Monday, September 22, 2014

Star Trek TOS Goodness, 18 Arena

I had occasion to back up into Season One of the original Star Trek series (TOS) again.  Every time I rewatch I see things differently.  This time I seemed particularly sensitive to both the really good and the really bad simultaneously.  For some reason, I felt the desire to rewatch "The Devil in the Dark" and "The Return of the Archons", not my usual favorites, in that order.  I use Amazon Prime, which has the Remastered episodes, and these are episodes 25 and 21 respectively.  There are some really good parts of both.  Then I reviewed the surrounding episodes and realized there is a really good long string of "good" episodes here, everything between "The Squire of Gothos" (#17) and "The Alternative Factor" (#27) (both below the "bad" line for me).  This is where Star Trek may have gained it's first "stride" into history.  I thought it would be worth going through each of these nine episodes #18 through #26 and pointing out why they are so good, and where they are bad.

#18 Arena, 1/19/67

What a great intro -- happy anticipation of a great "unreconstituted" meal by Kirk and McCoy, tempered by foreshadowing questioning by Spock and the obligatory "ominous" music, culminating in "Red alert -- Cestus three has been destroyed" after transporting down.  In under two minutes we're completely hooked.

After the title sequence, the landing party, in short order: finds a lone survivor, detects non-human cold-blooded life on sensors, loses the landing party's sole red-shirted member to enemy fire, comes under continuous mortar-type fire, finds they cannot be transported up because the Enterprise is also dealing with an enemy ship, moves to shelter, and Kirk gets to zig-zag and roll trying to reach the "arsenal" which for some inexplicable reason is out in the open.

Also inexplicable is why Sulu must leave orbit when the Enterprise has not come under any fire itself.  Oh well, drama must be served.

Next we transition to an offensive part of the battle, initiated by Spock joining Kirk at the arsenal with a couple rolls of his own, with tricorder info on enemy location.  Working very closely together with a phallic grenade launcher operated by Kirk, they scare off the enemy AND the enemy ship with a single tac-nuke type grenade.

Is this eight-minute sequence the first and only extended land battle portrayed in TOS?  I think so.  And it's not bad -- well sequenced, lots of movement, significant pyrotechnics.

Next phase, the Enterprise pursuing the alien ship.  So far we're in a parallel story to "Balance of Terror" #14, except that the identity and appearance of the enemy is still unknown.  We also have Spock in a more pacifist role, while Kirk appears adamant that the enemy must be destroyed, very parallel to "Devil in the Dark" #21.  Clearly one of Roddenberry's recurrent themes is pacifism vs. engagement, where the most stark example is probably "A Private Little War" S2#19.  The context of all this is of course the U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1960's. End of act one; this has to be one of the best/tightest starts of any episode.

Act two is another twist. Yet another alien species, the Metrons, puts a stop to the space chase and deposits both ships' captains on a barren planet to fight it out one-on-one. Thus the title "Arena". And here is another of Roddenberry's tropes, the third-party "parent" species that brokers others' conflict. Errand of Mercy (Organians), The Savage Curtain (rock creature), but usually it is the humans: A Taste of Armageddon, The Devil in the Dark, The Alternative Factor, Journey to Babel, A Piece of the Action, A Private Little War, Patterns of Force, Bread and Circuses, Spock's Brain, Elaan of Troyius, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (unsuccessful), The Cloud Minders.

And we finally get to see the reptilian alien form and learn their name, Gorn. End of act two.

Act three is all the hand-to-hand maneuvering on the "arena planet" until the Gorn gets the upper hand.

Of course Kirk escapes. The Metrons feel sorry that he is losing and let the Enterprise watch events on their viewscreen. (Characters watching on screens is another trope -- The Cage, The Menagerie, Court Martial, Bread and Circuses, Patterns of Force.)

But of course Kirk figures out how to make a primitive gun and defeats the Gorn. But there is one final beautiful twist.  Kirk, primed for aggression at the beginning over Spock's entreaties, at the end relents out of the mere possibility that the Gorn is redeemable (as well as to poke the Metron puppeteers).  "No. No, I won't kill him!"

That is what truly makes Star Trek special.  I must be getting sentimental in my old age, because this really got to me on this watching. It goes straight to what Robert McNamara finally realized in The Fog of War -- empathize with your enemy.  Vietnam would have been very different if that lesson had been learned when this Star Trek episode was first broadcast (1969).

Anyway, a representative of the Metrons finally makes an appearance and congratules Kirk on his civility, and all ends happily.

What a tour de force of action, conflict, and morality. And a great setting (shot at Vasquez Rocks, CA). I used to consider this episode rather cheesy, mostly because of the over-done Gorn, but it is growing on me as I look deeper.

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