Star Fleet vessels routinely encounter Dystopic Societies. Sometimes a mad computer has been left in charge by a vanished race, sometimes they cause their own problems, and every once in a while it’s Federation ineptitude. Because my buddy Paul suggested this episode as one of the best (and i pretty much agree) I’m going with a fan favorite. I think this is perhaps the most interesting planet, as well easily as the most hilarious, so I’ve decided to start with The Gangster Planet! AKA Sigma Iotia II from the Episode “A Piece of the Action”
I had touched on the Iotians in an earlier blog about the Republican Cargo Cult of Ronald Reagan. Since I am now turning to analyzing Star Trek episodes on their own merits there’s no question its worth giving these lunatics a blog post of their own.
The Iotians are completely normal looking humans. The only difference is that every single female on Iota is very young and FUCKING SUPER HOT.
The innately impressionable and imitative Iotians are one of the first societies we see that’s been contaminated by earlier contact with the Federation, in the days before the Prime Directive. In this case the previous ship, the Horizon, which may just be the same USS Horizon that’s featured in the underrated show Enterprise (there’s clues, among them a copy of ‘The Book” visible on the Horizon of that shows era and continuity. Whichever ship it was, Federation personnel interacted for a while with the Iotians, who were then on the edges of becoming an Industrialized Society, resembling something akin to 1400-1600 ce in Northern Europe.
Before departing the Horizon left behind books, for the most part technical in nature. It would seem the Horizon crew was intentionally providing them with enough information to advance Iotian society faster. They did not consider for a moment the implications this might have on the impressionable Iotians. A History book; ‘Chicago Mobs of the Twenties‘ published in 1992, was also left behind. The Iotians were sort of overwhelmed by the First Contact. They were immediately driven on by their other innate trait, curiosity. They tore into all the materials the doomed Horizon left them, especially the lurid tales of violence and rebellion of the colorful and glamorous American gangsters of the prohibition era.
100 years later the Enterprise, having only received the distress signal from the Horizon (Lost with all Hands shortly after leaving Iotia) a few weeks earlier arrives in the system. It’s noted that Iotia is on the edge of the known Galaxy. The purpose of the mission is to assess and report any Cultural Contamination the Horizon’s presence on the planet may have had. There’s some things suggesting it may have happened, though Kirk points out, in pure Shatnerian; “The ….evidence is only….circumstantial.” Still, in this episode Kirk is more a scientist and explorer than a soldier. He’s more than up to it too, until he attempts to drive a car at least.
The Enterprise bridge is as busy as always as the episode opens. Kirk’s in his standard uniform and almost everyone of importance is on duty. McCoy is on hand along with Spock, Chekov, Uhura and even Scotty at the bridge’s engineering station. For some reason Workaholic Sulu is not around. Kirk’s upbeat and cheerful. He even manages a paternalistic chuckle when the planet’s representative hails the Enterprise using archaic titles (Boss) and outdated radios.
A bizarre conversation with the “Boss” Bela Okmyx ensues. The Iotians have to know that there is life on other planets , but Okmyx betrays they have no understanding of things beyond their solar system. Realizing their apparent leader lacks educational sophistication Kirk goes with small words and specific basic information we rarely see him bother with. “The ship won’t actually land,” he tells Okmyx, blowing off explaining the Transporter or much else til he can size up what the deal is on Iota.
Kirk puts Scotty in charge and brings Spock and McCoy to Iotia to meet Okmyx. In the turbolift they ponder the possibility of Cultural Contamination plus 100 years since the Horizon departed. All three are very curious, even Spock betrays enthusiasm. The Iotians are described as highly intelligent. Kirk makes clear it’s their job not only to assess whats gone on, but to try to mitigate any damage to the planets development that may have occurred. McCoy and Spock are on the same page here for once, seeming more biased towards the idea there’s surely been contamination.
Upon arrival they’re initially charmed by the Iotian city, a time capsule of Pre World War II Chicago. This would seem to be pretty good progress technically for the Iotians, who were at the beginning of Industrialization when the Horizon arrived. They’ve quickly advanced considerably from “the beginnings of Industrialization”, so say the printing press and the first mechanical devices, to the mid 20th century in 100 years. Something like 150-300% faster than on Earth. They had help, but hey, not bad! They have media via radio and telephones as well as every fucking gun you can think of from the first half of the 20th Century.
No one is unarmed. Most carry tommy guns with drum magazines. Citizens dress as though it were 1930’s America. The “Law of Parallel Development”, the usual excuse for a planet being nothing more than a Paramount back lot set isn’t mentioned. It doesn’t apply. The planet worked to remake itself into early 20th century Earth after the First Contact. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are fascinated and concerned at the same time.
Of course he real reason for all this is because the wardrobe and sets were available at no cost to show via the Paramount Studio they filmed at. Unlike the episode Miri, where the city is in fact none other than a made over, uglified Mayberry from the “Andy Griffith Show”, this is a movie quality (of the era) Chicago street set. Patterns of Force is made for similar reasons, as is “Specter of the Gun”. In other words, if the production department at Paramount wasn’t so cheap we don’t get this awesome mid Season 2 episode. We pay the price in other episodes like “Of Bread and Circuses” but here everything works.
The landing party is quicklly taken prisoner and disarmed by the ‘reception committee” , 2 thugs with tommy guns, who threaten them in barely decipherable early 20th century “Gangster” talk (as opposed to late 20th century “Gangsta” talk). The city is populous. The streets are pretty packed. Hot flapper girls are everywhere. There’s some Cult of Personality type ads for Boss Okmyx here and there, shown holding a tommy gun himself.
The Gangster Talk is so far away from standard english it nearly gets McCoy killed by the leader of the “Reception Committee”. Communication is very inhibited. Spock, though regarded as sounding moronic, has the best results in the initial conversation.
Then en route to Okmyx an old school drive by shooting goes down, killing one of the Reception Committee. Only the Star Fleet personal are surprised by the apparently random violence and the fatality . McCoy notes “That man back there’s dead!” They’re basically told to shut up and keep moving. The landing party is shocked and now sure the planet has been negatively impacted by the Horizon contact. “The crew of the Horizon wasn’t composed of cold blooded killers!” a frustrated and somewhat disgusted Kirk notes to McCoy and Spock. All agree the level of contamination is so high the planet is effectively a Hellhole and the Federation is the culprit. From what we see no trace of their previous culture survives. The landing party is as annoyed as they are freaked out.
Next two beautiful flapper girls berate the remaining thug of the reception committee with public service complaints pointing out they pay Okmyx ‘their percentages” for protection and civil services. This is pretty telling as on the block his own office is on Okmyx can’t keep the streetlights on or maintain any kind of ‘Green Zone‘ where machine gun duels aren’t prevalent. No two ways about it the Federation fucked the place up. In what amounts to a “You break it you bought it” policy the Federation is going to have to do some reparative social engineering.
Entering Okmyx office he preens, scratching a shot with the cue ball on his office billiard table betraying an utter lack of skill. Its unimportant, Bosses have pool tables, nothing else
mattered. To him its ritual, because IT’S A CULT! A Cargo Cult in fact, though the words are never uttered.
What is a Cargo Cult? They appeared on the islands of the pacific where we built bases during World War II. It’s believed they were a result of the culture shock experienced by the never before contacted natives in places like Papua, New Guinea. The natives were stone age peoples who suddenly had parts of their home islands turned into a mid 20th century military base, usually with a port and an airfield. The planes seemed like great dragons. The Crates from within opened to reveal treasures, so the natives related them to eggs. They start to worship a deity based on an african american United States Navy SeaBee they dub John Frum (possibly short for John From America). They covet everything they can get from the base personnel and get modern things through barter. Things like a case of coca cola, or a mirror, or iron pots and pans to cook with. When the war ends shit gets seriously weird because the bases are abandoned as fast as they were built not more than three years earlier.
The “Cargo” was gone. That’s when the natives tried an experiment that becomes a full blown religion, the John Frum Society and the Prince Phillip Movement (on British occupied islands). They occupied the abandoned bases (and build a few of their own with bamboo mock ups) and start to imitate military drills in the best possible pseudo uniforms they could get hoping to bring the planes full of goods back. Their society was co-opted by this. It was 1941, there was a war to win, no one bothered to think about the impact of the bases on the locals until sociologists start remarking on it post war. Over 70 years later they still exist. It’s worth noting the Imperial Japanese were so fucking mean no one wanted imitate them and there’s no known Japanese oriented cargo cult, so at least it might be a sign we were sort of benevolent.
Back to Star Trek, this is a humorous allegory on the concept of the Cargo Cult, and we’ll see more in the Final Frontier. The Iotians are an extreme case and its all on the Federation.
Shortly after meeting Okmyx the landing party spots “The Book”, the aforementioned Gangster Chronicles of the early 1900’s, prominently displayed on a stand in Okmyx office. Kirk, Spock and McCoy instantly get it, this particular book had an extreme impact on the Iotians, arresting and retarding the planets development. Everything on Iotia is based on graft, violence and bribery.
After making it clear questioning anything in ‘The Book’ is blasphemy and shutting down all criticism of it, Okmyx explains, in a fourth grade vocabulary; that he’s not exactly the leader of the planet, just the biggest, richest and toughest of the planets dozen or so “Bosses” and his territory is by far the largest. It’s a dog eat dog Iotia though, and he does take a moment to lament how someones always nipping at his heels.
Still amazed the planets lasted this long with these kinds of problems the landing party is informed of the terms Boss Okmyx is demanding. Surprisingly futurist, it’s right out of the Ronald Reagan Playbook (still well into the future when this aired).
Step One-Arms for Hostages. Send him a hundred or so “fancy heaters” (phasers) and some training personnel and he will cooperate as far as answering any questions and of course they’re free to go. If not he will kill them all.
Step Two-World Domination, Okmyx demands the Federation back him in violently unifying Sigma Iotia II. Kirk, Spock and McCoy share the same mixed reaction. No way on Step One, there’ll be no phasers, but a tacit Okay on an alternative attempt at Step Two where they install a Boss peacefully. Things are that far gone.
The planets doomed to degenerate into total chaos unless it unifies soon and Okmyx seems typical enough and has the local gravitas and potential to just maybe be the Federations guy if he shapes up. His estimation that the Federation (“You Feds”) must have advanced technically in the last 100 years is spot on, showing off the “highly intelligent” aspect of the Iotians. He’s a not a criminal by his society’s standards. He’s actually just the best enactor of the policies from ‘The Book’.
Radical Social Re-Engineering’s pre approved. The landing party is thinking on the fly. They don’t bother telling Okmyx about their Step Two feelings for the moment as his heads already big enough. For the moment they’re captives but their hopes of controlling the situation seem pretty high, so they play along.
Using a communicator with some grudging assistance from Kirk ,Okmyx tries to shake down Scotty, who consults the ships computer to try to figure out just what the fuck Okmyx is trying to say. Notable is how hot Okmyx secretary/ girlfriend is. An adorable pepper pot.
As for his part Okmyx has the landing party taken to a warehouse under guard. Amongst the broken pinball machines and crates; a few feet from another prominently displayed copy of ‘The Book” the guards play cards while the landing party ponders the situation.
McCoy thinks Okmyx is a repulsive creep. Spock puts Okmyx in a different light- the most successful of all Iotians and a visionary of sorts. His methods are all wrong, a war is the last thing the planet needs. But “his goal is essentially correct.” Kirk makes a decision its time to invoke the “You broke it you bought it” clause in their orders and see if they can’t set things right., or at least minimize the dysfunction in the Iotian society the Federation has caused. They need some help from the ship, so it’s time get the guards out of the way and locate and grab up the phasers and especially the communicators. Seems like a tall order, but Kirk has a trick up his sleeve, he’s going to use the imitative qualities of the Iotian’s against them to distract and subdue the guards.
Enter – Fizzbin; a card game that Kirk describes as “a real game, a man’s game. It’s probably a little beyond you… it requires intelligence.” Bait= Taken! The three thugs are fascinated and the alpha thug starts a game against Kirk who’s also acting as dealer.
As Kirk explains; it’s really quite a simple game.
- The game can be played with a standard Earth deck of cards, despite the slightly differing deck on Beta Antares IV.
- Each player gets six cards, except for the player on the dealer’s right, who gets seven.
- The second card is turned up, except on Tuesdays.
- Two jacks are a “half-fizzbin”.
- If you have a half-fizzbin:
- a third jack is a “shralk” and results in disqualification;
- one wants a king and a deuce, except at night, when one wants a queen and a four;
- if a king had been dealt, the player would get another card, except when it is dark, in which case he’d have to give it back.  Memory Alpha Fizzbin entry
The top hand is a “royal fizzbin”, but the odds against getting one are said to be “astronomical”.
So as you can see Fizzbin is really very simple.
Whats not said is the reason the guards want to play so badly is the innate imitative traits as well as the fact that they are aware ‘The Fed’s’ are the source of the book and might just lead to more cargo. Its the same reason Okmyx mindlessly plays pool. They don’t see the landing party as gods like the cargo cults of earth, but they’re definitely taken with them.
As the Fizzbin game reaches its end the guards are so distracted that the landing party makes its move. A fight right out of the 60’s Batman show ensues. with Kirk, McCoy and Spock kicking the guards asses. McCoy especially distinguishes himself, needing a mere judo chop to subdue his adversary.
Kirk sends Spock and McCoy to locate and take over one of the planets radio stations in lieu of communicators, Uhura is monitoring the planets communication. Kirk’s going back to the original beam down area to try a little gunboat diplomavy with Okmyx. The Prime Directive’s so out the window now they can basically do anything they want, including using a local broadcast station to have a conversation with the Enterprise that anyone tuned in on the planet will hear. Everyone’s got a tommy gun and Spock sporting a .45 to boot
Kirk makes it about 30 feet before being captured and tossed into a classic 1920’s car.
Spock and McCoy are more successful, the former uses his Vulcan Nerve Pinch to subdue the gorgeous female Deejay. They jump on live in what must’ve been a ‘War of the Worlds Caper” on super steroids to the locals. They return to the Enterprise.
Kirk, on the other hand meets Jojo Krakko, aka Mel from Mel’s Diner on Alice aka the great Vic Tayback. He’s got the same plan as Okmyx, who he hates. Krakko refers to his territory as ‘the whole South Side’, a very Chicago flourish. His secretary/ girlfriend is blond and beautiful. He also has a copy of “The Book” on display. As an added incentive the Fed’s get a third, something Okmyx would never do.
Kirk makes a counter proposal let’s all sit down and divide up the planet like reasonable men and try to work together to keep the lights on and break out of the Gangster culture.
Krakko balks at this ridiculous blasphemy. ‘The Book’ dictates all disputes be settled with violence and that’s how he’s going to do it. So we’re back to “Arms for Hostages”. He stashes the captain to maybe snuff him later. Kirk works on escaping by tearing apart an old fashioned tube radio.
Back on the Enterprise Spock and McCoy are trying to come up with a plan to undue the “Moral Inversion” on the planet. Okmyx interrupts them to let them know Krakko’s got Kirk. A truce is declared and Spock and McCoy talk to Okmyx, agreeing to come down soon to hammer things out. Spock points out they need some help from a cooperative Iotian or two if they’re going to get the captain back, McCoy is less than thrilled. He’s probably thinking about Romulan Ale at this point or maybe some space drugs.
On the planet Kirk’s “advanced technical skills” have given him the ability to unravel the copper filament from the radio in his room to create a tripwire by the door. then he trashes his room and calls for help. The guard rushes in and trips, Kirk throws a blanket over his head and kicks his ass Star Trek Style (in other words with minimal believability).
Spock and McCoy discuss with Okmyx how to get Kirk back from Krakko (no one knows he’s already escaped). He promises the games are over and he’ll help them get Kirk back. They take another trip down to Iota via transporter to Okmyx office where he immediately double crosses them.
Spock’s’ supplemental log notes that the whole situation is “unlikely”, but there they are, held at gunpoint again and stripped of their phasers and communicators. Okmyx is feeling pretty sly.
Spock and McCoy drop all pretense and level with Okmyx. They’re trying to help and he’s not comprehending it, thinking by The Book, looking to solve his problems with leverage and threats. Spock tells Okmyx the Federation isn’t against the idea of unifying the planet. They’re trying to tell him he can be Boss Number One when megalomania gets the better of him and he rants about his power and potential only to be interrupted by an armed and angry Kirk who has somehow found Okmyx office and beaten security. Hey, he didn’t get to be captain for nothing, right?
Reunited in Okmyx office Kirk, McCoy and Spock review the situation. Spock’s got no idea how to proceed. The situation on Iota is unique and completely illogical. There’s no time for gradual change. The Iotians are fanatical about The Book, which has made reason impossible. Planetary societal collapse is inevitable, continued radical social engineering is allowable under both the circumstances and their actual orders.
Kirk, ever the First Contact gambler, announces, with whimsical Kirk enthusiasm, he’s ‘going to play a hunch.’ Spock hates it right away.
The rest of the episode is maybe the best Star Trek we get out of the first series. It overcomes all the cheesey budgetary mandates, like using existing sets and wardrobe. Decked out in appropriated Gangster Outfits he leaves McCoy in charge of the prisoners and takes Spock, also in native gangster garb, to ‘put the bag on Krakko!”
Then the hilarious driving sequence ensues. The 23rd century Starship captain and his Vulcan first officer are stymied by a five speed transmission but manage to grind their way across town to Krakko’s.
The unforgettable con with the street urchin ensues. The kid proves invaluable by providing a rouse for “A Piece of the Action” if they can get Krakko. The kid takes the lead, playing at being a knife welding murderer, which charms the guards. The kid fakes an injury and Kirk and Spock subdue the guards. Inside they casually stun a few people but Krakko’s not bothered. He’s got a few more goons who quickly to take Spock and Kirk prisoner, back to “Arms for Hostages.”
Kirk quickly uses The Book’s emphasis on criminality and underhanded deeds to convince Krakko they need to talk alone. Spock and Kirk give him the bottom line, with Spock sort of playing catch up as Kirk re-engineers Iota. In gangster talk Kirk tells Krakko he’s basically a nobody and the whole planet is “Peanuts to an outfit like the Federation.” Their tech is amazing, they have many planets to draw from, they have a Star Fleet and its all pretty kick ass.
Krakko, like a good criminal, knows the law and asks what happened to non Interference.
“Who’s interfering? We’re taking over!” Kirk tells him in no uncertain terms. The Iotians are finally back on their heels after having used their criminal genius to maintain the initiative up to this point. Now Kirk’s on a roll. “We don’t come in here and use our muscle. We let one guy take over and pull the strings and then we pull his, eh??”
Kirk’s idea is crazy but it has the advantage of being close to the current political reality, unification has to happen to stave off disaster, they can fine tune it later. For the meantime they put their feet up and cut a deal with Krakko. Kirk gets on the line with Scotty and makes as though the Federation is about to launch a violent coup backing Krakko, but its a rouse to beam Krakko up. The Enterprise crew has put the bag on Krakko and Scotty has him at phaser point. Krakko tries to figure out how he ended up in the transporter room, which is filled with amazing tech he’s gotta be fascinated by as he rants. Scotty casually threatens to kill him to shut him up, trying his hand at the planets gangster speak.
After Krakko’s beamed out Kirk and Spock kick the two guards asses just to blow off steam and split. Despite Spock’s protests, Kirk drives and they make it back to Okmyx place.
Kirk belittles and threatens Okmyx, calls him a penny ante operator and tells him more or less what he told Krakko. The Federation is taking over the whole planet. If he plays ball he can be in on it, if he’s not willing to cooperate he’ll be “out, all the way out.” So even if they don’t kill him he’s likely a dead man as an ex Boss. Spock keeps his machine gun level to Okmyx head. The Enterprise landing party are doing things “by The Book” for the moment because that’s just the only way to get through to the brainwashed Iotians.
Because there is a language barrier between these two English speaking cultures due to Iotian slang Kirk has to say everything he tells Scotty twice. Once in 1920’s Gangster speak to impress the Iotians and then again in 23rd century English for Scotty.
Kirk’s plan is to unite the mobs into a syndicate in the hopes the violence and dysfunction would taper off while the Federation itself, with its vast resources, could get some experts to the planet to help. To this end he has Okmyx call everyone on the planet of importance and kidnaps them via transporter to Okmyx office where they are held at gunpoint.
Kirk, seeing the Iotians are not making very quick progress, prances along Okmyx pool table and explains its over. The Federation is going to help them run the planet like a business and they would all make a profit with the Federation getting a 40% cut off the top.
At this point they finally call Kirk out. They’ve seen nothing but a few explorers with ideas that go against The Book. Where’s the proof of the Federations power? Obligingly, Krakko’s boys choose this moment to attack to break their boss out. Kirk gets the Enterprise to fire a stun burst (a contingency ordered earlier by Spock) at the combatants fighting outside Okmyx office. When the ships phasers level everyone Kirk gains the upper hand permanently. Any questions of the Federations power are silenced in a huge way. Gunboat Diplomacy at it’s purest.
The Iotians are now prepared to go along with the Syndicate proposal. Okmyx admits they’ve definitely got problems and suggests Kirk be Overboss. Kirk immediately defers, its too small time for him, he’s a Big Wheel in the Federation. He puts Okmyx in charge, which is pretty reasonable as he is the most powerful and had just admitted the violence was pointless. To keep Okmyx in check he makes Krakko his lieutenant. Then he tells everyone else to fall in line unless they want the Federation to come back pissed. Every year a Federation Starship will come by to pick up the Federations 40% cut. The Iotians are totally down and offer more, but Kirk gamely holds to 40%.
Everyone drinks a toast to the new Syndicate.
Days later on the bridge Kirk, McCoy and Spock discuss the mission. Spock debates the morality of leaving criminals in charge and how Kirk will explain to the Federation why a starship will need to go to Iota every year to pick up 40% of the gross planetary product. On a whim the captain decides the money be deposited in a planetary fund to guide the Iotians toward a more ethical system in a kind of Nation Building Approach.
McCoy has a more immediate issue. He’s forgotten his communicator on the planet. The Iotians are smart enough to figure it out and extrapolate all key Federation technology from it, albeit not overnight because they’re still stuck in 1930, but they will.
Kirk laughs off this major misstep quipping “One day the Iotians may come looking for a piece of OUR action!”
The episode closes with the ship leaving orbit.
What makes the Episode Great?
Where do we start? The dystopia on Iota is a hilarious and slapstick world of crazy criminal geniuses. Why does The Next Generation not return to show us what happened? We have only a comic book of an unused script, “A Piece of the Reaction” to tell us that. Basically they imitate Star Fleet as a whole but still have some criminal issues. I haven’t read it. Lets just say they aren’t going to be ideal Federation citizens anytime soon.
It’s a genius plot and because the sets were high quality the campyness works. The whole Spacemen with culture shock thing is great fun. McCoy is more cantankerous than usual when it comes to the Iotian culture, making him something of a snob towards them at times.
Kirk is full on Kirk, Shatner doesn’t hold back, he pushes forward. As a starfleet officer with an agenda he’s believable. His flourishes and speech are amazing. He overacts up a storm but lets remember what he’s what he’s got to work with here. Gene Roddenberry was a genius but a lot of his stories and characters relied on some hard to deliver tech babble. In this episode Shatner’s also got 1920’s Gangster Iotian to deal with, although he’s supposed to be bad at it, and Spock’s no better at comprehending the Iotians but somehow they kind of get him. In fact its McCoy whose probably best set up to talk to the Iotians with his blunt mannerisms.
The music in the episode is some of the best ever. The “Floosie Music” and the jazzy 20’s incidental music is pretty different from what we hear in most episodes and adds to the fun.
The sets have lots of well costumed extras and great classic cars. Its not your typical boring Star Trek Planet with an orange sky and a styrofoam rock. Its also not the other planet location they frequently used that becomes the set of MASH (you see that same mountain from the opening credits of MASH you see in like 12 Trek episodes and a couple of Next Generations). It might even be where Soran ‘kills’ Kirk.
All the women on Iota are beautiful. All the men are ugly. I’d be a movie star there. The average age for men is 60, for women its 23.
I can’t recommend this episode enough. It’s Star Trek at it’s finest.