In the twenty-fifth and penultimate episode of the second season of Star Trek, I don’t think there’s a way to properly describe this. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For talk of slavery, sexism/objectification of women
Holy shit, what? This episode toes the line between brilliance and utter confusion, sometimes just from one scene to the next, and it’s all built on a premise that is simply unreal. I want to know so much more about the Hodgkins’ parallel development theory that Kirk references in this episode because I think it’s about the only thing that could help explain how any of this was possible. Because WHAT.
While I enjoyed myself most of the time, I must start this off admitting that there are repetitive motifs at the heart of “Bread and Circuses.” Namely: forcing the crew to fight in a public spectacle and a society developing in parallel to earth despite no outside influence and a Federation captain integrating himself into an existing society through a rise in power. We’ve seen examples of all of these things in this season alone, and putting them together is only slightly different than what we’ve seen before. Though Hodgkins’ theory had never been mentioned, I supposed there’s some scientific basis to the idea. A very limited basis, though. It’s not unheard of within evolutionary circles in the real world, of course, and similar physical environments do lead to similar developments over time. Given that the show has postulated that there are a number of Earth-similar worlds out in the vastness of space, I’m willing to accept that humanoid species are entirely possible in the galaxy.
I suppose my belief collapses when things get super specific, such as they did for “Patterns of Force” and “The Omega Glory,” and I definitely felt super confused about the attempt to explain the coexistence of elements of ancient Roman culture and modern American culture. Like… why do they call them Romans? Wouldn’t they have developed different words for everything? Why speak English? The spread of English wasn’t some random, natural development, and there is an imperialistic history that’s integral to its pervasiveness in the world. How the hell is this entire culture white except for two random black dudes who man the cameras? Are these not even humanoid creatures but actual humans?
I know I’m nitpicking something that was probably created to explain the ludicrous use of humans for casts and human history for settings. It grounds the show in something real and less fantastic. But watching this nearly 50 years after it aired, I’m just confused by the show’s internal logic. At the same time, I don’t want this sort of thing to distract me too much from the story itself. I’m certainly more forgiving of older shows because of their limited budget, the censorship they faced, and the constant interference they faced from whatever network they were on. I know very little about the behind-the-scenes stuff from Star Trek, but what little I do know has told me that all three of these issues were constantly an influence on what made it into an episode of this show.
So if I don’t nitpick continuity or bad science, I do find some value in what happens in “Bread and Circuses.” First of all, this is a surreal experience, and I appreciated how weird this show went in depicting a society that was both modern and archaic. To us, it seems deliberately anachronistic, and it’s actually a lot of fun to see what they chose to put on screen. We go from almost stereotypical Roman imagery – gladiators and capes and military wear and swords – to sharp police uniforms, machine guns, and a complete television studio that includes FAKE AUDIENCE NOISES. There’s a clever parody of television culture here that I wish was addressed more than all the political intrigue, but still. IT’S SO WEIRD AND IT’S EXCITING.
There’s also a scene that the heavens allowed into our lives, and it’s Bones attempting to thank Bones for saving his life. Just… y’all, there’s so much here. I wish this show was more serialized because I could see a lot of potential in Spock experimenting with his human side and figuring out to cope with it. There’s clearly some crossover happening in that scene in the cell. At the very least, Spock felt frustration. HE DID. IT’S RIGHT THERE. Bones sees it, and he takes the opportunity to try and open up about his appreciation for Spock regardless of the issues they might have with one another. Unsurprisingly, Spock immediately falls back on his hilarious brand of pretentious logic, but you know what? I think that Spock didn’t actually ruin the moment. I think they shared something wonderful with one another, and I know it’ll never be addressed again, but the headcanons are already developing, y’all.
As for the main conflict here… wow. The best word I can come up with to describe this is “muddled.” I don’t truly understand why Merik stayed on this planet, though I have theories based on what he told Captain Kirk and what we know of his time at the Federation. I think that he felt inadequate because he couldn’t make it through the Academy, and the opportunity that Marcus gave him allowed him to feel powerful. That makes sense, right? But there seemed to be a much easier solution to the problem: Merik could have just beamed back to his ship and never told anyone about this planet. If he was willing to violate Federation law, why choose the option that inspires you to MURDER MOST OF YOUR CREW?
Now, if this is a case of Merik losing empathy for those around him, then why does he betray Marcus at the end? What made him change his mind? There’s literally nothing here to give us a hint, and it feels weird that his characterization is not explored as much as it should be. It leaves the audience confused about his motivations. Marcus himself barely makes sense to me since he’s nothing more than a one-note villain obsessed with maintaining his own power. He does all that “real man” stuff that is just perplexing to me, though I suspect that’s more of a product of the writing staff than anything else. I mean, y’all. Y’ALL. This show gives Captain Kirk a slave woman, and he totally has sex with her because that’s not totally sketchy and weird. Oh my god, there are already few enough women around, and when they are on screen, they wear stuff like Drusilla does and they’re made to be sex objects for Kirk, and DID NO ONE THINK IT WOULD BE INAPPROPRIATE TO ORDER A SLAVE TO HAVE SEX WITH SOMEONE AND PORTRAY THAT ROMANTICALLY?
There’s certainly worse episodes of this show, but there’s also a lot, lot better. I’ll go back to writing fanfiction about Spock and Bones in a prison cell. That… sounds so dirty, goddamn it.
The video for “Bread and Circuses” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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