A Short History Of The Gorn In The Star Trek Universe

This episode contains minor spoilers ahead for episode 4 of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds."

Canon is a funny thing in the world of "Star Trek." The franchise, which has churned out 12 criss-crossing series (and just as many movies) in its 56-year history, has to tread carefully where continuity is concerned. If first contact with an alien species is said to occur in one series, it's difficult to feature them in others that occur earlier — tempting as the concept might be. It's a rule that's made certain "Trek" villains, like the Gorn, off-limits for certain eras. Since the Gorn "officially" made first contact with Starfleet in "The Original Series," they can't "officially" appear in any prequels. But as we've seen with shows like "Enterprise," "Star Trek: Discovery," and now "Strange New Worlds," it's still possible to make use of the classic villains without disturbing the canon.

The Gorn identity

The Gorn first appeared in the original series episode "Arena," and even then their mystique was a huge part of their appeal. Kirk, Spock and McCoy run into the Gorn on a Federation outpost on Cestus III — and the aliens ruthlessly attack before the bridge crew even catches a glimpse of them. The Gorn had even lured the Enterprise to Cestus III with a fabricated invitation; by the time Kirk and Spock realize that they've been deceived, the colony on Cestus had already been destroyed.

Kirk later sets off to avenge the colony's untimely destruction, pursuing the Gorn ship into unknown space. There, both the Enterprise and the Gorn are apprehended by a highly-advanced alien species called the Metrons. This third party has absolutely no taste for violence, but they recognize that both humans and Gorn share a primitive inclination for it. Their solution is to drop Kirk onto a nearby planet with the captain of the Gorn ship, and allow them to sort out their issues the old-fashioned way: A fight to the death.

It's on this planet that Kirk gets a good look at the Gorn for the very first time. They're essentially just giant, sentient lizards, but even without their formidable technology, the Gorn captain possesses a brute strength that nearly kills Kirk. Fortunately, Kirk still does have his wits — as well as a trove of raw minerals, which he uses to fashion a cannon that takes the Gorn out of commission. Kirk eventually decides to spare the captain's life, with the hopes that the Federation can one day appeal to this alien race — but it'd be some time before the Gorn were used in the Prime timeline once more.

Mirror, mirror

Since the Gorn were so rarely seen in Federation space, they were reduced to legend in other stories that followed the original series. The species is mentioned on and off throughout the franchise, and even appear briefly in the animated series "Star Trek: Lower Decks," but their second most prominent role in the "Trek" canon actually takes place in the Mirror universe.

The Mirror universe is essentially an alternate reality where everyone is evil (and/or horny) all the time, so there's not technically a need for an alien species that most consider inherently evil. However, introducing the Gorn to an alternate timeline was the perfect way for original series prequels like "Enterprise" to reimagine first contact with the species. "Enterprise" takes place approximately 100 years before the events of the original series, and follows the crew of the very first U.S.S. Enterprise, captained by Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula). But in the Mirror dimension — as explored in the fourth season arc "In a Mirror Darkly" — Archer is the mutinous first officer of the I.S.S. Enterprise. In a dizzying turn of events, Archer gets his hands on a Federation ship from the Prime timeline: The U.S.S. Defiant.

Archer intends to use this advanced ship to quell the rebellion against the Terran Empire, but he has to contend with a few stowaways before bringing his plans to fruition, namely a murderous Gorn named Slar. Fittingly, Archer is forced into a little hand to hand combat with the Gorn, just like Kirk — but he also has the resources of his super-advanced ship at his disposal, and he uses them well. Since this is the Mirror dimension, the mercy that Kirk extended to his Gorn adversary is nowhere to be found. Archer kills Slar without thinking twice, making for another short-lived appearance for the species.

The menagerie

The Mirror universe would become a clever loophole for "Trek" writers to explore — or at least reference — the Gorn in prequels to the original series. "Discovery" made use of this same conceit in its first season. The first captain of the titular vessel, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), displayed a Gorn skeleton one of his many offices ... but seeing as Lorca was actually from the Mirror universe, that Easter egg doesn't necessarily have to be explained. Plus, the Gorn in question wasn't exactly alive, so it couldn't really count as first contact.

In truth, the mere presence of a Gorn, however brief, is usually enough to excite longtime fans of the "Trek" franchise. They're an utterly classic villain, as much for their mystique as for their capacity for cruelty. It's the latter that makes the Gorn so interesting to writer and producer Akiva Goldsman, who's been helping to shape the world of "Trek" in recent years on shows like "Picard" and "Strange New Worlds." 

"I have this long-standing love for the Gorn," Goldsman told /Film. Though "Trek" series have always "generated empathy" for alien species, Goldsman has always "yearned a little bit" for a truly evil adversary. "It's been a while since we've had that, and the Gorn sort of presented themselves as such."

Children of the Gorn

Obsessed as Goldsman may be with the Gorn, it's taken a while for the showrunner to bring them back to "Trek" in a larger capacity. That opportunity finally presented itself in "Strange New Worlds," primarily through Enterprise security officer La'an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong). Though the Federation can't physically meet the Gorn before the events of the original series, La'an has some firsthand experience with the species: Her entire family was once captured and imprisoned by the Gorn, and she was the sole survivor of the tragedy.

"Strange New Worlds" treats La'an's account as a report of "unconfirmed" first contact, but that doesn't make it any less terrifying. It's a brilliant way to capitalize on the potential of the Gorn, especially since it doesn't really break canon. After the Enterprise's run-in with a Gorn ship in the latest episode, titled "Momento Mori," it's clear that there's tons of potential for the Gorn as a seriously-formidable adversary moving forward. It's just a question of how far the "Strange New Worlds" team can push the limits of canon. But if the popularity of the Gorn is any indication, there's certainly an appetite for more of the alien species moving forward.

"Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" is currently streaming on Paramount+.