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The Importance of the Gorn

How facing a formidable opponent presents an opportunity for self-transcendence.

The Gorn captain from the episode "Arena" lifts up a rock to throw at Captain Kirk; the image is copied four times and set against a purple background. / Rob DeHart

In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, “Arena,” Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Spock beam down to Cestus III expecting grand hospitality and welcome. What they discovered was a colony destroyed with many dead and themselves under attack. The attack appeared vicious and without mercy. It also appeared profoundly unjust as the colony was an outpost with little defenses and posed no threat to external aggressors. Simultaneously, the Enterprise comes under attack by alien forces, presumably the same as those who destroyed the colony and attacked the landing party.

Star Trek History: Arena

Eventually, after experiencing a casualty, Kirk and the others return to the Enterprise and the captain is faced with a choice. How should he respond to the massacre at Cestus III? How should he act with a changing information landscape? This is the final article in a series of three that asks how we get from our current situation of division and disunity to the type of open society envisioned in the Federation. Previously, we identified that education and cross-cultural friendship were necessary. In this article, I want to talk about the importance of the Gorn.

Kirk is enraged by what happened to the peaceful colony. He wants to chase down and destroy the alien vessel. He gives chase and is intent upon vengeance. Despite Spock’s initial protest that not all the facts or history were at hand, Kirk sees that a crime has been committed and he desires justice. The pursuit is cut short when the Metrons intervene and take Kirk, along with the captain of the alien vessel, who we learn are Gorn, to battle each other to the death as both species appear to the powerful Metrons as being intent on violence. The Gorn is a formidable opponent, strong and capable.

Close-up shot of the Gorn in Star Trek: The Original Series' Arena

In fact, once it appears that Kirk will lose the battle, the Metrons allow the Enterprise crew to watch on as their captain struggles to devise a weapon with the natural elements of the planet as he is being pursued by the reptilian Gorn. As they watch, Spock and McCoy learn that the colony of Cestus III was in fact an incursion into Gorn space. The Gorn thought they were defending themselves against aggressors. This causes the Enterprise crew to rethink their position.

Eventually, Kirk succeeds in completing his weapon and mortally wounds the Gorn captain. Kirk has the opportunity for victory and the vengeance he so desired, but something gives him pause. He rethinks his own position. He reconsiders the intelligent, living being lying beneath him. He looks upon someone he deemed to be an enemy, someone who had done violence to Kirk’s people, and yet he refuses to denigrate the Gorn and respond in similarly violent ways. He does not kill the Gorn. This encounter provides Kirk with the opportunity to do something he doesn’t often have to do — change his mind.

Captain Kirk vs. Gorn

The ability to change one’s views is central to the ethic of the Federation. The ability to slow ourselves and reconsider our passionately held and deeply entrenched positions is exactly what made Kirk a good captain. The great Canadian philosophical theologian, Bernard Lonergan, called this self-transcendence. Lonergan writes, “One can live in a world, have a horizon, just in the measure that one is not locked up in oneself.” Self-transcendence is having the willingness and malleability to change one’s mind when confronted with new things about the world. It is a type of conversion.

Lonergan thought that this would happen as an intellectual conversion, a moral conversion, and also a spiritual conversion as people grew in their ability to love. The kind of intellectual and moral conversion requires a humility on the part of the person seeking truth. It does not mean that one’s opinions change with the seasons or that a person lacks the character to defend their position. What it does mean is that when exposed to new ideas and evidence, when one becomes increasingly exposed to the world, that they are willing and able to change. If we are willing to not be content to be closed in on ourselves, but open to the world and to what is new, Lonergan says, “We move towards the construction of a world-view and towards the exploration of what we ourselves could be and could do.”

Kirk stands in the background as the Gorn is trapped between two boulders in the foreground of Star Trek: The Original Series' Arena

Forming a worldview is not simply a matter of having beliefs. It is developing the capacities that allow us to make sense of our beliefs, entertain new beliefs, and, most importantly, the ability to be self-critical and corrigible in our beliefs. The Gorn in the Metron “arena” is not significant as a reptilian opponent in combat. The Gorn is a symbol of an opportunity to be corrected in one’s beliefs. It is a new fact, person, or piece of evidence. It is a new worldview or discovery that forces us to rethink our entrenched positions. In short, the Gorn is an opportunity for self-transcendence. It provides us the challenge of incorporating new evidence and ideas and may call us to change. When Kirk is confronted with a new possibility, he chooses a peaceable way of life with the one he formerly sought to destroy.

Kirk stands over the bloodied body of the Gorn after his attack with an explosive on Star Trek: The Original Series' Arena

Kirk’s encounter with the Gorn was not the last time he would have to modify a deeply entrenched belief. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Kirk is confronted with Spock’s willingness to enter into meaningful dialogue with the Klingons. Kirk does not trust the Klingons. He blames them for the death of his son. It is personal as well as political. At the start of the film, Kirk and Spock are discussing the diplomatic mission to the Klingons. Kirk says, “They’re animals!” and goes on to state forcefully, “Don’t believe them! Don’t trust them!” To this Spock responds, “They’re dying.” “Let them die,” Kirk snaps back. It is only after the events of the film, when Kirk has had to confront his prejudice against the Klingons, and Spock has confronted his bias views of the accomplishments of Lt. Valeris, that Spock asks whether they have “grown so inflexible” as to have outlived their usefulness.

Intellectual and moral inflexibility is the main diagnosis that Spock puts forward as the cause of their problems. To borrow again from Lonergan, both Kirk and Spock were locked up in themselves. They were locked up in their ideas about what constituted a trustworthy person, a moral person, or even what constituted a true situation. When they were confronted with new evidence alongside their own prejudices, they have to change. They had to jettison the old view and modify what they knew to deal with the new information.

Close-up shot of the bloodied and defeated Gorn in Star Trek: The Original Series' Arena

We are constantly confronted with Gorn of our own. The real question is — how will we respond? Will we refuse to be locked up within ourselves and our preconceptions and envisage that which is new? Or will we close ourselves off to the possibility of the real in favor of the comfortable and the familiar? How do we get from a divided and closed-up world to the expansive and unified community of the Federation? The answer is self-transcendence.

This article was originally published on May 12, 2017.

Timothy Harvie is Associate Professor of philosophy and ethics at St. Mary's University in Calgary, Canada. His interests lie primarily in philosophical theology, political philosophy, environmental and animal philosophies, and ideas of the role of hope in society. He is a lifelong Star Trek fan.

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