The Holy Trinity returns! The McCoy/Spock/Kirk relationship is back in full force, and it's evident right from this episode's teaser.
"Doctor, you are a sensualist."
"You bet your pointed ears I am."
The Enterprise crew beams down to Cestus III for a peaceful meeting with a Starfleet commodore, only to find the planet under attack. It's a thrilling opening, really allowing the tactical expertise of our characters flourish in a high risk situation. You really feel the effectiveness of their years serving together, seeing them react in the line of fire.
The faceless enemy is clever to the point of shocking. They are able to hack the energy in Spock's tricorder device, which he then lobs across the trench back at them as it explodes.
I think this opening sequence alone births the Star Trek phenomenon known as the Red-shirt, or a character of no consequence often used as cannon fodder. These character generally have very generic names, and are the only unrecognizable character in a landing party. These characters are usually doomed.
The Crew leaves the largely destroyed planet to follow the fleeing, and still unseen, aggressor. There's a fantastic scene between Spock and Kirk in the captain's quarters, in which Spock seems subtly disturbed by the captain's haste with which he decides to strike the enemy vessel. Kirk believes that letting the attack go unpunished would be detrimental, where as Spock holds that attack would do nothing to improve the conflict.
The Enterprise is intercepted by a superior race of beings that has decided to intervene and settle the dispute by taking Captain Kirk and the Captain of the Gorn ship, and plopping them down on a barren planet to duke it out. This contest is ironically placed, as they say, "in the interest of peace." This is the second episode in a row that Kirk is torn directly from the bridge of his ship.
What follows in a absolutely terrible fight between captain Kirk and a lizard man. I don't know how else to put it, as it really is a tremendous bummer. I don't even chalk it up to being dated ... I can't imagine anyone being fully pleased by this encounter, especially seeing as the opening battle was so viscerally exciting. Kirk makes a cannon, MacGuyver style, out of the surrounding materials. Yep.
Thankfully, this fight only serves as a stage for Kirk to develop his character. Whereas he was trigger happy to attack the Gorn initially, he decides finally that he will not kill him, proving that humans can be merciful. This impresses the advanced mediator, who spares Kirk's life.
"You are still half savage, but there is hope."
There's a bit of a twist revealed in regards to the Gorn's motivations. The Cestus III outpost was considered by the Gorn to be an invasion of their space, and was defending himself. The episode attempts to ask us how this effects the moral decision of fighting the Gorn. Unfortunately, the specifics of this moral quandary are never revealed, and therefore never satisfied. Makes me wonder why it was mentioned in the first place.
This is a fun episode with a bit of focus on the decision making of Captain Kirk. His development isn't nearly as eloquent or profound as in previous episodes, nor is it as offensively neglected as it will be in episodes to come.