|“IF WE FIGHT LIKE ANIMALS, WE DIE LIKE ANIMALS!”|
Arguably the most memorable episode of the Original Series’ first season, there’s an awful lot going on with “Arena”, and all of it is deserving of our attention: This is the first episode actually written by Gene Coon, it boasts one of the most iconic extraterrestrial designs in the show’s history in the Gorn and three of the most iconic setpieces as well: Kirk’s brutal, drawn-out fistfight with the Gorn captain, his improvised tree-trunk cannon (which recently, as of this writing, saw an entire segment dedicated to it on MythBusters) and his climactic confrontation with the Metron where he refuses to kill his opponent after beating him. Also, for good measure, “Arena” also sees the debut of a little thing called the Federation. So, kind of a big story then.
Let’s get that last one out of the way first, as it’s by far the most interesting from the perspective of the future. Like the debut of Starfleet and Starfleet Command in “Court Martial”, this is primarily a nomenclature change at this point. Furthermore, the Federation is even less important to “Arena” then Starfleet was to “Court Martial”: In that episode at least the organisational structure of Starfleet Command was important to the main plot, here, the Federation is introduced with a single throwaway comment from Kirk and then never mentioned again. Nevertheless, the word choice here is interesting, to say the least. A “Federation” is by definition an alliance of self-governing political states with partial autonomy brought together by shared mutual interest. What it’s not is a colonial empire; at least not by default: An empire grows through colonization and militaristic conquest. Calling a centralized power a “federation” would at least *imply* a more co-operative arrangement.
In the past the world of Star Trek has been pretty clearly a galactic empire based on Earth: The overwhelming majority of places we’ve visited have been Earth colonies, and we’ve seen no other significant political power in the galaxy aside from the Romulan Star Empire, and they’re tucked safely away behind the Neutral Zone. That’s all changed as of “Arena”, however: The central twist of the episode is that the Gorn, who are introduced as an aggressive, warlike Other who cannot be reasoned with, turn out to be a highly sophisticated civilization in their own right who feel threatened by Federation expansion into their area of space. The Metrons’ lesson to both crews seems to be about stressing the importance of communication and diplomacy, it would seem that this might be what distinguishes the Federation from the former Earth Empire.
This is of course not to say a federation is incapable of being imperialistic. The oldest and most influential federation on *our* Earth is the United States, which is known nowadays primarily for its policies of economic and political imperialism built around manipulating diplomacy and trade sanctions and the fetishistic focus on neoliberal privatization resulting in a capitalistic tyranny that rewards only those who are already in an extremely privileged position while absolutely crushing and dehumanizing everyone else, not to mention being a general fascistic police state towards its citizenry.…