Fifty years ago, Gene Roddenberry’s first “wagon train to the stars” began airing on NBC. Star Trek featured a cast of many nationalities, had people of color in important roles, it commented on the social problems of the day disguised in science fiction, and it was the first time we’d seen humanity out in the stars in a ship meant to not only get us to them, but to explore. It was a show about hope for the future, a future that we continue to ape from today with our cellphones, video conferencing communications, and even equipment you can carry around that will tell you the current and future weather conditions.
Was Star Trek perfect? No. Between all the series that they put out from the ’60s, to the reintroduction of the show again with Next Generation in the ’80s, and up through Star Trek Enterprise, there were some episodes that didn’t work, weren’t necessarily poignant, and some that were just not good sci-fi. I’ve seen a number of articles out there listing the great episodes. There are several guides on how to get through the shows as quickly as possible so you get the most for your streaming buck. These guides don’t necessarily go into much detail, though. They list them, but they don’t rate them or give you much info on them. Star Trek Essentials aims to be a little different. I’m going to go over two episodes twice a week, review them, and talk about what makes them special.
Season two continues with a bit of comedy and a social look at industrial modernization. First up is a trip to a planet where their whole culture is based off of gangsters in the ’20s and it’s up to the crew to right the course of their society. This is followed up by a brilliant scientist building a computer that he hopes could eliminate the need for a starship crew at all.
As a note, I’m not going with broadcast order on these, but rather production order, although for simplicity’s sake I’ve got the episode number as they appear on Netflix for those that want to watch these.
A Piece of the Action (Season 2, Episode 17)
Arriving at Sigma Iotia II, the Enterprise finds a planet that was last visited by the Horizon one hundred years previously. What they find is that the Iotians have patterned their entire culture off the gangsters of Earth’s 1920s and end up having to deal with them like mobsters would as they start taking people hostage. With the Prime Directive kind of thrown out the window, Kirk tries his best to at least right some of the wrongs the past visit from the Horizon inflicted on the planet with some humorous results.
This has some great performances in it, not just from Kirk and Spock who go all gangster for this, but from a number of guest stars including Vic Tayback and Anthony Caruso as the two major heads of the crime families on Sigma Iotia II. This is definitely played more for laughs this episode, but there are some pretty decent stakes as things go along as they’re having to use Tommy guns instead of their usual phasers, and Kirk driving a car is classic. While it delves a bit into the non-interference clause of the Prime Directive, they handle it here in a way where you see first hand what can happen, while at the same time making it fun.
The Ultimate Computer (Season 2, Episode 24)
The Enterprise, along with four sister ships, are set out to test a new computer developed by Dr. Richard Daystrom, who developed the computers that currently power the starships. The new M-5 unit can replace most of the functions of an entire crew, and boldly stated by Daystrom, the Captain himself. Kirk is highly dubious and is reeling at the idea of a computer replacing him in the center seat as the M-5 computer goes off the rails and begins attacking targets with full powered weapons and wiping out entire crewed starships. It’s up to Kirk and what crew remains on the Enterprise to stop the M-5 before the other starships wipe out the Enterprise.
Making a bit of commentary on machines replacing humanity back in the ’60s, this episode is still pertinent today as technology replaces jobs and creates different ones, or even sees your jobs swapped out for someone else who’s doing it on another continent now. There are a lot of themes that hit me throughout this one that I really liked, and while the computer wiping out the other starships is a bit over the top, it works for what they’re doing here. While they fall back on Kirk using his wits to get one over on the computer yet again, he’s done this several times in the series so far, it works within the framework of the episode well, and I love that Daystrom isn’t what people might have expected here.