Stardate: 4040.7 (2268)
Original Air Date: March 15, 1968
Writer: Gene Roddenberry/Gene L. Coon
Director: Ralph Senensky
“Slaves and gladiators… what are we looking at? Twentieth Century Rome?”
Appropriately airing on the “Ides of March,” the Enterprise encounters space debris from a missing ship, the survey vessel S.S. Beagle, which has been missing for six years. Enterprise sensors pick up portions of the antimatter nacelles, personal belongings, but no signs of bodies. The S.S. Beagle was a small class-4 survey vessel with a crew of 47, commanded by R.M. Merik (William Smithers), a man Kirk whom once knew during his Academy days. However, Merik was dropped in his fifth year at the Academy so he entered the Merchant Service. The Enterprise traces the path of the Beagle’s debris which leads to a Class-M planet that Chekov notes is “somewhat similar to Earth” within “System 892.”
This planet is moderately industrialized, not yet nuclear, and it has a variety of advanced cities. In fact, it is a mirror of 20th century Earth with one caveat –it is ruled by Imperial Rome. In the hopes of discovering the survivors of the Beagle, Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy all beam down to a remote section of the planet’s surface (i.e. not a city). However, they are quickly accosted by a group of warriors hiding in the rocks who are concerned if the Enterprise crewmen are some new brand of Praetorian guard. The landing party is captured and prevented from beaming back up to the Enterprise as a result of the Prime Directive, they are led away by the warrior leader Flavius Maximus (Rhodes Reason) who guides them to a cave-dwelling populated by runaway Roman slaves. The Enterprise crewmen are interrogated and asked if they are slaves or children of the sun, to which Kirk responds that they hail from another Province and that their ship is away at sea. The ex-slaves grow to trust Kirk.
“May the blessings of the sun be upon you.”
We learn that Flavius Maximus was once the most successful gladiator for seven years until he escapes and heard the “words of the sun” –a strange religious cult practiced by these cave-dwellers. Flavius is strikingly similar to a Ben-Hur character (imagine if they had gotten Charlton Heston to play the role?) Slavery has always existed within this empire, but it has evolved over time so that slaves are treated with a modicum of dignity –they are granted housing, healthcare, and old-age pensions. At any rate, while out with Flavius one day, the whole band of “barbarians” is arrested by a group of Praetorian guards and they are imprisoned while Flavius is led away to fight in the arena.
Kirk, Spock, and Bones attempt to break out of prison and they immediately are confronted by none other than Merik, the missing leader of the Beagle. He tells Kirk that a meteor shower stranded him on this planet where he met the Roman Proconsul Claudius Marcus who explained that this conservative empire should not be “contaminated” by outside knowledge. Thus, they made a pact to keep the truth of the Beagle a secret. Merik explains that only his crewmen who have adjusted to this imperial world have survived, and the rest died in the gladiatorial games. The Proconsul Claudius Marcus (Logan Ramsey) demands that Kirk send down the rest of his crew to also serve as fodder for the games, but Kirk refuses. Only at gunpoint does he communicate with Scotty, and duing the course of their exchange Kirk says the condition is “Green” (which secretly means that the situation is dangerous). Shortly thereafter, Spock and Bones are set to fight in the arena, battling Achilles and Flavius in what is actually a makeshift television set studio designed to look like an ancient Roman coliseum complete with fake applause, cheers, and boos. Cue Gerald Fried’s classic fight music. Naturally, Spock gains the upper hand by defeating his opponent and using the Vulcan Nerve Pinch on Bones’s interlocuter.
After their gladiatorial victory, Spock and Bones are returned to prison, while Kirk is led back to the Proconsul’s quarters where a scantily clad slave named Drusilla (Lois Jewell) awaits him. She says she has been ordered to please Kirk as his slave and they embrace as the camera pans away… Later, the Proconsul arrives and claims that a communicator device has disappeared. He promises that Kirk will have a quick and easy death, and Kirk is then led away to the arena where he will battle several men, but just then the Enterprise shuts down the city’s power which leads to a battle royale. At the last moment, Merik is revealed to be the communicator thief as he orders “three to beam up” before being stabbed to death by the Proconsul.
The episode ends in a ridiculous eye roll as “Sun worship” is actually revealed to be “Son worship” or a misnomer for the early development of Christianity –the slaves were actually early Christians. Thus, concludes this mixed bag of an adventure.
My Thoughts on “Bread and Circuses”
Around this point, Star Trek was on the verge of cancellation. “Bread and Circuses” was actually an earlier Season 2 episode according to production order, though it was pushed back to the penultimate episode of Season 2 (hence why Gene Coon was still involved). With the show’s demise on the horizon, “Bread and Circuses” still offers a laughingly funny satire of network television. Citizens live in a neo-Roman Empire and eagerly watch gladiators battle to the death on television in a series of increasingly shocking and farcical spectacles. Consider the funniest line from the episode in my view: “You bring this network’s ratings down, Flavius, and we’ll do a special on you!” The jabs at network television are replete throughout this episode, after all the Enterprise is “centuries beyond anything as crude as television!”
This is also another Prime Directive episode. In some ways, an argument could be made that a violation of the Prime Directive would be justified in this situation, not unlike the situation on Neural in “A Private Little War.” Regardless, it poses an interesting question: what if Rome never fell? What might the world look like after centuries of Roman rule? In some ways it reminds me of science fiction alternative histories, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Despite the fact that this was yet another tired “parallel earth” narrative in TOS, I thought there were at least some interesting threads worth exploring, particularly the once-mentioned “Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development.” I wonder to what extent this theory implies not only to Rome but also Christianity –will it develop in a similar fashion to earth? And, therefore, will a futuristic Emperor Constantine ever arrive and elevate the status of enslaved Christians? Will Rome then collapse as Edward Gibbon suggests? Will other empires and religions necessarily emerge, as well? Or instead, as an optimistic show about the future of humanity, will the Federation ever attempt to make contact with the rulers of this Roman planet to improve their situation? I suppose these are far too speculative questions, but this was still an amusing adventure.
Producer Gene L. Coon wrote several drafts of this script idea that Gene Roddenberry then heavily revised and it was put into a teleplay by playwright and television writer John Kneubuhl (1990-1992), though he was uncredited in the final episode. This was the only episode of Star Trek he was involved with.
This was the third episode directed by Ralph Senensky (1923-Present). It was the first episode completed after Paramount acquired Desilu Productions (Lucille Ball’s company). Gene Roddenberry was apparently revising the script as it was being filmed leading to some havoc behind the scenes.
Star Trek Trivia:
- The title for this episode is appropriately taken from Juvenal. “Panem et circenses” referred to the practice in ancient Rome of providing bread/grain and bloodthirsty entertainment to the lower classes in exchange for preventing civil unrest.
- Hodgkin’s Law of parallel planetary development is invoked in this episode, referring to a parallel planet to earth wherein Rome never actually fell by the time the 20th century arrived.
- The cave sets used in this episode were popularly used in a variety of other programs, including as the Bat Cave in the original Batman show, as well as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
- During production of this episode, new producer John Meredyth Lucas briefly visited the set and noted how tense the atmosphere was –all the actors despised each other and some went out of their way not to speak to Gene Roddenberry.
- Interestingly enough, Proconsul Marcus’s insignia used in this episode was not written in Latin/Roman at all (even though these Romans speak English). In fact, it was the coat of arms of English playwright William Shakespeare.
- Many of the Roman costumes were borrowed from other productions, particularly some of Cecil B. DeMille’s epics.
- Spock discusses the casualties of the three world wars in this episode –he claims six million died in WWI, eleven million in WWII, and thirty-seven million in WWIII (the actual casualty numbers for the first two world wars were significantly higher).
- Apparently in later Treklore (the Autobiography of James T. Kirk), there is a continuation story wherein the slave girl Drusilla gives birth to Kirk’s son named Eugino.
- Ironically, this episode was released on March 15 otherwise known as the “Ides of March,” when Julius Caesar was assassinated.
- Regarding the Prime Directive, it was previously established in “The Omega Glory” that a captain and his crew would rather lay down their lives rather than violate their oath to the Prime Directive. In “Bread and Circuses,” Kirk gives a succinct definition of the Prime Directive as follows, the Prime Directive means there is “no identification of self or mission; no interference with the social development of said planet; no references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.”
Strangely this was the last classic Star Trek episode I saw at some point after seeing all the others. I found it somehow discomforting at first but came to appreciate it more over time. In reference to a vision that Philip K Dick had, supposedly under the influence of novocaine, that we’re all still living in Ancient Rome within the disguises of contemporary reality, it’s interesting how Bread & Circuses can qualify as an alternate reality for our world. Agreeably this was the best point for all the Earth parallel episodes in classic Trek to stop. So maybe it’s fitting that I had finally got round to this one so late. Thanks for your review and trivia.
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