Star Trek Re-Watch: “Bread and Circuses”

“Bread and Circuses”
Written by Gene Roddenberry & Gene L. Coon
Directed by Ralph Senensky

Season 2, Episode 25
Production episode: 2×14
Original air date: March 15, 1968
Star date: 4040.7

Mission Summary:

Enterprise finds the debris of the S.S. Beagle, a merchant ship, but no human remains. A nearby planet might have survivors, and the Enterprise intercepts a broadcast “once called video” (even though they’ve seen video before as recently as in “Patterns of Force,” but nevermind…). It’s a news program:

VOICEOVER: Today police rounded up still another group of dissidents. Authorities are as yet unable to explain these fresh outbreaks of treasonable disobedience by well-treated, well-protected, intelligent slaves. Now turning to the world of sports and bringing you the taped results of the arena games last night.

They watch a gladiator fight before the transmission cuts out. Spock identifies one of the gladiators as a flight officer aboard the Beagle.

KIRK: Slaves and gladiators. What are we seeing, a twentieth-century Rome?

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to the surface and and are immediately taken prisoner by a bunch of scruffy-looking guys wearing sweatshirts and sandals, like some kind of post-apocalyptic runners’ club. They are escaped slaves who identify themselves as Sun-Worshipers (which Spock thinks is weird, based on his knowledge that the Romans did not have sun-worshipers1). One of them, Septimus, fills our heroes in on the fate of Captain Merik of the SS Beagle. His post-merchant ship career seems to have taken off, and now he’s First Citizen, or Grand Douchenozzle in charge of the arena games that have been killing off the other crew members of his old ship (not to mention countless petty criminals and slaves). Septimus warns Kirk not to go into the city, but you know he’s going to be all noble and stuff so he does anyway. Septimus sends his buddy Flavius, a former gladiator, as tour guide.

They are again immediately captured, this time by the Romans, and thrown into some jail cells. Kirk demands to speak to “Merikus” (everclay, ightray?) and while the guards are gone, Flavius explains that the “word of the Sun” was kept from his people, and that’s why they’ve become subservient and acquiescing to the centuries-long loss of their rights and freedoms. GET IT? If you don’t, that’s okay, they’ll spell it out a few more times.

When the guard returns, Kirk and the others overcome their captors—only to be caught again by a huge group of soldiers, Merik among them. His Grand Douchiness introduces the Proconsul, Claudius Marcus2, and leads them away to a private conference room for a reunion. He says that Claudius Marcus knows who and what they are, which is never good news for the Prime Directive.

They are taken to a nice meal of sparrow broiled in garum3 and roast kid, presented by a blonde slavegirl. Merik explains that his ship was hit by meteors and he and a landing party beamed down to search for iridium ore. That’s how he met Claudius Marcus:

MERIK: He convinced me it would be unfair to this world to carry word of their existence elsewhere.
CLAUDIUS: Contamination. Can’t risk that. Oh, you’ll understand as you learn more about us.
MERIK: So I made the decision to stay.
KIRK: What happened to your crew? Did they voluntarily beam, come ashore?
MERIK: This is an ordered world, Jim, a conservative world based on time-honored Roman strengths and virtues.
KIRK: What happened to your crew?
MERIK: There’s been no war here for over four hundred years, Jim. Could let’s say, your land of that same era make that same boast? I think you can see why they don’t want to have their stability contaminated by dangerous ideas of other ways and other places.

Uh-oh! Sounds like John Gill all over again… Claudius Marcus, however, is not interested in exposition: he demands that Kirk beam his crew down a few at a time. He knows Kirk’s ship could kill them all, but he also knows the Prime Directive prohibits them from interfering. (Clearly he hasn’t been watching the show enough to know how, erm, flexible, that Prime Directive can be.) Kirk reluctantly hails Scotty… but only tells him that it’s “Condition Green.” Furious, Claudius orders the three of them to be taken to the arena to fight for their lives.

Back on Enterprise, Scotty reveals that “Condition Green” is code for “Totally Boned,” but that it also prohibits him from interfering at all. Well, maybe he can interfere just a teeny weeny bit…

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are taken to the arena—a painted TV studio! Let the thinly-veiled indictment of TV begin! Kirk is forced to watch as Spock and McCoy battle an unwilling Flavius and some guy named Achilles for the show Name the Winner (guess how it works?). As they fight, an engineer uses dials labeled “Applause,” “Cheers,” “Boos,” and “Cat-calls” to choreograph the fight.

MASTER: Fight, you two. You bring this network’s ratings down, Flavius, and we’ll do a special on you!

Claudius Marcus and Merik both try to convince Kirk to give in and order his crew to beam down, but he seems pretty confident in Spock and McCoy’s ability to fend off the enemy. (Well, okay. Maybe just Spock’s.) Our brave gladiators are, in fact, made of complete awesome—this fight is amazing and I highly recommend watching it even if you don’t get a chance to watch much more of the episode. Their verbal sparring is top-notch. Anyway, Spock manages to punch Achilles and then nerve-pinch Flavius. Kirk refuses to give in so the victorious Spock and McCoy are dragged back to their cells.

Kirk is taken to his room. The curtain is pulled back by the slavegirl from the earlier scene! Her name is Drusilla and she likes serving food and satisfying powerful men with some hanky-panky.

Back at the ranch jail cell, McCoy is trying his best to thank Spock for saving his life, but Spock callously disregards his gratitude as yet another pitiful human emotion. In one of the most insightful bits of character revelation so far, McCoy snaps back:

MCCOY: Do you know why you’re not afraid to die, Spock? You’re more afraid of living. Each day you stay alive is just one more day you might slip and let your human half peek out. That’s it, isn’t it? Insecurity. Why, you wouldn’t know what to do with a genuine, warm, decent feeling.
SPOCK: Really, Doctor?

McCoy looks at him with understanding.

MCCOY: I know. I’m worried about Jim, too.

Wow. That nearly brought a tear to my eye. Turns out Kirk is doing JUST FINE with hanky-panky slavegirl, but it’s the thought that counts. In possibly the most ridiculous bit of the whole episode, Kirk in his room kisses Drusilla and the camera literally pans to the fire.

Later, Claudius Marcus returns and explains that he wanted to give Kirk the decency of feeling like a man one last time before he goes to die. Kirk is appreciative, and allows himself to be escorted to the TV studio. He’s thrown into the arena with a Roman, who offers a “quick, single thrust” (didn’t he get something like that just a few hours ago?) and an easy death. Kirk stands still, but Flavius rushes into the arena to take out the Roman! Unfortunately, both he and the random executioner are then taken out by machine guns.

Kind of ups the ante on Survivor, eh?

At that moment, Scotty cues Chekov to activate a radio interruption beam, cutting off TV broadcasting. Kirk uses that chance to escape, and runs to McCoy and Spock’s cell, shooting out the lock because guns solve everything. They are then caught again at the last minute, with guards on either side. Since the guards would only crossfire each other, Claudius Marcus orders swords only.

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy quickly dispatch the men, but Merik has a change of heart: he opens Kirk’s communicator and hails Enterprise, telling them to lock on his position and prepare for three to beam up. Claudius Marcus stabs him in the back. Merik falls to the ground, but tosses the communicator to Kirk just in time for the three of them to beam up in a hail of gunfire.

Safely ensconced back on the bridge, Spock laments never learning more about the sun-worshipers. And for once, Uhura jumps in and is a real communications officer:

UHURA: I’ve been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves, the Empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion. But he couldn’t. Don’t you understand? It’s not the sun up in the sky. It’s the Son of God.
KIRK: Caesar and Christ. They had them both. And the word is spreading only now.
MCCOY: A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood.
SPOCK: It will replace their imperial Rome, but it will happen in their twentieth century.
KIRK: Wouldn’t it be something to watch, to be a part of? To see it happen all over again?

Um… no. And thank god the network agrees, because that’s curtain on this episode.

1 This is untrue. Many Romans worshiped the Greek god Helios (or Apollo), and there was an entire religious festival (dies natalis solis invicti, or just sol invicti, “Unconquered Sun”) around sun-worship on either the solstice or equinox, we’re not sure. Emperor Aurelius in particular was heavily invested in the cult. Spock needs to read up on his history!

2 Upper-class Romans had at least three names: the praenomen (given name), nomen (family clan), and at least one or sometimes more cognomen (family name). Our friend Caesar was actually Gaius Julius Caesar (until he was deified, but let’s not worry about that right now…). Claudius Marcus is probably his praenomen and nomen. Slaves only had one name. Good job, ST.

3 Garum is real. It’s fermented fish guts, left to rot with some salt in the sun. Think of it as the ketchup of Ancient Rome. You can still buy it in some places! Yum.Good job again, ST. Points off for them not reclining while they eat, though. And where the hell are the tunics??


I knew from the title that this was “the Roman one,” but the lack of tunics, togas, reclining benches, and underutilization of recycled Paramount uniforms kind of threw me for a loop. The weird potato sack costumes never would have tipped me off that this was supposed to be Roman. Guess I’ll have to wait for “Plato’s Stepchildren.”

The plot is nonsensical (another mysteriously totally parallel world? Really?), the moral is, well, moralizing, and the history is terrible, but there are some really great moments in this episode. For one, we get the first complete statement of the Prime Directive: “No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, or the fact that there are other worlds, or more advanced civilizations.” That’s pretty damn cool, and long overdue. We also hear about Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planet Development, which is almost as stupidly convenient a way to explain all these parallel worlds as TNG’s stab at it in “The Chase” (in which we get the theory that all sentient life is from seeds planted by some ancient humanoid race, and we’re all related to the same ancestor). So as far as Star Trek canon information goes, “Bread and Circuses” is amazing.

Then there are the McCoy and Spock scenes, obviously Gene Roddenberry bits, that make this episode shine. Spock and McCoy arguing while they fight the Romans in the arena actually had me laughing out loud. I generally don’t like it when characters say exactly what they’re thinking, but the jail scene between the two of them is sincerely touching. They finally confront the issue central to their little love triangle: Kirk. No matter their differences, they respect one another, and they both love and respect their friend, and that will always unite them. It is really sweet.

I’m not going to nitpick the history, mostly because if this episode was interested in any history it was interested in movie history. “Bread and Circuses” is a classic example of the Christian-themed Roman movies so popular in the first half of the century, from The Last Days of Pompeii to Ben-Hur (with my personal favorite, Quo Vadis?, in between). It argues that Rome fell because the empire was incompatible with the notions of peace and brotherhood espoused by Jesus’ followers, and that with more effective religious suppression Rome could have remained an empire for centuries more. This is, to put it gently, incomplete, but it’s the film narrative that I assume audiences at the time would have been familiar with and I don’t fault the episode for adopting it here (even if I do resent it a little in 2010). That said, it’s more moralizing than any of the movies I mentioned. Where does all this religiosity come from? The network?

Irritating lingering thought: what the hell happened to the slavegirl? So Kirk sleeps with her and… that’s the end of that plotline?

I would’ve given it a 4.5, if not for half-warps being illegal. It’s a solid episode, but I suspect that in the long run it’ll be relatively unmemorable.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 4 (on a scale of 1-6)

Eugene Myers: I remembered “Bread and Circuses” far more kindly than it deserves. I’ve always been interested in Roman culture, and it was actually my Latin teacher in junior high who introduced me to Star Trek (via The Undiscovered Country). He loved this one for some reason, and at the time so did I. But the moment the words “Children of the Son” were uttered, I suddenly recalled the “twist” ending and knew the episode wasn’t going to hold up. Since I knew the reveal, the Christian references seemed obvious to me, from calling the slaves “fishes” to the constant talk of brotherhood and peace. Uhura’s explanation and Kirk’s excitement at the delayed emergence of Christianity in this new world simply made me groan, though I was glad the communications officer managed to show up her superior officers for once. I’m also confused as to why they all think this is such a positive development in the planet’s history, considering how much strife resulted in Earth’s past.

I had somehow forgotten all about the twentieth century setting, which is kind of the whole point of the thing, such as it is. Back when I first saw this episode, reality television was mostly defined by game shows like American Gladiators, but this time I found the televised fights on Empire TV—complete with audience participation and concerns over ratings—eerily prescient when compared to the current broadcast landscape. The idea was certainly ahead of its time, and may even have been a shocking notion for 1960s audiences.

The plot barely hangs together, particularly Claudius giving the captain the use of a slave woman (so he might spend his last hours “as a man”) to Merik’s last minute, unjustified change of heart. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are imprisoned, enslaved, and forced to fight (as usual), and don’t actually manage to accomplish anything useful on the planet at all except their capture and eventual escape. It’s as though someone said, “Hey, what if Rome never fell?” and that’s as far as they took it; this might as well be an episode of Sliders. Scotty’s distraction is clever at least, but I wondered why they weren’t monitoring video feeds on the planet the way Uhura listened to radio broadcasts. It would have saved them all a lot of trouble when they saw Spock and McCoy in the arena!

Ultimately, I was just disappointed and mildly bored throughout the episode. Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planet Development still comes off as a lazy conceit (They speak English? Really? Not even Latin?), and the concerns over cultural contamination and the Prime Directive were muddled—in order to prevent outside interference, Merik decided to stay there? I didn’t see how Merik could command so much as a garbage scow after washing out of the Academy. They mention the S.S. Beagle is a merchant ship, but it was performing a survey of the system and the crew wore Starfleet uniforms? Are they supposed to follow the Prime Directive too?

What a shame that no one ever uses Kirk’s middle name Tiberius, especially in light of Claudius’s comment, “You’re a Roman, Kirk, or you should have been.” Though that doesn’t make any sense either.

Eugene’s Rating:Warp 3

Best Line: MCCOY: “Once, just once, I’d like to be able to land someplace and say, ‘Behold, I am the Archangel Gabriel!’”

Syndication Edits: None officially, as this episode was kind of forgotten under a pile of tapes and never officially cut. However, the exchange between McCoy and Spock in the jail cell (you know the one) was often frequently cut out by the stations themselves.

Trivia: First, location trivia: the Children of the Sun/Son live in the Batcave! Those caves are beneath the HOLLYWOOD sign, and were one of the most-used locations in ’60s television. The Roman capital is actually the Great Dome at MIT (just like…Rome?). And finally, when Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Flavius are thrown in jail the first time around, the outside of the building is a classical-looking colonnade with “HONNEUR ET PATRIE” emblazoned on the top. This is French, not Latin, and it’s the Legion of Honor on the Left Bank in Paris.

The Proconsul’s insignia isn’t Roman, it’s actually the coat of arms of Shakespeare. Not sure what to make of that…

Ian Wolfe, who played Septimus, was Mr. Atoz in “All Our Yesterdays.”

Other Notes: The script was adapted from a version by John Kneubuhl, a playwright and television writer for shows like Thriller, The Wild Wild West and Hawaii Five-O. One draft had Spock suffer from Vulcan appendicitis; another had Kirk reveal his mission to Septimus, thus violating the Prime Directive; and in one draft, the arena doctors (morticians?) were eager to study Spock’s alien physiology.

Previous Episode: Season 2, Episode 25 – “The Ultimate Computer

Next Episode: Season 2, Episode 26 – “Assignment: Earth.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Torie Atkinson & Eugene Myers

TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books. EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young adult fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is available now from Pyr.