How Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Made the Gorn Scary

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds takes place years before Star Trek: The Original Series, and it's used the most recent episode, "Memento Mori," to make one of the classic show's goofier aliens much scarier. The Gorn appeared in the Star Trek episode "Arena," challenging the Federation of control of the planet Cestus III. The all-powerful Metrons then stuck their noses into the matter. The episode became iconic for the fight scene in which Capt. James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner, entered one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat with the captain of a Gorn ship. As iconic as the scene is, it is also an example of Star Trek pushing against the limitations of what was possible in 1960s television.

While stellar for its time, the monster-suit Gorn (along with Shatner's "Kirk Fu") dates the episode today. Star Trek itself even acknowledged its goofiness by staging a "rematch" between Shatner and the Gorn captain in an advertisement for 2013's Star Trek: The Video Game, which you can see below.

"Memento Mori" recontextualizes the Gorn Hegemony's role in the Star Trek universe during this era. While "Arena" marked the official first contact between the Federation and the Gorn, "Memento Mori" reveals that the reptilian species have been raiding the edges of Federation space for years. La'an Noonien-Singh shares her story of being captured and sent to a Gorn breeding planet to be hunted or fed to their children. She was the only one from her ship that managed to escape. Since she's the only witness to the event, Starfleet marks her report as an "unconfirmed" first contact.

This story completes a picture of the Gorn that Star Trek has built over the years. In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Bound," the Enterprise NX-01 crew first hears mutterings of the Gorn from an Orion privateer who prefers not to go into detail. In Star Trek: Discovery's first season, Capt. Lorca has a Gorn skeleton hanging in his ready room, though it goes unremarked. After Discovery jumps into the 32nd century in Season Three, Book tells Michael Burnham that the Gorn destroyed two lightyears worth of subspace. Michael responds by saying, "The Gorn did what?" By glossing over the who and focusing on the what, the line implies Michael knows of the Gorn.

With Li'an's story in "Memento Mori," Star Trek has painted a picture of the Gorn as the boogeymen on the edges of space. From Earth's earliest days of exploration, they've heard whispers about the Gorn. By the time of the Discovery's first two seasons, rumors of the Gorn have spread. They're likely attacking Federation ships and settlements. Since they leave few survivors, the Federation can't get a clear picture of who or what they are. Lorca's skeleton is likely seen as an unexplained oddity that the Starfleet can't connect to the Gorn definitively since there are no images in their records. (Lorca probably knows what the Gorn are, given his secret Mirror Universe origin and the Gorn presence in the Enterprise episode "In a Mirror Darkly, Part II.")

Since Li'an is the sole survivor of her Gorn ordeal, Starfleet can't corroborate her report. Thus, the record is "unconfirmed." The Gorn might engage in occasional Wrath of Khan-like ship-to-ship battles like the one seen in "Memento Mori."  However, the Federation doesn't get a good look at them until the Metrons facilitate Kirk's fight with the Gorn captain over Cestus III. (That the Gorn could menace the Federation for years while remaining unrecognizable might sound off. However, remember that The Original Series episode "Balance of Terror" has a premise predicated on the idea that Earth fought a war with the Romulans without ever knowing what a Romulan looked like).

Now, instead of being a slightly goofy one-off villain in "Arena," the Gorn are a mysterious threat haunting the fringes of the known galaxy. It's a fascinating repositioning of the species. Strange New Worlds co-creator Akiva Goldsman has long hoped to use the Gorn in his Star Trek stories. Time will tell whether this is the last we hear of the Gorn in Star Trek until that fateful showdown with Kirk for Cestus III.

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