“A Piece of the Action” (Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 2, Episode 17)
One of the most interestingly specific themes of Star Trek is that of cultural contamination of the less advanced civilizations the crews encounter. Established early on in the franchise and featured in several episodes of The Original Series, it showcases the more thoughtful nature of the show. TOS is often likened to a western and can be compared to the rapid (and often bloody) expansion of The United States in its early history. But unlike the USA, the Federation takes care to trod lightly wherever it goes; the galaxy is not simply a smorgasbord of resources to exploit. It is home to a dazzling variety of peoples that must be respected and at times protected at all costs. It is a sensitive and noble idea that was perhaps borne out of the grim reality of the USA’s involvement in any number of bloody conflicts throughout the 20th century (of which Gene Roddenberry, a WWII vet was involved in). At the time this episode was made (’68), the United States was smack dab in the middle, escalating period of the Vietnam War. The idea of a peaceful multicultural organization with an ethical, nonviolent, noninterference policy was no doubt a pleasantly optimistic and far-fetched notion.
Another very specific and sillier theme of Trek is that of the strangely Earth-like alien planet, of which Kirk and co. encounter an improbable amount of. In reality, it allowed the sometimes shoestring-budgeted show to save some money by utilizing preexisting sets, props, and costuming. It’s just one of those kooky things you have to roll with and is part of The Original Series’ wacky charm (that would occasionally be echoed in later series, such as The Next Generation’s “The Royale”). This episode is a mob/gangster story sandwiched by some sci-fi trappings that give our heroes a fish-out-of-water situation to figure out.
Back to the non-interference policy – it’s a smart move to build an episode around demonstrating exactly why the Prime Directive is a good idea. That the Iotians have an apparent knack for cultural imitation and extrapolation help connect the dots of why this place is exactly like Earth in the 1920’s. The entire mess was caused by a ship a century before that didn’t tread lightly; Kirk and the crew spend the episode righting the situation as best they can.
Kirk and Spock initially approach the situation honestly, earnestly, and diplomatically (as our Trek heroes always do), and get promptly taken for a ride as a result. Kirk displays an impressive fluidity and adaptability in taking a new approach of emulating the exaggerated tough guy masculinity of the Iotians. Shatner’s trademark hamminess is a good asset here, as Kirk is doing his best to quickly assimilate into the local culture.
Kirk shows ingenuity in coming to a solution that gets the planet under control; there’s no convenient sci-fi plot device to wrap everything up. With this level of cultural contamination it’s about managing the damage, and Kirk is able to seemingly begin to steer the planet towards some level of organization, even if it requires strong-armed fealty to the Federation. He acknowledges to Spock and McCoy that truly changing the gangster culture is going to take incremental steps over the course of years, and will only be possible through economic coercion.
There’s a critique of our own capitalist society in how money and status-obsessed everyone is – the way to get anyone to do anything is by promising them “a piece of the action.” I’m not even sure if the word “money” is even used. It seems like an even more cartoonishly ludicrous and nonspecific than money; it’s just… the action! Everything is transactional; one of the mob bosses flat-out states that no one does anything unless it benefits them, and a kid agrees to help Kirk and Spock in exchange for an unspecified piece of that aforementioned action. It’s a stark contrast to the altruism and honor 23rd century humans live by, and a franchise precursor to the rampant greed and materialism the Ferengi would be defined by.
Just as how the Federation’s non-interference policy was an aspirational fantasy, the idea of a peaceful human society no longer dominated by money or material concerns represented an optimistic utopia that defined Star Trek’s appeal. The broad and somewhat buffoonish depiction of the Iotians as a stand-in for modern American society isn’t very subtle, but it gets the message across that we have a long way to go still.
- We’ve never gotten a follow-up or even a quick reference to the Iotians, which is a little disappointing. Especially since they make a big deal about McCoy leaving his communicator behind.
- I mentioned TNG’s “The Royale,” and there are a lot of thematic similarities to this episode. Utilizing some pre-existing sets of a 20th-century setting, it features an alien environment that has been created and shaped to follow the culture of a 20th century novel with crime elements.
- The original draft of the script involved the Romulans being allied with some of the Iotians, and Kirk having to outwit them. Interestingly, this same idea was used in the episode right before this, “A Private Little War,” except with the Klingons having armed a more primitive civilization. It also involves the idea of cultural contamination and its dangers.
- When the crew of Deep Space Nine wanted to do their 50th anniversary tribute episode, they considered this one as a contender to digitally insert the cast into. They of course went with “The Trouble With Tribbles.”