Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Original Series

"Bread and Circuses"

**1/2

Air date: 3/15/1968
Written by Gene Roddenberry & Gene L. Coon
Directed by Ralph Senensky

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Looking for the missing crew of a freighter commanded by Captain Merik (William Smithers), the Enterprise landing party beams down to investigate a civilization that is best described as a "20th century Rome." Once there, Kirk, Spock, and Bones are caught and imprisoned, and scheduled to face death if Kirk doesn't agree to turn over the rest of the Enterprise crew for use in their televised, deadly arena games.

"Bread and Circuses" is a well-executed but completely by-the-numbers episode of TOS. The show engages most every TOS cliché in the book, including Kirk getting a babe, the Prime Directive being assessed, a planet that is Yet Another Parallel Earth [TM], and the holding of The Big Three hostage, where they must use resourcefulness to escape their impending doom. Most interesting is the good work between Spock and Bones, which wants to ask the question of just which of their personal feelings their acerbic banter arises from.

Rhodes Reason makes a good antagonist as Flavius, but given the setting of a conveniently parallel Earth (an overused premise, to be sure) the whole setup is strikingly underutilized beyond its most obvious action sequences.

Previous episode: The Ultimate Computer
Next episode: Assignment: Earth

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10 comments on this review

Strider - Wed, Jun 20, 2012 - 10:21pm (USA Central)
I've read some pretty disparaging reviews of this episode, and while some of the science is a little screwy, I think there's some truly wonderful character work in it. This is Kirk at his most Kirk-like...confident, in charge, watching out for his crew but trusting them as well. I was getting tired of too many angsty, doubt-ridden, weak Kirk moments. Kirk is a strong, totally in control leader all the way through, and it's awesome.

Spock lets some emotion out--irritation, humor, anxiety--and gets called on it by McCoy, leading to a deeply emotional moment between the two as they share their concern for Kirk. McCoy is at his most bitchy and in Spock's face all the time, but still prods Spock to new levels of self disclosure.

I'm not thrilled with the treatment of the Prime Directive--up till now, didn't we understand that the PD was absolute unless they had to defend themselves? How can there possibly NOT be an exemption for that?

And I do sort of wish that Kirk hadn't sexed the slave...can he NEVER resist a woman EVER? I mean, she was a SLAVE, she can't give free consent! A new low for studly Kirk.

The Sun/Son thing, indicating that Christianity arose within the Roman Empire in this reality as well, makes sense, and I understand why they couldn't really follow up on it. It was a neat little twist that could have been more, but it's okay that it wasn't. It didn't bother me.

On a personal note, speaking as a woman, these men in these costumes are so hot I watched the episode 3 times in one day. Spock fighting in the arena in those tight pants? Whew... And I didn't realize McCoy was so tall, but he's almost as tall as Spock. Add the emotional intensity, and it was a pretty satisfying episode, despite the occasional plot ridiculousness.

Anyway, good character work...
NCC-1701-Z - Sat, Jan 11, 2014 - 2:16pm (USA Central)
And they don't even care about their phasers, tricorders and communicators being left behind on a pre-warp planet... *shakes head*
Alex - Thu, Jan 16, 2014 - 1:56am (USA Central)
What I found a bit hokey is that the premise of the story that involves a former starfleet captain being stranded on an alien planet where he breaks the PD, becomes the leader, and facilitates a dystopian society is repeated in two episodes that are only two places apart (Omega Glory).
Paul - Thu, Jan 16, 2014 - 8:19am (USA Central)
@Alex:

Technically, Merrick isn't THE leader in this episode. He's essentially a tool of Claudius Marcus, who is the leader. So, it's a little more believable.

Tracy in "The Omega Glory" asserts authority over a much more primitive society and does so with superior technology.
James - Fri, Jan 24, 2014 - 12:17am (USA Central)
One of the best lines in Star Trek's whole history:

“You bring this network’s ratings down, Flavius, and we’ll do a special on you!”
DutchStudent82 - Thu, May 1, 2014 - 9:47pm (USA Central)
ARGGG not AGAIN the "just like earth" crap.

This must be why I barely can stand TOS, aside from it's hopeless outdated looks (starships with pushbuttons, pull out scanners, earpieces THAT big, really people?, and it's hopelessly outdated technobabble (or even worse, lack of it, compared to the much more loved TNG))

But come on.. even IF I buy into the story :
-civ already knew about space, and spaceweapons and everything.
-in that case there would be NO polution by using phase weapons in front of the consul (as long as it happens off-screen)
hence :
*a wide range stun blast with the enterprise, and than just beam up, all the tech, and all the team members, and our rotten ex-captain, and the consul (now he can enjoy jail in our society instead) would be a relatively clean cut in comparising.

Would make for a short episode, but a far more logical and sensible one.
dgalvan - Wed, May 14, 2014 - 2:50pm (USA Central)
Agree with DutchStudent: this is one of those episodes where a simpler and more sensible solution is staring you in the face for the entire episode. As soon as they find Merrick, Scotty could have stunned the surrounding area and beamed up the good guys. Episode over.

Not that I would have preferred that story, but they could have at least inserted some line of dialog as to why that solution (being so obvious) wasn't available. Otherwise the viewer is just distracted the whole time thinking: "why don't they just. . .?!?!?"

Also, it seemed sort of unnecessary that Captain Merrick was left to perish on the planet. I was waiting for Kirk to order Merrick beamed aboard after they got back to the Enterprise. . . but instead they just left him there! What the heck, Kirk the jerk?
redshirt28 - Tue, May 20, 2014 - 11:49pm (USA Central)
Their phasers were comfiscated by the runaway slaves, communicators/tricorder taken by the police. The only time kirk was given use of a communicator (besides ending) there were two submachine gun muzzles inches from his head.

Beam merrick up? Why? He was dead.
William B - Mon, Aug 25, 2014 - 7:01pm (USA Central)
Early in the episode, Spock points out that they're speaking English and how remarkable that is! At first it seems incredibly redundant, because we've had like a dozen episodes set on parallel Earths. But then it becomes clear that they have to be speaking English. It's not that they are speaking some other language which is translated -- I'm not clear on what the rules are supposed to be about the universal translator at this point anyway, and I forget what has been established. They can't be translating, because the English-specific homophone sun/son has to be maintained for that end reveal! Of course, wait, why does it need to be a dramatic reveal? Because, uh, look, it's Ancient Rome, in modern day, and so the rebels have to be Christians, right?

It may be that I'm missing something here, and that there is Serious Social Commentary in the Rome stuff. The closest, I think, is a halfhearted message on the sensationalization of television and media -- that television is used to broadcast gladiator games seems to be in the same general category as the Battle Royale/The Hunger Games linking of television/propaganda with oppression tactics, or Fahrenheit 451's take on brainless TV as a tool of government control. Given that this is 1968 and the Civil Rights Movement was taking centre stage of the American world, the talking head of the television news channel mentioning that there is civil disobedience for no apparent reason and no one can understand it seems to be a slam at news commentators writing off demonstrations (and riots) as irrational rather than a result of inequality. Still, these themes fizzle out quickly.

Incredibly, I think some of this episode's themes were better handled in The Gamesters of Triskelion. I know, I know! How can it be? But the gladitorial combat stuff was actually given focus and room to breathe. And that episode, however inconsistently and frustratingly it dealt with it, Shahna was allowed to have her own perspective, and was allowed to react to Kirk's using her and hitting her as a means of escape. In this episode, as has been pointed out above, Kirk sleeps with a hot slave girl (Drusilla, after Caligula's sister, among other Romans -- not to be confused with the vampire Drusilla from "Buffy"), and, apparently lifts a communicator off her...which then is immediately returned to him. Look, Kirk using sex as a way of escaping is standard practice; and his life is really on the line. But the episode leaves no room to point out that Kirk is still sleeping with a *sex slave*. There is no effort here, like there is with Shahna, to teach her the value of freedom. Because of the Prime Directive, right? Well, great how that works out! Maybe the better path of non-interference would be to not sleep with her, say you've got a headache, whatever, and swipe the communicator when she sleeps. She can't consent, and the fact that she seems a little oblivious to her inability to consent because she's been raised to be a slave is not really justification. Kirk's "They threw me a few curves" afterwards is not what I'd call "in good taste."

The Spock/McCoy dynamic is the real thing of interest here -- how it starts off with their usual antagonism, and as the episode goes on seems to explode out of the *usual* boundaries of their sniping at each other, McCoy yelling at him in the middle of a gladiator combat after Spock's offer of help, and finally McCoy telling Spock frankly that Spock's afraid of living because his emotions might seep through. The big difficulty for me in it is that I don't quite understand why these circumstances are the ones that brought out this earnestness -- nor, indeed, McCoy's remark "I'm worried about Jim too." Maybe I'm too jaded to recognize it, but it didn't really seem as if this circumstance were any more likely to produce excessive worry than any other of their standard life-and-death situations.

But really, this moment (and the buildup to it) does work for me more than it doesn't. I don't think McCoy is correct about Spock overall -- I think Spock doesn't want to die, for instance. But Spock's unwillingness to show anything that looks like it *might* be emotion, most of the time, does extend into dysfunctional territory at times, and I think that's related to his fear of his human side. When he maintains that he saved McCoy's life because the Enterprise would be less efficient without its ship's surgeon (or the many other times he's said something similar), I think he's talking B.S.: if nothing else, Vulcan philosophy values *all* lives, whether they are useful to the ship's operation or not. He pushes people away, except for Kirk, for whom he can let himself go a little bit because he can justify his friendship to Jim as being a part of his duty. With McCoy, he obviously values him greatly and vice versa -- and it's been explicit since, at least, "Amok Time" -- but they also continue to be at each other's throats, and it makes sense that the occasional flare-up will happen, in which their regular petty conflict escalates and actual feelings start to get hurt, even if Spock won't normally admit it, besides a weary "Really, doctor?"

The episode has a few other pleasures. I like, for instance, the way Claudius Marcus values strength as a Roman virtue, and casually suggests that only the weak will die in the arena, and, as a result, admires Kirk's strength just as he mocks Merik's cowardice. The virtue that Claudius Marcus lacks, and is an essential part of the Christian (or "Son") movement that will overtake Rome, is the willingness to self-sacrifice. Merik at first seems like a villain, and I'm not entirely sure whether his portrayal is consistent throughout the episode. But eventually it becomes clear that he is a man defined by fear and inaction; that his becoming First Citizen is because he had not the strength to make his own decisions. So that he finds some sort of redemption at the episode's end, sacrificing himself so that Kirk et al. can escape, is an effective demonstration of the thing that this society lacks.

I'm not really sure how the Trio beaming up is not a Prime Directive violation. It's true that Claudius Marcus already knows about that stuff, but, I dunno -- the rules about what is and isn't an actual violation when the world's emperor already knows about starships are consistently fuzzy, and it's hard to tell why exactly this departure is some kind of victory. It may be that I'm just not giving the episode enough credit, and failing to engage with it on its own terms.

Anyway, I'd say 2 stars.
jay - Thu, Sep 4, 2014 - 12:37am (USA Central)
Yeah, TOS was really lame with the "parallel Earth" repeating theme. As Paul points out, just two episodes earlier they had "Omega Glory", about another planet whose history parallels Earth, right down to the names of countries and apparently the complete text of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and a renegade starship captain who completely violates the prime directive and becomes a leader. Almost exactly the same plot, just cross out "US" and write in "Rome". And not long before they had "Patterns of Force", where a renegade starship captain introduces Nazism onto a planet. At least in that one they explained that it was the man from Earth who brought in all the exact copies of Nazi symbols and uniforms, etc, rather than it somehow mysteriously just happening. Though there was the curious fact that the persecuted minority -- I forget what they called them -- but they all had Jewish names.

But what irks me is that they never explain how these parallel histories are supposed to have happened. If they said that another planet also had a nuclear stalemate like the US and USSR, that could be plausible. Or that another planet also had a powerful empire that had slaves and forced people to fight for the entertainment of the masses, okay. But when they have the exact same names of countries, titles for officials, flags, etc, you can't just toss that out with no explanation. Surely this would be wildly improbable. What natural force would lead planets all over the galaxy to have powerful empires that all just happened to be called "Roman"? You can't just ask me to accept that with no explanation.

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