Episode 18 – TOS 1×18: “Arena”

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Just about everyone who’s ever even dipped a toe into classic sci-fi TV has seen at least clips and GIFs from this episode, or at least of its secondary villain, The Gorn.

Strangely, despite the Gorn being the thing everyone knows about this episode, neither the Gorn nor the titular arena show up until wayyyyyyy into the story. Technically. Actually it feels like it takes 1,000 years.

If you couldn’t tell, we were not amazed by this episode: a classic early-Trek Hot Mess, confusingly written, bafflingly paced, and also gave half the cast (definitely Shatner, Kelley and Nimoy) tinnitus due to the number of explosions in the first fifteen minutes. It’s also full of flagrantly out-of-character revenge and aggression as Kirk’s driving motivation for pursuit-with-destructive-intent of an alien ship that destroyed a Federation colony and then took off at high warp.

The actual arena part of this episode doesn’t happen until nearly the end, story-wise: an all-knowing race of sparkly toga-wearing aliens plucks Kirk and the Gorn captain off their ships, deposits them on an asteroid, and tells them to fight to the death to decide which ship will be destroyed and which will be spared. This all in the name of… preventing violent conflict? Driving home that compared to said sparkly aliens, humans and Gorn are equally barbaric? Because I know that when I want to seem more collected than someone else what I always do is pit people against each other in gladiatorial combat with the lives of their friends and subordinates as the stakes.

If you can slog through the disaster that is the first majority chunk of this episode, the actual “arena” portion is… well, still boring, but at least watching the poor guy playing the Gorn (Bobby Clark, the same actor who played the White Rabbit in Shore Leave) stomp around, hiss, hit things and try to emote through an immovable rubber mask, and Shatner roll, leap, and fling his entire body around as a fighting tactic is baseline entertaining. The writing? Well, it’s one more of those episodes where you can see the hints of what could have been… but never actually was.

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