OK yes, it’s absolutely delightful.
Actually, it’s better than it lets on, and to find a reason why look no further than that second writing credit. Gene Coon had decided that, given the success of “The Trouble with Tribbles”, Star Trek could use more episodes with a larger and more overt focus on comedy (and it’s worth noting it was Coon who saw the potential in young Dave Gerrold’s script, encouraged him to keep submitting to Star Trek and who helped him shape “Tribbles” into the masterpiece it became). George Clayton-Johnson, the author of “The Man Trap”, had written an early version of this story as a treatment early in the first season called “Chicago II”. The actual idea for the episode is frequently attributed to Gene Roddenberry due to a two-word pitch (among many others like it) in his original 1964 proposal for Star Trek, Star Trek Is…, entitled “President Capone”, but as it’s a rather strangled path from that to what we can watch on screen, it’s tough for me to give him full credit for it. Coon discovered Clayton-Johnson’s script, liked the idea and decided to retool it. Coon’s writing partner here is David P. Harmon, whose previous Star Trek credit was “The Deadly Years”, which is not especially encouraging, but thankfully, “A Piece of the Action” turned out actually beautifully: It’s a highlight of the season, deservedly one of the most iconic stories of the series and exactly the sort of thing the show needed right about now.
The knee-jerk way to read “A Piece of the Action” is through its Cargo Cult undertones, and as it turns out this is what I expected I’d be spending this post going on about. In the most pleasant of surprises, “A Piece of the Action” manages to avoid the majority of the flak involved with this kind of prompt, (I know this is the second week in a row I’ve underestimated Star Trek, but given this season has made me sit through “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, “Friday’s Child”, “The Apple”, “The Deadly Years” and “The Gamesters of Triskelion” I maintain I had some right to lower my expectations) but first let’s talk a bit about what we mean by Cargo Cult. A Cargo Cult refers to what happens when, following contact with Western colonial powers whose presence results in a short-term burst of material prosperity, non-Western peoples establish a new religion based around worship of specific aspects of Western materialism in a hope this will bring about a return to that period of prosperity. The most famous example of a Cargo Cult took place in Melanesia following World War II, when natives began worshiping spiritual versions of US servicemen prophesized to return to teach them how to to live in plenty.
Obviously, as a particularly blatant example of how callous and thoughtless Western expansion thoroughly wrecked traditional Oceanian societies, Cargo Cults are not a phenomenon I’m not especially fond of, especially when they’re so frequently treated in the West as a source of mild paternalistic bemusement. And it could be, and often has been, argued that the Iotians in “A Piece of the Action” are a planetwide culture built around a Cargo Cult of the book Chicago Mobs of the Twenties. Certainly all the Prime Directive hand-wringing in this episode seems to support that interpretation, with Kirk, Spock and McCoy all very concerned about future “contamination” and “corruption” of the native culture. Except I’m not entirely convinced this is the best way to read “A Piece of the Action”: In fact, a better approach might actually be to compare it to a Doctor Who serial.
I want to avoid going into a huge amount of detail on Doctor Who here as there was simply no creative diffusion between it and Star Trek in the 1960s and frankly the majority of you know where to go if you want information on the other big science fiction-fantasy franchise kicking around television during this time (and for the rest, check the links on the right-hand sidebar). There will be a Sensor Scan on Doctor Who at a specially preordained time as there is in fact a point where it actually does enter into both my narrative and that of Star Trek, but let’s just say for now one of the most important things to understand about what Doctor Who is and how it operates is that it’s a highly literary (in a very literal sense) show known in part for its ability to bend, deform and explore different genres. The Doctor’s power comes from his ability to invade other people’s stories.
In some ways this is what’s going on here-The Iotians are not a society built around historical accounts of Chicago gang wars, they’re a society built around the tropes and motifs of exciting gangster crime stories. This isn’t entirely clear in the script (although it’s never called as such, Chicago Mobs of the Twenties is implied to be a history book which means this is the one part of the episode that may actually be improved by its Star Trek: The Next Generation remake, which is in every other respect a fantastically missed opportunity), but it totally is everywhere else in the production: Everything is deliberately overplayed; there are heaters and mobs and molls and moonshiners and pinstripe suits and pool tables. Naturally, this is just about heaven for William Shatner, who seems clearly and absolutely in his element here in a way we really haven’t seen him before.
Over the course of the episode, Shatner-as-Kirk slowly realises he’s in a different story and that his usual tactics of diplomacy-or-gunfire aren’t going to work, and his transformation from weary exasperation in the first act to fully-clothed mob boss character in the last is a magnificent bit of acting. Funnily enough, despite being arguably the preeminent creative force in shaping Star Trek to become a show that can do stories like, well, this, Gene Coon has on the whole avoided writing Kirk the way Shatner so obviously wants to play him, as a delightfully campy drag action hero. In his past scripts, Coon has tended to use Kirk as a stand-in for the show’s ethics, and under every writer except Paul Schneider, who seemed to actually get where Kirk’s actual potential as a character lay, Shatner has had to fight to keep from being written as, well, a Hollywood action male lead. Here though, Coon writes Kirk as someone constantly improvising his performance on the fly, and Shatner couldn’t be happier, playing off Coon’s material with positively flying colours. What we wind up with then is a kind of recursive artifice: Shatner doing a subtly exaggerated performance of Kirk doing a subtly exaggerated performance of a 1920s mob boss. It is a genius, genius bit of theatrical flourish that goes criminally under-appreciated and under-recognised. Furthermore, this is without doubt William Shatner’s defining move: If there’s one thing that ought to go down as his signature contribution to the performing arts, this is it.
(And not to completely ignore the other actors, who are all brilliant as well, special props have to go to James Doohan, whose confused, befuddled reaction to “Koik’s” solution to the Iotian situation is marvelous, and, of course, Leonard Nimoy, who has Spock try his absolute best to join in on the act. “I would advise yas to keep dialin’, Oxmyx.” is a thing of absolute beauty and probably the blueprint for about 70% of the jokes about Commander Data in the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
But there are other reasons why “A Piece of the Action” isn’t something quite as simple or straightforward as a Cargo Cult story. Firstly, the Iotians are not depicted as childlike Noble Space Savages, we’ve seen those before on Star Trek and this is something altogether different. Spock mentions in passing early on that prior to the incident with the Horizon, Sigma Iotia II was just entering its industrial revolution. Later on, during a discussion about Chicago Mobs of the Twenties, Bella Oxmyx says that the Horizon crew left a lot of books behind, in particular textbooks, but this was the most important one. Clearly the Iotians understand what these objects are and where they came from. The clincher comes when Oxmyx refers to Chicago Mobs of the Twenties as *The* Book, and Spock states the Iotians latched onto it and turned it into their Bible. These people are not are not, for once, some warped conception of indigenous Oceanic people extrapolated to a science fiction setting and dropped into some Space Age Garden of Eden (thank The Prophets for that). No, the Iotians are Westerners, and that changes everything.
For the first time then we have the Federation portrayed as something that might conceivably be above and beyond Westernism instead of something that is just an extension or extrapolation of it. The overt performativity of Shatner-as-Kirk and the rest of the production in this case takes on a new meaning, almost as if it’s trying to tell us the world of Star Trek doesn’t really belong here (after all, it is, as Boss Kirk says, a “small-time operation”). Read this way, “A Piece of the Action” can be seen as fulfilling the potential “Bread and Circuses” was hinting at before Gene Roddenberry came along and defanged it (I know it was a joint effort but come on, we all know who that episode’s denouement really sounds like). Of course, this approach has problems of its own: No matter how hard future Star Trek will try to show the Federation is a wonderful ideal we can all strive for, the fact remains the whole concept of any sort of “federation” is wrapped up in Western tropes and ideas to begin with. In many ways, the United Federation of Planets is a very Western utopia. Once again though, I’ll draw a line between “The Federation” and “The World of Star Trek”. The former may not be a viable way forward, but the latter may well be, and that’s what “A Piece of the Action” is helping set the stage for as much as anything else.
The key scene is without doubt the climax. Of all the “Kirk shows up and straightens out a backward or problematic society” we’ve seen in Star Trek so far, this might be the greatest and most unique. While it’s accepted a unified planetary society is where Sigma Iotia II *should* end up (which irritates both my anarchist and anthropological senses as unified planetary societies are yet another extrapolation of a non-functional Western idea, namely that of the nation-state), the actual approach the show endorses is one of the most unorthodox, and brilliant, in the entire history of Star Trek. Boss Kirk doesn’t encourage the Iotians to form a United Nations or some other form of representative democracy: Instead, he proposes the different mob bosses get together and form a syndicate, cutting him in for a percentage of the organisation’s net value.
I can’t get over how fascinating and delightful this ending is: First of all in many ways a criminal outfit like a mob syndicate does in fact work better than a representative democracy, in spite of its more unscrupulous aspects (compare Las Vegas in the 1960s and 1970s to Las Vegas today for a textbook example of this, or just read any of Hunter S. Thompson’s late-period writings), and in this episode Star Trek actually seems to be acknowledging that. Secondly, this is another example of how “A Piece of the Action” recognises and plays off its performativity so well: Essentially, Boss Kirk gets so wrapped up in his role he forgets he’s supposed to deliver the “proper” Star Trek moral, which Spock actually points out in the denouement, reminding him this is going to be tough to explain to Starfleet Command. Wonderfully, Kirk retains his mob boss persona even when back on board the Enterprise, seemingly only partially aware of the extent to which he’s genuinely subverted the entire show here. For that matter, I might even be able to redeem the whole united planet thing: A core tenet of anarchic individualism (as opposed to “American” “Individualism”) is that alliances of individuals should form based around shared interests, worldviews and goals. Maybe that’s what the syndicate is: A streamlining of the native system already in place designed around the idea the different mob bosses are too similar to be fighting each other.
“A Piece of the Action” isn’t the best episode of the season (For my money “The Trouble with Tribbles” is still untouchable for a number of extradiegetic reasons even this episode can’t come close to) but it’s bloody fantastic and one of the best episodes in the series by far. Additionally, it contributes something to the evolving narrative that’s truly invaluable: Coming here at the tail end of a season of rapidly deteriorating quality, this is the concrete evidence we needed that “Tribbles” was more than a fluke success and that Star Trek might actually really be special and that it really does have the potential to offer something of genuine greatness. At long last, every one of the series’ more radical and experimental factors seem to be working in harmony here and we get the first undeniable clue of what they’re capable of. No matter where the last few episodes of the year go, at least Gene Coon, the first person to make Star Trek Star Trek, has finally given us a defining statement.