Kirk comes to first respect, and then sympathize with his enemy.
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.
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 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.”
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.
"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.
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.
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.