AUDIO: “Angel’s Adagio” from Classics 4 by De Wolfe Music Library. Composer: Peter Merrick

In an episode of the original Star Trek television series, entitled “Arena,” an alien species called the Gorn attacks and destroys an Earth outpost at Cestus III, leading Captain Kirk and the Enterprise to give chase in order to avenge the unprovoked attack. Spock is not so sure about the alien’s motives, and wonders aloud about having “regard for another sentient being” but is interrupted by the more martial Kirk, who reminds him that, “out here we’re the only policemen around.” Their moral quandary is interrupted when both ships are stopped by an advanced civilization called the Metrons, who explain, “We have analyzed you and have learned that your violent tendencies are inherent. So be it. We will control them. We will resolve your conflict in the way most suited to your limited mentalities.” Kirk and the captain of the Gorn ship—a big-brained bipedal reptile—are transported to a neutral planet where they are instructed to fight to the death, at which point the loser’s ship and crew will be destroyed. The Gorn is stronger than Kirk and is easily able to rebuff his assaults that escalate from tree branch strikes to a massive boulder impact. He tells Captain Kirk that if Kirk surrenders he will be “merciful and quick.” “Like you were at Cestus III?” Kirk rejoins. “You were intruding! You established an outpost in our space,” the Gorn counters. “You butchered helpless human beings,” Kirk protests. “We destroyed invaders, as I shall destroy you!” the Gorn retorts. Back on the ship where the crew is watching the battle unfold on the viewing screen, Dr. McCoy wonders aloud, “Can that be true? Was Cestus III an intrusion on their space?” “It may well be possible, Doctor,” Spock reflects. “We know very little about that section of the galaxy.” “Then we could be in the wrong,” McCoy admits. “The Gorn might have been simply trying to protect themselves.”

At the climax of the episode Kirk recalls the formula for making gunpowder after seeing the various elements readily available on the planet’s surface—sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, with diamonds as the deadly projectile—elements that the Metrons had provided to see if judicious reason could triumph over brute strength. Kirk puts them all together into a lethal weapon that he fires at the Gorn as the latter closes in for the kill. Now incapacitated, the Gorn drops his stone dagger, which Kirk grabs and places at the throat of his opponent in order to deliver the coup de grace. Then, at this moment of moral choice, Kirk opts for mercy. His reason drives him to take the moral perspective of his opponent. “No, I won’t kill you. Maybe you thought you were protecting yourself when you attacked the outpost.” Kirk tosses the dagger aside, at which point a Metron appears. “You surprise me, Captain. By sparing your helpless enemy who surely would have destroyed you, you demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something we hardly expected. We feel that there may be hope for your kind. Therefore, you will not be destroyed. Perhaps in several thousand years, your people and mine shall meet to reach an agreement. You are still half savage, but there is hope.”