(Note: If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start.)
Original Air Date: March 15, 1968
Crew Death Count: 0 (but Flavius, Merikus, and others are killed)
Bellybuttons: 0 (Drusilla’s wardrobe is a near miss)
Et tu, Star Trek? “Bread and Circuses” has some truly awful moments, but fear not, friends and Romans; we survived “The Omega Glory” and the worst is behind us. This week, the Enterprise stumbles upon wreckage from the survey vessel S.S. Beagle – it was lost six years ago, but we’ve already seen how slow the Federation can be in seeking missing starships. Evidence indicates the Beagle’s crew, commanded by R.M. Merik (William Smithers), evacuated to the nearby planet IV of system 892. Our heroes find what Kirk describes as “a 20th century Rome” on 892-IV, another planet that has developed in a way nearly identical to earth, with TV and radio but names, attire, and gladiatorial arena contests similar to ancient Rome. Or, the Rome we picture from movies and television rather than actual history. The landing party – Kirk, Spock, and McCoy – goes in search of the Beagle crew but is quickly captured, first by escaped slaves, then by soldiers with rifles and machine guns. This leads them to Merik – now going by Merikus – who has become a stooge of Proconsul Claudius Marcus (Logan Ramsey). It all relates to a convoluted interpretation of the Prime Directive and congratulations if you’re still awake, because I nodded off a long time ago.
The episode comes across as a lazy attempt at an alternate history story while using readily available sets and wardrobe. According to Memory Alpha, “A number of costumes and props were recycled from Paramount’s storage vaults, including the Roman guards’ outfits. Many of these items were originally made for Cecil B. Demille’s epics such as The Sign of the Cross, Cleopatra, and The Crusades.” “Bread and Circuses” was actually the 14th season two episode produced but the 25th to air; if the episodes had aired in production order, maybe the “duplicate earth” premise wouldn’t have seemed so worn out by this time. Regardless, as viewers, we shouldn’t have to perform episode math; societies identical to earth (with heavy influence from the 20th century) were an overused conceit in Star Trek either way. The “Bread and Circuses” planet has “an excellent road system” (because so did the Romans!) complete with heavy smog in the atmosphere. No need for a universal translator, because Spock somehow recognizes that the locals are speaking “colloquial 20th century English;” in this case, English is required to justify the goofy word-game inflicted on us in the final scene. We even see a magazine with ads for Jupiter 8 cars, Mars toothpaste, and Neptune bath salts. Kirk justifies this earth-copy with the entirely made-up Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development. They should have called it the Law of Exhausted TV Anthology Writers Hamstrung by Network Deadlines.
The space-Romans also manage to recreate some of humanity’s greatest flaws. The magazine ads and smog tell us these Romans went down the same consumerist path as 20th century America, tricked into believing that freedom requires us to be chained to our possessions. The smog is especially problematic as it represents creation of a global climate crisis, the beginnings of which we’re already experiencing. The 1960s was a crucial time for environmentalism, a strong beginning that has not been sufficiently built on. The U.S. Clean Air Act was passed by Congress in 1963, amended by the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act to begin regulating vehicle emissions starting with 1968 model year vehicles. The California Air Resources Board was created in 1967 and one of its tasks was to regulate vehicle emissions – remember that Star Trek was filmed in southern California, where traffic and smog are nearly always on people’s minds.
Besides the smog, we learn early on that this is a slave-owning society. Some of the slaves have escaped in the name of religious freedom, seeking to practice sun worship (more on that later), but many remain enslaved and some of them are forced to fight to the death as gladiators. Guns are omnipresent and are the tools most commonly used to control disruptive slaves. So when Merik tells Kirk, “This is an ordered world, Jim. A conservative world based on time-honored strengths and virtues. … There’s been no war here for over four hundred years…” we know that, in fact, a war of oppression has been underway all along. Just like the pre-Civil War south, tranquility is a myth based on repression and violence. Since the sun-worshiping refugees are clearly in the minority, why do so many accept a condition of slavery? Flavius (Rhodes Reason), a former gladiator turned pacifist, says, “With each century, the slaves acquired more rights under the law. They received rights to medicine, the right to government payments in their old age, and they slowly learned to be content.” If that doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps it should. In his book The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen explains the economic reasons – almost a necessity – for land owners in a dispersed, agricultural economy to maintain their own labor force in the form of slaves. But slavery wasn’t cheap – a field-working slave in 1850 cost $1,000 to $1,800, not to mention the cost of keeping the slave fed, housed, and healthy in order to remain a productive worker. When a society migrates to a more urban, industrial economy, maintaining a “free” labor force is more economical. By paying laborers enough to subsist and remain healthy enough to work, a paid labor force is actually more lucrative than slaves for owners of capital. If you can further restrict that labor force with the burden of debt (such as car loans for the vehicles needed to reach their jobs and maintenance medications for the emotional and physical stress they endure), and then distract them with a multitude of cheap entertainment options, you’ve got an effective pyramid scheme. The title “Bread and Circuses” comes from the work of the Roman poet Juvenal; in the tenth of his sixteen Satires, written in the early 2nd century, Juvenal wrote, “The mob follows Fortuna and cares for nothing but bread and circuses.” Fortuna was the Roman goddess of fortune, the personification of luck. The phrase “bread and circuses” is shorthand for “superficial appeasement,” a state of being easily entertained while society crumbles. Small wonder, then, that blind luck is so essential to the American Dream.
In the case of the Romans of “Bread and Circuses,” TV – just as the Ekosians in “Patterns of Force,” their television is identical to ours – is one of the primary amusements. State-owned television broadcasts the gladiatorial contests and keeps the populace comfortably anesthetized. Entertainment is clearly the priority because the “arena” is really a television studio, complete with programmed audience sounds. The games also offer population control when needed, explaining the fate of Merik’s crew, who fled to the planet after the Beagle was damaged. Some of the Beagle crew were allowed to adapt to their new society, but those who couldn’t adapt (we’re given no clue how that was decided) were sent to die in the arena. This is the solution Merik and Claudius devised to respect the Prime Directive and preserve the existing power structure. As a reward for his service and for providing slaves, Merik, or Merikus, has taken the title First Citizen, responsible for overseeing the games. The class distinction remains firmly in place, however, and Merikus is considered little better than the slaves in which he traffics – Claudius insults Merikus’ manhood at every opportunity.
Claudius even praises Kirk over Merik, despite his plans to execute Kirk on live television – eliminating a threat and boosting ratings in one move. This helps create the conflict that inspires Merik to help Kirk and company escape in the end. Merik and Kirk are old friends, because Kirk knows everyone somehow, but the difference between the two is spelled out for us early on: Merrick captained a mere survey vessel because he was dropped from Starfleet Academy after failing a psychosimulator test. We don’t know what a psychosimulator is, but the implication is clear that Kirk completed the work that Merik could not. Claudius even sends his slave girl Drusilla (Lois Jewell) to spend the night with Kirk. What a relief that Drusilla smiles when she tells Kirk, “For this evening I was told I am your slave. Command me.” To make sure we have no doubts about the time Kirk and Drusilla spend together, Claudius explains, “Because you are a man I gave you some last hours as a man.” Kirk seems okay with that, as he shows no hesitation or regret at sexually exploiting an enslaved woman. Later, when Kirk escapes and frees Spock and McCoy from their prison cell, the captain explains his delay: “They threw me a few curves.” For all his obsession with liberating previous societies, Kirk shows no interest in helping the slaves of 892-IV.
Spock and McCoy get a generous amount of screen time but it’s mostly awkward. McCoy complains way too much. The two carry their arguing to an extreme, behaving so cruelly to one another that Flavius asks, “Are they enemies?” Both are forced to fight in the arena but they fall far short of Russell Crowe’s standards. The scene is played for humor, which doesn’t fit the tone of the episode. Spock tries valiantly to avoid harming his opponent, practically begging the gladiator to stand down. McCoy continues complaining, responding with long-winded sarcasm when Spock offers assistance. Their one attempt at a mature exchange – when McCoy thanks Spock for saving his life in the arena – quickly degenerates into another argument.
“Patterns of Force” was disappointing, but at least it provided a plausible explanation for an earth-like society. The refugees in the early scenes complete the lazy parallel earth of “Bread and Circuses.” They talk of worshiping the sun – “Blessed be the sun,” says Septimus (Ian Wolfe, who gets a more substantial role in the third season episode “All Our Yesterdays”). The Roman gods are “false gods,” and the sun worshipers are very clear that their way is the only way. Liberating themselves from Roman persecution (oh, no, we can see where this is leading) has shown them…the light. “The message of the sun,” Flavius says, “that all men are brothers, was kept from us.” (Tough luck, sisters!) A more obvious clue comes from a Roman guard who calls the refugees “fish.” Oh, if only a fisher of men would come along! Even at episode’s end, Spock is confused by the sun worshipers who are clearly out of context with the Romans: “Sun worship is usually a primitive superstition religion.” (Aren’t they all?) Uhura has been monitoring radio broadcasts during the entire adventure, and if that’s anything like our own talk radio, she has certainly gotten an earful. She is able to clear up the confusion, however: they’re not worshiping the sun, but the son! They’re Christians, because what are Romans without Christians to persecute? They certainly have the narcissism of Christians: “There are no other worlds,” Septimus says. The stars are “lights shining through from heaven.” This is not the first time TOS has forced an awkward religious detour into an episode, and it’s not clear if this reflects the true beliefs of the show’s writers and producers or if they were pandering to the network. It can’t be a coincidence that the missing vessel’s name comes from the HMS Beagle of Charles Darwin‘s famous voyage.
“Bread and Circuses” has a lot of potential. The episode is spot on in criticizing both the business of television and all of us for being so dependent on it. We’ve seen what happens when the Prime Directive is ignored, but here we have an interesting twist: a failed attempt, misguided as it might be, to observe the Directive. A small group of peace-seekers forced to defend themselves against a monolithic empire is a classic theme with never-ending potential for conflict. Septimus is an intriguing character but he gets too little screen time. An interesting dynamic connects the other characters, but they’re not developed sufficiently while the episode wastes too much time on comic relief with Spock and McCoy. Merik dies in the end, but some of his former crew are still on the planet; the Enterprise departs with no regard for them. And in its determination to rely almost entirely on 20th century earth parallels, “Bread and Circuses” is guilty of the same navel-gazing as the ratings-obsessed Romans. If intelligent life exists elsewhere in the galaxy, it’s a virtual certainty they will be very different from us. A crew assigned to seek out new civilizations should be as bored with the earth-like repetition as we are. We can reasonably take pride in our distinctiveness without becoming so narcissistic that we close our minds. Otherwise, we will have forgotten the entire purpose of our mission.
Next: Assignment: Earth