This episode is one of the most well-known and immediately recognizable of any incarnation of Star Trek, and it’s pretty easy to dismiss it as an exciting adventure story pitting Kirk against a
man in a rubber suit reptilian monster. And while this may be true, if one scratches just a bit below that surface, one may find a rather interesting morality tale about mercy.
To start with, there are two instances in this episode where there is a glaring lack of mercy. The first is perpetrated by the Gorn in their annihilation of the colony on Cestus III. Aside from the obvious violent nature of the death and destruction, the wounded lieutenant tells Kirk that as the attack began, the colony sent repeated calls explaining their lack of resources, presence of innocent civilians, and even cries of surrender, all of which went unheeded by the Gorn. Upon hearing all of this, Kirk demonstrates an extreme lack of mercy, and in righteous rage, sets off to “punish” the “invaders” at all costs, without any attempt to understand the situation.
In contrast, the virtue of mercy is demonstrated from the beginning in what is a rather unexpected source for such an emotional concept – Spock. As Kirk stews in his indignation over the attack, Spock calls for a non-violent solution: first attempting to convince Kirk to find out what prompted the attack, and later nearly begging the captain to stop chasing the Gorn ship in the hopes that the pursuit alone would deter further incursions. It is rather striking that the character most known for his cold logic is the strongest advocate for the course of action more grounded in emotion. Kirk also demonstrates mercy at the end of the episode in sparing the life of the Gorn captain, but we are actually left a little unsettled by this scene, as Kirk doesn’t actually seem to demonstrate signs of truly-felt mercy, but rather, he has deduced what outcome the Metrons are looking for, and citing his understanding of the reasons the Gorn attacked Cestus III, he “wins” the contest as only Kirk can. While it does show his intelligence and savvy, we are rather sour on Kirk’s attitude throughout this whole episode.
The Metrons themselves bear a bit of scrutiny here as well, we felt, as they claim to be a much more evolved, advanced form of life, and cite mercy as an “advanced trait”. So if they are so evolved, why would they force such a contest with the stakes of loser’s-ship-gets-blown-up “in the interest of peace”? Even at the end of the episode after Kirk spares the Gorn captain’s life and the Metron representative has applauded the merciful move, he offers to destroy the Gorn ship. How does this make sense? Well, it is our opinion that from the very beginning, the threat of destruction was a bluff – a calculated test meant to draw out the “civilization” in the humans. We don’t think the Metrons ever actually intended to destroy the ship, and were therefore happy and relieved that Kirk learned his lesson (or at least pretended to).
Mercy is often difficult in practice – our innate sense of pride and desire for justice tends to get in the way of forgiving those who wrong us, especially if they do not seem penitent for their actions. But choosing to exercise mercy – deserved or not – is part of what makes us capable of civilization, and that is what this episode is truly about.
That and watch out for men in rubber lizard suits throwing styrofoam rocks around in the desert.