“Did humans really talk like that?”: A Piece of the Action (TOS) vs. The Royale (TNG)

Star Trek: The Original Series – “A Piece of the Action” (season 2, episode 20)

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Teleplay by David P. Harmon and Gene L. Coon; story by David P. Harmon; directed by James Komack; first aired in 1968

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise visits Sigma Iotia 2, a planet last visited by the Federation starship Horizon a century earlier. The Prime Directive against interfering in other cultures didn’t exist yet in those days, and Captain Kirk wonders if the Horizon crew might have had some accidental influence on Iotian society. He gets his answer when he, Spock, and Dr. McCoy beam down to what looks like early-20th-century Chicago, and are immediately taken captive by tommy-gun-toting gangsters. The Iotians, it turns out, have built an entire culture around a 20th-century Earth book left behind by the Horizon crew: Chicago Mobs of the Twenties. As a result, their society is controlled by a handful of mob bosses fighting amongst themselves for territory … and, now, for some of the Enterprise’s advanced weaponry. After rigging a card game, nearly crashing a vintage car, and escaping – and getting caught again – roughly half a dozen times, Kirk decides it’s time the “Feds” took over the Iotians’ “small-time” operation.

VS.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “The Royale” (season 2, episode 12)

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Written by Keith Mills; directed by Cliff Bole; first aired in 1989

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise-D visits Theta 8, an unexplored planet orbited by some mysterious debris: the remains of a 21st-century NASA ship, which couldn’t possibly have gotten so far from Earth on its own power. Commander Riker beams down to the planet, with Data and Worf, only to find an even more mysterious revolving door, leading to a late-20th-century Earth casino, somehow shielded from the planet’s inhospitable atmosphere. The casino’s human-looking staff and patrons give off no life signs, but seem harmless enough, and it’s all fun and games – blackjack, specifically – until the away team discovers that they can’t leave. Searching for clues, they find the remains of one Colonel Richey, the last survivor from the NASA ship. It turns out that the casino was created for Richey by the well-meaning aliens who had accidentally destroyed his ship and the rest of his crew, and who didn’t realize that the book their creation was based on, Hotel Royale, wasn’t a history text, but a badly-written pulp novel, whose poorly-conceived plot the away team must live out if they ever want to escape the Royale.

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“A Piece of the Action” and “The Royale” are among the earliest, most defining memories I have of Star Trek and The Next Generation, respectively. I grew up on syndicated reruns of The Original Series, and on new episodes of TNG, which I re-watched when they, in turn, came on as syndicated reruns. It’s easy to forget (and probably hard to imagine, if you grew up a decade or two later than I did) what it was actually like to watch TV then, in the 80s and 90s, decades before I would cut the cord and become an exclusively on-demand viewer. Episodes just came on, and you just watched them, and it didn’t matter which episode came before this one in the season, or after it, or whether they were even being shown in order in the first place (which they might well not be). And the shows told their stories in a way that reflected this reality, just as the super-serialized ‘gotta binge ’em all’ format of so many modern dramas reflects the reality of on-demand streaming. Episodes of The Original Series and The Next Generation were so episodic that these series were more like anthologies than anything we would recognize, today, as an ongoing dramatic series. (It’s worth remembering that the strictly defined continuity of ‘Star Trek canon’, which some fans impose on the franchise, is largely retroactive; TOS and TNG, in particular, rarely acknowledged much continuity between episodes, since they were produced with the assumption that most viewers wouldn’t keep close track of such things – or couldn’t, if episodes aired out of order.) You could change the channel, of course, if you didn’t like whichever episode happened to come on, or if you’d seen it too many times already … but mostly I didn’t, not when Star Trek or The Next Generation came on. Mostly I just sat absorbed in the brightly-colored imagery, so appealing to young viewers, and watched in fascination as a diverse group of grown-ups worked together to solve outlandish one-off problems. Deep Space Nine, with its more serialized and nuanced approach to long-form storytelling, would accompany me on the trek (sorry) from my early teens into early adulthood, but my childhood was saturated with the out-of-order, sometimes incomprehensible, always engaging imagery of The Original Series and The Next Generation.

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And when it comes to engaging imagery, it’s hard to beat “A Piece of the Action”. As I said above, it’s one of the first Star Trek episodes I have strong memories of watching, and images of Kirk and Spock in their vintage suits and hats, and of Kirk distracting gangsters with his made-up card game “Fizzbin”, are among the first that come to mind when I think of The Original Series. Which is common, I’m sure – I suspect that ‘they did an old-timey gangster episode’ is one of those things a lot of people just know about the original Star Trek, even if they’ve never watched a minute of it – but it’s also really weird. I’ve written before about how odd it is that another one of those things people just know about The Original Series is the Mirror Universe, and that its dark inversion of the bright, optimistic Trek universe provides some of the franchise’s most widely and instantly recognized imagery (goatee = evil twin, for instance) among the initiated and the uninitiated alike. It’s arguably even odder that “A Piece of the Action” would be so recognizable as quintessential Trek, given that it dresses its 23rd-century space-adventurers up in early-20th-century clothes, and has them spend most of the episode in what looks like early-20th-century America. I remember being struck, as an impressionable kid staring at the TV, by such memorable Trek images as the big-brained Talosians from “The Menagerie” (and, though I wouldn’t first see it till much later, “The Cage”); the distended, artificial face of Balok from “The Corbomite Maneuver” (and which, maybe more importantly, appeared entirely out-of-context during other episodes’ ending credits); and the Guardian of Forever from “The City on the Edge of Forever”, that stone gateway showing microfilm-like images of the past, such an interesting mashup of visuals from fantasy and science fiction. But all that imagery, distinctive as it may be, is pretty consistent with the basic future-space-and-aliens concept of Star Trek, and with its classic-sci-fi-influenced aesthetic. When the futuristic, space-faring Enterprise visits what looks a lot like Earth, in what looks a lot like our past, shouldn’t that pull the audience out of Star Trek, rather than sucking us in?

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If “A Piece of the Action” does pull you in – as it did for me as a kid, and still does when I re-watch it now – one reason why might be that everyone involved in it just seems to be having so much fun. (Not that this is always a good thing; the cast probably had a lot of fun filming that weird talent-show scene in “I, Mudd”, and I find that episode almost unwatchable today.) As famous as William Shatner is for his scenery-chewing, “Action” provides some of his most memorable opportunities in all of Star Trek, right up there with his delivery of “IIIIIIIIII’m Captain Kiiiirrrrk!” in “The Enemy Within”. And it works wonderfully here, I think, precisely because Kirk, the character, is supposed to be hamming it up; the Iotians have built a culture dominated by larger-than-life “bosses” like Bela Okmyx and Jojo Krako – reflecting stereotypes of American gangsters common in real-life pop culture, and probably in the Iotians’ sacred “Book” as well – and Kirk has to play the ham if he wants to fit in. Anthony Caruso and Vic Tayback, as Okmyx and Krako respectively, give performances that are gleeful and comedic, yes, but they’re also, I think, grounded in a serious commitment to the concept. This is probably why “Action” holds up much better today than I thought it was going to, before I recently re-watched it. Everyone involved is having fun, yes, but they’re also taking the episode seriously on its own terms; they embrace the comedy of the concept without letting it become just a joke. And it really helps that the joke is on the Enterprise crew, I think, more than it’s on the Iotians. The Iotians are just living the way they live, and talking the way they talk; Kirk and company are the fish out of water here, the ones who end up looking ridiculous when they try to talk and act like the Iotians.

Scotty: You mind your place, mister, or you’ll be wearing concrete galoshes. [grinning]

Krako: [confused] … You mean, cement overshoes?

Scotty: [embarrassed] Err … aye.

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In “The Royale”, too, we see our cast having a great deal of fun, from Picard and Troi grimacing over the badly written Hotel Royale novel, to Data’s transition, as a gambler, from rube to shark. My personal favorite joke, here, is more deadpan, and more in-character: after learning that the NASA pilot, Colonel Richey, had died peacefully in his sleep, Worf mutters, “What a terrible way to die.” But most of the humor in “The Royale” leans broad, over the top, and in Data’s case especially, somewhat out of character. All of which I’m willing to forgive, partly because, even halfway through its second season, The Next Generation was still figuring out some of these characters’ personalities, something The Original Series managed to do much, much earlier in its run. But it’s also forgivable because the episode’s premise basically requires it. Where the Iotians, larger than life as they are, are still handled in a relatively humanizing way in “A Piece of the Action”, the patrons and staff of the Royale literally aren’t human – not even in the Star Trek sense, where ‘human’ simply means ‘alive and sentient’. They’re both larger than life, and less than alive, because, in the fictional novel they came from, they were written that way: broad stereotypes or stock characters, clearly defined but (intentionally, on the episode writer’s part) lacking personality. There’s the loud-mouthed, cowboy-hat-wearing Texan gambler (literally named Texas); the pretty young woman in over her head (who is, to modern eyes, clearly being groomed by the predatory Texas); and the wise but cynical front desk manager, counseling against the brash naivety of the young bellhop. Like the regular cast, the guest actors are having obvious fun with their intentionally tropey characters, and the hard-boiled background music that plays when they exchange dialogue from the novel is an inspired choice carried over from the series’ first holodeck-centric episode, “The Big Goodbye”.

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“The Royale” reminds me of “The Big Goodbye” in more ways than one (not surprising, I guess, given that the credited writer of “The Royale”, Keith Mills, is a pen name used by Tracy Torme, who also wrote “The Big Goodbye”). I suspect it’s hard for fans of The Next Generation (or Deep Space Nine, or Voyager) to watch “The Royale” without wondering why it doesn’t take place on the holodeck. After all, it’s always seemed like the narrative point of the holodeck was to allow for stories in the style of “The Royale” – ‘let’s visit X period from Earth’s past’ – without having to explain what ‘X period from Earth’s past’ happens to be doing on some random, faraway planet. And the contrivance of that explanation – ‘these mysterious aliens accidentally destroyed your ship and killed your crew, but they were well-meaning and powerful enough to construct an incredibly detailed replica of Earth for you which is still intact after hundreds of years, but they weren’t smart enough to realize you didn’t want to live out the rest of your life inside the plot of a cheesy novel’ – detracts, somewhat, from the rest of the fun. This is something The Original Series sometimes seems to understand better than the other Treks which would follow it. Instead of implying that there are complicated, totally scientific, very believable reasons for what we see happening on the screen, TOS often simply gives us a short, simple explanation, which may or not make sense, and then moves on to the fascinating concepts and visuals which brought us to it in the first place. Even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense that the Iotians in “A Piece of the Action” would structure their entire society around a random book some aliens left behind, at least that explanation is made short and simple enough that its believability doesn’t really matter as much as the compelling situations and imagery it gives us.

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But while “The Royale” isn’t as iconic as “A Piece of the Action” – not many episodes are – “The Royale” still provided me with some of my earliest and most memorable images of what Star Trek is. As in “A Piece of the Action”, most of these images hang on the juxtaposition of 20th-century Earth with the optimistic, brightly-colored Federation of the future: a revolving door connected to nothing, spinning under a turbulent alien sky; Data wearing a cowboy hat; Worf figuring out how to call an elevator, or use an old telephone receiver (which is an even more surreal image now than it would have been when the episode first aired); and, of course, Riker and O’Brien holding up a piece of salvaged debris with the NASA logo printed across it, which truly is one of the first images to pop into my mind when I think of The Next Generation. But it’s worth noting that this contrast, for the most part, isn’t between the future and Earth’s real past, but between the future and interpretations of Earth’s past. I don’t know how realistic the Iotians’ recreation of 1920s American gangster culture was intended to be when “A Piece of the Action” was written in the late 1960s, but today, at least, it’s very obviously a stylized, fictionalized interpretation of history, not an accurate representation of it. And this distinction is made explicit in “The Royale”, with Troi and Picard providing a running commentary on how impossible it is to take the plotting and dialogue of the Hotel Royale novel seriously.

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So, is this juxtaposition meant to say something? Or is it all just for fun? Well, one could certainly read something into the fact that these episodes both show the downsides of building a society, or recreating one, based on only one book. Or the fact that the Iotians refer to Chicago Mobs of the Twenties as simply “the Book”. Or that the Hotel Royale novel is discovered in a hotel room, as the Bible has been by so many guests in real-world hotels. I think it would be hard to argue that these episodes don’t at least imply a critique of religious devotion to a single text. And I think it would be equally difficult to argue that such a critique isn’t compatible with the Trek philosophy in general. After all, one of the things I find most striking about the various Star Trek series when I watch them today is just how unapologetically secular they are, how much they assume – with the notable, but complicated, exception of Deep Space Nine – that religion is something sufficiently advanced societies simply grow out of. So, yes, I think a critique of organized religion is certainly there, in these episodes. I’m just not sure how seriously to take that critique – a critique of something many, many people take very, very seriously – when it’s set against the backdrop of two episodes that don’t take themselves very seriously. Still, maybe we can read that critique a little more broadly, as a message that society isn’t improved by faithfully recreating the idealized ‘good old days’, but by looking forward to a new kind of society. A society where we live a lifestyle we might not yet have dared to even imagine we could live. A society that will look as different from our current society as a bright Starfleet uniform looks next to a vintage suit. So, yes, maybe that’s a message we can take away from these episodes.

But if we’d rather just have fun watching space-people dress up and play cards, that works, too.

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Next time, we’ll talk about Starfleet behaving badly at the end of Discovery‘s first season, and in a memorable season-ending cliffhanger from Voyager. Will you join us, next Sunday, for Voyager‘s “Equinox, Parts 1 & 2” vs. Discovery‘s “The War Without, The War Within” & “Will You Take My Hand?”

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