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Bread and Circuses

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at June 16, 2006 - 8:33 PM GMT

See Also: 'Bread and Circuses' Episode Guide

Summary: When the Enterprise finds the wreckage of the S.S. Beagle orbiting near an uncharted planet, Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to look for survivors. They discover a civilization where the values of ancient Rome have survived into the planet's equivalent of its 20th century, where gladiatorial games are beamed around the world via television and wealthy proconsuls still keep slaves. The landing party is captured by a group of former slaves who teach that all men are brothers, but when they convince the group's leader to help them find Captain Merik - now First Citizen Merikus - they are taken prisoner. Kirk refuses to beam down his crew for arena games, so first Spock and McCoy and then Kirk are put into the arena. Scotty, who is under orders not to interfere directly, creates a blackout that allows the landing party to escape and Merik sacrifices his life to have Kirk and his men beamed to safety.

Analysis: I had better admit from the start that "Bread and Circuses" is one of my favorite guilty-pleasure episodes - that is, episodes that aren't perfectly constructed or consistent, yet have scenes that are so good that I couldn't care less. And this one has so many: McCoy announcing that he always wanted to play God on a primitive planet, Spock trying to break out of the jail cell while McCoy first tries to thank him, then reveals that he can see right through him, Scotty saving the day while preserving the Prime Directive which is finally spelled out, though that creates more confusion than it solves because we never really hear about what sort of oaths merchant captains from the Federation are required to uphold, unlike Starfleet officers...

Well, that requires getting into the whole macho one-upsmanship of the episode in which Merik, found unfit in a psych exam to be a starship captain, faces off against Kirk. Not that there's ever any competition. "Bread and Circuses" mythologizes masculinity nearly as much as it does Christianity, which we are led to believe became dominant on Earth not by decree of an emperor but because, to quote Flavius, "There is only one true belief!" (A belief, one notes, that Flavius is willing to kill for, despite the ostensible non-violent preaching of the Son he worships.)

The proconsul repeatedly denigrates Merik as a man, even though he lives the same comfortable life at the expense of others; it's easy to see why Kirk finds Merik despicable, but how does Claudius presume? This is a society that worships martial skill, an exclusively masculine province - the only women visible at all are pleasure slaves in the city and caretakers in the background of the fledgling Christian community. The head centurion declares approvingly, "You'll fight!" when Flavius declares that he has put those days behind him. No one precisely roots for Spock to kill his adversary in the arena, but he receives approval and enthusiasm as he tries to hold back from injuring his opponent while McCoy is scorned even by Flavius for being untrained to defend himself.

Kirk is granted some last hours as a man by Claudius, which means surrendering to the charms of a slave girl who likely has never been told that she can say no - and what a different episode this might have been if Kirk had spent those hours not making love but talking to her, or having her steal the communicator that Claudius assumed Kirk had demanded. But true to form, Kirk can no more refuse a beautiful woman than he can order his crew to beam down to their deaths -- the Prime Directive remarkably silent on this sort of incursion, I suppose. Kirk ostensibly despises Claudius and Merik and their society, yet it's clear from this scene that he's quite capable of appreciating the perks of their positions, and Spock has already pointed out that this modern Rome has escaped the carnage of Earth's world wars and has a very orderly, logical, if oppressive society.

It's McCoy - a guy whose macho credentials are decidedly lacking by comparison to the others - who redeems this episode. He refuses to buy into either Spock's relativism or Kirk's ability to grin and bear it; he makes the attempt to fight when he has to, defies Claudius to his face when he wants to and sees right through Spock, the most masculine of the powerful, well-trained, self-controlled, emotion-repressing guys of this new Rome and Starfleet alike. The scene between them in the prison cell may be the most perfect in any episode of Star Trek. Feeling defensive about his need to thank Spock for saving his life in the arena, McCoy starts off the conversation by asking whether Spock is angry or frustrated as the tests the strength of the door for the fifteenth time. Then he acknowledges that even their most passionate disagreements may perhaps be jokes, and when Spock rushes him, promptly resorts to one: "I'm trying to thank you, you pointed-eared hobgoblin!"

But Spock is feeling far more defensive than McCoy. He gives him the full condescending response, insulting human emotion, McCoy's profession, the doctor's lack of logic...until McCoy finally can't take it, grabbing Spock and declaring, "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…why, you wouldn't know what to do with a genuine warm, decent feeling." And when Spock refuses to dignify this with more of a response than, "Really, Doctor?", McCoy proclaims, "I know. I'm worried about Jim, too."

That's what this episode is really about - the relationship between these three Starfleet officers, not the inexplicable parallel Earth or the unexplained destruction of the SS Beagle or Merik's selfish, stupid decisions that cost the lives of many of his crew. It's certainly not about the Prime Directive in the 23rd century nor the rise of Christianity in Rome, given the extreme mythology in which both of these are wrapped. And it's not about violence on television, athletes contracted to marketing concerns or any of the issues it barely touches upon. If Kirk had beamed down with Redshirt A and Redshirt B who ended up in the arena, this would be an entirely different episode, a well-paced but gratuitous parallel Earth story with gladiators, good pacing and Scotty saving the day. Instead it's McCoy's insight, rather than the script's blather, that brings home the point about what the world would be like if all men were truly brothers.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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