My Favorite Martians: The Gorn
If there’s one thing that the original Star Trek series teaches us, it’s that aliens are people too. Several notable episodes involve Captain Kirk and his extraterrestrial foes overcoming their natural antagonism and realizing that they don’t have to kill…today.
The 1967 episode “Arena” is credited as an adaptation of Fredric Brown’s short story of the same name, but it’s more likely that the production team recognized the similarity between their script and Brown’s earlier work and chose to cover their asses. All the two have in common is the basic premise: a human and an alien forced by a higher power to settle their interspecies war through one-on-one combat.
The action begins on the planet Cestus III, where the Federation unknowingly has built a fort within territory claimed by another interstellar power. Investigating the destruction of the human colony, Captain Kirk’s landing party is shelled by an unseen foe, while the starship Enterprise is attacked by an unidentified vessel. Returning to his ship, Kirk sets off to destroy the fleeing enemy before it can report back to its home base.
The two craft are abruptly stopped dead in flight by the Metrons, textbook examples of Snotty, Nigh-Omnipotent Beings (or S.N.O.B.s). They resent having their space invaded for the purpose of conflict, so they intend to resolve the dispute through, er, conflict. Specifically, they teleport Kirk and his counterpart to a planetary arena for a fight to the death, with the loser’s starship and crew to be destroyed.
Only then do we get a look at the Gorn. For mid ’60s TV, it’s a pretty spectacular creation: a six-foot lizard man with iridescent eyes, rockin’ a sporty tunic. It’s one of only a handful of full-blown, rubber suit monsters to appear in the original Trek. With a hissing voice, the Gorn promises Kirk a “swift and merciful death” if he will only surrender.
Kirk, being Kirk, ultimately prevails, using naturally-occurring mineral deposits to create gunpowder and wound the creature. But he refuses to land the killing blow, reasoning that the Gorn may simpy have been trying to protect its people when it attacked the fort. The Metrons are impressed by this demonstration of “the advanced trait of mercy,” never mind that they themselves intended to annihilate several hundred bystanders just to make a point about the savagery of less enlightened species. Instead, they allow both combatants to return unharmed to their ships.
It wasn’t the first time that Star Trek would preach understanding of Those Not Like Us, and it wouldn’t be the last. A couple of months later, Kirk would be cozying up to an even more inhuman creature, the Horta: a silicon-based glob that kills miners on Janus VI after they destroy some of its rock-like eggs. The message: if we can make friends with a deep-dish pizza, then perhaps there’s hope for our mutual understanding of other human cultures.
The Gorn themselves wouldn’t make another live-action appearance until 2005, during the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Too bad, really, because I’d take a lizard in a tunic over a bumpy-headed, Shakespeare-quoting Klingon any stardate.