Wednesday, July 14, 2010

TOS Rewind #44: "A Piece of the Action"

Up this time:  A Piece of the Action (01/12/1968)

We recorded a podcast for this one:

Eric starts us out:

It had been quite a while since I'd watched "A Piece of the Action," so I was thoroughly delighted to see it again. This is one of my favorite episodes. It's not profound but it is tremendous fun.

After the success of "The Trouble with Tribbles," it was deemed that comedic Star Trek episodes were viable, so "A Piece of the Action" became the twentieth episode produced in the second season. Actually, though, it is based on a synopsis titled "President Capone" that Gene Roddenberry included in his first series proposal in 1964.

Through its many iterations, the story was sometimes more serious, but it ultimately was fully as funny as "The Trouble with Tribbles." The "Fizzbin" scene still cracks me up, and Kirk and Spock's adventures in the antique car are hilarious. I also get a kick out of Scotty's attempts at using the admittedly stylized gangster lingo. And the guest stars seem to relish their roles. Anthony Caruso turns in a great performance as Bela Oxmyx, and Vic Tayback is spot on as Jojo Krako. (Note that Vic Tayback is perhaps better known for his role as Mel Sharples in the 1974 movie "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and the subsequent TV series "Alice.")

Now that I think of it, my opening assertion that this episode isn't profound isn't entirely accurate--I did discern a subtle message upon rewatching it. A case can be made that "A Piece of the Action" is actually a stinging commentary on organized religion. Consider that the government and society of Sigma Iotia II are based on slavish, fanatical adherence to the interpretation of the information in a scholarly book left by an earlier Federation expedition. The "Book" (as the Iotians refer to it) is revered as a sacred text, as evidenced by Bela Oxmyx's indignant demand: "I don't want no more cracks about the Book!" The parallels between the Book and the Judeo-Christian Bible are obvious. In fact, at one point, Dr. McCoy refers to it as the bible of the inhabitants of Sigma Iotia II. Interestingly, though, their adherence to their bible has produced a corrupt, brutal society where murder and treachery are the norm. The Book's influence has also produced a fragmented society in crisis because all the different factions constantly war with each other. Again, the parallels with the woes of human societies preoccupied with and devoted to religion and religious texts are numerous.

So, as it turns out, "A Piece of the Action" is not just a wonderfully funny, well-told story, it is also an insightful, biting commentary on religion. Quite an impressive accomplishment, when you think about it.


Like The Trouble With Tribbles and a few other Trek episodes, this is another fairly lightweight episode compared to most.  This episode takes an intriguing concept and makes a farcical episode out of it while not completely losing sight of the ideas expressed.  The events leading up to this episode would seem to obviate the need for The Prime Directive which did not exist when the earlier Federation ship visited the planet in this episode.  It is fun to ponder the idea of an entire planet's society structuring itself on a book about the Chicago gangs of the 1920s.  Now, the Enterprise encounters a world that looks like the backlot at Paramount!  The way these residents behave reminds me most of older Hollywood gangster movies;  I kept waiting for James Cagney to walk into the room during some scenes.  The humor comes at a full tilt in this episode with the bits involving a made-up card game and Kirk trying to drive a stick shift standing out.  The way Spock gives Kirk so much grief about his lack of driving skills is hilarious.  Some of the plot points are paper-thin, but when we're having this much fun watching the characters go at it, we really don't care that much.

The cast, including the guest actors, have a ball doing these silly characters (or is it caricatures?), and it shows.  Shatner and Nimoy get to have many fun back and forth sequences with plenty of verbal jabs to keep us occupied.  Doohan's bewildered performance is perfect as he struggles to figure out why all these people are acting so strangely.  Concrete galoshes indeed.  The resolution to the issue of unifying the chaotic structure, or lack thereof, of the planet is far from detailed, but has an interesting creative twist.  We end the episode not really knowing what the people of this world are going to do going forward.  Maybe we don't really need to worry about that too much, for after all, it's pretty much a jiffy-Trek.  Religious angles aside, of course.  I always liked this episode growing up.  It's hard to go wrong when you have Kirk and co. running around in pin stripe suits sporting Tommy guns.

The remastered version had the usual detailed picture, some new planet effects shots, and a re-done Enterprise phaser blast on the street.  The image always looks so good on these episodes where they either shoot out on location or use a movie-quality set like a backlot.  This one was no exception.

Next time:  "The Immunity Syndrome"

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