To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, every week throughout 2016 we are looking back at a Star Trek episode picked by one of our team or by a guest contributor. Today David Bastin goes Roman...
Bread and Circuses is a really well crafted story with great dialogue, acting,
character development, and some good action sequences thrown in, it is also one of the more violent and grim Star Trek stories from the Original Series, but not unnecessarily so as the unpleasantness is an integral part of the story, and the story itself is good enough to make it worth dealing with the unpleasantness presented throughout.
Written by Gene Roddenberry and Gene L Coon, Bread and Circuses begins as the Enterprise comes across the wreckage of 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 witness a 20th century Rome, complete with institutionalised slavery and televised gladiator matches.
There are a number of elements to the story, some of them gut wrenching, like when 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 in Rome, which for some reason was successfully suppressed in this version of Rome until some 1600 years later than the one on earth, and it hints that Christianity brought down the empire (although in truth there was much more to it, but that is not for me to discuss in this retrospective).
Bread and Circuses also perfectly shows the complexities of the relationship between McCoy and Spock. 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 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 violent sports (like boxing) and so called 'light-entertainment' reality shows which put people in uncomfortable or difficult situations. Granted, people don't often get killed from these things, but the point here is that a lot of today's televised entertainment comes from seeing people suffer for our pleasure.
Part of the reason Gene Roddenberry gave for developing Star Trek in the first place was that he wanted to talk about things that the network censors of the time wouldn't let him talk about (like sex, war, politics, and 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.
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