Monday, October 18, 2010

The Best Episode Of Star Trek: "A Piece Of The Action!"

The Good: Funny, Great idea, Excellent acting, Decent character work, Costuming, Rewatchability, Everything!
The Bad: None that I've yet found!
The Basics: Funny and clever, “A Piece Of The Action” finds Kirk and Spock captured by gangsters in a caper that holds up remarkably well over many viewings!

I've never cared for going with the consensus. If I can argue something well, I will, no matter how popular or unpopular that view is. In the case of Star Trek episodes, I have an unconventional favorite. Many fans will toe the party line (as it were) and say that “The City On The Edge Of Forever” is the best, while others might open to “Space Seed” or “Mirror, Mirror,” but “A Piece Of The Action” holds up better than them for one simple reason: “The City On The Edge Of Forever” and “Mirror, Mirror” get bogged down way too much in explaining themselves. “A Piece Of The Action” has minimal explanation, maximum time spent with the characters living their lives and interacting with their situation as opposed to explaining it to the audience. Viewing for viewing, it is more clever, funny, and better performed than any other episode in the series, making it indispensable to the Star Trek viewer (or fans of the franchise). As well, for those naysayers, “A Piece Of the Action” has been consistently rising over the decades on fan polls, so momentum is with the episode as people find out about or revisit it!

The U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Sigma Iota, a planet visited about a century before by the Horizon, who described the people as “imitative.” Beaming down, Kirk and Spock discover the planet is now being run like Chicago was in the 1930s. The gangsters rule “territories” and exact tribute and Kirk and Spock find themselves almost immediately as prisoners of the local gangster, Bela Oxmyx. Oxmyx wants Federation technology, ostensibly to use against rival gang leaders, notable Jojo Kracko. Escaping Oxmyx, Kirk find himself captured by Kracko’s men and in a bit of a situation. Alternating between the various bosses, Kirk works to figure out what happened following the Horizon visit and how to undo it, while staying alive in the process!

“A Piece Of The Action” often resembles a French farce more than it does Star Trek, with Kirk and Spock being continually captured, rescued and recaptured. It works in this environment because this is just an absurd planet. But the reason for the absurdity makes complete sense and works. After innumerable episodes where the Prime Directive is spouted (often right before it is broken), here we see a concrete example of why it is so important.

The Prime Directive, for those not familiar with Star Trek jargon is essentially the Hippocratic Oath of the Federation. Instead of “Do No Harm,” it basically states that the Federation and Starfleet will not interfere in the internal development of other, less developed worlds. In “A Piece Of The Action,” we see why that’s such a good idea. Imitating the mobs of the 1920s has caused the Iotians to stagnate and become far more violent to one another than they were during the Horizon’s visit. Every death as a result of the social changes based on the contamination is blood on the Federation’s hands (and the episode is smart enough to illustrate that for the viewer).

So, “A Piece Of The Action” has a worthwhile moral to it. The thing that makes the episode truly great is that it doesn't beat the viewer over the head with it, it presents it in an entertaining way. So, unlike “Patterns Of Force,” which follows “A Piece Of The Action” only a few episodes later, with a remarkably similar plot, this episode is actually entertaining. It is far more about how Kirk and Spock extricate themselves from the situations as opposed to moralizing over what went wrong on the planet.

This might make it seem like the episode is plot intensive, but it’s truly not executed that way. Instead, the farce analogy holds (and those who know me know I’m not as big into comedy and I loathe slapstick, so this is saying something about how good the episode actually is!), there are a series of reversals that come rather quickly and the episode moves quite quickly. And it’s funny. Star Trek tries comedy sometimes and fails horribly, but “A Piece Of The Action” is solidly funny (when it’s not being menacing) and it works beautifully as a dramedy.

The reason for this is pretty simple; despite the humor of the lines and the cultural mismatches (Kirk driving a flivver, for example), the episode is remarkably well constructed. With each capture and jailbreak, Kirk and Spock learn something new which allow them to devise their ultimate strategy for solving the problem of what to do about the Iotians and how to restore the planet to some sense of its normal development.

In other words, our heroes are doing what they ought to be doing, being heroic by using their brains, not force. They have to think their way out of many of their problems without getting their heads blown off by trigger-happy gangsters. And watching them succeed this time around it entertaining and reinforces the idea that these characters have some genuine worth to them (i.e. that they don’t just get lucky all the time, that they actually motivate events as opposed to get swept along by plot)!

“A Piece Of The Action” has flawless acting, among both the guest stars and the principle actors. The guest stars are completely convincing in their roles as gangsters and many of them seem to delight in the weird setting and are just wonderful. Anthony Caruso, for example, is memorable as Bela Oxmyx and he plays off both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy beautifully.

This is one of the rare episodes that uses almost the full ensemble cast of Star Trek (many people seem to forget that it truly was “The Kirk Show . . .with Mr. Spock!” for the most part). James Doohan is wonderful in his fish-out-of-water scenes trying to communicate as Scotty with the Iotians, whose lingo is . . . very much altered by the cultural contamination. Doohan does wonderful deadpans and delivers some of the episode’s most memorable lines. He is funny and he pulls off the realism of the episode with apparent ease.

William Shatner has a great part in “A Piece Of The Action” and he treads the line perfectly between playing the situations seriously and understanding that the idea is in many ways quite campy. He finds that balance and illustrates his own sense of comic timing that easily foreshadows his role on Boston Legal. Moreover, Shatner and Nimoy play off one another in a way that makes them seem very much like “Abbot And Costello” (except funny) in this episode!

Overall, “A Piece Of The Action” is enjoyable, meaningful and works great as the perfect episode of Star Trek. It is VERY accessible to all audiences and is likely to be enjoyed by people who like comedy just as much as those who like science fiction stories. It’s definitely worth your time and attention; you’ll want to see it more than once!

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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