Star Trek Rewatch

Star Trek Re-Watch: “A Piece of the Action”

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“A Piece of the Action”
Written by David P. Harmon
Teleplay by David P. Harmon and Gene L. Coon
Directed by James Komack

Season 2, Episode 17
Production episode: 2×20
Original air date: January 12, 1968
Star date: Unknown

Mission summary

Enterprise is in orbit around Sigma Iotia II, a remote, pre-warp planet that was “contaminated” over a hundred years ago by a visit from the USS Horizon, a Federation ship. The Horizon was lost shortly after leaving the system and its conventional radio signal only recently reached Starfleet. Because the Horizon arrived before the Prime Directive, Starfleet is concerned about the progress of the local culture, which was just becoming an industrial society when Horizon visited. Kirk has been sent to investigate what, if anything, has gone wrong. (Spoilers: both what and anything have gone wrong.)

Uhura makes contact with the apparent leader Bela Okmyx, who calls himself “Boss,” and instructs Kirk to beam down for his “welcoming committee.” Sounds like fun! Kirk takes Dr. McCoy and Spock with him, and they beam in the middle of an intersection on an urban street. Okmyx’s men greet him—with tommy guns.

Sigma Iotia II is some kind of warped version of Chicago in the 1920s, controlled by “bosses” who demand a percentage from the locals and in turn “take care of them.” Everyone has a weapon—men, women, drivers—and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are quickly disarmed by Kalo, a lackey. Within moments a drive-by shooting kills some of the lackeys, and Kalo explains that it was Krako, Okmyx’s chief rival. He won’t say anything else and leads the crew to see Boss Okmyx. The Boss is in a gorgeous old-fashioned study, complete with wood desk, pool table, bathtub gin, and a blank-looking attractive young assistant. Propped on a music stand is a book titled Chicago Mobs of the Twenties, which Spock notes was published in 1992. The obvious source of the contamination! This highly imitative culture latched onto this book as a model upon which to build their society, a twisted blueprint.

OKMYX: I don’t want any more cracks about the Book.
KIRK: Did they leave any other books?
OKMYX: Sure. Some text books on how to make radio sets and stuff like that, but, look, I brought you here so you could help me, not for you to ask me questions.

Okmyx’s plan surprises no one: he wants a plentiful supply of futuristic “heaters” (weapons) so that he can unite the planet under one banner—his own, natch.

KIRK: Now let me get this straight. You want us to supply you with arms and assistance so you can carry out an aggression against your neighbors?

Okmyx won’t take no for an answer, though, and gives Kirk, Spock, and McCoy eight hours to change their minds before he’ll kill them. Kalo takes them away for confinement (sorta…) and Okmyx tries his hand at a confiscated communicator. (Kirk is able to dissuade him from playing with the phaser.) Okmyx is able to hail Mr. Scott and present the same demand of “heaters,” or else Kirk, Spock, and McCoy will be killed. He laughs and closes the communicator.

MR. SCOTT (with absolute calm): Lieutenant Hadley, check the language banks and find out what a heater is.

Meanwhile, our intrepid threesome is being held hostage by three idiot gangsters, led by Kalo. In the background (and entirely within earshot of their captors, but let’s not nitpick) they’re already trying to formulate a solution to elevate the gangster planet to progressive bliss. Mr. Spock believes that while Okmyx’s motives are questionable, the need to unite the planet is a pressing one. But with no access to his “sociological computer” (…his what??), he’ll have to come up with a solution on his own. Kirk makes it clear that because the contamination of ideas is the fault of the Federation, it’s the Federation’s responsibility to fix it, and washes his hands of the Prime Directive once more.

Kirk has an idea to get them out, though. The three captors are playing cards, and Kirk decides to rile them up with a classic insult to their masculinity. He accuses them of playing “a kid’s game,” and says that he knows a real game—a man’s game—that the inhabitants of Beta Antares IV play called Fizzbin. The rules are deliberately baffling and nonsensical, and Kalo is so perplexed trying to wrap his head around the gameplay that when Kirk “accidentally” drops a card, he bends over to pick it up—giving Spock enough time to nerve-pinch him and McCoy and Kirk enough time to take out the other two men. Kirk orders Spock and McCoy to return to the ship while Kirk goes after Okmyx himself. The blue shirts reluctantly agree, and Spock is able to find an AM radio that he re-tunes (somehow…) to hail Uhura and get them beamed out of there. Kirk high-tails it out of the warehouse—only to be stopped moments later by one of Krako’s men, who forces him into a car.

Kirk is led to meet Krako, the competing mob boss, who wants essentially the same thing as Okmyx but is willing to give Kirk a third. (A third of what, exactly?) Kirk again declines, and suggests instead that they all sit down and talk about it. Krako isn’t interested in therapy and tells Kirk, “The Book tells us how to handle things.” He has Kirk thrown “on ice” with the threat of imminent death until he changes his mind.

They put him in what looks to be a guest room, complete with office furniture and a radio. Kirk quickly begins disassembling the radio and uses an internal cord to create a trip wire. He screams for help and watches as his captors trip on the wire, allowing Kirk the chance to knock them out and steal a tommy gun.

Meanwhile, Spock and McCoy are promised a “truce” by Boss Okmyx, if they would just beam back down to the surface and look for Kirk together! Being suddenly total morons, Spock and McCoy agree, and within seconds of their arrival back on Sigma Iotia II are effectively kidnapped again. Luckily Kirk has escaped from the clutches of Krako and shows up just in time to save them. He orders two lackeys to disrobe (woooo!), and he and Spock don the period costume to “put the bag on Krako.”

They run out and find a 1920s-era sedan, which Kirk attempts to drive. Hilarity ensues. Eventually (miraculously, more like it) they manage to make it to Krako’s place, but the front door is guarded. They don’t know how to get in without attracting unwanted attention. A young boy comes up and offers to help them, in exchange for “a piece of the action.” Hey, that’s the title! Kirk agrees, and the boy goes up to the guards and starts screaming that he wants his father. Kirk takes his cue and pretends to rescue the boy, giving Spock a chance to nerve-pinch one while he takes out another. They sneak into Krako’s base of operations and…. are promptly kidnapped again!

Paragons of competency, these two.

Kirk comes up with a new plan: putting on an atrocious gangster accent, he tells Krako that the Federation is taking over, and if Krako wants any cut at all he’s going to have to cooperate. Krako mysteriously agrees. Kirk smugly sits in Krako’s chair and puts his feet on his desk, and instructs Scotty in the most unsubtle method imaginable to beam Krako aboard the ship. Scotty understands him (despite his code! Amazing!) and does so.

SCOTT: It looks like we put the bag on you, doesn’t it.
KRAKO: I got rights.
SCOTT: You’ve got nothing. You mind your place, mister, or you’ll be wearing concrete galoshes.
KRAKO: You mean cement overshoes?
SCOTT: Er. Aye.

Kirk and Spock make their way back to Okmyx’s place, and tell him the same thing: the Federation is taking over and he’ll have to cooperate or else. Okmyx agrees, and reluctantly calls each of the other major mob bosses on the planet. Scotty is able to lock onto the coordinates of all of them and successively beam each one over to Okmyx’s place, including Krako. The place quickly begins to resemble a speakeasy as all the mob bosses argue loudly with one another. Kirk explains that they’re all going to be under the control of the Federation, which wants a 40% cut. What they’re going to have to do is form a syndicate, with Okmyx as the top man and Krako as the lieutenant. The mob bosses are pretty skeptical of this arrangement, especially considering they haven’t seen more than three “Feds” since this whole thing started. Krako mentions that he saw men on the ship, but again, only three, and they’re not convinced of the strength of this invisible Federation.

Suddenly gunfire is heard—Krako’s men have come to put a hit on Okmyx. Kirk decides to let this be a demonstration of the Federation’s power and tells Scotty to use the ship’s phasers on stun for a one block radius around their present location. Though the people in the room are unscathed, all of the gangsters outside have fallen down unconscious. Perfectly convinced at this point, the mob bosses break open the booze and decide to celebrate the new syndicate.

Back aboard the Enterprise, Spock seems displeased with the way things have turned out, and Kirk calls him on it:

KIRK: Ah, yes. I understand that. You don’t think it’s logical to leave a criminal organization in charge.
SPOCK: Highly irregular, to say the least, Captain. I’m also curious as to how you propose to explain to Starfleet Command that a starship will be sent each year to collect our cut.
KIRK: Yes, that’s a very good question, Mister Spock. I propose our cut be put into the planetary treasury and used to guide the Iotians into a more ethical system. Despite themselves, they’ll be forced to accept conventional responsibilities. Isn’t that logical?

…er, not really, but OK. McCoy also seems a little upset, and he reluctantly reveals to Kirk that he’s left his communicator on the planet! (Again: paragons of competency, these folks.)

SPOCK: Captain. If the Iotians, who are very bright and imitative people, should take that communicator apart—
KIRK: They will, they will. And they’ll find out how the transtator works.
SPOCK: The transtator is the basis for every important piece of equipment that we have.
KIRK: Everything.
MCCOY: You really think it’s that serious?
KIRK: Serious? Serious, Bones? It upsets the whole percentage.
MCCOY: How do you mean?
KIRK: Well, in a few years, the Iotians may demand a piece of our action.

Analysis

I had been really looking forward to this one and I wanted desperately to love it, but I mostly only barely liked it. Let’s start with the good: this has some of the best comic performances in the series, from Kirk not being able to explain what a “galaxy” is in the very beginning to the Kirk/Spock dynamic throughout. I loved their back and forth and the fizzbin scene is laugh out loud funny. I liked that Kirk didn’t know how to drive, unlike in most TV shows where people can just hop on a motorcycle or fly a plane with no training whatsoever. And who can argue with Kirk and Spock in some really snappy zoot suits?

But comic performances aside, the script is a plot wasteland. It’s one of those stories that relies on every person in it acting in the stupidest possible manner, because if anyone in this episode had an ounce of common sense the plot would unravel. Kirk manages to get kidnapped a total of four times. Four times! Spock and Bones fare no better, taking the criminal mob boss at his word and beaming down with no security detail for a friendly peaceful chat. The gangsters are the worst, complete idiots who fall for every single trick in the book. Twice. I can’t abide television (or film, or books, or any other form of entertainment) that relies on people acting like living brain donors. There’s no tension, there’s no strength of character, there’s no rooting for the good guy. If you had never seen another Star Trek episode you would think that these guys were the Inspector Gadgets of the Federation. I like my heroes resourceful and clever, not moronic and naïve.

I’m also not taken by the premise itself, which seems to posit that sentient beings are slaves to literalism. People think abstractly, in ideas. The comparison to the Bible was just weird: our society isn’t a literal reinvention of the world portrayed in the Bible. And the book is clearly a history book. This isn’t Galaxy Quest, it’s not like the authenticity of that book as a work of historical non-fiction is in question at all. Plus Okmyx says that the Horizon left behind a bunch of other books—why latch onto this one? I just don’t buy that any reasonably sentient race would take a history book and use it as a blueprint for society and everyone else would be totally on board for that, even if they are an “imitative” people. (All people and all species are imitative!)

While I thought the episode began amusingly, it devolved into embarrassing camp very quickly as Shatner’s performance progressed. His accent is absolutely wince-worthy, and thank god he learned a few things before Star Trek IV, where he puts on essentially the same schtick only without the awful scene-chewing. He was so over-the-top here that I felt like I was in some bizarro world, i.e. season three.

Of course, there’s also the moral issue of allowing a mob-controlled crime syndicate become a government. Whatever happened to ideals of democracy? And what exactly is the Federation going to get a cut of each year?

Torie’s Rating: Warp Factor 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: I’ve been looking forward to this one a lot. “A Piece of the Action” is remembered as one of the best of the funny Star Trek episodes, but it’s also a thoughtful one. It highlights the importance of the Federation’s non-interference directive by showing us the slightly exaggerated consequences of cultural contamination. Leaving behind a book, or a communicator, or even a soda bottle can have a huge impact on a developing, impressionable culture. For once, Starfleet returns to clean up one of their messes, and Kirk actually has an excuse to get involved in planetary politics this time around.

Basing an entire civilization on 1920s gangster-run Chicago is not only an opportunity to save some money (those sets and suits were probably readily available on another Paramount stage) but it gave the actors a chance to act out of character while also remaining in character. Kirk’s first reactions are mixed amusement and annoyance at the Iotians’ rough methods, but as he understands them he learns to beat them at their own game. He’s completely comfortable in such a clearly illogical setting, and one of his proudest moments is his fizzbin ruse—a game as illogical as only Kirk can make it, which in retrospect is probably unnecessary to get the drop on their captors but is certainly fun. (I seem to recall that fizzbin later develops into an actual game, providing further cultural contamination, unless I’m making that up.) William Shatner really shines as he hams up his mobster persona, gradually assuming a thicker accent and more of the unique lingo; Kirk is also extremely clever and adaptable in this episode, especially when he rigs that tripwire to overpower his kidnappers.

Of course, as comfortable as Kirk is on Sigma Iotia, Spock is notably out of his element. Kirk’s scenes are memorable, but I was surprised at how much humor Spock contributes as the perfect foil for his captain. Nimoy’s subtlety plays well against Shatner’s flamboyance, and their banter is the stuff of comedy. The driving scenes are hilarious, and their back and forth “Right?” “Check.” “Check?” “Right.” is brilliant. It just makes it even funnier when Spock finally seems to “get it,” when he says, “I would advise youse to keep dialing.” (As a side note, given that Kirk clearly has never driven a car before, it seems that his childhood joyride in J.J. Abrams’ film never happened in this universe… Somehow Nero’s interference reintroduced automobile’s to 23rd century Earth?)

Since I first saw this episode as a kid, I have learned more about gangsters and the 1920s, mostly from classic Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang films, so the references to the Federation as “the Feds” was much funnier this time. Similarly, Oxmyx’s claim that he “distilled” alcohol himself actually meant something to me. There were other slight touches that I appreciated, including Kirk calling McCoy “Sawbones” and a lot of the politics and economics of the mob. Because I remembered that McCoy was going to leave his communicator behind at the end of the episode, his line at the very beginning that “We’re going down to recontaminate them,” seemed like either good foreshadowing or irony. It was also gratifying to see some consideration of how Starfleet was going to respond to Kirk’s solution on the planet, and there’s every indication that they will return every year to collect their percentage. (Though they probably won’t, and the Iotians will be screwed.) I was hoping they would cut that scrappy kid in for a piece of the action, but if they do, it happens offscreen.

I had a couple of niggling questions, of course. How did Oxmyx intend to keep the upper hand if he’s demanding Kirk send down a hundred phasers with troops to show them how to use them? Seems like the tables would turn pretty quickly. Who made all those pinball machines? Where do all those bosses operate? They all seem to be fighting over a territory the size of…well, Chicago, but this is some kind of planet-wide conflict, isn’t it? Still, if these are the worst of the shortcomings, this is a very good episode indeed—and I think it has the best punchline of any episode in the series, especially immediately after its delivery, the frame freezes and cuts to the credits instead of lingering for their usual collective laughter.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp Factor 6

Best Line: KIRK: Yes, but what you’re after is a royal fizzbin, but the odds in getting a royal fizzbin are astron— Spock, what are the odds in getting a royal fizzbin?
SPOCK: I have never computed them, Captain.

Syndication Edits: None, it seems like.

Trivia: The original idea for this episode came from Roddenberry himself, who wrote a one-sentence summary—“President Capone”—on the first page of the first Star Trek series proposal in 1964.

The original draft of the script was titled “Mission into Chaos” and involved negotiating an alliance with Dana Iotia 2, on the border of the Neutral Zone. The Romulans found out Kirk was talking to Okmyx and sent two emissaries (“Rorek” and “Ramo”) with weapons (“morkons”) to make a deal with Krako. Kirk escaped Okmyx using a card game called “farfel” and eventually got his hands on the Romulan weapons. The Romulans, being warmongering jerks, sent down a squad that was promptly surrounded by an Enterprise security crew. Okmyx decided to go with the Federation, because the Romulans seemed a little…aggressive. In the end each of the twelve bosses voted for himself as the ambassador to the Federation, inadvertently creating the council of twelve.

As I mentioned in my “Trials and Tribble-ations” post, an early concept for the homage episode was going to have the DS9 crew return to Sigma Iotia II to find that they had all imitated 23rd-century TOS-era Starfleet, based on Kirk’s encounter in this episode.

Other Notes: Anthony Caruso, who played Okmyx, played a gangster frequently on television. Talk about type-casting.

Vic Tayback, who played Krako, is most famous as the cook Mel in the Scorcese movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the later TV series Alice.


Next episode: Season 2, Episode 18 – “The Immunity Syndrome.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.


Torie Atkinson couldn’t help but keep thinking of that “Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” scene in Office Space throughout the entirety of this episode.

Eugene Myers spent a lot of time eyeing the period costumes in this episode, since he’s going to a 1920s theme party next week to celebrate the release of a Prohibition-era vampire novel called—wait for it… Moonshine.

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