Does it matter if the Gorn looks silly now? It probably didn't look any more convincing in 1967. Prop and creature designer Wah Chang's creation is as good as can be expected given Star Trek's budget, the amount of time Chang probably had to make the costume, and what other series were doing at the time (have a look at Gundemar from the previous week's episode of Lost In Space, The Questing Beast).
Harping on about the Gorn may be unfair but it's one of those moments when circumstances combine to create something which nearly damages the episode. This is not a blink and you'll miss it appearance like Shore Leave's white rabbit, or Chang's earlier salt vampire from The Man Trap. The Gorn is onscreen for around 20 minutes of the episode. It occupies the story space normally taken by a guest star. While the design is good the realisation disappoints. A textured but largely immobile mask (the multifaceted crystal eyes are a nice touch), and a rubbery body with unfleshlike creases appearing as the actor inside moves. The legs are the best part of the suit and have muscles sculpted on to them, but this comes at the expense of movement which may be why it wasn't attempted on the arms; Doctor Who fans will take delight in the familiar sight of an actor with restricted vision and movement picking his way gingerly across an uneven surface.
Directorial and editing decisions compound the problem. The Gorn's first appearance is also the big climax to act two; a turn to camera and then a slow pull-back giving the audience a chance to get an eyeful of the beast. This is followed by what can only be described as the slowest fight in history. The script needs to establish Kirk has speed but the Gorn has strength and power. This is done by having Kirk dodge the Gorn's slow punches but this doesn't allow for fast editing so the result is ponderous. To be fair once the initial rock throwing is over things improve but the footage still tends to overexpose the costume, showing it full length or in medium close-up. Anyway, worse than the Gorn is the appearance of the Metron, the mysterious alien race who object to Kirk and the Gorn fighting in their space. When it appears at the end it manages to look like a parody of Star Trek's preference for toga wearing demi-gods. Actually it's the first sighting of this series staple.
Arena is another all location production and as good, and iconic, as the footage is maybe it would have been better to stage the Kirk/Gorn fight in studio. Miri and Shore Leave both used location filming for environments which could not be created indoors. A city street for Miri, and a large natural glade for Shore Leave. The Kirk/Gorn battle doesn't do anything different to the sword fight in The Squire Of Gothos and that looked okay; in as much as any of Star Trek's planet exteriors look obviously studio-bound. Away from the harsh, flat illumination of the California sun it would have been possible to control the lighting, and allow the Gorn to lurk more in shadow. There may also have been more time to shoot cutaways and protect the costume with close-ups of an eye or claw to break up the endless series of long and mid shots.
The main driving force behind filming on location was probably economic. Star Trek seems to operate with a budget that allows three different types of production. First, all studio interiors, including the construction of new planet sets (The Squire Of Gothos, or The Galileo Seven). Second, location filming on a backlot plus the construction of cheaper studio sets (like Miri with location exteriors and studio interiors). And third all location filming, with the exception of already paid for standing sets like the Enterprise bridge (Shore Leave and Arena). Once the decision was made to shoot the opening Cestus III battle on location -a sequence which does benefit from the additional scale of filming outdoors- I think it became inevitable the Kirk/Gorn fight would be filmed the same way. There probably wouldn't have been the money to also build a Taurus II style network of rocky canyons.
And Joseph Pevney the director does make use of the location. Arena is a justly remembered episode by non fans and it's not for the Cestus III sequence; good as it is. The location footage around Vasquez Rocks looks amazing. Pevney chooses some beautiful shots including one right at the start of act three where Kirk and the Gorn face each other in profile with the rocks towering over the pair. Later a sequence of Kirk scrambling up one of the angled rocks is shot from below and looks genuinely perilous. The film editor Fabian Tordjmann, and production team assemble this footage into an episode which is pacy and exciting; with the exception of the slowest fight in history. Small opportunities are taken to ring changes, this is the first episode not to show the title over a shot of the Enterprise, the Captains' log does not come straight in at the top of act one instead pace is maintained by having the crew react to events and then using the log to fill in background details a minute later, and there's an unusual cross fade between the Enterprise warping through space and a close-up shot of Sulu.
Gene Coon provides a script which manages to be thoughtful and action packed. Understandably Kirk gets the meat of the action but it's also a textbook example of how to give moments to the rest of the crew. Scotty gets to demonstrate he's as smart as Spock when it comes to the engines (while trying to break the Metron's grip on the Enterprise James Doohan has a nice smug expression when Spock suggests things Scotty has already tried), Sulu takes command in a space battle, Uhura summarises information from the rest of the ship for the bridge crew, McCoy is the voice of emotion, and Spock the voice of conscience. The script also neatly works through the implications of events. For example, once trapped in the duel Kirk needs to talk to someone. The last half of the story would be interminable if we had nothing to listen to except the Gorn gurgling. It would look silly for Kirk to start talking to himself so Coon has the Metrons give Kirk what they call “a recording-translating device” to make a record of events. Kirk uses this to record Captain's log style pieces but the Metrons have also given one of these to the Gorn, and Kirk doesn't know the device also acts as a transmitter. The Gorn hears Kirk talking but, initially at least, doesn't reply, instead listening to what Kirk says to gain tactical advantage. Suddenly, the Gorn is cunning, and what started out as a plot device to give Kirk some dialogue ends up adding depth to his opponent. In a nice touch, the line as the Gorn realises it can listen to Kirk's plans is Kirk assessing his enemy. “Fortunately, though strong, he is not agile. The agility and, I hope, the cleverness, is mine.”
Coon's script is layered enough to allow the audience to add their own interpretations to events. When Kirk rolls the boulder down on the Gorn you can mock it as a roadrunner-esque set piece. Alternatively you can notice the boulder is missing in earlier shots. Someone placed the boulder up on the peak. Was it the Gorn? It's fun to imagine it sets a complex trap. Knowing it can't catch Kirk in a flat out chase it contrives a situation where it lures Kirk in with a temptingly placed rock, which the Gorn knows is not heavy enough to do it any real damage. Once Kirk rolls the boulder the Gorn pretends to be pinned, and when Kirk approaches starts moving which panics Kirk into running into the Gorn's rock and boulder trap. It nearly works as well. No wonder the Gorn keeps sniggering as it stands waiting under the boulder pretending to carve a dagger.
Crew deaths: Two. Ensign O'Herlihy, and Lieutenant Commander Lang during the fight on Cestus III
Running total: 25