Monday, March 4, 2013

A Piece Of The Action

From here on in there is a new producer in charge, and it remains to be seen how this new order will change things.” Those prophetic words ended the review of The Gamesters Of Triskelion, and clearly demonstrate I should never go into the soothsayer business. The next episode is of course A Piece Of The Action with a joint teleplay credit for David P. Harmon and departed producer Gene L. Coon.

[This also seems to be an appropriate point to confess my error in the second to last paragraph of
The Gamesters Of Triskelion review. Talking about the difference between stories produced by new producer John Meredyth Lucas and Gene L. Coon I mentioned Obsession, and implied it was produced by Gene L. Coon.


A Piece Of The Action sees Kirk, Spock, and McCoy visit Sigma Iotia II; planet of the Chicago gangsters. Putting the regulars into a story from a different genre, and seeing how they interact with the world, is a storytelling technique used before on Star Trek. The Conscience Of The King is Star Trek does Shakespeare. Kirk dithers like Hamlet, Lenore goes mad like Lady Macbeth, and within the episode itself we see the characters watching extracts from plays which mirror the plot. It's a common technique in television. Buffy The Vampire Slayer took the idea to its extreme with the musical episode Once More With Feeling. Futurama has the superhero episode Less Than Hero and, appropriately, Where No Fan Has Gone Before. Doctor Who used it in the early days to tell adventures in history. The Reign Of Terror is Doctor Who meets the French Revolution (a mashup of A Tale Of Two Cities, and The Scarlet Pimpernell), and The Romans is Doctor Who goes to Rome (assorted historical and biblical epics).

Doing a story from a different genre has its advantages and disadvantages. It allows a cash strapped production to raid the costume store, and save money by using pre-existing sets from other series; A Piece Of The Action uses the Paramount backlot for location filming. The downside is finding a good reason for all the characters suddenly wearing zoot suits and trilby hats. Do it wrong and the result is Miri where much amazement is expressed over a planet which looks exactly like Earth, but no explanation is ever offered for this coincidence. 

This is where Doctor Who has a built in advantage over Star Trek: time travel. To do a story about the Mongols, or the Great Depression, or Nazis the Doctor only has to travel to the appropriate year. For Star Trek to do the same the series has to invent an alien race which is like the Mongols, find a method for the Enterprise crew to time travel to the 1930s, or go to a Nazi planet. It's possible to use any of these techniques a couple of times, but repeated use is going to start pushing the limits of suspension of disbelief. Obviously this is one of the reasons behind the invention of the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but that's a solution which carries its own problems. Imagine A Piece Of The Action done as a holodeck story. For starters you need a reason why we are watching Kirk and co. play dress up rather than going where no man has gone before. Secondly it removes all jeopardy from the story. Those scenes of Kirk being held at gunpoint have no dramatic tension if Kirk can shout, “computer end program at any time.” The only real way to resolve this problem is either to have Kirk not realise he is on the holodeck, or have a reason for it to break down. Again.
Attila the Hun, Professor Moriaty, Jack the Ripper, and Evil Lincoln. "The Holo-Shed's on the fritz again! The characters turned real!"," Damn. The last time that happened I got slapped with three paternity suits."
A Piece Of The Action's solution to having a planet just like Earth history is inventive. The inhabitants of Sigma Iotia II are bright but highly imitative; in itself a good solid science fiction concept. 100 years ago the crew of the space ship Horizon left behind a book called Chicago Mobs of the Twenties, and the Iotians mistook it for a social instruction manual. It's a funny idea but also one which is quite pleasing, and if you are prepared to run with the concept then it's easy to imagine the impact of the Horizon's visit on the Iotians; their first contact with an alien race. If the crew of the Horizon left a stack of technical manuals, plus Chicago Mobs of the Twenties by accident, and made some throwaway comment about the books containing everything the Iotians needed to advance their development then its easy to imagine how the cultural contamination began.

So, a funny concept is at the core of what is for some people the funniest Star Trek story. Right from the start this is an overtly comedic episode and the teaser has a lighter and more comedic feel than The Trouble With Tribbles. In that story the jokes in the teaser come from the characters and their interactions while the situation, at least in the beginning, is treated seriously. In A Piece Of The Action the audience is expected to share Kirk's amusement at a planet leader with the title boss, and his landing site instructions, there's an intersection just at the end of the block, near a yellow fire plug.” In between these two moments, Shatner sits in his chair and slowly rotates it in a semi-circle first one way, and then the other (some nice direction from James Komack who moves the camera with the chair to keep Shatner facing the camera), as he struggles to explain why it's taken 100 years for a radio message to reach the Federation, and the function of the transporter. Then as Spock and McCoy come onto the bridge Kirk walks between them, and spins them round on the spot leading the pair back into the turbo elevator. Possibly this lighter tone is designed to stop the audience thinking too much about the concept. If they view the story as funny, they are less likely to sit there picking holes in the idea. Scattered through the episode are some very good character based lines, such as Spock's valiant attempt to avoid telling a direct lie when Kirk asks him for the odds of a royal fizzbin, “I have never computed them, Captain,” but the downside of the script is the same as Robert Justman's concern about The Trouble With Tribbles. “Although the concept was amusing, the story was just too cute. I feared that... it would lead to a loss of believability. Kirk, Spock, and the others were real people, and real people just did not behave that way; our finely drawn characters should never parody themselves.”

There's a quote from Douglas Adams which sums up very well the pitfalls of doing an obviously jokey script. “A danger one runs is that the moment you have anything in the script that's clearly meant to be funny in some way, everybody thinks 'oh well we can do silly voices and silly walks and so on'.” Essentially that's the problem here. Everyone is having a wonderful time being silly. Particularly William Shatner who is occasionally allowed to get away with a performance which comes dangerously close to breaking character.

When Kirk is forced into a car by Zabo we get some lines which are a good pastiche of hardbitten gangster dialogue.

ZABO: Hold it! Okay, pally, we're going for a ride.
KIRK: If you don't mind, I'd rather walk.
ZABO: Listen, pally, this could either be a taxi or a hearse. You know what I mean?

Then as Kirk climbs into the car William Shatner uses a massively over the top worried expression, complete with furrowed brow and chewed lip. It's the sort of my-character's-worried emoting which might be expected from a drama student. He's worse while explaining the rules of his made up card game fizzbin. His tone of voice is all over the place on the lines, “oh, look what you got, two jacks. You got a half fizzbin already,” and “oh, look at that. You've got another jack. How lucky you are! How wonderful for you.” It overplays the comedy of the scene. Even Leonard Nimoy isn't immune to what must have been a great atmosphere on set, and his usually iron grip on the character wobbles during the car driving scene when he also starts fishing for laughs. “Oh. I believe they had a device known as a clutch. Clutch, Captain. Perhaps one of those pedals on the floor,” is a moment when he plays Spock far to broadly. Nimoy's Spock is normally very still, and his moments are considered, but here he's all jerky body movement and emphatic head nods. Oddly, Shatner is more tolerable later in the story, when Kirk adopts a cod-Chicago accent and starts using slang; asking Scotty, “can do, sweetheart?” Partly this is because his performance never reaches the extremes it does in acts one and two, but also because this fits the concept of the episode. If Kirk is going to put Sigma Iotia II back on track he first needs to out mobster the mobsters.

A Piece Of The Action looks amazing, nothing beats seeing Kirk and Spock in sharp suits and hats, driving period cars, and packing heat. The episode feels fresh if only because it looks completely different to anything which has gone before. There are no metaphors, or analogies, or moral lessons to be learned. The plot is fairly sparse. Kirk and Spock run around being captured by, and capturing, gangsters, but it's packed with incident (gun fights, fist fights, the car driving scene, the fizzbin rules, characters being phasered) and never gets dull. When the episode doesn't go too far in its quest for laughs it's great fun; and your definition of going too far will depend on your tolerance for William Shatner being allowed to indulge himself.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. 
Running total: 43

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