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By this point, we begin to see a pattern in Roddenberry's approach to
Trek science fiction; he's not interested so much in cosmic concepts as
he is in addressing social & political concerns of the present day
through the filter of the Trek universe. He's not concerned with
believable science fiction concepts in presenting other worlds which
should have very different evolutionary stages from our own history.
Hence, we've had the virus-stained 'Satan Bug/Omega Man world'
("Miri"), 'gangster world' ("A Piece of the Action" - admittedly a
comedy), Nazi world ("Patterns of Force") and 'World War III world'
("Omega Glory"), all just like our own Earth except for a shift in
their history to differentiate them. The proper way was to present
stories in a parallel universe, but this was a space travel show, so
Roddenberry was kind of stuck by his own premise (he includes a brief
mention of 'Hodgkin's Law' here to explain the parallel development).
Now we have 'Roman Empire' world, a rather effective precursor to the
films "Westworld" and "Rollerball" - the title refers to keeping the
populace, the mob, satiated with blood sports.
On this world, the Roman Empire never fell, as if continuing for several hundred more years rather than falling apart as it did on our Earth in the 4th - 5th centuries. Gladiatoral combat is on display again (not as silly as in "Gamesters of Triskelion"), now shown on TV rather than the old-time arenas. Cops or Centurians run around with machine guns, wearing motorcycle helmets (see also "Soylent Green" in 1973), but still have swords for the sake of tradition. Slavery has evolved, as well, with most slaves complacent due to an extension of some meager benefits over the centuries (again, a more effective presentation than the cheesy "Gamesters..."). Quite a few concepts were thought out, including some commentary on religion, and most of it comes across as a serious, adult approach. Indeed, there's a coarseness to much of this episode, an edge, reflecting the cruelty of the culture - this empire was a much earlier version of the brutal Nazi regime, after all.
As we've become accustomed to by now, the main trio (Kirk,Spock,McCoy) are the ones who beam down to muck about in this intriguing yet dangerous culture. What comes as a surprise is that they actually adhere to the precepts of their Prime Directive in this one and it shows how tough this directive can be - ironic as this was the time I was kind of hoping Kirk would decide non-interference be damned (again) and lay waste to a city or two in teaching that fat proconsul a lesson in power; the episode succeeds in repelling the viewer to such an extent with all the unpleasantness on this planet that you wouldn't mind the Enterprise 'going Roman' on a few key establishments. The edginess extends to the Spock-McCoy relationship, in that fateful scene when McCoy spells out Spock's fear of living in their jail cell (both appear to accept that death is inevitable for them this time - it is that grim); McCoy's verbal attack appears to be a personal triumph for him but is he so successful at it because he knows what a death wish is like? The scene recalls their tension in "The Immunity Syndrome."
Although Star Trek's "Prime Directive" had been mentioned in episodes
prior to "Bread and Circuses", that philosophical tenet of the Star
Trek universe is the focus of this episode, where it is fully laid out
for the first time.
Captain Kirk and crew happen upon--what else--an Earth-like planet where Spock's research shows that another Starfleet ship was supposedly destroyed. Oddly, the planet also happens to have exactly the same land to water ratio as the Earth as well as the same chemical composition of air. Before beaming down they also intercept broadcasts that show the civilization to be a close parallel to ancient Rome--particularly in terms of a proclivity towards violence, including violence as entertainment. Of course, once they beam down, Kirk, Spock and McCoy end up as captives.
Enter the prime directive. There are probably not many reading this who are not familiar with it, but in a nutshell, it's a Starfleet philosophy of non-interference. In the course of their explorations, the aim is to study other civilizations, but to not take any actions which might amount to culture shock, and even more strongly, to not take any actions which might catalyze socio-cultural development in any directions other than what they would have been without interaction with Starfleet. Of course, there are a lot of problems with this idea, and even within the Star Trek world, Starfleet members are hardly consistent in applying the principle. We can safely guess that Star Trek writers tended to not be very familiar with ideas in science and philosophy of science which posit that any outsider interaction will necessarily affect the cultures being studied in some way, and they probably weren't very familiar with either chaos theory and the butterfly effect, or even Eugene Wigner's interpretation of quantum mechanics (in which the observer and his/her consciousness plays a significant role in the events that occur). But soundness of the Prime Directive in the real world aside, we receive a lesson in what it is and what it means to the Star Trek crew in "Bread and Circuses".
To an extent, I have to wonder if the Prime Directive wasn't further developed here in the way that it was merely as a plot device. It's a way of extending the conflict. Otherwise, the tendency is to think, "Why wouldn't Scotty send down crew members to just blast the hell out of Kirk, Spock and McCoy's captors?" Although the primitive culture had guns, they are still a primitive culture.
But it doesn't really matter if the Prime Directive is just a means of extending the dilemma for 40 minutes or so. The Prime Directive is a good idea; one that we can pretend is more sound in the Star Trek universe, and one that proved to be fruitful for many future episodes in different Star Trek series.
So this episode is both important and enjoyable. We get some different locations, some interesting one-time ideas--especially the televised gladiatorial events, and I always get a kick out of the fighting episodes. Part of the original Star Trek's charm is its cheesiness, and physical combat is one of the primary sources of cheese. Also notable are the unusual references to religion--this happens a few times in the series, but nowhere more strongly than this episode. There is also a lot of exquisite bickering between Spock and McCoy here, including McCoy mocking Spock's penchant for logic by making his own Spock-like statements and Spock responding by insulting McCoy's medical ability.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Though tempted to rate this episode with one star for reasons to be
discussed, I give it three stars. I add one star because, well, it's
Trek, so even bad episodes are fun and this one had some nice moments.
I give it another star just because of Kirk's punchline, "They threw me
a few curves...", a reference to the gift provided him by the
Proconsul. That was a rare moment of "inside" humor during an otherwise
The concept of a parallel planet was already well worn before this episode, and if you were still watching Trek at this point, then by definition you were forgiving of the absurdity of it all. One might suspend disbelief long enough to accept a single near-Earth parallel (Miri), but by the fourth or fifth time that such a parallel is found, not only within the same galaxy, but by the same crew and captain, surely it pushes the notion fully into cheesehood. Similarly, we can suspend disbelief on the fact that the inhabitants speak perfect colloquial 1960's English, regardless of their location and period of development - it would be difficult to sustain a weekly one our drama without this concession. However, the painful exposition where the normally logical Spock makes a point of the native use of English, not once, but twice, completely breaks down the fourth wall. Further painful exposition occurs when the entire landing party recounts the points of the Prime Directive, which of course they already know. Yes, it's done to aid the viewing audience, but a better way could have been devised to give out that information. In any event, even after making a big deal about it, Kirk almost immediately violates the Prime Directive (I'm amused by reviewers who seem to claim that the opposite - that this episode grandly upholds the Prime Directive), demonstrating his communicator to the locals, and asking them if they've heard stories about men from other worlds coming from those lights in the sky. This is almost immediately after McCoy carefully explains that they are forbidden to even hint at the existence of other worlds. Then later, Kirk is squeamish about contaminating the Proconsul (catching himself from talk of beaming down), although the Proconsul has already been thoroughly contaminated by Merrick, and already knows all about Vulcans, the Federation, communicators, and phasers. Kirk even mentions to the Proconsul that he could bring down 100 men with phasers, bare moments after being shy about using the word "beam". What? How stupid can this dialog be? But all of that is forgivable because it is Trek, and Trek is good even when it's bad.
Where this episode really jumps the shark is in the obnoxious attempt to promote Christianity. It was a nice idea that the Roman empire could be brought down by a modern notion of freedom, rights, and equality. Whatever that has to do with Christianity is beyond my comprehension. Kirk says, "Wouldn't it be something to be able to watch it happen all over again?" What? The Crusades? The Inquisition? The Dark Ages? Christianity was a tool for killing, oppression of people, and suppression of ideas for centuries. The suggestion that the main concept was anti-violence is historical balderdash. It's appealing and appeasing to True Believers, sure enough, but it's an insult to the intelligence of anyone who is not so brainwashed as to have no understanding of actual historical fact.
Further, the Romans were not brought down by Christians. Long before the Roman Empire finally fell apart, Christianity had become its mandated state religion. The collapse was brought about by a combination of internal corruption, along with relentless external attack from pagan barbarian hordes.
For practical reasons, we must accept the illogic of yet another parallel development and the appearance of English in an alien world, but we should not have to accept such an egregious and unnecessary misrepresentation of cultural and religious history and the saccharin delivery of religious dogma. The fourth wall is not just breached, but blasted away by photon torpedoes. Further, such hackery was not essential to the story and actually detracted from it. One gets the feeling that the writer spent all that time hacking out a story merely to lead up to Uhura's revelation of "son vs sun", which is lazy and disappointing. It's quite obvious on repeated viewing that the dialog and even the scene imagery were carefully selected to try to set up Uhura's revelation as a surprise ending. What could have been a strong story on modern concepts of freedom and democracy battling against a modern version of the decadent and oppressive Roman Empire, instead was delivered as a ridiculous pandering to the religious bigotry of its day. Hence, the episode ends up being quite dated and silly in a modern viewing, and will age badly in decades to come.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is one of the more violent and grim Trek stories from the original
series. Whenever any story is overly unpleasant, the viewer (or reader)
has to ask himself a) is the story good enough to make it worth dealing
with the unpleasantness throughout and b) is the violence simply
gratuitous or is it an integral part of the story? My answers are a
definite yes to the first and the latter to the second.
The story begins as the Enterprise comes across wreckage from the SS Beagle, a Federation space ship which had disappeared six years earlier. Following the path of the wreckage, Kirk and company discover a planet remarkably similar to Earth, not only in atmosphere and land to water ratios, but in social evolution..well, almost. As they intercept a TV newscast, the bridge crew looks on in horror at a 20th century Rome, complete with institutionalized slavery and televised gladiator matches.
There are a number of elements to the story, some of them gut wrenching. Kirk is forced to watch as Spock and McCoy are sent to fight in the arena. Yet unlike the cowardly Captain Merik, the commander of the Beagle who sent his own men to die in the arena to save his own skin and obtain a high political position, Kirk will not hand his ship's crew over to the proconsul, Claudius Marcus, even though refusing to do so means certain death for all three of them. You see just how brave and gallant Captain Kirk really is when held up next to Merik, who for most of the episode is nothing but a pathetic craven coward. The contrast becomes quite evident to Claudius, who in one telling scene asks Merik to leave the two of them alone, stating that the thoughts of one man to another "couldn't possibly interest you."
Another element this episode explores is the spread of Christianity ("Son" worship) in Rome, which for some reason was successfully suppressed in this version of Rome until some 1600 years later than the one on earth. It hints that Christianity brought down the empire, although in truth there was much more to it (not going into an all out history lesson here)
You see the complexities of the relationship between McCoy and Spock on display as well. The two of them snipe at each other in the jail cell, yet Spock risks his neck to save McCoy's life in the arena.
One aspect I find interesting (and disturbing) is not how this 20th century Rome is differs from our modern society, but the way the two, in fact, parallel each other. Rome fell essentially because it got fat, lazy, and complacent. The socio/political philosophy of "bread and circuses" is really the same today as it was then. Keep the people fed and entertained. For example, the "modern" Rome had televised gladiator matches. We have football and boxing. Granted, people don't often get killed from these things, but the point here is the entertainment factor from seeing people beat the you-know-what out of one another. Food for thought.
There's also the issue of that pesky prime directive once again (OK, I actually defend Kirk when he's "violated" the prime directive for the simple reason that there never seemed to be a consistent set of guidelines for when it was supposed to be applied, but I digress). In this particular situation, the prime directive was in force, and Kirk wouldn't violate it even if it meant death for him and his two closest friends. (you got the idea he REALLY would have liked to though).
Part of the reason Roddenberry gave for doing Star Trek in the first place was that he wanted to talk about things that the network censors at the time wouldn't let him talk about (i.e. sex, war, politics, religion), and he saw telling these stories using "polka dotted people from a far off planet" as a way of getting past the censors. Never did he do a better job of that than in this episode. Again, Bread and Circuses (written by Roddenberry and Gene Coon) is violent (although tame by today's standards) and very grim, but it's a very intense and well crafted story with great dialogue, acting, character development, and some good action sequences thrown in.
And it makes you think.
Communication's officer Lieutenant Uhura sums up the decline and fall
of the Roman Empire as the world knows it. The plot is really
secondary. It's there to drive the story forward, but the underlying
theme tells of the human condition via a reign of pure strength, and
its ultimate failure.
This theme is reinforced by one of the supporting characters, an escaped 20th century Roman gladiator, Flavius, and his ultimate sacrifice. He represents the old way, once reformed, but gone back to the rule of Rome by fighting the Romans the only way he knows how.
The basic story is a rescue mission, but the real story is the heartfelt examination of the futility of a society that relies on a slave class to sustain itself on all levels, even down to bloody gladiatorial games as entertainment. Kirk is put through the rigors of experiencing both the pains and pleasures of such a society, and although he understands that he cannot change this world, he does help reinforce the message that will ultimately alter it and its Roman Empire on the most fundamental level.
Note Kirk's line as he talks to Flavius in the cave and pats him on the shoulder. Attach that to Uhura's summation at the end, and you got yourself the entire story: "It's not the sun up in the sky. It's the ..."
Positives; Kirk scores with a hot blonde. Druscilla is a HOTTIE! At least she was in 1967 :-) If I were the captain of the Enterprise I think I would bend the rules a little and beam her up to the ship before breaking orbit. Heck... I'd deserve it! The production values in this episode are also top notch. Largely because we're not dealing with aliens and spaceships here, but a historical retrofit to then modern times.
Excellent social commentary on not only a personal spiritual level, but also on the imperial nature of unbridled profit.
What makes this episode memorable to me after nearly forty years is not
the tired, clumsy gladiator swordfights -- and certainly not the
historically dubious tributes to Christianity as a religion of peace.
The power of this episode actually comes from the backstory of the minor villain, Merrick aka "Mericus." The real theme of this episode is the redemption of a man who once dreamed of being a Starship Captain, like Kirk, but was doomed by a single moment of cowardice to a lifetime of self-loathing. This is basically a retelling of LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad, with perhaps a dash of THE SHORT HAPPY LIFE OF FRANCES MACOMBER by Ernest Hemingway.
The clues come right away that Merrick is disgusted with himself. He's supposed to be questioning Kirk but really he's the one begging to be heard out, to be absolved. "Lots to talk about, Jim. Lots to explain." Later, when Kirk is absolutely ice-cold under pressure, watching Spock and McCoy face death in the arena, Merrick helpfully points out, "Proconsul, he commands not only a space ship, but a star ship. A very special ship, and crew. I once tried for such a command." Poor Merrick does everything but break down and bawl here. "I coulda been a contendah!"
The truly vile specimen in this episode is the proconsul, a fat little man who never gets tired of rubbing salt in Merrick's wounds. Watch how he makes Merrick pat Kirk down for weapons like a flunky. And listen for that little dig, "the thoughts of one man to another cannot possibly interest you, Merrick." All this stuff is a lot more hateful -- and closer to everyday life for most of us -- than sending men to die in the arena. And it's all the more grim in that this repulsive punk of a proconsul is still alive at the end, and will presumably live to die in bed, evil and unpunished. Tough stuff.
But in the end, what real uplift this episode provides is not Uhura's asinine speech about "The Son" but watching Merrick grab that communicator and shout, "Enterprise, lock on to this transmission. Three to beam up -- ACK!!!!"
Merrick lived a coward, but dies a hero -- in a tragic ending worthy of Conrad.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Bread and Circuses', production #43 was one of the last episodes made
by Gene L. Coon himself who left the second season of Star Trek after
'A Private Little War.' (production #45.) The entire premise of this
show was different from other Trek-Earth parallel stories such as 'Who
Mourns for Adonis', or the subpar 'Plato's Stepchildren'. Here, captain
Merik of the USS Beagle actually obeys the Federation's prime directive
and avoids cross-cultural contamination with the inhabitants of planet
892-IV, a carbon copy of the ancient Romans when he orders his
personnel to beam down to the planet--and essentially die. The head of
the Romans, the cruel and vindictive Claudius Marcus, knows all about
the Federation and its prime directive of non-interference. Bread and
Circuses is an obvious what if: if the Roman Empire had survived into
the 23rd century, what would life have been like today? Savage
gladiatorial duels are now transmitted on live TV and dissident "sun
worshippers" are shown resisting the regime. We have a classic
McCoy-Spock interaction in the slave pens and the Trek trio including
captain Kirk know that they all face certain death unless they violate
the prime directive. Kirk--while threatened at gunpoint--still
deliberately refuses to betray his own crew by ordering them to
transport themselves down to the planet and instead uses the word
"condition green" to Scotty to signal that his party are in trouble but
the Enterprise musn't rescue them. Everyone obeys the prime directive
which seemingly condemns the Trek trio to a painful death.
Roddenberry nicely lays out his conception of how slaves in our modern world would function while the Roman guards are equipped with both modern machine guns as well as ancient daggers to honour the memory of their predecessors. In the end, Kirk, Spock and McCoy are saved from death in the arena by the traitorous Merik himself who tells Scotty to home in on the communicator's general coordinates and beam the trio up. Merik is rewarded for his bravery by being stabbed to death by Marcus while Kirk, Spock and McCoy narrowly miss being machine gunned to death when Scotty beams them up in time. There are several classic lines in this show including one to the dissident gladiators and sunworshipper Flavius that if he brought down the show's ratings: "We'll do a special on you."
This episode was a tense tightly wound story by Gene L. Coon and since Coon was one of my favourite Star Trek producers, I highly recommend it. There are many great production values here.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
if this episode isn't a classic it absolutely deserves to be. it has
everything classic TOS had: strong acting, strong, intricate plot,
plenty of Spock/Bones banter, some earth parallel,(in this case a
strong, stated one) and a twist at the end.
The character of Flavius was well played out. His POV was a over-used one in TOS but it certainly worked out here; as was that of Kirk's old classmate turned law breaker. only that is not so over-used. (I can only think of return to tomorrow on that point). By the way, even idiots can mend their mistakes, this one did just in time.
In order to fully appreciate this episode you MUST watch the last 3 minutes. it's priceless! 4 of 5 stars. and that's because of the voice-overs, which sucked yet were important to the plot. may the blessings of the SON be upon you.
At some point in the second season, things got a little less impressive. The guys find themselves in a culture that puts on shows for a television audience based on gladiatorial battles. The problem here is that there seems to be some stasis here, but when they find out some guy named Merik has broken the prime directive, they realize that they must put a stop to it. We know from the outset that our guys are going to end up in that arena, in front of the television cameras, replete with recorded booing and cheering. They must walk a fine line. This is yet another Starfleet citizen going bad (does anyone screen these guys?) and disrupting the order of a developing planet. It also begs the question of a parallel universe. Tired plots and tired ideas just don't make it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This has been one of my LEAST-favorite ST episodes since I saw it
first-run. There's a number of reasons for it, but the main one is
probably that it's what I like to describe as a "rat-maze" episode.
That is, from the beginning, the main characters find themselves
trapped, they're stymied at every turn, nothing they do can get them
out of it, and they just--BARELY--escape with their lives at the very
end, and in this case, not even thru their own efforts. Even without
the arrogance of the Procounsel, the violence and the constant threat
of death, that would have already made this one of the most unpleasant
episodes in ST history.
For a real sense of history regarding the series' development, one should watch B&C in production order. It was actually made before the other "parallel Earth" stories (A PIECE OF THE ACTION, PATTERNS OF FORCE, THE OMEGA GLORY), the other "gladiator" story (THE GAMESTERS OF TRISKELLION) and the one where McCoy & Spock really get "personal" (THE IMMUNITY SYNDROME). As it happens, the 1st "parallel Earth" story written was THE OMEGA GLORY (one of the 3 scripts offered as the 2nd pilot), while MIRI was the first made (and if you note the similarities between them, it suggests OMEGA was drastically re-written to become MIRI... but then, sadly, filmed later anyway in its original form). The next "parallel Earth" story, RETURN OF THE ARCHONS, only fits that category for its clothing & architecture, but it was the 1st to really make a big deal of "The Prime Directive".
So Gene Roddenberry repeats himself with another "parallel Earth" here, this time noting the continents are different, but making too big a deal about the natives speaking English (when we've already seen countless other aliens speaking English!!!).
I'd forgotten Ian Wolfe was in this one as the aged leader of the runaways slaves. He'd return in a more annoying fashion as "Mr. Atoz" in ALL OUR YESTERDAYS.
Rhodes Reason (brother of lookalike Rex) made an imposing figure as the gladiator-turned-pacifist, forced to fight new friends. His next project after this was as UN submarine Commander Nelson in KING KONG ESCAPES!
Logan Ramsey will forever stick in my memory as Claudius, the ruler of this sick, depraved world. He's the other reason I genuinely HATE this story. For all the emphasis on the Prime Directive and "non-interference" in a world's development, and his twisting it to his own ends, claiming he wants to avoid "contamination" by "new ideas", his actions in this story make NO SENSE at all. He's clearly lying thru his teeth. Why? Simple. He wants to force Kirk to beam down all 450 crewmen, to either be assimilated-- or die. 450 of Starfleet's BEST would not simply die easily. If anything, they'd assimilate into the culture... and within a generation, hopelessly CONTAMINATE it with their "new ideas". If Claudius REALLY wanted to protect the status quo, he's simply get Kirk, Spock & McCoy to beam back to their ship and get the HELL out of there. After all, aren't they sworn NOT to interfere with his planet?? If you ask me, Claudius was just running out of victims for his gladiator combat TV show. If ever an "alien" citizen DESERVED to be vaporized in a phaser blast, I'd say he's it. B******!
As for the reference to Christianity, I suspect that may be why B&C was "held back" by the network and run next-to-next-to-last. (The listings here and elsewhere tend to be incorrect; FRIDAY'S CHILD, scheduled for December, was the victim of a last-minute pre-emption, and not run until March 22, 1968, a week after B&C!) The same thing happened when WKRP did an episode involving religion; CBS held it back until the end of the summer reruns!
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