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Posts Tagged ‘Bread and Circuses’

Received wisdom, of course, is that it’s during the third season of the original Star Trek that the wheels really come off the enterprise (pun intended); but there’s also an argument that it’s during the back end of the second season that the problems start to show up. Innovation is replaced by repetition, which in turn becomes routine and then formula and cliché. All quite true, I will happily admit, and yet some of these very-nearly-reviled late second season episodes are amongst my favourites – guilty pleasures, perhaps, but still definitely pleasures.

Bread and Circuses is one of these. It’s the one where they go to the planet of the Romans, in accordance with Gene Roddenberry’s belief that visiting alternate Earths was a core element of the series. Unsurprisingly, Roddenberry (the Gene who created Star Trek) is one of the credited writers, along with Mr L. Coon (the Gene who really made it sing), which may explain why there are quite a few elements of this episode which do feel a bit familiar. The visit to the planet of the Romans is inevitably a little reminiscent of the visit to the planet of the Nazis (Patterns of Force, from earlier in the season), while central to the plot is the presence of a corrupted former Starfleet member in violation of his oath of non-interference (again, this distinctly recalls Roddenberry’s own The Omega Glory from just a couple of weeks earlier).

The plot, if you need reminding, goes like this. Having come across the wreckage of a ship which has been missing for years, the Enterprise traces it back to an inhabited planet with a technological civilisation roughly akin to that of Earth in the mid 20th century. It’s another one of those parallel Earths which are liberally sprinkled through the original series, which the crew blithely take in their stride, citing Hodgkin’s Principle of Parallel Planetary Development. Well, fair enough; good enough for Spock, good enough for me. However, on this world, the Roman Empire never fell and still rules – slavery is an institution and gladiatorial fights are broadcast on network TV. Alarmed to see that members of the missing ship’s crew have been forced to fight as gladiators, Kirk beams down with Spock and McCoy to see if there are any survivors still around – only to discover his old friend Captain Merik (William Smithers) has become part of the Imperial elite, and is determined that word of this planet’s existence will not be taken back to the Federation…

Original series Trek is dotted with episodes that get remembered for one particular moment or image – the one with the pizza monster, the one with the space hippies, the one with the bamboo cannon, I could go on and on. Bread and Circuses is, probably, the one with the televised gladiator fight (or possibly the one with the bizarre religious tag scene, which we shall duly come to), but there are other things about it I’m very fond of.

Of course, those gladiator fight scenes themselves, with their canned audience responses and the centurion snarling ‘Bring this network’s ratings down and we’ll do a number on you!’ is, obviously, meant satirically, and it’s satire with teeth when you consider Star Trek‘s own issues with network viewing figures at the time. The audience is practically beaten about the head by lines to the effect that this planet is in many ways incredibly similar to then-contemporary America, so this hardly qualifies as the most subtle subtext – there’s still something wonderfully understated about William Shatner’s delivery of the line ‘I’ve heard [20th century TV] was somewhat similar.’

Then again, by this point all the regulars know their characters inside out, so we get such cherishable moments as McCoy and Spock bickering even during a fight to the death, the later pay-off to this, and Scotty getting to play hard man while left in charge of the ship. Perhaps best of all is Kirk’s own super-coolness when forced to watch his friends in the arena – one of the themes of the episode is the difference between Kirk – a paragon, of course, of the improved humanity which Roddenberry believed so passionately in – and the flawed and failed Merik. Claudius expects Kirk to be just as weak, to crumble as his friends are threatened. ‘You find these games frightening, revolting,’ taunts the Proconsul. ‘Proconsul…’ Kirk permits himself a quiet smile. ‘In some parts of the galaxy I have seen forms of entertainment which make this look like a folk dance.’ Even if Kirk is just playing poker, he’s doing it masterfully.

(And there is, of course, the moment – becoming something of an institution by this point – where he gets some private alone-time with one of the local girls. One American pro-fan made a bold attempt to de-canonise Star Trek V by suggesting the whole movie is a piece of fanfic made by the inhabitants of this planet many years later, led by the son of Kirk who resulted from this brief liaison. I suppose I’ve heard nuttier ideas.)

One aspect of the episode which is very, very Roddenberry, and not really touched upon much when Bread and Circuses is discussed, is that it is essentially about personal principles and honour. As we are repeatedly told, the Enterprise is quite capable of laying waste to the Roman planet – whatever perils Kirk and the others face arise solely from their dedication to the principle of the Prime Directive and their duty to the other members of the crew. This being Star Trek, naturally they stick to their principles even in extremis, and in doing so inspire Merik to regain a little of his own honour by assisting them in their escape.

And it is just an escape: unlike their visits to the planet of the Nazis or the planet of the gangsters from earlier in the season, things on Romanworld are left more or less unchanged by the end of the Enterprise crew’s visit. (This is one of those rare occasions where the Prime Directive is actually respected, full stop, no quibbling.) It should be a slightly downbeat ending, but it isn’t, and that’s of course due to the rather hokey revelation that the Sun worshippers they’ve been hanging out with all episode are actually Son (of God) worshippers – good job they stressed the (utterly implausible) fact that the Romans speak contemporary English, or this gag would be dead in the water.

You know, I’m prepared to bet that when and if Star Trek: Discovery appears on our screens, it’s not going to include scenes where members of the supposedly humanistic and (at best) agnostic Federation sit around marvelling at the explicit influence of the Christian God over interplanetary affairs. (Kirk almost seems ready to beam back down and start handing out tracts outside railway stations.) There are few things that drive home the cultural shift from Judaeo-Christian dominance to humanistic pluralism quite as powerfully as the fact that this scene, which seems so peculiar to a 21st century audience, probably felt quite unexceptional to many people watching it in 1968.

So there is, in the end, a weird clash of moralities going on in this episode – on the one hand, the studied moral relativism of the Federation, as embodied in the Prime Directive, where it is totally wrong to assume any single ethical perspective has primacy. And on the other, the will of God, which seems to be pretty much the same across the galaxy. (Actually, if we assume the existence of God, as the episode clearly does, it goes a long way towards explaining just why there are so many identical planets where people speak English in the galaxy – things don’t have to make scientifically rational sense in a theistic universe.) I expect this gives many people a good reason to dislike Bread and Circuses, but, to be honest, the rest of the episode is so strong in the particular virtues of Star Trek that the theological craziness just makes me like it a bit more.

 

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