Star Trek: TOS – S01E20/21 “Arena” and “The Alternative Factor”


Season 1
Production Order #20
Airing Order #18
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Written by Gene L. Coon
Story by Fredric Brown

Now here’s a blast from the past.  It’s been just over two years since I last wrote one of these up, a time when we were still on the Disqus channel.  I always intended to get back to these write ups at some point when I was less busy, but once the site started up, that dominated my time as well as all the other writing that took priority.  I also can’t deny that as time went on, the idea of diving back into a show of which my thoughts were no longer as fresh became less inviting and certain elements (including the mixed quality we ended on and the rampant sexism) hardly teased me to return.

At the very least we are returning to one of the most acclaimed episodes of the show’s run, “Arena”.  It’s one of the few I knew by name even if I wasn’t familiar with the story itself.  I was familiar however with the episode’s centerpiece, an iconic fight that I recognized as soon as soon as it showed up.  It’s also one that occurs in front of Kirk’s Rock (which I also excitedly pointed out to no one right away), actually known as the Vasquez Rocks, and which made the location famous.

The Enterprise heads to a meeting on Cestus III where a Commodore Travers asks them to bring their tactical aides to it.  Spock is of course skeptical while noted racist idiot McCoy dismisses his concerns out of hand eager for some relaxing and a bit of luxury at the colony.  When they are beamed down, the crew discovers that Cestus III has been destroyed with the ruins still smoking and the attack likely having occurred a few days previous.  The party finds one survivor and some non-humans on the radar before the redshirt goes and gets himself zapped while the Enterprise comes under attack from the enemy.

Despite seemingly hopeless odds, the crew on the ground is able to beam back after clearing the area with a mortar grenade launcher (it’s good that they just happened to have that on them), bringing the one scarred survivor with them.  Kirk becomes convinced that this was a trap and indicative of an upcoming invasion while Spock is characteristically skeptical.  The look of concern that washes over Spock’s face is perfect as he seems to be the only one at that moment to realize the gravity of the situation.  It sets up an interesting moral dilemma as Kirk is blindly eager for revenge while Spock is clearly uninterested in killing sentient life.

The latter’s opinion is certainly fitting in more with their mission, but it also calls into question Kirk’s status as a leader and effectively diplomat.  He doesn’t take any time to find out what was behind the attack or any real info about the situation, he just rushes after them without hardly a second thought.  Kirk even risks his ship in pursuit of the other ship whose race he is not even sure of (so much for seeking out new life unless the implied subtext was to seek it out and destroy it), heading to Warp Factor 7 and then Warp Factor 8 despite warnings of the danger of such speeds.  The chase is brought to an abrupt halt whenever when first the enemy ship goes dead in its tracks before The Enterprise does the same, being held dead in place by an unidentified solar system that had been scanning them before.

They are being held in place by The Metrons who accuse both ships of coming into their space on a mission of violence and that their violent tendencies are inherent.  Star Trek has gotten a lot of mileage out of “humans are bastards” stories (both intentionally and unintentionally) so far in its run and as much as I slagged off the awfulness of certain characters, I have to give the show credit for constantly challenging the superiority of our protagonists.  The Metrons are nothing if not fair and announce that they will resolve the Enterprises dispute with the ship they are pursuing, a ship of the Gorn race, sending for the leaders of both with the loser’s ship to be destroyed, no discussion.  For once, Kirk has a reason to be sent to a planet on an away mission.

The Gorn are a reptilian if humanoid race and one which are clearly physically more intimidating than Kirk.  Their initial fight which I linked to above complete with all the slow, deliberate karate chops and “grappling” is ridiculous to be sure, but it’s also a ton of fun.  It’s also only the start of their battle as it ends in a draw.  While the Gorn takes his time crafting a weapon and trap after their scuffle, Kirk searches around desperately for something to kill him with, getting upset that there’s not just a club or phaser lying around and being overconfident in his own cleverness.  Once again, I’m left not sure if the episode is intending to show just how stupid humanity is, but it’s effective and a nice subversion from what I expected, a fight between the clever human and the brawny Gorn.

Instead Kirk just drops a boulder on the Gorn like it’s freaking Looney Tunes, which does succeed in knocking it out, but not for long.  In fact, if the Gorn didn’t moves so dang so slow all the time, Kirk would have been toast as he clearly the less clever and the weaker.  You get the feeling that Spock would have been the far more useful combatant in this case especially as Kirk keeps stumbling over all sorts of useful minerals including sulfur while taking forever to come up with a use for them.  He does take the time though to make sure he stops and records useless audio logs (I mean if he died, his ship would be destroyed too, and no one would ever hear them).

The twist all of those useless recordings have been heard by the Gorn and so he has unintentionally been giving away his every thought is a perfect enough twist, but it’s made even better by the subversion of the brute not only being clever, but also speaking.  He may not have a voice at the start, but the way the show continuously reveals more details about the Gorn not only feels more natural than normal, but it also works on a narrative level with Kirk learning more about them as a species.

Especially since in further proof that humans are bastards, the whole thing was the humans’ fault as Cestus III was an intrusion on the space of the Gorn.  Just imagine the diplomatic incident that Kirk was about to cause and only narrowly avoided.  Kirk is finally able to make an IED with diamond shrapnel thanks to the Gorn just slowly walking around looking for him while he crafts it, ultimately using it on his reptilian foe.  The show treats his refusal to finish him off and sparing of the ship (with an agreement to talk to the Gorn) as something noble and right, and yet to me it simply came off as merely not evil (the Metron do acknowledge this however by referring to Kirk as “still half savage”).  I do want to know more about what kind of directive and rights Kirk has that seems to allow him such broad powers and his relationship with the rest of Starfleet.

There are certainly major parts of the episode that haven’t completely held up between the fight and suspension of disbelief involved with the padding of the Gorn walking around.  Even still, it’s easily the best episode to date with the way that it handles its central philosophical issue, Kirk’s arc, and the exploration of both races (human and Gorn).  It’s also entertaining as heck in spite of any flaws and frankly that’s what I hope for the most out of these episodes.

Grade: A

Stray Observations
– While I can’t say it hurt the episode in the long run, I think it would have been interesting if Spock’s decision to leave the planet’s orbit when its weapons prove ineffective and abandoning the crew on the surface had more of an impact on the plot.  It’s a minor diversion in the episode and one quickly forgotten about, but it’s an interesting ethical dilemma and would have set up an alternate plotline about a crew of survivors stranded on a planet, with seemingly no hope for survival and some likely very different reactions to Spock’s decision (namely from McCoy).
– The episode was at least kind enough to give some of McCoy’s hilarious,  overdone, eye-twitching anger in the face of Spock’s measured approach of dealing with Kirk being taken away.
– Bonus points for the Metrons’ snark at McCoy’s anger serving as proof of his lack of civility.
– Kirk’s messages into his recorder have some truly classic Shatner speech patterns.
– Spock’s pride over Kirk discovering science was adorable.
– The Metron appear in the form of a blond human, glowing and supposedly like a boy (he does not look that young although the voice certainly doesn’t help).
– I kind of like the unused twist that the Metron were planning to blow up the ship of the race that won instead as they would have posed a greater threat.  Still, it’s probably for the best this was streamlined out especially since you know Kirk would have held onto that grudge.
– “Arena” is the first episode to bring up the Federation.

The Alternative Factor.jpg

“The Alternative Factor”

Season 1
Production Order #21
Airing Order #27
Directed by Gerd Oswald
Written by Don Ingalls

It’s almost inevitable that the next episode after “Arena” would be a letdown regardless of which one it was, but “The Alternative Factor” does itself no favors here.  Above a typical planet, arid and with no signs of life, something out of nowhere starts affecting the ship and twice for a couple of seconds, the planet and the Enterprise blink out of existence.  After the pulsing subsides, an apparently human lifeform appears at that very moment.  Kirk, Spock, and four redshirts beam down looking for the human and find a downed spacecraft that looks straight out of the Jetsons.  None of them wind up dying surprisingly, but they do find a bearded man in ragged clothing yelling about how there is still time to stop him, but they need help.  While the “him” in the last sentence is referring to some other creature, it’s certainly a phrase that winds up more apropos than you’d think. 

These strange events been happening across the galaxy centered around the Enterprise and the assumption is that they are setting up an invasion.  Kirk, perhaps learning a lesson from “Arena” isn’t nearly as quick though to jump to that or any conclusion.  It also does answer some of my issues with the last episode by having this all be communicated by Starfleet Command instead; a reminder Kirk may be on the edge of a frontier, but he still answers to someone.  Starfleet orders The Enterprise to be used as bait for whatever this creature is, a promising premise that largely goes unexplored. 

At the heart of the episode is the beloved dilithium crystals which have mostly been drained by the incidents and add a ticking clock.  It raises the question of just how bad the effects were in the rest of the universe and if there were any dire consequences from it, but once again, that goes unexplored (perhaps explained as The Enterprise is at the epicenter of the incidents).  The bearded man (and good god is that a terrible beard) is named Lazarus and is chasing a humanoid man across the galaxy who destroyed his race.  No relation however to the biblical Lazarus that I can suss out.

Lazarus is absolutely and completely determined to destroy the creature, something only affirmed when it attacks again on a trip down to the planet. The planet is what was left of his and Lazarus claims he’s a time traveler.  Of course, the question gets raised about whether the creature is real or just a product of Lazarus’s delusions or whatever with his wounds seeming to come and go.  It’s especially driven in as Lazarus attacks them and steals their dilithium crystals.  It could all be explained away as an attempt to force them to help or him being driven to madness by an overwhelming threat, but the episode is not nearly clever enough for that.

The reality is that there exists a parallel universe occupying the same universe at the same time and another more level-headed Lazarus in the parallel universe.  The first one we met went mad when his people discovered the parallel universe, convinced that the other one was out to destroy him.  He’s ultimately defeated anticlimactically as Kirk pushes the first Lazarus into the space between universes (by just pushing him into his spacecraft) where the two can fight it out for eternity.

It’s a nonsense of a plot which ultimately ends without any real consequence (sorry Spock, I don’t care “what of Lazarus?”, either one).  The parallel universes offered so much in the way of a threat and potential and yet the show managed to do nothing interesting with it. (yes, I know alternate realities are about to come up in a more famous portrayal).  The two Lazarus’ switch places at least one point, but nothing meaningful happens with it besides him being more suspicious from temporarily losing his bandage.  It’s not alright bad, it’s just dull which may be worse.

Grade: C-

Stray Observations
– I’ve never seen the spinning newspaper effect used as an actual special effect before.
– They also frequently go back to the effect of the attacks which just bring up an image of the stars in what may be the cheapest effect possible.
– The CGI planets still look terribly off in both episodes.  I can’t say that the actual ones look good based on still images (frankly they look awful), but they’d certainly be less jarring.
– Unsurprisingly McCoy is on the side of Lazarus here (at least this time we can credit it to being doctorly, but I can’t help but point out when he’s wrong).
– John Drew Barrymore was supposed to star in the episode, but wound up not showing up in a bit of uncharacteristic Barrymore misbehavior.

Next Up: When I went to delete this section from the copied version, it was teasing a Doctor Who serial from two seasons before where we are now, “The Ice Warriors”.  Assuming I get the second disc from Netflix (it was supposed to be here Saturday dammit!), Doctor Who (Classic) will return on 4/22 with “Doctor Who and the Silurians”.  I will try to maintain reviewing Star Trek: TOS for at least a while longer with  “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and “The Return of the Archons” as the next two scheduled on 5/6 (trying to get back to Mondays when I intended this to go up).

Season 1
S01E01/E02 “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”
S01E03/E04 “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “Mudd’s Women”
S01E05/E06 “The Enemy Within” and “The Man Trap”
S01E07/E08 “The Naked Time” and “Charlie X”
S01E09/E10 “Balance of Terror” and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”
S01E11/E12 “Dagger of the Mind” and “Miri”
S01E13 “The Conscience of the King”
S01E14/15 “The Galileo Seven” and “Court Martial”
S01E16/17 “The Menagerie”
S01E18/19 “Shore Leave” and “The Squire of Gothos”
S01E20/21 “Arena” and “The Alternative Factor”