Star Trek: Bread and Circuses

Star Trek Opening TitlesI have this idea that Season Two started with a discussion in the writers’ room.  Roddenberry must have been like: “we need more good ideas; help take this to the next level!”  The other writers said something like, “what do you mean, more weird monsters?”  “Yes but,” says the great bird of the galaxy, “think bigger.  Go for those ”What if”… ideas everyone loves!”  “You mean like what if the Nazi’s won WWII?”  “Hey,” says Gene, “that’s a good idea!”  By the time of Bread and Circuses, we’ve seen a lot of parallel Earth stories.  I’m betting one of those writers said something like, “you know, maybe it needs some kind of explanation!”  Another writer must have been quick to point out, “yeah, and how do we get around this prime directive thing.  Maybe we should spell it out!”  So here we are at the penultimate episode of Season Two and we finally get some gobbledygook about Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planet Development to somehow explain a season of parallels.  Gangsters, Nazis, the Constitution, to some extent Vietnam, and now the development of Rome on 20th Century Earth.  It holds together if you don’t touch it.  This is also the first episode to give us a detailed understanding of the Prime Directive.  Is it me, or should this story have come back around Season One maybe around episode 2 or 3?  In case it’s not apparent, I’m not a fan of this story.

But watching an episode like this with a critical eye does reveal some interesting things; I don’t have to like the episode to speak positively about some of the finer points in the writing.  Claudius Marcus has a very low opinion of Merik, the former captain of the SS Beagle, clearly because Merik didn’t maintain his loyalty and his strength.  He really lets it all out when he dismisses Merik, saying he can have no interest in the thoughts of men.  Clearly he sees him as “less than”.  Maybe that’s because of how easily he allowed his own crew to be slaughtered.  There’s a surprisingly provocative scene with Drusilla who is willing to be Kirk’s slave and is happy to be commanded.  (Her attire is pretty sexy, but I was stunned that this would have been allowed on 60’s network TV!)  I mean, unlike what Marcus says, we aren’t “centuries beyond anything as crude as television!”  Meanwhile, Kirk tells Scotty “condition green” which is actually a code that lets Scotty know there’s trouble.  Scotty takes the opportunity to get a commendation by thinking of ways to disrupt the Pseudo-Roman empire and ends up saving Kirk and crew with some quick thinking.  All of this works well for the story.  I was very impressed by the character of Septimus too, who is wise and open to the brotherhood of all men; an idea Trek would represent as the fandom grew.  However, there are three elements of this episode that warrant a closer look.

The first is McCoy and Spock.  I love McCoy’s rant while fighting, because it’s hilarious, but it gives him a chance to try to apologize to Spock.  If we really apply some thought to what McCoy does to Spock, it would be an HR nightmare. He literally mocks the man for his beliefs, culture, and appearance on multiple occasions throughout the series, and particularly in this episode.  If I did that to a coworker, it could be a termination-level offense.  So why does Kirk allow it?  If we think the answer is simple: 60’s TV, I’d say we’re missing a far more important message.  See, we do tease like that at the job but the trick is to know who is doing it and the intent.  I don’t think McCoy means half the things he says, which is why he even attempts to tell Spock “maybe they are jokes”.  When he goes on about Spock’s fear of living, one might be inclined to think that’s the pinnacle of insulting Spock, but Spock is equally intelligent.  More importantly, our “non-emotional” friend has high emotional intelligence and he knows McCoy is lashing out because he’s worried about their mutual friend, Jim Kirk.  Spock maintains his Vulcan composure but he is essentially telling McCoy that “he gets it”.  The teasing is mutual even if Spock’s calm demeanor makes it look like McCoy is always the antagonist.  Consider Spock’s (rather apt) comments to McCoy that he didn’t even think McCoy was trained at all, as his practice seems to be more “trial and error”.   He is making fun of McCoy’s medical skill in no uncertain terms, but McCoy also doesn’t take offense.  There is a bond between the two men that flies in the face of the teasing. Like the way I tease a coworker that they are still in grade school while being counter-tease that I am older than dirt… it’s in jest and good fun and it enhances the day, makes the work seem less of a burden and more of a shared load.  It creates a bond because, like the Enterprise crew, there are hard tasks that need to be addressed and through friendship and bonding, we can better accomplish those difficult tasks.  Yes, you have to know the source so no one takes offence, and that’s the thing: Spock and McCoy do know one another and neither would allow anything bad to befall the other.  They are brothers which is the very message this episode drives home.

Which brings us to the second point: followers of the sun.  Rome didn’t have sun-worshippers but they did have Son worshippers.  That’s the entire punchline of the episode and it takes 50 minutes before Uhura can explain it.  And amazingly, I got goosebumps!  Not because I’m a deeply religious man, but because the message that we are all brothers is a beautiful message and, as I pointed out above, the very message that Star Trek has embodied in its 50+ year reign.  A series with so many ludicrously bad episodes should not have become the center of a Science Fiction TV empire but Trek is an empire because it’s not the stories that made it, but the ideas behind the stories.  And whether we like the story or not, it doesn’t matter; the idea here is a profound one!   (The only issue I had with the punchline of this episode is that I’ve been watching with subtitles on for making notes on the spelling of names, and this entire episode’s subtitles maintain the illusion that we are following worshippers of the sun, which technically is in error.  Still, I can’t let something theoretically outside the episode stand in the way of enjoying it. Which brings me to the last point that did break my enjoyment…)

Point three: Kirk and company run away and leave this planet to its fate (for the second time this season, in fact).  Yes, that’s the very idea of the prime directive, but I really wanted someone to go back and, if nothing more, take out Claudius Marcus.  He kills Merik, who recovers his dignity, and is stabbed for his insubordination.  And Marcus gets away with all of the murders!  Surely the Prime Directive wasn’t going to be too bothered if the crew took Marcus aboard and put him on trial for Merik’s death?  No?

So while the episode is not anywhere near a favorite, there are valid “takeaways” that we can learn from.  Kirk sums it up saying his world is his vessel, “his oath, his crew”.  He may not be calling himself a follower of the Son, but he does believe that his crew and his people are his brothers and he stands by them, and I think ultimately it’s why he never goes back for Marcus.  He’s a better man than that and he knows when to turn the other cheek.  It’s not a good episode, but it has a superb message under all the silliness.  ML

The view from across the pond:

When I see the name Gene Roddenberry at the start of an episode, I’m starting to have low expectations of what I’m about to see. In particular, I expect a lack of originality. So it came as no surprise to find that Bread and Circuses was another lazy recycling of old ideas. Here we have another planet that just happens to match ours, peopled by another race of aliens who are indistinguishable from humans, modelled on one particular era of Earth history. At least this time we must credit Roddenberry with attempting a mash-up, between Ancient Rome and the 20th Century, but he does little more with that idea than show the battles in the arena being televised.

The coincidence of an alien planet matching ours exactly is even more absurd than usual here, because it specifically extends all the way to parallel language development. These people actually speak English, with no need for any kind of a translation device. This is clearly a ridiculous idea, and as far as I can see the only reason Roddenberry wrote it like that was so he could end with the punchline about sun/son worship. If the punchline to your script means you have to tie yourself in knots to get to it, then maybe it’s better to think of another punchline.

I get that this kind of episode was probably being made for budgetary reasons, presumably because they couldn’t afford to keep making alien masks and going off somewhere remote or building sets to represent alien landscapes, but (a) I would argue that if you can’t afford to even put a basic representation of an alien planet on screen then you probably shouldn’t be attempting to make a sci-fi show at all, and (b) if those are your limitations then for heaven’s sake try to do something clever with what you’ve got. Instead, Roddenberry takes the concept of a modern day Rome and hammers it home without subtlety or intelligence. The idea might have amounted to something if Roddenberry at any point did anything other than the obvious approach. The title sums it up really, but there was a bit more to Ancient Rome than gladiators and slavery. It’s a school child’s representation of Rome, delivered to us with some fights and a lot of talking, all amounting to not much at all. And along the way, Kirk has sex with a slave, who has been ordered to do that with him, and is therefore incapable of consenting.

I don’t know when I’ve liked the main trio of characters less. Kirk is utterly revolting here, while McCoy is his usual nasty, racist self, but turned up to eleven:

“I’m trying to thank you, you pointed-eared hobgoblin.”

Back on the ship, Scotty fares much better, and is just about the only likeable character in this whole thing, earning his commendation for refusing to break the Prime Directive. That’s great, but if upholding the Prime Directive is the subject of any more episodes I might just scream at the television. With only one episode to go this season I’m looking forward to a break from a series that has become oddly repetitive, and I’m hoping Star Trek returned with some new ideas for its third season.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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1 Response to Star Trek: Bread and Circuses

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Through some curious twist of fate, Bread & Circuses was the last classic Trek episode that I saw as a kid, and quite late somewhere in my early teens as I recall. I also didn’t think the best of it which at the time didn’t diminish my fandom of classic Trek. But now with all the obvious points in your reviews, it indeed makes the global phenomenon of Star Trek during the late 60s and beyond even more nostalgically questionable. Gene Roddenberry clearly had enough creative wisdom with the ideas behind the troubling story still counting for something. Even The Alternative Factor had the valid subject matter, in the last dialogue between Kirk and Lazarus, of villainy depending on one’s point of view. And as for how the friendship between Spock and McCoy was special enough for all the jokes and harshness between them to not be as damaging as it would for most others, it has of course been quite traditional for many fictional characters in TV and cinema. So this episode may earn specific points for showing their mutual understanding for each other, and certainly for how particularly bonded they are thanks to their comradery with Kirk, whose scene with Drusilla in all agreeability does indeed show Kirk’s philandering ways at their worst.

    It was nice to recognize Ian Wolfe as Septimus, having seen him in Trek before as Mr. Atoz in All Our Yesterdays (another story later on for the Junkyard of course) and also in THX 1138. He was a serenely distinctive actor with a very long film career that ended in 1990 with Dick Tracy.

    Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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