Review of Arena Remastered October 24, 2006by Jason Lee , Filed under: Review,TOS Remastered , trackback
When I was about six my father sat me down to watch a show with a guy in a yellow and black uniform fighting it out in the desert with a big, ugly, green skinned lizard. He told me it was called ‘Star Trek’ and I was hooked. I voraciously devoured every episode and, in through my formative years, the show and its characters became a central part of my worldview. My childhood hero was Captain James T. Kirk, and few episodes of the original series epitomized who and what he was better than my first episode: “Arena,” Now the Remastered version brings back all those memories and created some brand new ones…if you are looking close enough.
This week, the Enterprise is summoned to a remote outpost called Cestus III only to discover that it has been totally destroyed days earlier. They give chase to an alien ship, pursuing it into unexplored territory where both ships are suddenly immobilized by an advanced race of beings who call themselves the Metrons. Apparently they take exception to uninvited guests, especially when they are busy trying to kill each other. They pluck Kirk and the captain of the alien ship off their respective bridges and deposit them on a barren planetoid where they will be forced to fight to the death to settle their dispute. The winner and his ship will be allowed to go free while the loser’s ship will be destroyed. Through ingenuity and resourcefulness, Kirk eventually manages to defeat his opponent, a hissing, slow moving yet tremendously strong reptilian being called a Gorn, but refuses to deliver the killing blow. A Metron appears and congratulates Kirk for unexpectedly choosing mercy over vengeance, and both ships are allowed to go on their way.
On the surface, this appears to be a basic, action/adventure storyline about Kirk locked in mortal combat with a bug-eyed monster-of-the-week. It’s no wonder I loved it so much as a kid, with the two combatants chasing each other through desert cliffs and canyons, dropping boulders on each other and improvising traps like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, but in the classic Star Trek style, it also has a lot more sophisticated things to say about the human condition and where we’re headed as a species. It’s a clever analysis of the human tendency to react violently when provoked and a thoughtful commentary on the futility of retribution. Kirk is not really at his best in this episode, jumping to conclusions about the motives of the Gorn, determined to punish them for their aggression, and refusing to even listen to Spock’s attempts at moderation. He’s about as “unevolved” as he ever gets while in full possession of his own faculties, almost to the point where the object lesson he presents becomes a little too obvious. Only after the Gorn captain tells him why they attacked Cestus III, because they viewed it as an invasion of their territory, does he begin to consider the possibility that the Federation might have been in the wrong. As with last week’s episode, “I, Mudd,” I find this one interesting for the fact that humans are portrayed as not too different from the way we are today, still prone to age-old human failings and impulses but also capable of overcoming them. In the Original Series, the stories tended to be about the characters learning these lessons, whereas in TNG and beyond, they were more often about the characters preaching them.
Wile E. Kirkote…Supra Genius
Of Gods and Men
One thing that does bug me about this episode is the apparent hypocrisy of the Metrons who claim to be highly advanced and civilized but whose actions seem to contradict their principles, from the violent, brute force nature of the contest to the penalty of total destruction they plan to inflict on the loser. I suppose one could argue that it was all just an elaborate test to evaluate the worthiness of both species and the Metrons never intended to destroy either of them, but that still makes them little better than all the other arrogant, meddlesome, god-like beings that seem to proliferate throughout the Trek universe. On the one hand, this episode seems to be saying that we should seek understanding and not be so quick to judge and inflict violence, but on the other hand it also seems to be saying that if you’re sufficiently superior to someone else—or think you are—then you can threaten them, manipulate them and pass judgment on them at your leisure, and are even justified in doing so. The Metrons may have taught Kirk a valuable lesson, but they sure didn’t do it by example.
Reality Show Host or Superior Being?
Blink and You’ll Miss It
Probably one of the coolest visual enhancements in this episode is also one of the most subtle. Soon after the Gorn captain makes his first appearance, he does something the original costume designers probably never dreamed was possible, at least not on their budget. He blinks! Both there and at several other points throughout the episode, we see that he actually has eyelids to cover those big, silver sequined eyeballs of his. It’s truly amazing just how much more life-like this makes the Gorn appear. As others have mentioned, CBS Digital has been doing a really bang-up job so far on the live-action stuff, even if their space shots leave a little to be desired, and what they’ve done to the Gorn is no exception.
Another notable enhancement is the high-angle wide-shot of the colony on Cestus III, or what’s left of it. In the original version of this shot, there was a big metal girder or piece of wreckage across the top of the frame, probably to hide something in the background like a telephone pole or a parking lot that would have spoiled the illusion of an alien planet in the far reaches of the galaxy. That has been removed and filled in with a vista of rugged hills and blue sky. They have also added a lot of detail beyond the rampart wall of the colony, a whole city of blasted and broken structures stretching far into the distance. Finally, a large, smoking crater has been added in the lower left corner of the frame. The planet itself has gotten a significant makeover as seen from orbit. Originally, it was mostly red while the new version is more of a greenish-orange. Presumably they were trying to be more consistent with the desert and scrub brush appearance of the live action shots. I also notice that the planet is not fully sunlit for a change, but the lighting on the ship doesn’t seem to match it very well.
Now the planets match lanscapes
The space scenes are fairly unremarkable, although they’re using a much darker and more backlit lighting scheme on the Enterprise in many of the shots. This seems to be an improvement in some ways with the effect being more dramatic and less washed out, but the lighting still looks off and in one or two cases is just plain dark. There’s a variety of weapons fire in this episode with the Enterprise unleashing both phasers and, for the first time in the remastered episodes, photon torpedoes. In most of the original episodes, the ship’s phasers were blue and appeared to be emitted from the front of the lower sensor dome on the bottom of the primary hull, but in this episode the phasers were inexplicably red and came from points considerably further forward. For the remastered version, they have chosen to standardize the phaser effect with blue beams and the emitters in their usual locations. The new photon torpedoes look much like the old ones did except they have also changed color from white to red. I’m guessing this is a consistency nod to the red photon torpedoes seen throughout almost all the rest of Star Trek history both on television and in the movies. For both the phasers and photons, a nice ambient glow from the weapons has been added to the underside of the ship’s hull as they fire.
Phasers Blue, Photons Red…got it!
Last but not least, the Gorn ship has apparently been added to the viewscreen image during the pursuit, but it pretty much looked like an indistinct blob of light on my screen at SD resolution over analog cable. If I hadn’t been told otherwise, I would have assumed it was actually the Metron solar system, which makes more sense in context with the dialogue. I also noticed during the scenes prior to them being brought to a screeching halt that the stars were flying past REALLY fast on the viewscreen. We’re talking ludicrous speed here, almost plaid! I know they were supposed to be doing warp eight but yikes! I don’t think I’ve ever seen the stars go by that fast even in the later series when they were using warp scales on a whole higher order of magnitude.
All in all, a classic episode of Star Trek and one that holds a special place in my heart for having addicted me to the show in the first place and having helped in no small way to form my attitudes and opinions about many things in life. I never had one of those “Everything I need to know in life I learned from Star Trek” posters, but I probably should have.
Jason Lee is a lighting designer and computer graphics specialist. Better known by his online moniker, “Vektor,” he owns and operates Vektor Visual, a graphic design and 3D visualization studio, and is working on his own CG update of the special effects from numerous original Star Trek episodes.