Editorial: “Arena.” Star Trek: The Original Series

The Gorn Episode.

By far, my favorite episode of the original Star Trek series is “Arena.” It was a first season episode that aired in 1967. I want to discuss an aspect of it that sets the basic conflict, although the events that create that basic conflict between Captain Kirk and the “bad guy” in the episode are never shown. Its aftermath is shown, and it is discussed after the fact, but we never see the events leading up to it, or the “event” itself. That “event” is the Gorn attack of the Federation colony on Cestus III, and the Gorn justification for attacking the Federation Colony.

First I’ll give you a basic plot synopsis. (There will be some plot spoilers here, but I think I am justified as this is a pretty old, and well-liked episode, so, it’s really your own fault if you haven’t already seen it.) In “Arena”, Captain Kirk and his men beam down to a planet, Cestus III, where a Federation colony is located, to discover that it has been obliterated and everyone killed. After a pitched battle with an unseen group of aliens, Captain Kirk and his men are able to drive them off with a futuristic mortar.

The unseen enemy beams back up to their ship and begins a retreat. Captain Kirk and his away team also beam up and give interstellar chase. The ships enter an unexplored sector and are mysteriously stopped by another group of god-like aliens called “the Metrons.” They declare that Captain Kirk and the captain of the other ship must fight to the death on a planet. Captain Kirk is beamed down to a barren planet, where he encounters a lizard-like humanoid, a Gorn, which was the captain of the ship they were chasing, and that massacred the colony on Cestus III. At first it looks like Captain Kirk will be killed by the much stronger and tougher Gorn. The Metrons allow Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy to watch the battle on the viewscreen of the enterprise. They see the Captain use his reason to devise a weapon, and ultimately defeat the Gorn. (I won’t say exactly how Captain Kirk defeats the Gorn, since that’s the best part, and you might want to watch the episode yourself.)

Before Captain Kirk defeats the Gorn, they are able to communicate with each other using communicator devices given to them by the Metrons. During an exchange with the Gorn captain, Captain Kirk accuses the Gorns of an unprovoked attack and murder of colonists on Cestus III. The Gorn captain claims that the Federation Colony was in their territory. Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy hear the same exchange while watching Kirk on the viewscreen. McCoy then says that maybe the Federation was “in the wrong”. I found the exact dialogue, reproduced below, at the following site: http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/19.htm

GORN [on viewscreen]: I’m weary of the chase. Wait for me. I shall be merciful and quick.

KIRK [on viewscreen]: Like you were at Cestus Three?

GORN [OC]: You were intruding! You established an outpost in our space.

KIRK [on viewscreen]: You butchered helpless human beings

GORN [OC]: We destroyed invaders, as I shall destroy you!

MCCOY: Can that be true? Was Cestus Three an intrusion on their space?

SPOCK: It may well be possible, Doctor. We know very little about that section of the galaxy.

MCCOY: Then we could be in the wrong.

SPOCK: Perhaps. That is something best decided by diplomats.

MCCOY: The Gorn simply might have been trying to protect themselves.


So, basically, the Gorn claimed that they attacked the Federation colony on Cestus III and killed all of the colonists because humans unknowingly established an outpost in what the Gorns considered to be their territory. This makes the Gorn attack on Cestus III seem a little less unprovoked, but is it really? Were the Gorns justified in attacking and killing everyone on Cestus III? Clearly there was no Gorn colony on Cestus III. If there had been, a Federation ship would have seen it when it entered orbit around the planet. (It was well established that the Federation had this “scanner” technology in Star Trek.) So, the planet was uninhabited. Additionally, the Federation would have presumably searched for any signs of civilization or cultivation of the land by other rational beings before settling there. (The Prime Directive, if nothing else, would seem to dictate performing such a study of a planet before colonizing it.) So, Cestus III was an uninhabited planet, not being used for any purpose by the Gorns. The Gorns weren’t growing crops there, they weren’t mining the planet for resources, and they weren’t living there. The Gorns appear not to have been using this planet for anything.

I think property rights rest on some sort of use of land or the arranging of naturally-occurring materials in a way that serves human purposes. The person(s) that create those material values, such as a farm, should be entitled to use and dispose of what they have created. In the Western world, this tends to be the philosophical basis of property rights. See, for instance, John Locke’s “labor theory of property”. In the case of Cestus III, the Gorns have done nothing with the planet. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any Gorn could claim any sort of property right with respect to Cestus III.

This doesn’t necessarily end the Gorns’ claim to Cestus III, however. Perhaps no Gorn can claim a property interest in Cestus III, but maybe they claim it as part of their territorial sovereignty? For instance, in the 19th Century, the United States Federal Government claimed much of the land in the west as under its legal jurisdiction, even though no one, as of then, held any property rights in the land. But, even if that is true, would it justify the Gorns in flying into Cestus III, without warning, and, apparently, slaughtering every man, woman, and child in the Federation colony? Certainly, if the Federation colony were a genuine military threat, the Gorns might be justified in a “first strike” against it without warning. However, I doubt, given what I know about the Federation, that this could be the case. The Federation Colony on Cestus III does appear to have been under Starfleet control, as set forth in some dialogue at the beginning of the episode:

KIRK: You’ll enjoy Commodore Travers. He sets a good table.

MCCOY: I wonder if he brought his personal chef along with him to Cestus Three.

KIRK: Probably. Rank hath its privileges.

MCCOY: How well we both know that.

(Intercom whistles)

KIRK: Scotty. Kirk here.

TRAVERS [OC]: Travers, Jim. We’re waiting.

KIRK: Good, Commodore. We’re on our way.

TRAVERS [OC]: Be sure to bring along your tactical people. I’ve got an interesting problem for them.

KIRK: We’ll beam down immediately, Commodore. Kirk out.

SPOCK: Captain. I wonder why he’s insistent that our tactical aides come down.

KIRK: This colony is isolated, exposed, out on the edge of now here. He probably wants additional advice.

So, the Federation colony on Cestus III is under Star Fleet control, since it is run by Commodore Travers, but it is described as a “colony”, not a military base. This, and the fact that they were so easily wiped out by the Gorns, suggests that there was very little military presence on Cestus III. Additionally, the Gorn captain, in the exchange with Kirk, quoted above, says: “You established an outpost in our space.” The Gorn captain doesn’t say: “You established a military base in our sector.” This suggests that the Gorn captain wiped out the Federation colony because it was there, not because he viewed it as an actual military threat.

Overall, based on what I know, I am fairly well convinced that the Gorns were not justified in attacking the Federation Base at Cestus III. The Gorn captain committed a mass-murder that was unrelated to any rational military strategy.