GETTING INTO THE ACTION
Whether you’re a die-hard fan of the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager (and, god help you, if you are), it’s hard to argue that there’s only one series which did comedy well and that was Classic Trek. Unlike Next Generation (which tried to be funny, painfully in episodes like "Manhunt" and the somewhat wittier "Captains Holiday" in which Picard vacations on a pleasure planet with the story eventually degenerating into mindless technobabble) and Voyager, Classic Trek and Deep Space Nine were the only series for which humor was an essential ingredient.
And I’m not just talking about standing around the bridge, guffawing and chortling as the Enterprise leaves orbit, that seemed to button every episode. No, I’m talking about moments like in “Bread & Circuses” when Spock and McCoy ask what happened to the captain and Kirk deadpans, “They few me a few curves,” after spending the night with the slave girl, Drusilla. Deep Space Nine could also mine humor from its characters whether it be obvious, as in the case of Quark and the Ferengi (which made it no less funny – except in the episodes which only dealt with the Ferengi), or more subtle as with the sparring between Sisko and Gul Dukat or Andy Robinson’s wonderfully wry tinker, tailor, soldier, spy Garak.
But when it came to full-out, screwball comedy there was only one series that could sustain a full episode of wit and that was Classic Trek. Three episodes comprise the brilliant comedy Trek troika: “The Trouble With Tribbles,” “I, Mudd” and, I would argue possibly the funniest (albeit silliest) of the three, “A Piece of the Action.”
Set in a world corrupted by exposure to a book on Chicago Gangsters of the 1920’s, it’s a chance for Kirk, Spock and McCoy to be thrust into the world of a Warner Bros. gangster film with a rogue’s gallery right out of Little Caesar. The premise is outrageous, but, hell that’s what made the original Trek such a great show; it gambled on the big ideas. Sometimes, like in “Piece of the Action,” “it’s a planet of gangsters,” they worked. In episodes like “Patterns of Force,” in which a former professor of Kirk’s, John Gill, uses Nazi Germany as the template for an alien society that generates into national socialism, it kinda still worked (even though Judgment At Nuremberg, it sure ain’t) and yet others like “Spock’s Brain,” not so much. But “Piece” works, most of all because it’s downright hysterical and the humor largely comes from the fact that the writers, and, by extension the audience, knows our characters so well. This was the middle of second season when the show was firing on all cylinders and Gene Coon was firmly at the helm writing and re-writing some of Trek’s absolutely finest episodes. It’s the best year of Star Trek produced…ever…by far…and it has all the essential ingredients; Kirk large and in charge, Spock befuddled by human idiosyncrasies and McCoy put-upon and curmudgeonly, particularly when it comes to Spock. By the time, Kirk and Spock are imitating Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson with the gangsters of Sigma Iotia and trading barbs over Kirk “being an excellent starship captain, but as a taxi driver…” “Piece” never falters in being consistently a hoot.
Can’t beat Classic Trek for the laughs
There’s not much for CBS Digital to work their mojo on this time out as the episode is light on special effects which is probably for the best. I’ve been open the idea of embracing the new visual effects to give the episodes a 21st century spit and polish, but it’s been a mixed bag for me thus far. The Enterprise still looks something out of a cartoon and I have a feeling if they were going to redo the animated series as CGI, I’d be a lot more impressed with the aesthetic they’ve created. That said, they have done a few things extremely well: the reworked matte paintings, for one, have been exquisite. In episodes like “Devil In the Dark,” “The Menagerie” and “Wink of Eye,” they’ve done some superb work. And despite being underwhelmed by “The Doomsday Machine” and, particularly, “The Tholian Web” which was a profound disappointment, they did yeoman’s work on “The Immunity Syndrome” which was their most impressive work to date. It seems that their strengths (not to mention schedules) lend themselves a lot better to space anomalies than spaceships (the Tholian ships were abysmal as was the scale in relation to the Enterprise), further evidenced by last week’s “All Our Yesterdays” in which the Enterprise looked like it was drawn by crayon (or an Amiga like those early Babylon 5 ships), but the supernova which ends the episode is rather spectacular.
So how does the remastered “Piece” fare? Not bad. There’s not a lot of work that needed to be done and the new phaserfire that stuns a block of gangsters into submission looks solid, an improvement over the animated phaser bursts from 1967. All the new Enterprise in orbit shots though have the same problem endemic to the shots in previous shows, it just looks like computer animation and, as I’ve said before, not nearly as effective or striking as the actual miniatures. While CGI is great for creating environments, it’s less effective for creating vehicles (particularly when they’re not lit propertly), which is probably why the best melding of traditional miniature work with CGI was in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers where the space combat was shot by miniatures, but the bugs and much of the planetary environments were all realized through computer animation.
CGI works for the phasers, but still doesn’t look like a real model
However, when it comes to Trek remastered, evaluating the CGI is almost besides the point. The real triumph with this undertaking are the stunning new transfers of the episodes which positively glow in their resplendence. And “Piece” is no exception, the colors are gorgeous, the background details are more sharp than ever and few episodes are more radiant than “Piece” with its fedoras, three piece suits, Paramount backlot exteriors and, of course, day-glo velour uniforms. If there’s one quibble, it’s a familiar one. The editors who cut the episode for syndication did a particularly lousy job cutting out some of the best jokes like when Spock attempts to hail the Enterprise via radio and positively evicerated the fizzbin game, cutting some of the best jokes in the process. There even seemingly indefensible momentary excises including Vic Tayback’s Jojo Krako’s crack, “Who’s your friend with the ears, Kirk?” Syndication cuts are necessary for a late-night timeslot, but some care needs to be exercised. I remember growing up and watching Trek in syndication on WPIX in New York and it seemed like the editors always knew what to cut for time (e.g. the ridiculous scene where the bum phasers himself in “City,” the musings of a lovestruck Stratos city dweller in “Cloud Minders”) which rarely impaired the narrative. Now it’s like Edward Scissorhands without a thought as to how the cuts effect the episode (just look at “Balance of Terror” or “Mirror, Mirror” if you don’t know what I’m talking about ). This isn’t Paramount or CBS’ fault, the blame can be clearly laid at the feet of the local affiliates, but it’s a reason why the DVDs and digital downloads can’t come fast enough and remain the only way to really appreciate Star Trek in all…its unedited…glory. Bring ‘em on….that’s some action we can agree we all want a piece of.
looking sharper then ever
MARK A. ALTMAN is the writer/producer of Free Enterprise, starring William Shatner and Eric McCormack, and co-publisher of Geek Monthly. His new film, The Thirst; comes out from Starz Home Video next week.