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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. Bret
    June 24, 2013 @ 3:05 am

    I always liked the Gorn in (tabletop, old school) StarFleet Battles. They had great ships, good shields and phasers plus plasma torpedoes, which were a lot more fun than photon torpedoes. Dunno that they are technologically inferior. I think in terms of the setting/system they ended up actually in the Federation at some point. Yay, assimilation?


  2. Ununnilium
    June 24, 2013 @ 5:49 am

    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.

    Ehhhhhh. It's been all those things at some point, but none of those things are universal, or even "more often than not", I'd say. (Well, except for the imperialism part. That's definitely more often than not, at least post-Monroe Doctrine.)


  3. Ununnilium
    June 24, 2013 @ 6:03 am

    Also, I'd say that one reason Arena is the more famous is that it makes its anti-war theme into the triumph of the episode and the resolution of the climax, whereas Balance of Terror has it as a thing the entire episode is soaked in. In other words, the episode that's colorful and fun and anti-war is generally going to be better-received than the one that's grueling and grim and anti-war, at least in the era that Star Trek fandom formed in.


  4. BerserkRL
    June 24, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    the whole idea some civilizations are straight-up “superior”, “more advanced” and “more civilized” is undistilled Social Darwinism

    Not sure I follow that. How can an idea that predates Social Darwinism by thousands of years be "undistilled Social Darwinism"?

    It's not obviously false either. Imagine two cultures just alike except one has slavery and one doesn't. Why shouldn't we call the second superior or more advanced?


  5. BerserkRL
    June 24, 2013 @ 7:38 am

    Even the name “Metron” is derived from “Metatron”, a Judaic angel with a Greek name meaning “instrument of change”.

    Why assume the name "Metron" comes from "Metatron," rather than from, y'know, the actual Greek word "Metron" (meaning a standard or measure)?


  6. BerserkRL
    June 24, 2013 @ 7:42 am

    Is it worth mentioning how radically different the ending moral of this episode is, in comparison with the Fredric Brown story it's based on?


  7. Josh Marsfelder
    June 24, 2013 @ 7:58 am

    I would say the society without slavery would be a fairer, more just society than the one that has it. Certainly I'd call it the better one; the healthier one and the one I'd be more willing to live under. Calling it "advanced" or "more civilized" however implies a deterministic teleological conception of societal development I'm not at all in favour of. That's the mentality behind a lot of problematic international development policies (both modernistic and based on dependency theory) which have historically not really been of much help to those they were supposedly put in place for.

    The term "Civilized" brings to mind, at least to me, old world apologists claiming European colonialism is preferable to communalism or hunter/gatherer societies because it's more "civilized", i.e., more technoscientific, complicated, centralized and Christian.


  8. Josh Marsfelder
    June 24, 2013 @ 8:03 am

    Because I believe Coon intended it to be a reference, or at least that's the consensus speculation, as Memory Alpha mentions this interpretation. But you're right, seeing it as a reference to the unit of measurement works too. It's still Greek, though.


  9. Josh Marsfelder
    June 24, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    According to Solow and Justman in Inside Star Trek, "Arena" wasn't based on the Frederic Brown story: It was an entirely different, original treatment Coon came up with on his own over the course of one weekend unaware of the existence of Brown's "Arena" and that just happened to coincidentally resemble it in a number of places. Once Coon was made aware of the Astounding Science Fiction short story, he graciously credited the story to Brown, then called him up and asked if it was OK to "adapt" "Arena" for Star Trek.


  10. Cleofis
    June 24, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

    God that's refreshing to hear after all the Roddenberry stories.


  11. trekker709
    June 25, 2013 @ 1:25 am

    According to Memory Alpha, in the original script the Metrons had planned to destroy the winner’s ship (not the loser’s as in the aired version) because they would be the greater threat to their species. Either way, the Metrons don’t really seem more civilized or non-violent, they just live centuries longer and have more powerful technology. Instead of encouraging diplomacy, they force a gladiator-style duel. Perhaps Kirk’s final refusal to kill his antagonist is the real “instrument of change” while the Metron acts more like the Greek gods he resembles.
    Allan Asherman’s book on ST says of this episode, “Gene Coon’s scripts share a common theme: a firm conviction that prejudice must be conquered if mankind is ever to take its place alongside other intelligent civilizations. This is one of the greatest reasons for Star Trek’s continued popularity.” Maybe the intent was to focus on prejudice rather than war or technology -?
    Great food for thought in these analyses…can’t help thinking though, that approaching TOS in terms of how the US has come across in the recent past, is probably quite different from seeing the stories in the context of the 60’s. IMHO, that contrast, flawed as it was, explains much of Trek’s attraction.


  12. Jacob Nanfito
    June 25, 2013 @ 4:36 am

    Just for fun —

    Have you seen this recent ad for the latest Trek videogame?


  13. Josh Marsfelder
    June 25, 2013 @ 6:47 am

    Yes-The idea the victor's ship was forfeit and the Metrons were lying was also reinstated in the James Blish novelization of "Arena". I figured I'd bring that up when I cover Blish eventually.

    That's a pretty good summary of Coon's overall philosophy, IMO. That said, it's a bit too early to be summing up his tenure-We do, after all, have a whole other season with him. The way I approach these is I generally try to take each episode at a time and look at how each individually contributes to what Star Trek eventually becomes.

    As for my comment about the United States, that was more intended to explain the merits and demerits of a federation as a system of government. That said I'd probably quibble with your assertion the US has only been imperialistic and authoritarian in the "recent" past-IMO it has quite a long and storied history of that sort of behaviour.

    As a general rule I do, of course, try to approach the TOS episodes from a late-1960s context. An aside though: I can't ignore what Star Trek becomes or the way it's perceived today either. This central tension is a major theme of the blog at this point.


  14. Josh Marsfelder
    June 25, 2013 @ 6:55 am

    I sort of wish the entire game had just been William Shatner and a dude in a Gorn suit bantering over a video game console. It could have been Retro Game Challenge: Star Trek Edition. Would have been a damn sight more interesting then the buggy, laggy, bald-faced scam of a game we got.

    Incidentally, I look at something like this and immediately read a franchise desperately trying to exorcise its hokey, embarrassing past so it can usher in the young, slick, sexy new definitive version of itself. It…brings back unpleasant memories for me.

    All that being said the commercial itself was definitely fun.


  15. Jacob Nanfito
    June 25, 2013 @ 7:38 am

    LoL. Sorry — didn't mean to evoke unpleasant memories.

    I've heard the game sucks … I haven't played it.

    When I see the commercial I think, "this commercial is much better than the crappy Abrams movies. Shatner could still out-Kirk that Pine dude" — but that's just crusty old me.

    Still, the commercial speaks to your point about "Arena" being some of the most iconic Trek in the popular imagination. I think the version of Kirk on display there is how the character is most remembered by the general public. I get the appeal — it's a fun episode, the Gorn is awesome, and I can't help but root for Kirk. Star Trek has done some great, intricate storytelling, but, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, sometimes you just wanna see Kirk punch a giant lizard.


  16. Josh Marsfelder
    June 25, 2013 @ 7:49 am

    Oh no, I completely agree. It very much speaks to "Arena" being one of the most iconic pieces of Trek history, even down to the fact the Gorn are featured in the new game at all.

    And Shatner is, of course, brilliant as always. He remains as active and passionate an actor, performer and personality now as he ever was, which just continues to drive home for me how distasteful it is to see him portrayed as old, feeble and washed up.


  17. trekker709
    June 27, 2013 @ 12:25 am

    I totally agree about the way the US has often acted through history —was only suggesting that in the 60’s the Soviet Union as the other superpower, with the threat of nuclear war, made a significant difference (among others).
    If you don’t mind my asking – this journey seems to be a serious, comprehensive reconstruction of the development of the Trek phenomenon — so I don’t see how the quotes from fantasy / role playing games connect? in any case- much appreciated blog.


  18. Josh Marsfelder
    June 27, 2013 @ 7:28 am

    "…this journey seems to be a serious, comprehensive reconstruction of the development of the Trek phenomenon…"

    Only partially 🙂

    When reduced down to its extreme core essence, yes, I suppose it is. But there's a lot more involved in a project like this then just that.


  19. Iain Coleman
    June 28, 2013 @ 12:28 am

    I'm rather partial to the Blake's 7 spin on this story, "Duel", in which the powerful aliens are sadistic perverts, the duel itself is pointless, no one learns anything and Blake's final refusal to kill Travis is an act of precision-guided cruelty.


  20. K. Jones
    July 23, 2013 @ 10:58 pm

    You can hardly mention Christianity in conjunction with this episode's roots, and not draw a line from the Gorn Captain and Kirk's monologue about 'our revulsion toward reptiles' and the Biblical Serpent himself. (Or perhaps more appropriately, The Dragon).

    The thing is, where this episode leaves you when we learn that the Gorn were in the right, legally speaking, is that it's a thin line you walk. Kirk puts his faith in mercy and it's rewarded, and it's implied the Gorn would not have been so merciful; in spite of being nearly equally advanced in technology, the Gorn when it comes to behavioral reaction operate on a more instinctual level. Their assault on Cestus III was self-defense. The Gorn not being likely to show Kirk mercy would be self-defense.

    It's another piece of Classic Trek showing the merit of forgoing your baser instincts for the good of the many.

    Or to put it another way, God spoke to Kirk, and Kirk forgave The Old Dragon.


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