Seasons of Seasons: Star Trek Season 1, “The Squire of Gothos” & “Arena”

One of the enduring themes throughout Star Trek, and a good deal of sci-fi, is in how we, as humans, are an inferior species, both technologically and mentally. It’s not only a way to build out the universe within the show, but a smart but subtle way to criticize the world of its time, whether it be for national politics or a war or a culture clash – and the 60s certainly had no shortage of all three of these. It plays into both episodes this week, creating tension in different ways that we’ve seen versions of already this season, but the execution is handled in mostly fun ways.

We’ve already seen a great deal of memorable guest stars this season who have either played foil or ally to Kirk and the Enterprise, but William Campbell’s Trelane belongs near the top of that list. Trelane manages to be both menacing and pathetic at the same time, and it’s all due to Campbell’s performance. It keeps The Squire of Gothos entertaining, even though it’s a situation we’ve seen repeated already this season. Kirk and Sulu begin the episode by being randomly transported to an unknown planet. After Bones and a few others beam down to rescue them, they realize they’re at the mercy of Trelane, a non-human being who has an affinity for “primitive” Earth time periods and affectations.

The chess match between Kirk and Trelane provides for a rather thrilling hour; I would have thought that Kirk’s destruction of the mirror would be the end of things but it escalates the rest of the episode to make the stakes even higher. Though, if Spock and Kirk would have traded places, making for a battle of logic versus the unexplainable, it would make for an epic struggle. That the Futurama episode Where No Fan Has Gone Before lifted the finale of The Squire of Gothos almost beat-for-beat just shows the influence of the episode almost 40 years later.

With Arena, it’s surprising how beautifully simple the stakes of the episode are. It’s a little remarkable how dramatically the show has shifted from its early goings, when most of the episode were contained chamber pieces that mostly took place among the Enterprise and dealt with psychological or existential issues. This episode starts out with a bang – including a scene full of literal explosions – and the first act is full of action. The second half of the episode is just as tight, but is smaller in scale, with Kirk going mano-a-mano against the lizard-like Gorn. Of course, by today’s standards, the Gorn is a goofy piece of costuming, something straight out of a foreign low-grade monster movie, but I’ll never not enjoy the schlockier sides of Star Trek.

We know through 60 years of TV tropes that the solution to Kirk versus the Gorn is for him to show mercy rather than killing him, which plays into the theme of humanity’s primitive nature. But it fits within the theme of Star Trek, where the Enterprise crew has to show it deserves to persevere in this universe. Though both of these episodes aren’t exactly fresh in their approaches, they remain among the more fun entries in the more expansive set of episodes that we’ve seen lately.

The Squire of Gothos Grade: A-

Arena Grade: A-

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