79 Years Ago, A Classic Star Trek Villain Was Created — Before Star Trek Even Existed
The Gorn are back in the Strange New Worlds Season 2 finale, but their origins go all the way back to 1944.
Everyone knows Captain Kirk first fought the Gorn in the classic Star Trek episode “Arena,” which aired on January 19, 1967. But when you do a deep dive into the origins of this episode, the bizarre truth is “Arena” and the Gorn predate the TV show. As Strange New Worlds continues to reinvent the Gorn and put the canon of “Arena” in a new light, it’s time to revisit a story that existed two decades before Star Trek even existed.
The storyline of “Arena” is familiar even to casual sci-fi fans: after chasing a Gorn spaceship that attacked a human colony, Kirk and the Gorn Captain are whisked to a “suitably prepared world” by a super-powered alien species called The Metrons. They want Kirk and the Gorn to duke it out hand-to-hand and settle their conflict forever. Kirk eventually cobbles together a working cannon using DIY gunpowder and wounds the Gorn. However, Kirk famously refuses to deliver a fatal blow, professing his desire to let his enemy live. This gesture of mercy makes the Metrons believe humans aren’t so bad, and everyone lives happily ever after.
This endpoint with the Gorn is in the future for Pike and his Strange New Worlds crew, but the sci-fi concept of “Arena” actually predates Star Trek. In 1967, Original Series producer Gene Coon shared writing credit with author Fredric Brown on “Arena,” because Coon accidentally ripped Brown off when he wrote the script.
“Arena” Before Star Trek
Because Gene L. Coon was essentially what we’d now call a showrunner, he often wrote scripts when the show ran low on new stories. “Arena” was an example of a script Coon wrote very quickly to get Star Trek back on track. When script researcher Joan Pearce gave “Arena” its legal review, she noticed it was very similar to a 1944 short story by Fredric Brown, also called “Arena.” Coon accidentally plagiarized chunks of Brown’s story, so Brown was offered a story credit.
Just how similar are the stories? In the June 1944 issue of Astounding, “Arena” opens with a space pilot named Carson who’s found himself on an alien world covered in blue sand. Carson is naked and has to quickly figure out how to survive, all while battling an alien from a group called the Outsiders. Carson’s adversary is something he calls a Roller because it’s a metal ball with tentacles. At one point, the Roller throws a lizard creature at Carson, which makes the story seem similar to Trek’s “Arena.”
If you squint, Carson is similar to Captain Kirk, and his ingenuity and ability to adapt allows him to defeat the Roller and the Outsiders. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, this type of story was common in Astounding. Influential editor John Campbell favored stories in which men defeated impossible odds simply because they were smarter and stronger. Had Campbell been in charge of shepherding the Trek version of “Arena,” you can bet it would have ended with Kirk slaying the Gorn, not sparing him.
Gorn, but not forgotten
While the original “Arena” has a bit of 1940s machismo, it’s a fun, fascinating read outside of its relationship to the much more famous Star Trek episode. Brown’s action is quick, the world-building is nimble, and there’s something legitimately gripping about the story that the Trek “Arena” lacks.
In Brown’s “Arena,” you’ll find yourself frightened by the fight-or-flight reality of Carson’s battle with the Roller. When we watch the 1967 Star Trek “Arena” today, we’re more impressed with the philosophy than the action. While the design of Way Chang’s Gorn costume is amazing, it’s not like anyone can really watch Kirk fight the Gorn with a straight face. The best way to enjoy “Arena” is to enjoy the brazenness of the themes that classic Star Trek often presented. The best Original Series scripts are like this; they feel like pulpy sci-fi stories from decades prior, but with a humanist twist.
In the 1944 “Arena,” Carson brutally stabs the Roller, and we learn this was kind of a Matrix-ish battle in which the physical combat was a metaphysical representation of an entire conflict between space fleets. Carson later awakens and realizes his actions have caused the entire Outsider fleet to be turned to dust.
The stakes in Trek’s “Arena” are way more literal, as the Metrons have told Kirk and the Gorn that the outcome of their fight will resolve the overall conflict between their people. What makes “Arena” so special is that it’s an episode about a physical fight that ends with Kirk laying down his weapons. And so, while it has the trappings of the 1944 “Arena,” its message is the opposite.
In a way, the conflict with the Gorn on Strange New Worlds is closer to the 1944 “Arena” than the Star Trek “Arena.” Strange New Worlds presents a battle with the Gorn that feels dangerous and frightening, and at this point in the Trek timeline, the idea of showing the Gorn mercy feels foolish. When Spock and Chapel fight a Gorn in zero gravity amid the wreckage of the USS Cayuga, they’re not thinking about making peace with it. Spock taking out the Gorn in “Hegemony” makes him more like Carson than Kirk.
In the final pages of James Blish’s novelization of Star Trek’s “Arena” (a third version of the story!) Kirk feels like he’s not ready to talk to Spock about his experience fighting the Gorn. In all three versions, the hero keeps some of the experience to himself. In the 1944 version, Carson stays quiet out of self-preservation. But for Kirk, there’s a sense of sanctification, of knowing he did the right thing and not needing to brag about it. And in that small, specific way, the Trek “Arena” is still the best version of the story, because it does something sci-fi couldn’t in 1944; let the hero be kind and humble.
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