Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yes, It's Captain Kirk Vs. The Guy In The Lizard Suit With "Arena!"

The Good: Good ending, Well paced, Decent enough acting
The Bad: Seems somewhat silly overall and it takes a while to get to the decent end!
The Basics: With "Arena," Star Trek creates the Gorn, a quintessential Star Trek villain (and image), but the episode is a long way to get to its moral moment.

Family Guy is rapidly becoming one of my favorite shows. I've reviewed almost all of the DVDs and collections and I find myself enjoying the way the newer ones recut the episodes so they present an alternate unedited take, giving real value to the DVDs. I mention this here because I find myself going back to the older episodes more and while contemplating this review, I found myself once again greatly amused by the introduction of the character Neil Goldman. In one of his earliest appearances, in the third season episode "The Kiss Seen Around The World," Neil uses this episode of Star Trek, "Arena" as his class project. Despite what the parody illustrates, the melding of shots using William Shatner's stunt double versus Shatner himself are better presented in the actual episode.

The U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Cestus III, a remote outpost on the border of Federation space where the crew find the colony there completely destroyed. While on the planet, Captain Kirk and his team come under fire from hostiles and struggle to be beamed up. Once aboard the ship, Kirk orders pursuit of the hostiles' ship. While pursuing the unseen enemy, the ships are stopped by incredibly powerful forces of the Metrons. Kirk and the captain of the Gorn ship (the hostiles that destroyed the Cestus III outpost) are whisked away to a planet where they are pitted against one another in a match to the death, a contest that does not bode well for Kirk as the Gorn is a giant reptilian creature much stronger than he is.

"Arena" is one of the classic first-season episodes of Star Trek that has almost no practical application in the larger franchise, save to create one of the archetypal Star Trek images for the books. The Gorn is a giant special effect, a man (Bobby Clark) in a rubber lizard suit which is possibly as famous as the image of the Balok puppet from "The Corbomite Maneuver." The Gorn are never mentioned, nor appear again in Star Trek or the larger franchise, until the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Cestus III is referenced in the Deep Space Nine episode "The Way Of The Warrior." In short, this is largely a bottle episode and if it seems like I'm killing time with putting it in the context of the franchise as a whole, well, I am.

"Arena" is a remarkably simple story. It's a chase/fight story. Kirk runs away, the Gorn pursues. Kirk gets beaten up, runs off, uses his brain, fights smarter. That's it. The episode is not complex. In fact, the episode is so uncomplex that the way I just filled providing context for the episode in the overall franchise is the way the rest of the Enterprise crew is fit into the episode. As Kirk runs away from the Gorn, Spock and the rest of the bridge crew watch the combat on the main viewscreen and wait to see how it will play out, occasionally spelling out what is happening to the viewer.

Now, I understand that Star Trek was something truly new when it was first released in the late '60s, but I fail to believe that a population that read more and was more politically connected truly needs a play by play by Spock to tell them what they are seeing on their televisions. In short, a significant portion of the episode is filler. It's a chase story in a limited space with a slow-moving adversary.

There is nothing significant about the acting in this episode to write about either. William Shatner, whom most of the episode is focused upon, runs around. He runs, he gets hit, he jumps, he hits back, he delivers some dialogue into a remarkably phallic recording device. This is not an acting stretch for one as good as Shatner. Leonard Nimoy is even more wasted with his talents as he plays Spock seated in the command chair most of the episode leaning forward watching the viewscreen like an elementary school kid watching Saturday cartoons.

As well, there is little room for character development in "Arena," though there comes a moment of important character and that is at the climax of the episode. "Arena" makes the argument for mercy rather late in the episode and Captain Kirk's moral stance is what makes him the archetypal hero figure. Sure, he might run, jump and reason with the best of them, but the purpose of the episode seems to be to illustrate that humanity can overcome its barbarism and when Kirk does that, the episode turns.

It just takes a long time to get there. Moreover, it is hard to say that Kirk's mercy is truly development as in prior episodes he has appealed to others on the sanctity of life (though by this point in the series he has at least two kills to his "credit"). Seeing that mercy separates Star Trek from the Western tradition that it had its origins with. And perhaps that is why it is still worth seeing today.

It's simple, but the result is honorable. The concept behind the episode is valid today, especially in a time when humanism is no longer as respected as it once was. This episode is decent for anyone who likes a good action-adventure story; there is a lot of running, explosions, and there are red shirts . . . so there's a body count.

But it is a simple idea building up to a moment and the moment is worthwhile, but it's a long way to get to the message. On the balance, though, it's better to have the drawn out fight and the chase and the moral than no moral at all. Accessible to all audiences, not just fans of science fiction.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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