Star Trek: A Piece of the Action

Star Trek Opening TitlesSeason 2 of Star Trek was clearly in a funny state of mind, right?  Check!  It was also helping me make a point to my kids, and a generation of TV viewers, that the act of watching the TV has value.  This is a skill I have noticed declining in recent years.  My kids and many of my friends “watch” TV while playing on their phones, doing dishes, the laundry, learning Fizzbin or even swinging from their chandeliers.  It’s disconcerting that they miss so much of the marvelous subtlety TV can offer!  Check?   Right!  Kirk and Spock have always had a great, fun relationship.  I truly attribute the chemistry of the cast (on-screen, at least) to the success of Star Trek.  So much of this ridiculous episode is down to Kirk and Spocko (yes, that’s his Gangster name) just having fun as 1920’s mobsters.  And some of that is the simple gestures that you’re going to miss if you’re busy reading the rules of fizzbin instead of actually looking at the screen!  Kirk’s frustration trying to get through to Spock is demonstrated with the slightest little wave of the hand or a pinched brow.  Spocko’s incredulity over what happens is captured in a perfectly placed raised eyebrow or a shrug.  Trek may be what taught me how to actually watch TV and invest in the thing I was actually making the time to watch.  And I couldn’t be happier.

The episode is another of those quirky missions the Feds send Kirk on.  Sorry, the Federation, I mean.  100 years ago, a ship went missing out on Gamma Iotia, so the obvious thing to do is go see what happened.  We get a planet that modeled itself off a book that was left behind: Chicago’s Mobs of the 1920’s.  (Kirk probably was hoping it was the Kuma Sutra…)  What follows is an hour of Kirk going back and forth between Bela Oxmyx and Jojo Krako while trying to help negotiate peace between two warring mobs.  Oh, if only it were the Sopranos.  Oxmyx wears glasses that were handed down by generations from The Village; Bela takes them on and off with the same practiced charm of a certain “new number 2”.  He also likes to entertain guests while playing pool.  He makes it a point to be over the table when Kirk walks in to create that casual air of “yea, so what, I play pool.”  Jojo Krako is louder than Brian Blessed with less reason and has an affectation of playing darts to create the casual air of “yea, so what, I play darts”.  Both have really impressed upon me that the way to lead is to be seen playing a game before an important meeting.  (I might try this during a staff meeting.  “Yeah, so what, I play Fizzbin!”)   The characterization is more than a bit silly; dare I say … arrested.  (“I ain’t never been arrested in my life!”)

I know Roger won’t like this episode.  He’s not Italian!  He won’t appreciate the value of having a plaque on the outside of your house that says you’re a mob boss.  (I am Italian, but don’t look like I should be!)  I can’t imagine Roger running up to help his son and beating people up on the steps of a Brooklyn/Chicago apartment complex with a pronounced “what have you … DONE?” and knocking someone out.  We learned this in grade school!    Would he advise youse to watch this episode?  Nah, of course not.  Youse have to be bawn on Stat-Nyland to appreciate some of that!  And although he might enjoy putting me in concrete galoshes for saying this, like Scotty, I think he’s better off keeping to that side of the pond.  (I’m not sure cement overshoes really is the right expression either though, Krako!)   But while I am totally sure I’m going to be right about this, I’m really picking on Roger in the same way that Kirk and Spock are very opposite but make a great team.  Roger and I tend to like the opposite things in the shows we watch but it’s made for some really interesting discussions and I think this episode is a prime directive… I mean prime example.   Like Spock, I can see Roger saying to me, “Sir, you are employing a double negative.”  I could also imagine Roger in the car being a bit worried that my driving is a bit different than his (and on the correct side of the road!)   Would we have it any other way?  Not for a moment.

I have always loved this episode but I have greater appreciation for it now because of the Kirk/Spock relationship that has developed over the last decade between me and Roger.  I intend to have a lot of fun with this going forward.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t see the flaws with it, and it has some.  Kirk’s solution isn’t the only wacky thing about the episode.  Gangsters who wear long johns under their pinstripe suits are less believable than a medical journal that employs a right hook for hysterical women.  But the most amazingly wacko thing about this episode is that the Enterprise has a stun setting on its phasers.  Let’s put this into context.  The Enterprise is a space ship – when will it go into battle against, say a Klingon ship, and need to knock it out cold?  Since when can ships be knocked out cold?  Maybe America should consider that instead of nukes!  Cleaner and no fall out!   The scene is fun, but it’s totally nonsensical.  Kirk’s attempt to come up with a card game might earn him a place in the Loony Labs hall of fame, but lord, couldn’t he come up with anything better than his psychopathic game of Fizzbin?  At least he had a chance to prove his athletic prowess when he leapt over those boxes in the street… they were about the size of a shoe box.  Oh look, and McCoy makes a mistake; he leaves his communicator behind.  If anyone would make a mistake, it was bound to be the dude who walked in from the cold starbase!

One more personal note about this episode: my older son loves cars.  I see about as much in cars as I do in string; useful, but nothing to write home about.  Unless you’re dealing with a certain type of car… the type, ironically, in this episode.  And I wonder about the old chicken and the egg; what came first, my love of those cars, or this episode that dropped the idea into my head to begin with?  Considering I was watching Trek when I was 3, I have a suspicion.

While Tribbles is a big joke to a punchline that didn’t work, this episode employs a similar stunt, but between the freeze-frame image and the triumphant music, this was a resounding success for me.  And if Roger-o don’t like it, he can come over here and demand a piece of my action, right?  CHECK!!   ML

The view from across the pond:

I’ll start with a brief response to Mike’s review above.  One of the founding principles on which we built this blog was to write about things independently, without allowing ourselves to influence each other’s work.  I happened to let slip that I wasn’t hugely enamoured with this episode (I think he asked me, actually), so when Mike is saying “if Roger-o don’t like it”, he’s playing a game of cards with both players’ hands visible.  So from now on you have my permission to address Mike in the comments section as “Mr Cheaty Pants”.  Right, now that we’ve got that out of the way…

This feels like an attempt to recreate the magic of City on the Edge of Forever, with Kirk, Spock and McCoy visiting 20th Century America. Obviously doing a time travel story again would have been too repetitive, so instead we are expected to believe that this is an alien planet where everyone has copied Earth culture exactly and has done that by reading a book. Check your brains at the door. You won’t need them for this one.

Sci-fi tends to talk about planets as if they were countries. Whole planet ecosystems and whole planet societies are far more common than a planet with any kind of diversity, which is extraordinarily rare in sci-fi. Most of the time that doesn’t matter too much, but in a story like this the problem is heightened. Sigma Iotia II was visited by a Federation ship a century ago, and their society (as the planet has only one) was contaminated, and modelled itself on New York gangster culture from the 20s. Something to keep in mind when watching this: at the time of broadcast this was comfortably within living memory. It’s an extraordinary thought, but when we watch Stranger Things, for example, and get that nostalgia kick from watching something set in the 80s, that’s a close equivalent to 1960s American viewers watching A Piece of the Action, set in what is effectively the 1920s. Having said that, I’m not sure anyone could have been nostalgic about the hideous gun culture this episode evokes. A disclaimer: I can’t stand film and television that glorifies the violent side of America, whether that be Westerns or gangster films, so I’m not really the target audience for this, and the writer does play it all entirely for laughs, so it’s not exactly a condemnation of a world in which “passers by are carrying, I believe, firearms”. By the end of the story, Kirk has persuaded the warring factions to work together, but he still leaves behind a society where the mob rules.

“You don’t think it’s logical to leave a criminal organisation in charge?”

I suppose I should be grateful that we have here a Star Trek episode that doesn’t show the Federation turning an alien culture into a capitalist democracy, which is the normal course of events, but in light of the fact that they are trying to fix the damage that was done by the Federation it never feels like the refreshing change from the status quo that it should have been. Instead it’s a cop out. We get 45 minutes of captures and escapes, and then when it’s time for the episode to end the story just stops, without much getting resolved.

All the toing and froing between Bela and Krako is quite fun, with Kirk kangaroo hopping the car back and forth, but when Spock says “incredible as it is, Doctor McCoy and ourselves are once again prisoners”, he really is lampshading the repetitive nature of the episode. I found myself looking for little details to amuse myself, such as how terrible Bela is at playing pool, or how conveniently a stuntman lands in an armchair when the gangster he is playing gets knocked out. Krako really got on my nerves though, a man who is unable to talk without shouting. I didn’t buy for one second that he would be happy to accept being Bela’s “deputy”, just because Kirk randomly assigned those roles to them at the end. That ain’t gonna last.

There was some fun to be had, mainly the joy that is the Kirk and Spock show, but this was an episode that did a lot of running on the spot and went nowhere. Incidentally, I think Krako accidentally highlighted an uncomfortable truth about Star Trek:

“I only saw three guys in that ship. Maybe there ain’t no more.”

Shh, don’t tell anyone. We’re not supposed to notice that the same three guys beam down to every planet they visit. There’s an undeniable charm to this series, but boy is it a product of its time.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Star Trek, Television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Star Trek: A Piece of the Action

  1. scifimike70 says:

    After all the comedic energy that the modern Doctor Who has given us with trips into our history, it’s even more interesting now to reflect on how the classic Star Trek was able to make an episode about the Capone era into a refreshing comedy. Ironically, by the time I finally saw this episode, I had already seen the sitcom Alice and so recognizing Vic Tayback as Krako was a fond memory at the time. There were obvious similarities between Jojo Krako and Mel Sharples that established a heavy acting presence like Vic’s. When it comes to playing a heavy in Star Trek, we may easily be reminded of real heavies in our human history. Hence the importance that A Piece Of The Action was clearly aiming at.

    As a reminder of how the most humanoid races in Trek, certainly in the classic series, could have such easy parallels to us (with or without our interference), the appeal of revisiting our history in otherworldly societies helps to bring our universe closer to us. If we’re all not so different in this cosmic ocean, then healthy resolutions can be achieved as they are in this episode. And McCoy is most deserving of credit for accidentally allowing the Iotians access to the universal translator. I thought that was a fairly good outcome.

    Thank you both for your reviews. 🖖🏻🖖🏼🖖🏽🖖🏾🖖🏿

    Liked by 1 person

  2. DrAcrossthePond says:

    I still love this episode. And with a game like Fizzbin, you can’t blame me if I cheated a little bit.
    Yours truly, Mr. Cheaty Pants

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s