Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: "The Squire Of Gothos" / "Arena"

Illustration for article titled Star Trek: "The Squire Of Gothos" / "Arena"

There's the universe, and the universe is basically everything. Inside the universe are things called galaxies—and there are a ton of these, probably around a 100 billion. And inside each galaxy are suns and around those suns are planets. Some of those planets can support life. Hopefully, some of those planets already do.

And if we go by Star Trek, at least two-thirds of that life consists of godlike-beings who want nothing more than to screw around with James T. Kirk.

The first time I went through this set (a year or two back, I think), I was amazed by two things: the shows held up much better than I was expecting, and the writers used the "like flies to wanton boys" plot, on average, at least six times per episode. Okay, so my math wasn't very good back then (I'd invented a drink that mixed Wild Turkey, Benadryl, and some pink stuff my dad bought me for my car that I think was supposed to be windshield wiper fluid. Most of what I remember of the past five years is in black and white and has subtitles), but whatever the actual numbers are, the god-plot happens a lot in TOS. It's the kind of mechanic that allows for a lot of fluidity in story-telling; the "science" of Trek is already loose enough to allow some breathing room, but an all-powerful alien force makes anything possible. The reason we're frightened of the unknown is that we can't predict it, but from a story-telling perspective, that's actually a benefit. You can have, say, a spoiled brat conjuring castles and planets out of the void, or a man-child in a silver dress freezing a star-ship, and because we don't know that these things are impossible, we accept it.

Of course, that sort of thing can get old—you keep taking away the rules, eventually your audience is going to get bored. Because if anything can happen, when it does, there's no reason to be surprised or delighted or engaged. The trick is to use the ability sparingly, and either have it be a means to an end, or else make sure the being with the magical powers has a distinctive enough personality that their abilities are less of interest then they are. The latter is the tack that "Squire of Gothos" takes, and it works beautifully; while the episode is in some way reminiscent of "Charlie X," all the way down to the ending, "Squire" is by far the superior, enough to make any familiarity seem irrelevant, and to earn it a place as one of TOS's most deservedly iconic hours.

Both eps this week are wonderfully structured; in "Squire," we open with the Enterprise finding an uncharted planet seemingly incapable of supporting life. Before anyone can do much about it, Sulu and Kirk disappear from the bridge, and we get to watch Spock and the crew trying to figure out what's going on. Kirk's gone adventuring before, but this is a rare case where we don't actually follow him on the trip, and that change, though small, does a nice job of setting the hook. It gets weirder when one of the screens on the bridge displays the words, "Greetings and Felicitations," followed by "Hip-Hip-Hoorah. Tallyho!" (Nimoy's reaction here is hilarious.) The message appears to be coming from the one spot on the planet below with life forms, so Spock sends McCoy and two men, Jaeger and DeSalle, down to investigate. For once, we get a sense of a landing party being selected rather than assumed, as Scotty volunteers, but Spock, wisely enough, says it's more important he stays on the ship.

Instead of the hellscape they were expecting (for once, they even wore air-masks!), McCoy and the others find an environment remarkably like Earth's, with breathable air, plant-life, and your standard-issue castle. Inside the castle is a drawing room with a number of trophies on display, including the salt monster from "The Man Trap," what appears to be a crocodile head over the mantle, and, most importantly, the frozen forms of Kirk and Sulu. McCoy takes a reading and can't make heads or tails of it, but just when things couldn't get anymore confusing, a stranger appears in period garb, does a few riffs on a harpsichord, and sets Kirk and Sulu free. The stranger introduces himself as General Trelane, now retired, and informs the puzzled crewmen that they are guests on planet Gothos. Trelane's been observing Earth for some time, and, apparently, he wants some friends. Well, maybe not friends; friendship implies roughly equal status. This is more like a Elmyra from Tiny Toons getting a home delivery from the pet store.

Squire Trelane is that most terrifying of creatures, a brat who expects to get exactly what he wants with the power to make that expectation a reality. Like Charlie X, he can do just about anything, but unlike Charlie, there's not an emo bone in the twerp's body. It makes the episode a lot more fun to watch; in the title role, William Campbell is demanding, energetic, and endlessly delighted with himself. The serious captain/whimsical threat dynamic is one that Trek would return to again and again, and while it would get more dramatically complex over the years, there's something pure right here at the source. Campbell hits the ideal funny/annoying balance, and the dynamic between him and the various crew-members he torments is terrific.

Of special note is the way the Enterprise's resident straight man (in comedy terms, not sexuality; Kirk'd screw anything if it took the time to put on a mini-skirt, but McCoy's just a pipe and smoking jacket away from hitting a 0 on the Kinsey Scale), Mr. Spock, handles the crisis. After the first group to encounter Trelane makes a brief escape back to the ship, the squire magicks himself onto the bridge and steals away most everyone there, including the first group, the Yeoman of the Week, Uhura, and Spock. Unsurprisingly, the half-Vulcan takes an instant dislike to His Twerpishness, and when Trelane calls him on it, Spock responds with the best line of the episode: "I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose." It's simple, straightforward, and all kinds of bad-ass. Nimoy delivers it without ornamentation, and the dignity he conveys without just a few calm sentences makes Trelane seem about as impressive as a five year-old with a box of matches.

Which is appropriate, given how things wind up. We've got another deus ex machine, but while that's usually death to good writing, it works here because it feels like an organic plot development; in one sense, the writers put themselves in an impossible spot, but once you've seen how they choose to get out of that spot, you can't imagine it going anywhere else. In terms of build-up, "Squire" never feels like a series of fake-outs in order to pull us through to the last five minutes, although that's what it is—the crew never gives up on defeating Trelane, despite the hopelessness of it, so we never give up ourselves.

For example, there's the business with a mirror that may or may not conceal a device Trelane may or may not be using to do all the crazy things he does; Kirk takes a risk and manages to manipulate the situation to a point where he can shoot the mirror out. There is a machine behind it, and that machine is wrecked, but it's all for naught, since Trelane didn't really need it. (I suppose Tommy will be pleased, at least.) In a way that's sort of a cheat, but given that we never really know exactly how Trelane operates, I'd argue that it's an acceptable cheat. And since we're all trained to expect magic bullet solutions in situations like these, it's a decent twist to have someone succeed at something only to find that the success doesn't work out quite the way they'd hoped. In the end, Kirk is left in a one-on-one fight against a creature who can do whatever he wants and can't stand losing; but just when things are at there darkest, two blobs of colored light appear in the sky and tell Trelane it's time to put away his toys and come home. Again, this is a lot like "Charlie X," but while Charlie's predicament was played for pathos, this one is done largely for laughs. It works, too; even knowing what's coming, I still get a kick out hearing Trelane's mom tell him to go to his room. (There are a lot of nice visual effects in this episode; I loved how the spotlight on Trelane gradually tightens until both it and he disappear.)

There's something terrifying in the idea that a race of beings with the power to warp space and time might have kids running around, but I guess when you have all of cosmos and eternity to play in, it's important to find ways to keep yourself occupied. Some folks create new versions of themselves to instruct, while others prefer to out-source the whole parenting thing by interfering in the lives of significantly less powerful alien races. Such is the case of our second episode this week, "Arena." Here's another one you've probably heard referenced, even if you haven't seen the original—it introduces us to a race of irritable space lizards (aka, the Gorn), and the second half features Kirk struggling against one of the Gorn in a duel that will determine the fate of the Enterprise. If your wondering where Guy's "rudimentary lathe" line in Galaxy Quest came from, look no further.

Our heroes have just gotten an invite from Commodore Travers of Cestus III; he wants everybody to come down for a meal and chit-chat, and, given past experience, Kirk can tell you that the Commodore's meals are very much worth the time. (I love the nice touch here that McCoy et al are really jonesing for a "home-cooked" meal. Makes you wonder what synthesized food tastes like. Is there that much of a difference, or is the good doctor just hungry for a change in atmosphere?) Weirdly enough, Travers makes a special point of requesting Kirk bring his tactical crew with him. This sets off a few alarm bells for Spock, but everyone still beams down to the planet as planned; there they find that Cestus III has been laid to waste, and whoever did the waste-laying immediately sets to work bumping off Kirk and his men. It's a trap, and soon the Enterprise is under attack as well.

As with "Squire," the hook is set fast in "Arena"; but unlike "Squire," we get two premises combined instead of just having one develop over time. The first premise has the landing party fighting against an unseen (and clearly well-armed) enemy. We actually don't find out who the opponent is until well into the episode—before then, all we have to go on is that they're cold-blooded, and there's a lot of them. Oh, and they got some nasty guns, that's probably relevant. The sequence planetside is effectively tense; that tenseness generally translates as Kirk running around and the occasional red-shirt getting toasted (we even get a classic "Captain, I see somethiZAP" moment), but it works. Shatner gets in a tuck and roll and some serpentine running action, so I'm sure it was a happy day of filming for him. We're reminded of James T.'s love of his ship, as he orders Sulu to make an escape even though the Enterprise can't beam the landing party back aboard through their defense screens. We lose a couple crewmen, and find a survivor near death, before Kirk remembers the planet's arsenal, and manages to launch a missle at where he and Spock presume the enemy to be. The attack works—maybe a little too well, really—and the aliens flee, allowing everyone planetside to escape to the ship.

Kirk has his blood up now; as we've seen in "Balance of Terror," an attack on an Earth outpost is never a good sign, and the most obvious conclusion to make here is that whoever blew up Cestus III is prepping for a full-scale invasion. This is supported by the fact that the Enterprise was lured in—apparently, they're the only ship in the quadrant capable of defending against an outside force. (Which is interesting; I guess the Enterprise does policing duty in between its more scholarly pursuits?) The lone survivor of the attack describes a slaughter, and Kirk makes the decision: pursuit, and destruction. It's the only way to be sure.

Really, a lot of the set-up of "Arena" matches "Balance," which makes it even more of a surprise when things make a sharp veer left to our other premise in the second act. (Or is it third? I can never remember if hour-long shows are considered five acts or three.) As Kirk grows more anxious to catch-up with the enemy, the enemy suddenly comes to a dead stop; and when the Enterprise moves to engage, they find themselves caught as well. There's a light show on the monitor, and a booming voice informs the crew that they've just stumbled into the Metrons' neighborhood, and the Metrons are not pleased. Like nearly ever super-intelligent race, the Metrons have decided that humans are too warlike and savage to be trusted (it's funny how such a huge chunk of sci-fi seems structured as an apology for war and the atom bomb; maybe in the absence of a God who'll listen, we find it necessary to create substitutes that we can beg for forgiveness), so it's time for some Reality TV, space-style. Kirk gets snagged from the bridge and finds himself on the standard "rock and dirt" planet, and along with him is the captain of the alien ship. The Metrons named the other race the "Gorn," which is as much name as we ever get, but really, all you need to know is that it's a SPACE LIZARD. Wearing a rather fetching cave-man outfit, as well.

The Kirk/Gorn fight is one for the ages; the combat on Trek isn't really up to modern standards in terms of pacing or choreography, but there's a certain charm to it nonetheless. The Gorn movies very slowly, but it's a strong mofo—the initial wrestling convinces Kirk that his best bet is to try and construct the weapon that the Metrons promised would be available. (This promise calls their motives into question; they claim, in that infuriatingly snooty manner that these things always use, to look down on humankind's violence, but all this seems like the perfect excuse to get some hand-to-hand action in without having to get their own hands dirty in the process. It would've been awesome to learn that the whole set-up was the space equivalent of a wrestling match on Pay-Per-View.) Kirk dictates his plans into the "recorder" the Metrons provided, but what he doesn't realize is that the recorder, which looks suspiciously like an electric razor, is actually a direct communicator to the Gorn, who listens to Kirk's plans and moves accordingly. It puts a hilarious spin on things when Kirk talks about how he hopes he's got cleverness on his side.

While the Gorn constructs an elaborate rope and rock trap, Kirk comments on the scenery (Kirk on diamonds: "Perhaps the hardest substance known in the universe." Is he speaking for the benefit of Ms. Johnson's third grade class?), and does some rock throwing of his own. The battle weighs heavy on him and his opponent, and once the Gorn lets Kirk know about the whole communicator/recorder thing, Kirk learns that the Gorns attacked Cestus III because it was an intrusion into their territory. In their eyes, it was the Earthmen who were invading, and they responded accordingly. This doesn't erase the fact that the Gorns went on a massacre without bothering to make their problems known to anyone, nor does it fully explain why they were so eager to get the Enterprise involved, but it does make the previously black-and-white situation a lot more gray. (Shades of cowboys and indians here, as well.)

Just when things are at there darkest, Kirk manages to construct a handmade gun out of found deposits of nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal, and shoot the Gorn captain in the chest. It isn't a killing shot, though, and when it comes time for Kirk to finish the job, he demurs; given what he's learned of the Gorn's actions, he'd rather take his chances negotiating with the other race, rather than continue with the killing. The Metrons, impressed by Kirk's maturity, let him and the alien go, but not before revealing themselves to our hero, and telling him that, maybe in a thousand years or so, everybody can sit down for a chit-chat. Apparently, the human race is a promising "predator," and, given time, we may develop into someone worth knowing.

As always, we're left to peice together our own motives from the information given. The aliens in "Squire" and "Arena" are, by turns, fickle, arrogant, and uncompromising, and it's hard to take much comfort in their seeming omnipotence, even when that omnipotence appears just. If one of the main themes of TOS is the uncertainty of exploration, with that uncertainty comes the possibility that there are others out there, waiting between the stars, with far more experience and wisdom—and you have to wonder, given their love of screwing around with the humans they run across, who's pulling their strings?

"Squire Of Gothos": A
"Arena": A-

Stray Observations:

  • The dialogue in "Squire" is exceptionally good. I loved McCoy's "Straw would taste better than his meat, water would taste a hundred times better than his brandy."
  • What's a Nubian?
  • Watch Nimoy's expression when McCoy appeals to the Metrons in "the name of civilization." It's as close to an eye roll as one can get without actually rolling one's eyes.
  • Next week: "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" and "Court Martial"