The Original Series’ Revisited: Arena

In a surprising plot twist, “Arena” features a godlike super-evolved race of aliens who can control reality with their minds.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you say. “Is that really a surprising plot twist? Haven’t they twisted this plot before? More than once? Like almost every episode?”

The answer is, “Yes,” and also, “Yes, by all the god-like aliens, Original Series Star Trek writers, do you only have the one super-evolved alien idea in your heads or what?”

How many times have they used this trope already? Let’s go to the tape:

That’s no less than seven god-like aliens with mind-over-reality powers the crew has discovered so far and the first season isn’t even over yet! That’s more than one god-alien per three episodes. At that rate, you can barely spit in outer space without hitting an advanced psychic god thing. God-like aliens (GLAs) are more common than rabbits or toadstools. The crew is going to have to start spraying for them…

So, what’s the deal? Why is Star Trek so enamored of aliens with god-like powers? Why do they never seem to get bored of the deus ex machina of it all?

Clean Up in Episode Three

The question partially answers itself; GLAs make for easy plotting. If you’ve got a character who can do anything, you don’t need to worry about logical narrative. You can zap your protagonists into the 18th century, or bring them back from the dead, or what have you. The sky isn’t even a limit.

In addition, though, the GLAs validate one of Star Trek’s most cherished Cold War themes: progress.

“Arena” is a case-study of both the practical and ideological uses of GLAs. The commanding officer of the Cestus III outpost invites the Enterprise crew to visit the base.

However, when Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and a landing party beam down, they discover that the invitation was a fake. Cestus III has been destroyed in an unprovoked attack, leaving many dead, including women and children.

Aliens on the ground attack the landing party from afar. Meanwhile, the alien ship engages in battle with the Enterprise. The humans win both battles, and when the alien ship flies away, the Enterprise sets off in pursuit. Kirk is determined to destroy the enemy ship in retaliation and in order to serve notice to the aliens that they can’t just murder humans willy-nilly. #irony

Danger, Will Robinson!

However, before the two ships can engage, they pass an unexplored sector of space and find themselves caught in a mysterious energy field by a GLA race called the Metrons. The chief Metron (voice Vic Perrin) reprimands both ships for their violence. He declares that the two alien captains will settle their differences in single combat on a distant planet. Whoever wins will be allowed to fly away free, and the loser’s ship will be destroyed.

This doesn’t seem very civilized or nonviolent, but nobody is in a position to argue. Kirk is zapped off the ship and finds himself face to face with the enemy captain, a giant but slow lizard-like creature called a Gorn.

The Gorn is bigger and stronger than Kirk and quite clever. He builds a deadfall trap which catches and injures Kirk badly. But Kirk realizes he has all the elements and compounds he needs on the planet to create gunpowder and a primitive canon. He blasts the Gorn, winning the contest.

But at the last moment, he refuses to kill his adversary. The first Metron is impressed and tells Kirk that he has demonstrated the advanced evolutionary concept of mercy (as well as the advanced evolutionary concept of guns, though the Metron doesn’t quite say that.)

The Metrons transport the two ships away from each other. Kirk hopes for diplomatic negotiations with the Gorn, and also for a new meeting with the Metrons after humans have evolved for 1000 years.

It’s the Budget, Silly

For writer Gene L. Coon and director Joseph Pevney, it’s obvious that the Metrons are a convenient plot device and budget saver. In the battle on the planet, the show creators struggle to find a way to stage a fight without ever showing us the expensive-to-costume alien lizards.

In space, we never even see the alien ship. And just when there’s going to be a battle, the Metrons intervene to keep the special effects budget within reason.

Via GLA intervention, the writers can simply wave a god-like hand and turn an explosive, showy combat between two high-tech alien civilizations into a single combat. i.e., two actors (one in a rubber monster suit) wandering around in a field.

But the GLAs don’t just enable chintzy special effects. They’re also at the core of the episode’s Cold War themes.

After World War II, the United States saw itself as leading the vanguard of history. Its only rival was the Soviet Union, which offered an alternative, supposedly less progressive future.

Other countries were, again supposedly, less developed. That meant for US policymakers and the public that those societies had not progressed as far forward in time as the US itself.

The job of the US was to send its troops and scientists into these backwards places and bring them forward in time. In return, Third World nations had to offer their support and pledge themselves to Western capitalism. In our own eyes, we were the GLAs, dispensing wisdom, guns, and mercy.

The Metrons lump humans and Gorn together initially as violent atavistic primitives. Yes, the Gorn savagely attack the outpost. But it’s later revealed that they may have considered the planet in their territory.

Kirk, for his part—and despite the misgivings of Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) plans to retaliate in kind. Gorns and humans; how can a Metron tell the difference?

But there are signs throughout that the humans are the future. In the first place, the Gorn are reptilian. They look like evolutionary throwbacks to dinosaurs.

Back From the Future

The monster suit has other retro connotations as well; it seems to have time-traveled out of a 50s monster movie like The Creature From the Black Lagoon. The person the Gorn suit has to move slowly and clumsily. The Gorn is powerful, but lacks speed and agility. He’s lumbering, slow, passé.

The Gorn isn’t a fool; he builds traps and constructs a primitive knife. But he doesn’t think to make gunpowder. Kirk is more advanced, first of all, not because he’s kind or temperate, but because he knows how to make a canon.

As with the US in the Cold War (and for that matter still) superiority in weapons is figured as a precondition for superiority in culture and morality. Kirk gets to demonstrate mercy because he first demonstrated blasting powder.

The GLAs swoop in at the end to validate human achievement. But more importantly, perhaps, they validate the idea that achievement—in (weapons) technology, in international diplomacy—is leading somewhere glorious. The American superpower is a potential space superpower is a potential god-like alien.

Star Trek has GLAs everywhere because the specter of GLAs, and transcendent overwhelming wisdom and force, comfortingly and continuously haunted America’s own vision of itself. On days when it was confident, the US looked out into the mirror of the world arena and saw Metrons comfortingly staring back.

In less optimistic moments, perhaps, as Vietnam protests ramped up and the Cold war turned ever nastier, America’s reflection looked more like the Gorn.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Courtesy of Paramount Television/Desilu Studios.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.