Responding to a distress call from the human colony on Cestus III, the Enterprise and crew witness the aftermath of a massacre executed by one of the most iconic classic Star Trek aliens: the Gorn. Not so much infamous for its ruthlessness, but more so its ruthless cheesiness, the Gorn episode remains memorable none the less. However, while most fans will fondly recall the over the top combat or clunky alien costume, the underlying story is a great example of Gene Roddenberry’s philosophical idealism. Brain verses brawn, agility verses strength, advanced tactics verses primitive instinct… the battle with the Gorn represents a much deeper conflict, both within ourselves and society. It was meant to highlight how our most basic and violent instincts may seem most pertinent in the moment, but we must overcome them if we are to pursue something greater.
The reptilian monsters annihilated the colony, killing women and children too. Kirk rallies his ship in a vengeful pursuit. Amongst the chaos and anger, Spock provides a voice of reason by asserting that the death of the aliens will not bring the colonists back. Indeed, Kirk’s behavior in this moment more closely resembles the Gorn, but Spock (a prototypical Star Trek character) represents Rodenberry’s futuristic ideal.
The situation soon becomes out of control, as a ‘god-like’ species known as the Metrons pluck Captain Kirk and his new Gorn adversary out of their respective ships and compel them to settle their differences by force. These all powerful aliens further the ideology introduced by Spock, especially in the sense that they hate violence. Ironically, Kirk and the Gorn must now settle their differences using violence.
On the planet, which was to serve as the ‘arena’, the Metrons promised both parties that materials would be available to fashion weapons. Kirk admires the fantastic wealth of mineral formations, but pleads that he would give up even the diamonds for a club or phaser. Weapons like these are tools of force and brute strength, whereas the sulfur mineral deposits enable Kirk to build a makeshift cannon – a skill that was inaccessible to the Gorn.
Even though Kirk fashioned his gun in time to disable the Gorn, the heat and exhaustion (as well as his earlier Gorn-inflicted injury) could have easily weakened him enough for this stronger opponent to defeat him. It was partially down to luck in the end as to which battle strategy would persevere, but Kirk proved himself to be the more worthy of the two, in both the arena and in principle. Kirk’s choice to spare his enemy in the end shows that he is indeed more advanced, as the Gorn would have certainly killed him. The idealistic captain acknowledged the humanity of his enemy, especially when considering that the Gorn may have acted out of self-defense. By seeing a part of himself in the alien, Kirk evolved from his vengeful, animalistic hunt for retribution, to fashioning tools just for survival, and then to ultimately recognizing the value of another life just as he is aware of his own.