Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Bread and Circuses" (March 15, 1968)

Stardate: 4040.7

After discovering the wreckage of the S.S. Beagle in space, the starship Enterprise tracks survivors to a class-M planet that, for all intents and purposes, is a 20th century Roman Empire.

The planet is ruled as Ancient Rome once was, and even conducts gladiatorial games, but this time for TV consumption! It is a striking example of parallel world development.

When the Enterprise monitors a TV transmission that mentions barbarians dying in the colosseum games, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) realizes that the crew of the Beagle was sent into combat to fight.  Hoping to learn more about this grim fate, the Captain, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) beam down to the world’s surface. The Prime Directive -- the non-interference directive – is in full effect.

There, on the planet, Kirk and his party are befriended by renegade slaves and “Sun [sic] Worshipers.” 

One of the peaceful men, a former gladiator named Flavius (Rhodes Reason), is asked by another, Septimus (Ian Wolfe) to escort the strangers to the city to help them learn about what became of the Beagle crew.  But the landing party and Flavius are promptly captured by the Romans.

In the city, a captive Kirk learns that the captain of the Beagle, Merrick (William Smithers), now serves the cunning Proconsul of the Empire, Claudius Marcus (Logan Ramsey).  Marcus wants Kirk to beam down his crew to fight -- and die -- in the arena.

If Kirk refuses to cooperate, he will have to watch Spock and McCoy fight to the death in the same venue. 

Fortunately, Scotty (James Doohan) arranges a diversion from the bridge of the Enterprise, one that doesn’t violate the Prime Directive.

After the landing party returns to the ship safely, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) reveals some information that she gleaned from the air-waves she monitored.

Flavius and others did not worship the sun in the sky.  Rather, they worship the son of God. What the crew witnessed on the planet was the beginning of Christianity on the Roman world.

“Bread of Circuses” is another second season “parallel world” Star Trek (1966-1969) story, one in which a far distant planet in the galaxy develops in a manner exactly like some historical example on Earth. 

In the other two prominent stories of similar types, “A Piece of the Action” and “Patterns of Force,” the parallel culture develops because of either inadvertent or intentional interference from Federation personnel.  Historian John Gill models Ekosian culture on the Nazi example in “Patterns of Force.” And a book, Chicago Mobs of the 20s, pollutes the minds of the impressionable denizens of Sigma Iota.

The parallel Roman culture that arises here (as in “The Omega Glory”) is a natural development, by contrast. (Either that, or we don’t know the source. It could be the Preservers, I submit).  The Roman culture seems, however, to have arisen naturally, and lived well beyond the time period that the society did in Earth history.

In fact, the Romans are so strong (and so ruthless) that they take down would-be interferers here, casting those they deem “barbarians” (out-worlders) into the arena to be massacred. The whole episode is tense, in part, because the Roman State is so well-organized and so well-run that Kirk isn’t even thinking about interfering or “setting” things right. Basically, he just wants to get out with his skin (and his officers’ skin) intact. He is captured, pressured, seduced, pressured again, and attacked.

The primary strength of “Bread and Circuses,” however, is of an outside thematic nature, not an “in world.” continuity one.  Specifically, this story serves as a commentary on our own culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.  The cut-throat world of gladiator games is explicitly connected to the cut-throat world of television production in the mid-to-late 1960s.

Here, the televised games of painted backdrops, canned applause (and boos too), and ratings are apparently a concern for the Romans  At one point, Kirk makes an observation that TV entertainment on Earth was apparently similar to that featured on this planet, a cutting joke about how dramatic programming lives and dies by the ratings on NBC, CBS, and ABC.  No one, apparently, wants the Empire (or the Network) to do a “special” on them, if they step out of line.

The episode is also notorious for its controversial conclusion, which is very much open to interpretation. 

Some viewers and historians see the episode as a validation of Christianity as a force in Star Trek’s universe. Coupled with Kirk’s comment in “Who Mourns for Adonais” that one God is “quite sufficient,” Christian Trek fans have made a case that the Christian religion survives and prospers to the 23rd century, despite creator Gene Roddenberry’s self-proclaimed (and well-known) atheism. 

Here, for instance, Lt. Uhura notes that cynical Romans could not invalidate the nature of the Son Worshiper’s belief system, and McCoy calls it a philosophy of “total brotherhood” and “total peace.”  Kirk expresses his fascination with the rebirth of Christianity on this world, and marvels that it would be amazing to be a part of it, to see develop all over again. Rome, after all, had Caesar and Christ.

Others have argued that “Bread and Circuses” ends with, simply, the crew’s historical interest over seeing a major touchstone of human development repeat itself. It’s not that the crew is espousing Christianity. Rather, it is marveling at seeing one of the moving forces of humanity happen all over again.

Either way, it’s a fascinating end to the episode.  I like, actually, that the episode’s conclusion is open to multiple interpretations.  I think that makes “Bread and Circuses” much more intriguing than it might have been as merely another “parallel” world story.

For the most part, I also appreciate the banter and humor in the episode. However, one scene goes a little far (for my taste). The scene in which McCoy and Spock bicker in the jail cell gets a little mean, in my opinion.  McCoy just really goes for the jugular, and then, after having attacked ruthlessly, says “I know, I miss Jim too," in substitute for an apology.  Spock could have said “I worry about the Captain as well, but my worry did not require me to attack you.” Seriously, McCoy is way over the line in terms of nastiness in this scene.  That doesn’t mean I believe his observations are wrong. Only that he needn’t be so cruel in his discussion of them.

Next week: the final episode of season two, “Assignment: Earth.”


  1. Anonymous1:37 PM

    I love all things Rome, but somehow this episode wasn't very good in that category. Still one of the top 50% of TOS episodes.


  2. John, very thoughtful review of “Bread and Circuses”.
    The “parallel world” element is fascinating and the driving narrative of the parallel Earths of Sliders(1995-2000). McCoy was cruel towards Spock, but I think it was valid because Kirk, Spock and McCoy are like brothers. McCoy's attacking Spock was his way of dealing with being helpless to protect Kirk. McCoy's cruelty was his way of venting this with Spock that he knew would realize this and forgive him.


  3. John,
    I've often pondered that, if episodes such as "Bread and Circuses," "A Piece of the Action" and "Patterns of Force" were made by the Star Trek - The Next Generation crew, the humanoid inhabitants of their respective worlds would probably have French fry noses, oddly-shaped foreheads and spotty necks to differentiate them from humans repeating Earth cultures on various other planets.
    With respect to your observation regarding Christianity: I never felt that Uhura was espousing a religious point of view, but was merely commenting on the fact that this world is so similar to ours that they've even developed the same religion for themselves. Faith in humanity seems to be the dominant orthodoxy of the 23rd Century, but they recognize and appreciate the ancient religions and their place in the development of humans into the enlightened beings we would become.
    This episode also led to one of the best chapter titles of any book I've ever read: "If they give you any trouble, Screw them!" from Inside Star Trek. Jack Perkins, who played the whip-toting Master of Games, ended up on the blooper real for his inability to say the line "If they give you any trouble, skewer them" - always replacing the word "skewer" with "screw." You'll note that this line does not appear in the final episode.
    At the time, the fate of the series was up in the air, and when the blooper reel was played at the annual Christmas Party, "screw them" got the most laughs because this was how the entire cast and crew felt towards NBC, who was keeping them all in suspense regarding a third season. More than a treatise on Earth history and religious implications, all involved were very much aware that the overt point of "Bread and Circuses" was a statement about television, its goofy system of ratings over quality, and a society that ate it up in the same way Romans loved their lions eating gladiators for entertainment.
    The fact that they got away with it, and this episode is still being shown over 50 years later, validates their belief that they were ahead of their time in every possible way.

  4. Sheri1:31 AM

    "Bread and Circuses" is the best lampoon of TV network brass in the whole history of television, bar none, especially since it is not ostensibly about that subject! It takes the audience's understanding of the issue as a given, wasting no time setting up and explaining it, and simply punctures it harshly. This is similar to Orson Welles' devastating lampoon of the officious-sounding, backwards-talking "March of Time" newsreel narrations in Citizen Kane: they're hilarious precisely because they just assume audience familiarity and get on with satirizing the subject in extremely punchy style.

    I have to draw attention to Logan Ramsey's tremendous performance as Marcus. How wonderfully slimy and unctuous he is! Of all the fine guest-star performances on this series, Ramsey's is one of the most fun. He has some of the sharpest lines in all of Star Trek as he repeatedly (further) emasculates Merik throughout the episode.

    I quibble, John, with your characterization of the ending as "controversial", as it certainly wasn't any such thing when it aired. I also would note that at the time, Gene Roddenberry himself wasn't, or didn't claim to be, an atheist; if anything, he was more an evolving secular humanist, and he wasn't particularly anti-religious. Only after the march of time did he come to claim atheism. Far too many people view Star Trek by working backwards and attributing to the show and to Roddenberry which characterized neither it nor he at the time of the show's creation.

    No, if there was any controversy about this episode, it was among the NBC suits, who knew this episode was directed at them.

    I want that Jupiter 8!

    1. Sheri3:24 PM

      Correction of above: "Far too many people view Star Trek by working backwards and attributing to the show and to Roddenberry *a point of view* which characterized neither it nor *him* at the time of the show's creation."

      How I hate it when I revise a remark and mess up the cut-and-paste before I post it!