Captain's Blog pt. 86: Bread and Circuses

On March 15, 1968, a day before My Lai and wedged between Tarzan and Hollywood Squares, NBC aired

Title: (2) From the wiki: "Its name is a reference to the phrase "bread and circuses" taken from the Satire X written by Juvenal. In modern usage, the phrase implies a populace that no longer values civic virtues, the public life, and military (manly) service; instead, the people need only food and entertainment."

Which is all well and good, but is it the greatest fit for this particular story? It describes the Magna Roman society, sure, and maybe it's a commentary on 1960s America. Let's just see how it all shakes out.

Given their similarity of theme and plot, it was either this one or "Patterns of Force" for my Desert Island Top 50. I chose this one over "Patterns" partly for the reason given elsewhere - I think I'd get more of a kick out of being reunited with Nazi Planet Trek Episode once rescued from said scenario than I would out of Roman Planet Trek Episode - but also because "Bread and Circuses" is more visually unique. I can think of at least a dozen (probably a hundred) non-WW2 shows where there are Third Reich uniforms; how many Romans with sub-machine guns episodes can you name?

Let's let the screencaps take us out of spacedock.

In a world...

Script and Theme: (5 / 5) I always remember this one a bit more fondly than it deserves. A re-watch quickly confirms, every time, that both the set-up and its execution are kind of shoddy. And as initially cool as Romans on TV with sub-machine guns seems, it's fatally undermined by the Children of the Sun business. I think the script needs something like the Children of the Sun; I'm just not sure the metaphor and how it all fits together is really all that good. I'll save most of that for Internal Logistics, though.

How is the script? It's okay. The cast deals with a silly situation more or less credibly. Everyone gets some fun character moments.

It all follows a predictable enough throughline.

Everything about the Magna Romans * is fairly ridiculous. I'm always amused when some remote point in history is chosen as a system restore point and then, when life is imagined as it would be "now" in such a world, it of course resembles the remote point from which it's drawn. One can't be expected to plot out two thousand years of anthropology and cultural background everytime you want to tell a story about 1960s people in space (in 51 minutes) of course. I'm just saying: the center around which the story revolves does not hold. It's like these "What if the Confederacy won the War Between the States?" imaginings which have the United States practicing the same sort of race-based slavery in 2013 that was already anachronistic in the mid-19th century.

But it's a fun send-up of television and its relation to conquest and fascism at least.

"Empire TV" is fantastic.
* That's what they're called in Treklopedias after-the-fact at any rate. They're not given a name in-episode, except that the planet is 892-IV. So, I guess I should them the 892-IV-ians, but... you can't make me.

Some people cite the Bones/ Spock stuff while imprisoned as one of the episode's strengths. But McCoy's launching into Spock the way he does never really makes sense. It's so obviously contrived to contrast the two. Even if you allow for McCoy as the emotional foil for Spock's stoicism, what point is he even pursuing here?

He's just being a dick.
Spock is unimpressed.

(Incidentally, I don't think what Kirk is doing, above, would result in anything but all three of them getting riddled with ricochet fire.)

At any rate, it's revealed that McCoy's just riding Spock because he's worried about the Captain's fate. The explanation doesn't quite match the intensity of his inappropriateness, but hey, Bones has gotta be Bones. As for what the Captain's doing:

"They threw me a few curves."
"At the first sign of pain, you will tell me."
Visual Design: (3) Luckily, it's one of the more visually memorable episodes. A lot is done with just a little.

Kirk and the Gang: (20) Sure, it looks like the main cast is auditioning for Sid Caesar in Grease,

(a detail which makes me chuckle, given Sid's last name) and the swords and shields look a little flimsy. But who cares? The artificiality of the Roman landscape is deliberate after all. Points are being made about the artificiality of television; this episode looks ahead rather embarrassingly to our age of Reality TV. Not so much in content (though gladiatorial celebrity fights would not only fit snugly in contemporary programming but also might do society some good; thin the herd a bit, and let us watch please) but in using artificial imagery to control the masses. Bread and circuses indeed.

Kirk gets to indulge his "Taste of Armageddon" persona with Claudius.
Internal Logistics: (-5) Okay, so leaving aside the wrinkles in the planet's history, the "parallel development" business and the intense Prime Directive confusion,  there's the whole "the rebels don't worship the Sun; they worship the Son (of God)" idea.

Run that by me again, Lieutenant?
Oh... I did hear you correctly.
It'd have been nice for Spock to at least have raised a "OMG, these humans" eyebrow, but instead Kirk gives some kind of "God bless us, everyone" wrap-up. It's just ill-considered. Maybe if it was "A Very Trek Christmas" episode, but it isn't. No. No no no. A thousand times no. I'll accept Comms and Yangs and the same calligraphy on the parchment of an alien Constitution before I accept this.

(Hey, I just realized this episode aired on the Ides of March; that's kind of cool.)

Still, something I never noticed before (somehow:) nice use of lens flare (pre-Easy Rider; Dennis Hopper always claimed he was the first person to ever use lens flare deliberately, but this episode is one of many examples that put that already-dubious-considering-the-source claim to rest) to call attention to the sun in this shot, which lasts for a good ten seconds or so, as everyone walks under it.

Nice foreshadowing, even if I don't care for what's being foreshadowed.
I suppose there's something to be said for "If you're going to go for Parallel Development, go all the way." In that case, I'm sure if the Enterprise had investigated a different part of the planet, they'd have been knee deep in the Han Dynasty or the Mayans or the Satavahana Empire. Strange that the Genes (who were hardly churchgoing men or who believed in the manifest destiny of Christianity) ended things on this note. But perhaps it was the sort of covering fire they thought they needed to employ to make their points about Empire TV. If so, they might have given a little more thought to this, as it buggers the imagination that a world that sustained the Roman emperors for two thousand years would also sustain an underground cult opposed to it for the same period of time.

Guest: (2.5)
Claudius is played by Logan Ramsey. Everytime I saw him this last re-watch I thought of Ortho from Beetlejuice:
He has a memorable role in the Monkees acid classic Head.
Captain Merrick - the most incompetent Starfleet Captain this side of John Harriman - is, of course, someone Kirk knew back at the Academy. He's played by William Smithers.
"You're a very able man, Mr. Atoz!"
With a name like Rhodes Reason, it's a shame he never took over the world. Sounds like he should be a Wide Receiver in the NFL, actually.
Memorability: (3) Definitely one of those episodes that my critical mind takes apart while watching, then I self-erase this process so I can watch it all over again the next time it comes around. Ya pointy-eared hobgoblin.

Total Points Awarded: 35.5


  1. This is a great review, and yet all I want to do is talk about that Kiss song you linked to. I'll restrain that urge, but I can't help pointing out that (A) it kicks ass and (B) it is a blatant Van Halen ripoff and (C) I probably haven't heard it in twenty years. Well done!

    As for the episode, I agree with pretty much everything you say about it here. Except that the whole "son of God" thing doesn't bother me as much as it bothers you. The whole parallel cultural evolution idea is ridiculous, BUT...I can buy into it for just long enough to enjoy the episode, and if I can buy into a little of it, then I can buy into all of it.

    I agree that it is a little surprising coming from the Genes. Maybe that can be rationalized away, though, by assuming they were playing a sort of reverse-psychology game. By placing that message at the end of an episode that, in some ways, is utterly ridiculous, maybe they thought people would subconsciously -- or consciously -- think of this idea as being ridiculous, too.

    Or maybe they were hoping people would remember "Who Mourns for Adonais?" and put two and two together in that way.

    Pondering their motivations actually helps make the episode a little more intriguing than it might otherwise have been.

    1. Thank you - happy you enjoyed.

      And very happy someone clicked on that link to hear the Kiss song. I try and put these easter egg sort of things in every so often, and that one cracked me up.

  2. I dug this episode a lot. Uhura's reasoning at the end is a little specious, but that doesn't ruin it for me. I just got done reviewing Stephen King's The Running Man and had the notion of "Bread and Circuses" as I read it.

    This episode, however, reveals my chief complaint about how the character of McCoy was sometimes written. Maybe it was deliberate to inject a little racism into a "southern" character in the 1960s. But I always believed McCoy to be a noble, if sometimes flawed character. But the racism he demonstrated in this episode was just over the top.

    1. That complaint about McCoy is very fair. I've got a friend who wouldn't pee on Bones to put him out if he was on fire. She hates him THAT much.

      As for me, I choose to believe that McCoy is goading Spock because he figures one of two things to be the case: (1) Spock actually IS free of emotion, in which case nothing McCoy says can possibly hurt his (nonexistent) feelings; or (2) Spock is being a bit disingenuous about his supposed lack of emotion, and McCoy is simply trying to goad him into being more of the human he halfway is.

      But that's just me reading into things.