Was Kirk Really Merciful In “Arena”?

Photograph Source: NBC Television – Public Domain

In the Star Trek episode “Arena”, an alien attack on a federation outpost on Cestus III convinces Captain Kirk that an invasion may be imminent, and he orders the crew of the Enterprise to pursue and do combat with the “enemy” vessel. Kirk, at this point, is clearly looking for retribution against the aliens, known as the Gorn, but before a decisive showdown between the two starships can happen, the two ships are stopped dead in space by a superior race known as the Metrons, who think humans and Gorns are uncivilized and decide to settle the conflict by placing Kirk and the Gorn captain on an asteroid to settle their differences by hand to hand combat.

At first, the Gorn appears to be winning, but Kirk eventually creates a cannon and fires it at the Gorn, wounding him. At the moment of truth, with the alien vulnerable, Kirk decides not to kill him as this may be a misunderstanding. The Gorn claimed that Cestus III was in their space, and Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise begin to think the attack was an act of self-defense not an invasion. Then a Metron appears and admits surprise and admiration for Kirk’s act of mercy and his decision to discuss the matter with the Gorns and see if they can negotiate a ceasefire. Kirk feels pleased with himself back on the Enterprise at the end, but some have questioned Kirk’s motives for not killing the Gorn.

One of these skeptics is Professor Jose-Antonio Orosco, who makes the claim in his book Star Trek’s Philosophy of Peace and Justice: A Global, Anti-Racist Approach, that mercy was not Kirk’s primary motivation, even at the end of the story. He puts it this way: “Usually, mercy was a trait associated with state officials, such as monarchs and judges, who were in a position to mete out retribution. However, moral reformers, such as Christ and the Prophet Muhammad, speak of mercy as a component of a spiritually righteous and ethical life for ordinary people. In the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew, Christ tells his followers: ‘You have learned that they were told, ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left.’ In Surah 12 of the Koran, it is stated: ‘O ye who believe! The law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder; The free for free, the slave for slave, the woman for woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand and compensate him with handsome gratitude. This is a concession and a Mercy from your Lord.’

He continues “Clearly, in these cases Christ and the Prophet Muhammad recognize the long-standing authority of the lex talionis. Yet, they, like [Martin Luther] King and Gandhi much later, suggest that there might be a better way to end the chain of hate than through retribution. Instead, it might be preferable not to allow oneself to be engulfed by a punitive spirit and the urge to make those who harm you suffer, even if the perpetrators deserve it for inflicting unjustified harm.” (pp. 146-147)

This being the case, he maintains, “Kirk is merciful not because he wishes to exercise spiritual fortitude but because he realizes that he might be wrong about whether the Gorn deserves punishment. During the combat, he begins to wonder whether his initial theories about an unprovoked attack on Cestus III, and the possibility of a Gorn invasion, are warranted. Perhaps the Gorn were acting in self-defense? While the Metron was pleased with Kirk’s show of mercy, Gandhi and King might not see this decision as one that really works to undermine the chain of hatred or the system of retributive justice in general. In exercising mercy, Kirk is not questioning the use of retribution at all; he is just not sure if the Gorn entirely deserves punishment in this particular case. If there were clearer proof that the Gorn had attacked for no good reason, then Kirk might not have hesitated to execute the enemy captain.”

And in the final analysis, he says, “Kirk’s merciful display is an exception to the rule of retribution and, thus, keeps in place the status quo which Gandhi and King implore us to transcend. They seek an alternative that can transform social conditions and relationships in a way that prevents violent eruptions and the need for punishment in the first place. Mercy, as a way to react to violence that has already taken place, is not quite the catalyst for the ethical revolution toward a more peaceful society.” (Ibid.)

So Gandhi and King would not exactly applaud Kirk, and this may come as a surprise to many Star Trek fans. It was indeed a surprise to me as a Star Trek professor. Despite this criticism, Star Trek author Marc Cushman thinks highly of this episode and says “Here, Kirk is taught an important lesson regarding his own prejudice. And, as Kirk learns, so do we. Watch for the change, as the Captain bent on revenge, having admitted to a ‘natural revulsion to reptiles,’ learns empathy and comes away from the battle certain of one thing, that he is not qualified to judge the actions of these creatures, nor dispense justice.” (p. 447)

Despite the unintentionally funny and very slow fight scene between Kirk and the Gorn, possibly as a way of not damaging the Gorn costume, I thoroughly enjoy the episode, and I encourage fans to consider the criticism of Professor Orosco, who is more difficult to impress than the Metrons.


José-Antonio Orosco. Star Trek’s Philosophy of Peace and Justice: A Global, Anti-Racist Approach. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Marc Cushman; Susan Osborn. These Are The Voyages, TOS, Season One (These Are The Voyages series Book 1). Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.