Sunday, June 23, 2013

“The best techniques are passed on by the survivors...”: Arena


Arguably the most memorable episode of the Original Series' first season, there's an awful lot going on with “Arena”, and all of it is deserving of our attention: This is the first episode actually written by Gene Coon, it boasts one of the most iconic extraterrestrial designs in the show's history in the Gorn and three of the most iconic setpieces as well: Kirk's brutal, drawn-out fistfight with the Gorn captain, his improvised tree-trunk cannon (which recently, as of this writing, saw an entire segment dedicated to it on MythBusters) and his climactic confrontation with the Metron where he refuses to kill his opponent after beating him. Also, for good measure, “Arena” also sees the debut of a little thing called the Federation. So, kind of a big story then.

Let's get that last one out of the way first, as it's by far the most interesting from the perspective of the future. Like the debut of Starfleet and Starfleet Command in “Court Martial”, this is primarily a nomenclature change at this point. Furthermore, the Federation is even less important to “Arena” then Starfleet was to “Court Martial”: In that episode at least the organisational structure of Starfleet Command was important to the main plot, here, the Federation is introduced with a single throwaway comment from Kirk and then never mentioned again. Nevertheless, the word choice here is interesting, to say the least. A “Federation” is by definition an alliance of self-governing political states with partial autonomy brought together by shared mutual interest. What it's not is a colonial empire; at least not by default: An empire grows through colonization and militaristic conquest. Calling a centralized power a “federation” would at least *imply* a more co-operative arrangement.

In the past the world of Star Trek has been pretty clearly a galactic empire based on Earth: The overwhelming majority of places we've visited have been Earth colonies, and we've seen no other significant political power in the galaxy aside from the Romulan Star Empire, and they're tucked safely away behind the Neutral Zone. That's all changed as of “Arena”, however: The central twist of the episode is that the Gorn, who are introduced as an aggressive, warlike Other who cannot be reasoned with, turn out to be a highly sophisticated civilization in their own right who feel threatened by Federation expansion into their area of space. The Metrons' lesson to both crews seems to be about stressing the importance of communication and diplomacy, it would seem that this might be what distinguishes the Federation from the former Earth Empire.

This is of course not to say a federation is incapable of being imperialistic. The oldest and most influential federation on *our* Earth is the United States, which is known nowadays primarily for its policies of economic and political imperialism built around manipulating diplomacy and trade sanctions and the fetishistic focus on neoliberal privatization resulting in a capitalistic tyranny that rewards only those who are already in an extremely privileged position while absolutely crushing and dehumanizing everyone else, not to mention being a general fascistic police state towards its citizenry. Furthermore, there have been numerous cases throughout the history of the US that proves the country is obsessed with its own particular flavour of government, believing it to be far and away, and without question, the greatest and most perfect in the history of the world and of being all too willing to convert others to it, and by any means necessary. The US also obviously has owned colonial territories of its own at various points and has the clear-cut genocide of the entire native population of the Americas on its hands. If anything, the history of the US is incontrovertible evidence that the federation is far from the ideal way to organise a society.

These are all issues and implications Star Trek will deal with at different points throughout the history of the franchise, either that it recognises in itself as problems or has hoisted on it from outside forces. A federation may be a fairer way to organise the kind of setting Star Trek operates in than an empire, but it's not necessarily going to be the perfect solution either. This is, however, primarily a concern for the future-After all, the Federation in “Arena” is, as I've already said, a throwaway line. It's not going to become actually relevant to the overall story arc of Star Trek until next year at the very earliest. But even here I think the show is on some level cognizant of this: Look at the story Coon chooses, by his own hand, to introduce the Federation in-He sends its sole representative, Kirk, on a vicious, bloodthirsty revenge mission and has him ready to disregard all concern for sentient life, both on the Gorn ship and on the Enterprise itself, so long as he can send the coldest, most ruthless message to the Gorn possible. Furthermore, the Cestus III colony turns out to be in Gorn space, something the Federation never bothered to check on, just waltzing in like it was entitled to the place, an act which the Gorn rightfully saw as the prelude to an invasion. Clearly the Federation's not working much better in the world of Star Trek than it does in ours.

The overall tone and general plot of “Arena” bear some superficial similarities with those of “Balance of Terror”, and it's worth looking at the two episodes side-by-side here as they reveal not only the differences between Paul Schneider's writing style and Gene Coon's, but also a bit more of the latter writer's philosophy. Both stories are soundly critiques of imperialism and conflict-for-conflict's sake, but they go about exploring these themes in very different ways. The most alarming difference is in how the two stories depict Kirk: “Balance of Terror” showed him to be almost world-weary and tired, dreading the thought of being dragged into a bloody conflict with the Romulans and the prospect of sacrificing his ship, his crew and himself for a misbegotten ancient feud, as befitting him being paired with Mark Lenard's Commander. In “Arena”, by contrast, both Kirk and the Gorn captain are chomping at the bit to usher in a new galaxy-wide war, with the Gorn salting and burning Cestus III and Kirk willing to throw out his sense of morals and ethics and jeopardize his crew to avenge the colony, thus prompting the Metrons to dump them both in Vasquez Rocks to beat the shit out of each other.

The Metrons as a third, neutral party are another concept new for “Arena”, and, unfortunately, in my view, have problems. I have a feeling what Coon wanted their inclusion to show is how war and conflict are detrimental to the health of a society, and that any people who wish to consider themselves “advanced” and “civilized” would have moved beyond them. In this regard it's telling how Coon has Kirk be the most overtly warlike person in the show: It's a very firm claim that the Federation and Starfleet are nowhere near as sophisticated and cultured as they might wish you to believe. Unfortunately for me, it's simply not as interesting as having Kirk be a burned-out solider tired of war and fighting looking for a way to move beyond them, which seems, at least in my view, to be a far better fit for the kind of performance William Shatner is prone to giving and a compelling microcosm of Star Trek itself. Indeed what Coon is doing here can be seen as a metaphor as well: Just as in “The Squire of Gothos” Kirk stands in for the ethics of the entire show and is judged for them, but Shatner plays a character who is larger than the role he's being asked to fill, and that to me calls for a different approach.

As for the Metrons themselves, I feel their whole conception is a bit flawed, unfortunately. Firstly, the whole idea some civilizations are straight-up “superior”, “more advanced” and “more civilized” is undistilled Social Darwinism, a fact which is not at all helped by having the Metrons' true appearance resemble classical Greek ideal forms and (of course) be played by white-as-the-driven snow actors in golden haired wigs. Even the name “Metron” is derived from “Metatron”, a Judaic angel with a Greek name meaning “instrument of change”. It's a clever reference, as it facilitates reading them as the spark that sets humanity on a new path, but it does make them, and “Arena” on the whole, about as Abrahamic and Western as it is possible to get. It's perhaps not entirely fair to condemn this episode for being so of its culture, but, combined with the themes it's also trying to work with, this does cripple the story's overall impact with a number of seriously unfortunate implications, which can't really be seen as anything other than a handicap.

The end result of this, sadly, is that for me “Arena” is just nowhere near as effective a bit of anti-imperialism as “Balance of Terror”. It has a lot of good ideas, and both introducing and quietly subverting the Federation in one fell swoop has got to go down as some kind of grand slam for Coon, but between the Metrons and the way Kirk is portrayed it's just not quite as meaningful as it could be. So why is this episode so fondly remembered in this vein and not “Balance of Terror”? Granted, that episode is iconic in its own right mostly due to the Romulans, but it's most fondly remembered in hardcore Star Trek fandom: I get the sense “Arena” has significantly more cultural capital in the larger populace. If I were to hazard a guess, it's probably due in large part to the Vazquez Rocks location, which is a very stunning backdrop for William Shatner to brawl stuntmen in lizard suits, and the aforementioned lizard suits themselves, which impressively manage to walk the line between intricate detail and overblown cheese to create one of the most memorable images of the Original Series.

There is one more factor in “Arena”'s favour, however: That tree trunk cannon. It's very revealing it eventually showed up on MythBusters, a show that has traditionally spoken to maker culture, and that geek icon Grant Imahara breathlessly went on and on about how influential this scene was on him: Kirk's resourceful ability to throw together a functional projectile weapon out of only the basic materials he has on hand is seen as a sign of great ingenuity by everyone on the show and cited by many as the highlight of the episode. It's rather easy, I feel, to see why this scene would be so memorable: See, contrary to what one might conclude based on examining the things people *say* are Star Trek's virtues (it's progressiveness, utopian idealism, focus on camaraderie, spirit of adventure and general hopeful attitude), if you actually look at who makes up the majority of Star Trek's fanbase, at least the most vocal and visible branch of it, it's made up almost exclusively of tech people: Computer enthusiasts, engineers, hobbyists of all sorts (especially model builders) and yes, makers.

A brief analysis: "Maker" is a label coined to describe a culture grown out of homebrew machinists and DIY tinkerers. Many of them are engineers, or at least have an engineering and machining background, and are interested primarily in playful experimentation and seeing the sorts of things they can build on their own or in small groups. In French I believe the term would be bricolage couture, but maker society strikes me as a fairly recent phenomenon, (say within the past decade), or at least a phenomenon that's only recently been in the spotlight, whereas the bricolage in France dates back much further. And there's a lot of overlap between maker culture and the more traditional nerd culture, as both groups share many common texts and languages, namely science fiction and fantasy cinema and television. Adam Savage, possibly the most public face of the maker movement, for example, is profoundly influenced by Blade Runner, and the Star Wars, Hellboy and Indiana Jones franchises.

Also consider Wil Wheaton, who has built his entire post-Star Trek: The Next Generation fame on being an icon of nerd culture (and more recently a celebrity spokesperson for homebrew beer), or LeVar Burton, who first went to computer enthusiasts and Apple fans when he rebooted Reading Rainbow as a tablet application (and fitttingly so, as much of the multi-touch technology that powers the modern tablet computers and smartphones to come in the wake of the iPhone and the iPad were inspired by Mike Okuda's LCARS touch interface designed for Star Trek: The Next Generation). This is who Star Trek historically seems to have resonated the most with, not leftist philosophers or utopian visionaries, so of course they're going to get a kick out of an episode where Captain Kirk fashions a cannon out of a tree stump, diamond, coal, sulfur and potassium nitrate and make it one of the series' most iconic stories.

But there's a problem here too, I argue: Within the context of “Arena” itself, the tree cannon is pretty clearly a sign of Kirk's advanced intelligence and foreshadowing for the Metrons' claim in the denoument that there is hope yet for humanity. The fact Kirk's opponent is a reptile, who if you notice was only able to make a crude dagger out of a sharp rock, means it's fairly easy to read this as evidence humans are “more evolved” than the Gorn, as reptiles are often seen in speciesist terms as lesser, more primitive forms of life than mammals. In other words, technology, and in particular advanced weapons technology, is seen as a sign of being a “more evolved” people. This isn't just speciesism and Social Darwinism, it's technological determinism (and determinism built around the development of machines of war) and Scientism to boot, which run pretty flagrantly contrary to the supposed moral of “Arena”.

Of course, the Federation has kind of worrisome track record for technological determinism, teleology and Social Darwinism. But these are, once again, concerns for the future.


  1. I always liked the Gorn in (tabletop, old school) StarFleet Battles. They had great ships, good shields and phasers plus plasma torpedoes, which were a lot more fun than photon torpedoes. Dunno that they are technologically inferior. I think in terms of the setting/system they ended up actually in the Federation at some point. Yay, assimilation?

  2. The oldest and most influential federation on *our* Earth is the United States, which is known nowadays primarily for its policies of economic and political imperialism built around manipulating diplomacy and trade sanctions and the fetishistic focus on neoliberal privatization resulting in a capitalistic tyranny that rewards only those who are already in an extremely privileged position while absolutely crushing and dehumanizing everyone else, not to mention being a general fascistic police state towards its citizenry.

    Ehhhhhh. It's been all those things at some point, but none of those things are universal, or even "more often than not", I'd say. (Well, except for the imperialism part. That's definitely more often than not, at least post-Monroe Doctrine.)

  3. Also, I'd say that one reason Arena is the more famous is that it makes its anti-war theme into the triumph of the episode and the resolution of the climax, whereas Balance of Terror has it as a thing the entire episode is soaked in. In other words, the episode that's colorful and fun and anti-war is generally going to be better-received than the one that's grueling and grim and anti-war, at least in the era that Star Trek fandom formed in.

  4. the whole idea some civilizations are straight-up “superior”, “more advanced” and “more civilized” is undistilled Social Darwinism

    Not sure I follow that. How can an idea that predates Social Darwinism by thousands of years be "undistilled Social Darwinism"?

    It's not obviously false either. Imagine two cultures just alike except one has slavery and one doesn't. Why shouldn't we call the second superior or more advanced?

    1. I would say the society without slavery would be a fairer, more just society than the one that has it. Certainly I'd call it the better one; the healthier one and the one I'd be more willing to live under. Calling it "advanced" or "more civilized" however implies a deterministic teleological conception of societal development I'm not at all in favour of. That's the mentality behind a lot of problematic international development policies (both modernistic and based on dependency theory) which have historically not really been of much help to those they were supposedly put in place for.

      The term "Civilized" brings to mind, at least to me, old world apologists claiming European colonialism is preferable to communalism or hunter/gatherer societies because it's more "civilized", i.e., more technoscientific, complicated, centralized and Christian.

  5. Even the name “Metron” is derived from “Metatron”, a Judaic angel with a Greek name meaning “instrument of change”.

    Why assume the name "Metron" comes from "Metatron," rather than from, y'know, the actual Greek word "Metron" (meaning a standard or measure)?

    1. Because I believe Coon intended it to be a reference, or at least that's the consensus speculation, as Memory Alpha mentions this interpretation. But you're right, seeing it as a reference to the unit of measurement works too. It's still Greek, though.

    2. According to Memory Alpha, in the original script the Metrons had planned to destroy the winner’s ship (not the loser’s as in the aired version) because they would be the greater threat to their species. Either way, the Metrons don’t really seem more civilized or non-violent, they just live centuries longer and have more powerful technology. Instead of encouraging diplomacy, they force a gladiator-style duel. Perhaps Kirk’s final refusal to kill his antagonist is the real “instrument of change” while the Metron acts more like the Greek gods he resembles.
      Allan Asherman’s book on ST says of this episode, “Gene Coon’s scripts share a common theme: a firm conviction that prejudice must be conquered if mankind is ever to take its place alongside other intelligent civilizations. This is one of the greatest reasons for Star Trek’s continued popularity.” Maybe the intent was to focus on prejudice rather than war or technology -?
      Great food for thought in these analyses…can’t help thinking though, that approaching TOS in terms of how the US has come across in the recent past, is probably quite different from seeing the stories in the context of the 60’s. IMHO, that contrast, flawed as it was, explains much of Trek’s attraction.

    3. Yes-The idea the victor's ship was forfeit and the Metrons were lying was also reinstated in the James Blish novelization of "Arena". I figured I'd bring that up when I cover Blish eventually.

      That's a pretty good summary of Coon's overall philosophy, IMO. That said, it's a bit too early to be summing up his tenure-We do, after all, have a whole other season with him. The way I approach these is I generally try to take each episode at a time and look at how each individually contributes to what Star Trek eventually becomes.

      As for my comment about the United States, that was more intended to explain the merits and demerits of a federation as a system of government. That said I'd probably quibble with your assertion the US has only been imperialistic and authoritarian in the "recent" past-IMO it has quite a long and storied history of that sort of behaviour.

      As a general rule I do, of course, try to approach the TOS episodes from a late-1960s context. An aside though: I can't ignore what Star Trek becomes or the way it's perceived today either. This central tension is a major theme of the blog at this point.

    4. I totally agree about the way the US has often acted through history —was only suggesting that in the 60’s the Soviet Union as the other superpower, with the threat of nuclear war, made a significant difference (among others).
      If you don’t mind my asking – this journey seems to be a serious, comprehensive reconstruction of the development of the Trek phenomenon -- so I don’t see how the quotes from fantasy / role playing games connect? in any case- much appreciated blog.

    5. "...this journey seems to be a serious, comprehensive reconstruction of the development of the Trek phenomenon..."

      Only partially :-)

      When reduced down to its extreme core essence, yes, I suppose it is. But there's a lot more involved in a project like this then just that.

  6. Is it worth mentioning how radically different the ending moral of this episode is, in comparison with the Fredric Brown story it's based on?

    1. According to Solow and Justman in Inside Star Trek, "Arena" wasn't based on the Frederic Brown story: It was an entirely different, original treatment Coon came up with on his own over the course of one weekend unaware of the existence of Brown's "Arena" and that just happened to coincidentally resemble it in a number of places. Once Coon was made aware of the Astounding Science Fiction short story, he graciously credited the story to Brown, then called him up and asked if it was OK to "adapt" "Arena" for Star Trek.

    2. God that's refreshing to hear after all the Roddenberry stories.

  7. Just for fun ---

    Have you seen this recent ad for the latest Trek videogame?

    1. I sort of wish the entire game had just been William Shatner and a dude in a Gorn suit bantering over a video game console. It could have been Retro Game Challenge: Star Trek Edition. Would have been a damn sight more interesting then the buggy, laggy, bald-faced scam of a game we got.

      Incidentally, I look at something like this and immediately read a franchise desperately trying to exorcise its hokey, embarrassing past so it can usher in the young, slick, sexy new definitive version of itself. It...brings back unpleasant memories for me.

      All that being said the commercial itself was definitely fun.

  8. LoL. Sorry -- didn't mean to evoke unpleasant memories.

    I've heard the game sucks ... I haven't played it.

    When I see the commercial I think, "this commercial is much better than the crappy Abrams movies. Shatner could still out-Kirk that Pine dude" --- but that's just crusty old me.

    Still, the commercial speaks to your point about "Arena" being some of the most iconic Trek in the popular imagination. I think the version of Kirk on display there is how the character is most remembered by the general public. I get the appeal -- it's a fun episode, the Gorn is awesome, and I can't help but root for Kirk. Star Trek has done some great, intricate storytelling, but, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, sometimes you just wanna see Kirk punch a giant lizard.

    1. Oh no, I completely agree. It very much speaks to "Arena" being one of the most iconic pieces of Trek history, even down to the fact the Gorn are featured in the new game at all.

      And Shatner is, of course, brilliant as always. He remains as active and passionate an actor, performer and personality now as he ever was, which just continues to drive home for me how distasteful it is to see him portrayed as old, feeble and washed up.

  9. I'm rather partial to the Blake's 7 spin on this story, "Duel", in which the powerful aliens are sadistic perverts, the duel itself is pointless, no one learns anything and Blake's final refusal to kill Travis is an act of precision-guided cruelty.

  10. You can hardly mention Christianity in conjunction with this episode's roots, and not draw a line from the Gorn Captain and Kirk's monologue about 'our revulsion toward reptiles' and the Biblical Serpent himself. (Or perhaps more appropriately, The Dragon).

    The thing is, where this episode leaves you when we learn that the Gorn were in the right, legally speaking, is that it's a thin line you walk. Kirk puts his faith in mercy and it's rewarded, and it's implied the Gorn would not have been so merciful; in spite of being nearly equally advanced in technology, the Gorn when it comes to behavioral reaction operate on a more instinctual level. Their assault on Cestus III was self-defense. The Gorn not being likely to show Kirk mercy would be self-defense.

    It's another piece of Classic Trek showing the merit of forgoing your baser instincts for the good of the many.

    Or to put it another way, God spoke to Kirk, and Kirk forgave The Old Dragon.

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  12. I think the episode goes out of its way, as you seem to acknowledge in the first half of the review but not in the second, to emphasize that the Gorn are in no way inferior to humanity, and the Gorn captain Kirk fights is exactly on his level.

    Like most folks, both you and I remember Kirk's improvised bazooka... but what I didn't remember until I watched "Arena" recently is that the Gorn captain leads off the DIY competition by constructing a trap from the materials around him.

    It's very strong characterization: Kirk is a mammal, and like him, his tool is swift; the Gorn captain is a reptile, and like him, his tool is slow, lying in wait for a sudden swift movement like a crocodile by the riverbank.

    And yet the episode makes it absolutely clear that neither is superior.