While this Kirk episode will never be considered the greatest Star Trek episode, it might be the most memorable of the original 79. The reason? The Gorn captain, the most striking alien to hit television screens in the 1960s.
The episode itself is actually quite well written, with producer Gene Coon (who had joined the show early in the first season) developing the idea and bringing the script to the finish line before it was noticed that Frederic Brown's 1944 short story, also called "Arena", covers similar ground, necessitating credit. It's basically a three part adventure, spanning two planets, with two sets of aliens, and an Enterprise chase scene to boot. This is quite a lot of stuff for a first season episode, but the genius of the script (from a budget standpoint) is how its story requires only one Gorn and one Metron to be seen. (The not so genius part: requiring Shatner and Nimoy to run through a field of exploding shells, giving them both tinnitus for
The script, which gives the first mention of the Federation, is also innovative for letting Kirk make a mistake in judgement before ultimately redeeming himself. The bold decision actually pays off in two ways. In the short term, it adds drama to the episode, because when we suddenly realize Kirk has his facts mixed up, it turns the episode upside down and forces us to reevaluate all that we've seen. In the longterm, it humanizes the captain, allowing us to draw even closer to him and enjoy the ending all the more. (Certainly we sympathize with him more than the Gorn, which uses the Federation's folly as a license to ambush).
But let's be realistic; this episode isn't famous for its plotting or story developments. It's famous for the big fight between the Kirk and the lizard (played by three stuntmen and voiced by Ted Cassidy). Created by Wah Chang, the meticulously crafted rubber suit presented a stunning sight for viewers in the 1960s, especially with the creature presented in a realistic location as opposed to a soundstage. The Vesquez Rocks, named after Tiburcio Vsquez, a bandit from the 19th century who used the area to elude capture, is a site that appears in quite a few television shows and movies, including several Star Trek episodes; but it's "Arena" that it's best known for. With all the Star Trek sets long since gone, and the rocks here serving such a visible and important part of such a memorable episode, it's become the go to place for fans wanting to see some of the original Star Trek in person. As Kirk and the monster battle amongst the environment, it's easy to feel the heat and taste the dust. Like "The Menagerie", there's even a television viewing on the Enterprise, with Spock and company using the main viewscreen like a giant flatscreen TV to watch the action. (This is another example of what a good invention the viewscreen is for the series. Eschewing a window, Roddenberry knew a viewscreen was much more multidimensional, from tactical displays to video chats with Starfleet and other ships. Here, allowing Spock to watch the captain and comment on his progess serves this episode well).
In the end, "Arena", like ""Charlie X", "The Corbomite Maneuver", "The Menagerie", "Shore Leave, and "Squire of Gothos", includes a powerful being to help put a period on the story, but this time it's more satisfying because Kirk must defeat his adversary to get off the hook. (And somewhere out there, a young MacGyver watches on and decides to use the climax as a template for his life). Unfortunately, the Gorn's rubber suit doesn't hold up so well now and is more funny than scary; but then maybe that's become part of the charm of the episode. Regardless, the iconic fight transcends the limitations of 60s technology in the minds of many Star Trek fans.
Members of the Gorn race are seen again in the animated series episode "The Time Trap" and, more prominantly, in the Enterprise episode "In a Mirror Darkly Part II".
Remastered: This is mostly a basic redo, but with some extra touches. There are new shots of both the Enterprise and the first planet, Cestus III (originally an orange blob, since they just took the "Earth" from Miri and painted it). A shot of the planet's surface (which originally used some foil in the foreground to hide some houses in the background) is extended and touched up. The ship's phasers, used for the first time, are changed to be consistent with the look established in future episodes (blue and emminating from lower sensor dome instead of red and coming from farther forward). The photon torpedoes are also upgraded and changed from white to red. Unlike in the original version, the Gorn ship can be briefly seen on the viewscreen, through it's quite small and not a lot of detail can be made out. The Gorn captain himself is mostly just as the original has him (because changing him to a CGI creature would break the bank) but they do add a few CGI blinks to his eyes to make him seem more real. Unfortunately, the ship's viewscreen showing Kirk's fight with the Gorn is left alone and not cleaned up. With the footage of Kirk on the planet being matte in, there are some dancing matte lines around it that while not apparent on the old analogue TVs of the 60s, can be seen with today's high definition presentation. But most fans are watching what's on the viewscreen, not what's around it, so I suppose it's an extraneous thing.