Man, I love gangster movies. I couldn't tell you why. I have this half-baked theory that crime dramas are the closest thing that movies set in modern times can get to the power and danger of royalty, but you guys deserve to have things fully cooked, so let's leave that to the side. I'm not a violent man, I don't break any laws or wish I could, and when I watch something like Goodfellas, I don't have any wish to be one of the guys I'm watching. But it seems like a third of my favorite movies have bad men with guns shooting other bad men with guns, and everybody's wearing suits and has their hair slicked back.
I haven't seen any of the old school classics, like the original Scarface or Public Enemy, but I'd bet "A Piece of the Action," the first episode we'll be looking at today, does some cribbing from that era. There's not a lot of tragedy in "Piece," or the dark violence and brutal sex that we associate with the crime genre, but it's definitely got guys in suits, and lots, and lots, of tommy guns. This is a very silly hour of Trek, and it's a wonderfully entertaining one; when Shatner isn't hamming it up more than usual, Kirk and Spock get some funny stuff to do, and the ep manages decent mileage out of a ridiculous concept.
The Enterprise is making a stop at Sigma Iotia II. The last Federation ship to visit Iotia was the Horizon, and it went down shortly after the trip; for once, this doesn't implicate anyone in our story, but it does mean that the Iotians, after that initial contact, haven't heard from Starfleet in a long time. Before beaming down, Kirk talks with a planet leader named Oxymyx, and after an odd conversation—Oxmyx has a very limited understanding of what's going on—Kirk arranges to meet Oxmyx on Iotia. Spock and McCoy come along for the ride, and on the way to the transporters, they talk about how the Horizon's visit came before the Federation instituted a "Noninterference Directive." There's not telling how much the Horizon's crew messed with the locals. But even in our heroes wildest dreams, it's doubtful they could've imagined what was waiting for them: an entire society based on a book called Chicago Mobs Of The Twenties. (Published in 1992!)
After a few minutes of marveling at what they're seeing—old cars, flappers, and a heavily armed populace—Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are picked up by Oxmyx's men. There's some passable attempts at slang (it's artificial sounding, but not embarrassingly so), and then a drive-by shooting that takes out one of the Oxymyx goons. There's a gang war between Oxmyx and a man named Krako, and everybody's trying to find an edge to shoot their way to the top. When Kirk and the others meet Oxmyx in person, they find that, despite his ignorance as to what Kirk represents, he wants men and guns to help him put Krako down once and for all; and he's not the only one that thinks Kirk is his ticket to victory.
Plot-wise, "Piece" is on the redundant side. Kirk bounces back and forth between Oxmyx and Krako, and a lot of goons get punched and Vulcan neck-pinched. Once you get the basic idea, there aren't many surprises, and we never get to know any of the locals beyond the two main heavies. The hook is on the goofy side; we see Oxmyx has the Mobs book in a place of honor in his office, and Spock tells us a couple times how "imitative" the Iotians are, but it's odd that they'd read a history book about criminal enterprises and decide that was the only way to go. Surely the book mentioned law enforcement? I can understand them not wanting to be like civilians, but you'd think there'd be some copy-cat cops hanging around. We never see any, though.
Of course, I haven't read The Book, so I can't really say what's in it. And you know, it's not a bad premise for this show. Good stories can have holes and still be good, and we rarely dislike things just because they don't make perfect sense. "Piece" makes as much sense as it needs to, and it has some nice touches that make the hook easier to swallow. My favorite is the fact that not only does everybody in the city have a gun, there are guns hanging from the walls, too. Everything the Iotians copied from that book is a little too enthusiastic, like students so eager to impress the teacher that they show their work twice.
Another plus is that Kirk and Spock are having the time of their lives. McCoy is sidelined for most of the episode, either holding people hostage or having his gun taken away, and while he's waiting, the captain and first officer get into all sorts of mischief. By the halfway mark, Kirk has scored a couple of goon's outfits, and there's something delightful about Kirk and Spock gatting about in period garb. We've seen Shatner and Nimoy set up as a comedy duo before, and this is one of the better uses of Shatner's sense of absurdity and Nimoy's stone face. Just the way Nimoy reacts after Shanter nearly kills them in a car is great.
I also appreciate that some effort was made to justify the Enterprise's involvement in the situation. This isn't about mineral rights or the strategic value of the planet's location—it's about trying to fix the mess the Horizon made when it got involved so many years before. The Enterprise itself is never threatened, and Kirk and the others don't really seem all that concerned about their own safety, but that works to the ep's advantage; along with the Noninterference Directive, it explains why Kirk doesn't have a bunch of red-shirts come down with phasers and shoot anyone who gets in his way. He does rely more and more on Scotty's help as the situation progresses (concluding with some light phaser stunning from orbit), but the nature of the problem is clever, and its resolution, if not entirely believable, at least satisfactory.
Oxmyx wants Kirk's help to bring everybody in league under him, and while the method may be faulty, it's not a bad idea. As Spock points out, in order for the Iotians to get back on the normal curve, they need to have one unified society to drive progress. (Okay, so a global unified society wouldn't really work that early in a society's development, but since these episodes work better when you view the "planets" as "countries," let's think in those terms.) So Kirk decides to pull a reverse Yojimbo (or an Un-Red Harvest, if you like) and unify the gangs by making them all scared of the Federation.
I normally don't mind Shatner's over-acting, but he really gets some serious scenery consumption in here, and it gets old. There were a few scenes where the person on-screen stopped being Kirk and turned into self-parody, and it takes away part of the fun when he starts indulging. (I'm guessing I should've been more amused by the "fizzbin" scene than I was. Although even then, I was kind of amused.) I guess imitative alien gangsters are more impressed by… pauses… and—weird gesutres than us Earthlings, though, because Kirk gets the job done, and when the Enterprise leaves Iotia, all the warring factions are joined together in fear of a common threat. Can't imagine how that could possibly go wrong. Also can't imagine how McCoy leaving behind a communicator will hurt anybody, right?
"Piece" is high-energy and endearing. And it even manages to be occasionally insightful, like in this exchange between Kirk, Spock and an urchin who offers to help, for a price:
Orphan: What's in it for me?
Kirk: What do you want?
Orphan: A piece of the action.
Spock: You do not even know what the action is going to be.
I like that—it's a planet full of mercenaries who are so invested in getting ahead they don't even know what "ahead" means. The episode isn't very serious, and it's not like it's trying to teach us a valuable lesson, but, like the guns on the walls, sometimes it's the little things that count.
I had zero expectations going in to "The Immunity Syndrome." I'm reasonably sure that I've seen all of the first two seasons of Trek, because I remember borrowing both from the library a few years ago. But then I stumble across this one, completely unprepared for it, and I find out it rocks. And all I can think is, what the hell, brain? What the hell. You remember the lyrics to the Duck Tales theme, but you can't remember the show about the GIANT FUCKING SPACE AMOEBA? Sometimes I wish I'd done more drugs, because then I'd have an excuse.
Once again, the Enterprise finds itself called in to handle a situation that no one else can. They're on their way back from an exhausting mission that has everyone on board (including Kirk) itching for some shore leave, when Spock has an Obi-Wan moment, sensing that the Intrepid, a ship with 400 Vulcans on board, has just been destroyed. An order comes in from Starfleet soon after, assigning Kirk and his crew are to investigate the disappearance. Doesn't matter that they're tired, doesn't matter that they're on edge and frustrated. There's something weird out there and it's breaking things. Time to go to work.
Having the Enterprise as the only available ship to do something incredibly dangerous is a set-up that the series has used before and will use again, but it works well here. Given that the threat the crew encounters deals its damage in attrition, the lack of sleep and stress everyone's dealing with even before the story gets going means things start tense and go downhill from there. After the over-the-top nuttiness of "Piece," it's bracing the way "Immunity" goes for the throat. Like all good thrillers, it never lets you forget that the danger is out there; and even better, it never lets that danger get tedious.
Spock's Obi-Wan moment is a little weird, though. This is the first we've heard of a ship with a full crew of Vulcans aboard, and Spock's knowledge of their deaths serves mostly to give him an extra layer of motivation through the episode. It also gives us the creepy vibe of passing through territory that others have lived and died in; there's a nice moment when Spock tells Kirk that the crew of the Intrepid most likely did everything they're doing now, and it didn't end up helping them at all. (Of course, that moment gets strange when Spock explains how the Vulcans couldn't understand the concept of "defeat." I'm not sure that really works; it has to do with the fact that the Vulcans have never been conquered, but I don't think an alien race ever defeated us humans, but I'd say we know what losing is.)
The Enterprise follows where the Intrepid left off, and finds what appears to be a hole in space. The instruments can't make heads or tails of it, not even when it sends out a signal that weakens half the crew (including Uhura). The ship is eventually swallowed in darkness—we get a great visual of the view-screen, completely black—and nobody knows what's going on. Except the engines are losing power, and, according to the on-board computers, everybody is dying. Something's got hold of the Enterprise, and it's pulling it close; and the closer the ship gets, the more impossible escape becomes.
There's a lot to love in "Immunity": the Spock/McCoy dynamic is just right, everyone makes smart choices, and we're given enough information about the threat that we understand the stakes, but not enough to make us question the plausibility. As Trek goes, the science fiction is credible. The monster is a single celled organism that's 11, 000 miles long, and the field it emits saps the Enterprise's energy sources and is lethal to life as we know it. There's no communication possible, and no goofy little person at the controls. It's just this alien thing, and it has to be destroyed or else the whole universe is at risk. (Although even that might not be enough; Kirk and McCoy talk about what'll happen if there's more of the things floating around—humans could wind up as the viruses inside a giant host body.) The whole thing is very creepy. There's that Lovecraftian vibe of huge empty spaces and monsters so vast that even their size becomes malevolent.
So how do we stop it? Through the power of Science, of course. Once the Enterprise comes within spitting distance of the GIANT FUCKING SPACE AMOEBA, they've got to work out how to kill it. Spock and McCoy determine that the only way to do that is for somebody to make a close study of the alien and figure out if it has any weak spots. Both are interested in making the trip, even if it is a suicide mission. Spock's request to pilot the craft makes sense; he's Mr. Science, after all, and he's also got a personal stake in things. But McCoy? That's just neat; for once, we get to see Bones really excited about being a biologist.
Kirk picks Spock in the end—and was anybody else surprised that he didn't supercede them both and pilot the shuttlecraft himself? (Another thing to appreciate: Kirk acting like a goddamn captain.) So Spock goes on the suicide mission, and even though we know he'll be back, things do get suspenseful. Spock manages to send a message to the ship that the best way to kill the thing is from the inside, where it isn't shielded. Then Spock goes out of range, and Kirk has to decide how act on his advice; in classic Kirk fashion, he risks everything to fly right into the heart of the creature, and then uses some anti-matter to finish the job. He risks everything again when Spock's shuttlecraft gets close enough to lock onto with a tractor beam—the ship's almost out of power as it is, and it'd be safer if he'd just left Spock to die.
But that's not how we do things on the Enterprise. There's a great scene which shows Spock on the shuttlecraft, recording his commendations to the Enterprise captain and crew, while back on the ship, Kirk's doing the same thing for Spock and the others. It's surprisingly moving, even though we know nobody's really in serious danger. So of course Kirk's going to risk it all to save Spock in the end, because the only thing that matters as much to him as his ship are the people aboard it.
In the end, the GIANT FUCKING SPACE AMOEBA is destroyed, Spock is saved, and the universe is safe for another day or two. "Immunity" holds up nicely; even the effects, usually hit or miss on the series, still look good. (I'm talking about the original version, not the revamped one.) The further we get from the first season, and from the episodes I remember well, the more I wonder how terrible the show will become. If there's still a chance of bumping into stuff like "Piece" and "Immunity," at least I've got some reason to make it through the rougher spots.
"A Piece Of The Action": B+
"The Immunity Syndrome": A
- After McCoy realizes he left his communicator behind, Spock mentions that the transtator circuit inside is the source of all their equipment. Which is one of those ideas that raises way more questions than it answers.
- I love Kirk's fuzzy fedora.
- So: GIANT FUCKING SPACE AMEOBA—good band name?
- Next week, it's "A Private Little War" and "Return To Tomorrow."