Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Star Trek--"Arena"

I have been anxious to get to this one. It has absolutely everything that makes TOS fun and interesting. The series was at its best when it dealt when it explored the morality of war rather than when it dealt with some far fetched science fiction concept. I will be better able to explain that tomorrow when I post my scathing review of ’The Alternative Factor.” Suffice to say in regards to ’Arena” and other episodes like it, the riveting plot makes you forgive the almost embarrassing production values.

In that regard, “arena’ reminds me a lot of the original Doctor Who. The BBC had such tight budgets, many episodes looked like a high school production. But that is not what mattered. It was all about the story. Fortunately, the stories were often so good, the production values did not matter. So it is here. The federation outpost looks like a wild west fort, the Gorn is a man in a phony looking rubber suit, and practically no effort was made to disguise the stunt double playing Kirk through much of the fight scene. Considering how physical William Shatner enjoyed being--he wanted to wrestle the tiger in “Shore Leave”--it must have been tough for him to sit much of the brawl out.

The Enterprise arrives on Castus III only to find the colony has been destroyed. The invitation to the colony was a ruse perpetrated by the Gorn in order to destroy the only Federation ship protecting that sector of space. Kirk assumes such an act is prelude to an invasion and decides the shop must be destroyed with all hands aboard. In one of the rare instances in Trek an alien corrects human morality rather than the other way around, in proper fashion, Spock urges caution out of respect for sentient life.

Before any further action can be taken, the Metrons appear and kidnap Kirk and the Gorn captain elsewhere to settle their differences. The two battle one another in the second most parodied fight in TOS history behind the ritual scuffle between kirk and Spock in “Amok Time.” Kirk goes all MacGyver on us when he realizes he cannot overpower the Gorn by creating a makeshift cannon. He not only knew how to make quickie gun powder, but he could separate all the distinct elements into individual piles after dumping them all into the bamboo cane. Talented guy, that Kirk.Kirk refuses to kill the incapacitated Gorn even though his natural repulsion to reptiles urges him to. The Metrons, who arranged the conflict, appear and note their surprise at Kirk’s show of mercy. They believed humans were too savage to care about such things. Predictably, they still refuse to have anything to do with half-savage humanity, but at least unlike Trelane’s parents in the previous episode, they consider Kirk of higher value than an insect. I thought the Metron recognition humans deserved some higher respect even though they were allegedly not as enlightened was much more realistic than that of previous aliens we had encountered up until this point.

It is never really established whether the federation actually had built its colony in Gorn territory. If so, then destroying the colony was arguably a legitimate military action, although one would think there should have been some negotiation first, particularly because of civilian casualties. That is an argument within the Just War Theory of legitimate targets--you know, the one that also says Alderaan’s destruction was legitimate because the planet’s leadership was in rebellion--which can be squeamish topic of discussion in this day and age. Try defending the atomic bomb droppings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on any college graduate under thirty with a liberal arts degree. The self-loathing expressed by the young critics of making tough decisions in the name of defending higher principles will make you weep for the future.

The reason it will is evident in the moral lesson of “Arena,” a lesson apt for today’s war on terror. Kirk refuses to kill the Gorn even though the Gorn would not hesistate if the roles were reversed. So it is with the United states and Al Qeaeda. Wefret overwaterboarding them while theydo not blink at the prospect of flying planeloads of innocent people into skyscrapers hoping to kill tens of thousands. That makes us better than them, because we aredoing--reluctantly--what we have to in order to defend ourselves. It is not fair to consider survival tactics that half savage.

While the Gorn are never seen again until a Mirror Universe episode of ENT, it is casually mentioned on a couple occasions the Federation not only settles Castus III, but the Gorn join the war against the Dominion, albeit they are never shown on screen. Further proof defending oneself by harsh means does not preclude the possibility of strong ties later when when both sides agree to a legitimate resolution to conflict.

On a less savory note, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelly all suffered damage to their hearing because of the firing of the mortar in the ground battle with the Gorn during the first act. They suffered for their art, folks.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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