This is the star of a new feature, Sci-Fi Time Capsule, a look back at a classic sci-fi episode. There will be spoilers, to say the least, but I plan to keep them below the image, so anyone who wants to check the episode out for the first time has an opportunity to bail before seeing them.
For the inaugural capsule, I’ve chosen one of the all time classic episodes from Star Trek TOS, “Arena” (S1:E19).
The Enterprise discovers that an outpost on Cestus III has been destroyed. After a brief confrontation on the planet, the ship sets off in pursuit of the unidentified alien vessel. Kirk is convinced that the attack was a prelude to war and insists they must hunt down and destroy the vessel to prove the Federation is not going to stand for its outposts being destroyed (and hopefully act as a deterrent to war). Except that the Metrons interfere. They stop both ships and transport the two captains down to a planet to fight to the death, the winner to be allowed to go, the loser and his ship to be destroyed. Kirk wins by building a cannon and gunpowder out of native materials, but spares the life of the Gorn captain. The Metrons are impressed by the show of mercy, and at Kirk’s request, they spare both ships.
Why Is This a Classic?
This is as Star Trekky a Star Trek episode as you’re likely to find. It includes a redshirt dying, a reptilian alien, and a trial by combat overseen by a highly evolved alien race. It has a space battle, a dramatic monologue or two from Kirk, and contains a moral lesson (mercy and respect for life). About the only check-boxes for Star Trek TOS that they don’t cover are “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a …” and transporter accidents. There is even gratuitous Kirk hand-to-hand combat, which I think must have been written into William Shatner’s contract.
Metrons: “The loser, along with his ship, will be destroyed in the interests of peace.” Logical consistency … zero.
Metrons (at the end, after Kirk spares the Gorn): “You are still half savage.” Says the guy who was perfectly willing to exterminate a ship of creatures he never met.
Kirk (on communicator to Sulu, from the Cestus III surface): “Keep those screens up!” Kirk’s devotion to the ship and (most of its) crew on full display.
How it Holds Up
You couldn’t put this episode on TV today. Even with updated special effects and whatnot, it’s just a bit ham-handed in how the plot flows. Too many nonsensical actions take place:
- Kirk’s initial bloodlust is a bit out of character, even this early in the series.
- The fact that there is uncharted space about 5 minutes from a human outpost (did we not think to survey at least a bit of the area before planting a permanent settlement there?).
- The contradictory morals of the Metrons
Then again, it turns out to essentially be a two-man Hunger Games, complete with two survivors at the end, spared by the all-powerful entity to sent them there. So maybe it could work today after all.