Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fredric Brown on TV Part Five - Star Trek: Arena

by Jack Seabrook

Fredric Brown’s classic science fiction story “Arena” was first published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.  There is some controversy over whether it was a source for the “Fun and Games” episode of The Outer Limits (see my February 8, 2011 post on this site, along with the responses), but there is no disagreement that it was acknowledged as a source for the “Arena” episode of Star Trek, which was broadcast on January 19, 1967.
Briefly, the story concerns Bob Carson, an Earthman in space, who is whisked off to a strange planet to fight a representative of an enemy, alien race.  The planet has blue sand and the battle occurs beneath a blue dome; Carson is naked, and his opponent is a red, rolling sphere with tentacles that can retract when not in use.  An invisible barrier separates the combatants, and Carson must use his ingenuity to cross through the barrier and kill the enemy.  As a result, an omnipotent alien destroys the entire race of the loser, thus avoiding a catastrophic interspace battle.
According to the producers of Star Trek, Gene L. Coon handed in the script for that show’s adaptation of “Arena” unaware that it was similar to Brown’s short story. This time (unlike on The Outer Limits) the source was identified and permission was sought and granted by Fredric Brown.

Star Trek was hitting its stride by this episode and the characters had already fallen into familiar patterns.  This required considerable revision of the original short story.  The show begins as Captain Kirk & co. visit an outpost, “isolated, exposed, out on the edge of nowhere.”  They beam down to the planet, only to find that the colony of Cestus 3 has been destroyed.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are joined by three expendable crewmen.  As they explore the ruins of Cestus 3 they come under attack, as does The Enterprise, which is orbiting the planet in space.  Kirk does some nice serpentine running (reminiscent of Alan Arkin in The In-Laws), before getting the upper hand and driving the attackers back to their spaceship.  Kirk and crew return to their ship as well and he decides to act as space policeman and chase the enemy ship into a “largely unexplored section of the galaxy.”
The chase proceeds into deep space at high speed, until both ships approach an unknown solar system, where they are scanned by an unknown entity.  It is here, almost halfway through the episode, that parallels with the short story began to appear.  A race known as The Metrons holds both ships in place and announces that they will take each ship’s captain and transport them to a planet where they can engage in a fight to the death.  The winner’s ship will be spared; the loser’s will be destroyed.

Unlike the short story, where Carson finds himself on a strange planet and the alien voice tells him what is going on, the Star Trek crew gets the news in advance but cannot do anything about it.  Also, instead of destroying an entire race and preserving another, only the spaceships will be destroyed.  The Metrons say that they want future ships to stay away from their area of space; the omnipotent alien in the story has more altruistic goals, wanting to ensure that the surviving race is left strong enough to develop to its full potential.
Television special effects in 1966 (when “Arena” was filmed) did not allow for a rolling red ball with retractable tentacles, so Kirk’s enemy is one of the Gorn, who looks like a man in an alligator suit.  He has shiny silver eyes and wears a tunic, and he moves about as quickly as a zombie, which makes it hard to believe that Kirk is racing for his life to defeat the creature.
Kirk’s interior monologue is provided in two ways—through voiceover, and by means of a hand-held “microphone” that is supposed to preserve a record of the events.  Kirk speaks into the microphone and talks about what he’s doing, not realizing that the Gorn can hear every word he says through his own device.
Kirk and the Gorn throw some rocks at each other, as in the story, but on Star Trek there is no invisible barrier between them.  This removes one of the key plot points in the tale and makes the televised contest a bit silly, as Kirk runs off into the rocky hills and the Gorn lumbers around.  The Gorn actually appears to be more ingenious than Kirk, when it sets a trap for him and appears to play dead, much as Carson does in the story.

However, Kirk finally discovers various minerals and other items on the planet that allow him to construct a makeshift cannon and shoot the Gorn.  In the middle of all of this, the program takes a turn that reflects a mid-sixties, Vietnam-era sensibility.  In the short story, the battle between Carson and the Roller can be interpreted as an allegory of the US versus Japan in World War Two.  The enemy is totally alien and Carson does not hesitate to kill it when given the chance.
On Star Trek, Kirk learns that the Gorn may not have been the cruel invaders he had first thought them to be, and he suspects that they may have been natives defending their planet from what they saw as human invaders.  When given the chance to kill the Gorn captain, he refuses, announcing to the omnipotent alien that “you’ll have to get your entertainment someplace else.”  This is a clear reference to the anti-war feeling that was brewing in America in 1966, as some people began to question whether the war in Vietnam was justified. 

The Metron appears at the end of the episode and allows both ships to depart in peace.  He is surprised by Kirk’s demonstration of mercy and states that “there is hope” that our race will mature.

“Arena” takes the general theme of Brown’s short story and adapts it for a television series with recurring characters, whose personalities must be included and who must share screen time with the original, limited number of characters.  It is hard to believe that Gene L. Coon, the author of the teleplay, had not read Brown’s story, but it is also hard to believe that he was not familiar with The Outer Limits episode, “Fun and Games,” since the Metrons allow the crew of the Enterprise to watch the events unfolding on the planet below on their giant view screen, which looks an awful lot like the big-screen TVs of today.  In “Fun and Games,” the omnipotent alien broadcasts the competition for the inhabitants of his planet to watch as entertainment.

Gene L. Coon lived from 1924-1973.  He wrote 12 episodes of Star Trek (including the infamous “Spock’s Brain”) and was also the show’s producer for a portion of its run.  He also wrote many other TV series episodes.   Joseph Pevney, director of “Arena,” lived from 1911-2008 and began his career in vaudeville.  He directed movies in the 1950s, including Man of a Thousand Faces, before moving to TV, where he directed many episodes into the mid-1980s, including 14 episodes of Star Trek.
The cast of “Arena” is well-known.  William Shatner is North America’s Greatest Living Actor, and Leonard Nimoy recently came out of retirement to appear as a cartoon on Fringe.   The Gorn was played by Bobby Clark, a stuntman who has been appearing at Star Trek conventions.  Ted Cassidy provided the Gorn captain’s growls and chuckles.

Was there ever a more exciting time to be a kid than the 1966-1967 television season?  This was the first year that most of the shows were in color, and the colors were exploding off of the screens!  “Arena” is awash in reds, blues, yellows and greens, and it is clear that, to the designers at the time, the advent of color TV was an excuse to stuff as many colors as they could into a frame.  A quick look at the TV schedule for September 1966 reveals that the following shows were all available for the young viewer who liked adventure and excitement:
Sunday-Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Monday-The Monkees
Tuesday-The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and The Fugitive
Wednesday-Batman, Lost in Space, I Spy
Thursday-Batman, Star Trek
Friday-The Green Hornet, The Time Tunnel, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Saturday-Get Smart, Mission: Impossible
Had I been older than three in 1966, I doubt I would ever have left the house!
    Finally, if anyone has a copy of “Curtains for Me,” by Anthony Gilbert, please let me know. I need to read this story to write about the last episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that Fredric Brown worked on, “A True Account.”  The story appeared in the London Evening Standard on October 3, 1951, then in John Creasey Mystery Magazine for February 1958, and finally in The Mystery Bedside Book, 1960, edited by John Creasey.

"Arena." Star Trek. 19 Jan. 1967.  Star Trek: The Original Series, Season One, Disc Six.  CBS Paramount International Television, 2004.  DVD.
Brown, Fredric. The Best of Fredric Brown. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1976.
Galactic Central. Web. 23 Apr. 2011.
The Internet Movie Database . 23 Apr. 2011. 
Wikipedia. 23 Apr. 2011. 


Walker Martin said...

I disagree with Jack Seabrook's statement about William Shatner being the greatest actor in North America. I know that Peter Enfantino and I think that The Shat is the greatest actor in the World.

Other than this mistake, another excellent installment of Fred Brown on TV.

Dan_Luft said...

I was born in 67. As a kid who grew up in front of the TV during the 1970s, I am shocked how few of these shows on your list I've seen. I saw lots of Trek, Batman and Get SMart, but the others were not even rerun where I grew up. I never saw the Monkees until the mid 80s revival. I guess the execs had to keep room for Match Game and Tattletales.

Peter Enfantino said...

In my fantasy world, Captain Kirk visits earth and enlists the aid of Batman to defeat a sinister menace. Imagine Adam West and The Shat together on the same stage. It would be like one of those 1980s splatter films where the guys' heads grow bigger and bigger until they explode!

Todd Mason said...

Peter, you're aware, aren't you, of the Alexander the Great from 1965 starring both Shatner and West?

Todd Mason said...

Sunday-Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Monday-The Monkees
Tuesday-The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and The Fugitive
Wednesday-Batman, Lost in Space, I Spy
Thursday-Batman, Star Trek
Friday-The Green Hornet, The Time Tunnel, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Saturday-Get Smart, Mission: Impossible

As a 1964 baby, I did catch almost all of these in repeats (and sang along with the Monkees, I'm told, as a 2yo), though I've yet to see a whole episode of THE GREEN HORNET. I guess I was living near more independent stations than Dan was in the '70s.