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Star Trek – Bread and Circuses (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Bread and Circuses is not subtle. Then again, that is the point.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in Bread and Circuses, the fourteenth episode produced for the second season, but the last to air. There’s the idea of a world dominated by “a twentieth century Rome”, a rogue captain, a Prime Directive dilemma and a scathing indictment of modern television. Not only is it one of the last episodes with a “produced by Gene L. Coon” credit, it is also an episode co-written by Roddenberry and Coon. It is also the episode of Star Trek that endorses Christianity most explicitly and heavily.

"Wait, we're only getting it in black and white?"

“Wait, we’re only getting it in black and white?”

Bread and Circuses is a bold and audacious piece of television, full of venom and righteous anger, rich in satire and cynicism. It’s a plot so ridiculously over-stuffed with good ideas that viewers are liable to forgive the show’s somewhat cop-out ending where Kirk and his away team beam back to the Enterprise and continue on their merry way as though little has actually happened. Bread and Circuses feels like it uses every minute of its fifty-minute runtime wisely, balancing character with world-building.

It is probably a little bit too messy and disjointed to be labelled a dyed-in-the-wool classic, particularly when compared to the shows produced around it. Nevertheless, it is a decidedly ambitious piece of work, and one that demonstrates what Star Trek could do when it sets its mind to something.

When in Rome...

When in Rome…

There is a lot of stuff to chew over here. Perhaps the most obvious is the fact that Bread and Circuses is an episode of Star Trek explicitly about television. “I think I can pick up something visual,” Uhura reports as the ship arrives in orbit. “It’s a news broadcast using a system I think they once called video.” Spock clarifies, “Television was the colloquial term.” The episode teaser features Kirk and the crew watching a television broadcast, ending with a twist in the broadcast – the revelation that one of the “barbarians” is a member of the crew for which they are looking.

Quite a lot of Bread and Circuses feels uncomfortably autobiographical for the show. On the sadistic game show “Name the Winner”, performers are forced to compete against each other for survival. Given the behind-the-scenes conflict between between Shatner and Nimoy, a fight to the death was perhaps only a slight exaggeration. After all, there is a wonderful story about both Nimoy and Shatner visiting incoming third season producer Fred Frieberger to claim that they were the star, and asking him to choose. Roddenberry gave Shatner the thumbs up.

The crew are just Roman around...

The crew are just Roman around…

After all, although Shatner was not literally fighting for his life, he was fighting for his career. The actor had signed on as the star of the show, tying himself to the series and sacrificing any number of opportunities in order to play the lead. If he were overshadowed by his co-stars, if he did not make an impression, then he knew that his career was in jeopardy. With Nimoy earning Emmy nominations for his work as Spock, it made sense that Shatner had to be aggressive – claiming lines from co-stars and turning up the volume on his performance.

Even this wasn’t enough. Shatner had a terrible time of it into the seventies, starring in a whole heap of schlock. His career went into sharp decline, proof of the difficulties facing a genre actor. It wasn’t until T.J. Hooker and the big-screen Star Trek films that Shatner began to claw his way back towards the limelight. Several other members of the ensemble cast had an even tougher career after Star Trek. In hindsight, Shatner’s somewhat aggressive competition with his co-stars makes a great deal of sense.

"Okay, I want a good clean decapitation!"

“Okay, I want a good clean decapitation!”

The idea of televised death matches to appease a hungry audience – stage-managed and weighted, despite appeals towards reality – seems particularly striking in this era of public humiliation and reality television. However, as Su Holmes points out in The Quiz Show, many of the traits of modern reality television can be traced back to fifties and sixties game shows:

Reality game formats are structured by rules, and pivot on the competitive philosophy of a winner-takes-all gamesmanship. They also use the framework of competition to capitalise on the spectacle of ‘ordinary’ people under extreme (television) pressure – a staple element of the quiz and game show from its earliest days. Many of the more contemporary reality formats draw upon the legacy of humiliation and extreme behaviour witnessed in the earlier ‘stunt’ gameshows (such as People are Funny), while the spectacle of emotional/confessional performances can be traced by to 1950s American ‘sob’ or ‘misery’ shows (for example, Strike It Rich or Queen for a Day) in which participants – often women – told personal hardship stories in exchange for money or prizes.

Still, the fact that Bread and Circuses‘ portrayal of American television feels more relevant today than it did when it is broadcast is terrifying. Although Bread and Circuses‘ lets the audience off the hook a little bit, by demonstrating that the audience reactions are all “canned”, it is a scathing indictment of lowest common denominator programming by the network.

This show is about to be number one with a bullet...

This show is about to be number one with a bullet…

There is also a sense that Bread and Circuses is leaning on the fourth wall a bit, as if trying to draw the viewer’s attention to the elements that have been forced into the plot by the network. The climactic fight sequence of Bread and Circuses invites us to watch Spock and McCoy in a televised fight to the death at the behest of the network, set to the action theme from Amok Time, as if teasing viewers about the show’s occasionally contrived action sequences.

Similarly, the villain who runs the network also sends a beautiful woman to seduce Kirk for reasons that have little to do with his own plot or the plot of the show – it’s a gratuitous “Kirk makes out with a beautiful woman” sequence that emphasises its gratuity. Sure, Claudius makes a nod towards respecting Kirk as a man or some such nonsense, but the entire sequence could be trimmed for time and little would be lost. It’s a scene that exists because Bread and Circuses needed some gratuitous shots of Kirk making out.

A caged Vulcan doesn't sing...

A caged Vulcan doesn’t sing…

There’s a sense that Roddenberry and Coon are having just a little bit of a go at the network with Bread and Circuses. “You bring this network’s ratings down, Flavius, and we’ll do a special on you,” a Roman guard threatens as he cracks the whip. Taste and decency are expendable when it comes to getting those numbers up. It seems unlikely that the show was moved to the end of the season by coincidence – one gets the sense that Roddenberry and the production team emphasised with Spock and McCoy after their bout in the arena.

The middle of the second season had been rocked with rumours of pending cancellation. In early January 1968, The Hartford Courant published a rumour that the network was considering dropping the show due to disappointing ratings. This prompted a high-profile fan campaign to save the show, including a march on NBC headquarters by fans carrying placards. In early March 1968, NBC confirmed their intent to renew the series, including an announcement at the end of The Omega Glory.

It's a nice touch that Merik is still wearing an old-style Starfleet jumpsuit from The Cage...

It’s a nice touch that Merik is still wearing an old-style Starfleet jumpsuit from The Cage…

Of course, these cancellation rumours are still subject of debate today. It has been argued that the show never seriously faced cancellation in its second season:

Although fans wrote in multitudes to save Star Trek, the “save our show” campaign may have been entirely unnecessary. The show had reasonable ratings in its time slot, and TV critics at the time wrote that NBC had other shows that were more at risk of cancellation. Moreover, NBC needed no persuasion to believe that the audience was desirable; they already knew that the show attracted an appropriate demographic: young, well educated, and passionate. Show creator Gene Roddenberry also continued to promote the desirability of the viewers by positioning them as a quality audience, suggesting that despite its small size, the demographics were more appealing than those of other, larger shows.

Still, regardless of whether the show was ever actually cancelled, the anxiety very clearly existed and the threat loomed large.

Arrested development...

Arrested development…

Bread and Circuses had been written and filmed towards the end of 1967, before the entire cancellation controversy had erupted. However, airing it after that very public controversy gives the episode a bit more weight than it might otherwise have. Bread and Circuses aired as the penultimate episode of the show’s second season, right before Assignment: Earth. Given that Assignment: Earth was a thinly-disguised pilot for a spin-off show, that would make Bread and Circuses the de facto season finalé. Which would suggest this was considered a “big” episode.

However, Bread and Circuses works just as a well if watched in production order. At this point in its production life cycle, Star Trek was going through a number of management changes. Gene L. Coon was handing the reins to John Meredyth Lucas, as producer. Lucas visited the set during the production of Bread and Circuses. However, there were other significant changes happening; in July 1967, Desilu had been bought by Gulf and Western and rebranded “Paramount television.” This had a substantial impact on the way that Star Trek was produced.

Oh my gods!

Oh my gods!

As director Ralph Senensky noted in an interview with Starlog, the Star Trek production team found themselves operating under much tighter constraints than they had been previously:

“Paramount had a lot to do with the series’ demise,” he says matter-of-factly.  “Gene Coon had told me that the episodes  had been scheduled for six days of production and that they averaged six-and-a-half,  although there were some that went  seven — pretty remarkable for the kind of  quality they were delivering. When  Paramount bought Desilu, a kind of corporate mentality took over. Suddenly, we had  a six-day schedule… period! They wouldn’t  allow any overruns at all. Before that, we had a 7:30 crew call and started shooting at  8 a.m. Sometimes you would go to 7:00 or  7:30. You would finish so that the episode  would work out. But now you had a six-day  schedule, and you had to absolutely pull  the plug at 12:00 on the sixth day. In  terms of actual hours, it pulled us down to a  five-and-a-half day schedule. The other  schedule hadn’t given you that much grace,  but suddenly, you really felt that you were  shooting schlock because of the production’s speed.   ‘

“This is one of the reasons why. in a  way. I resent Paramount having such a hit  in Star Trek, because if they had their way, they would have killed it off. It survived in  spite of them and now they have this bonanza making all this money. It has nothing to do with them.”

Bread and Circuses seems perfectly positioned as a commentary on television production. It was produced as the changes in management style between Desilu and Paramount television were becoming apparent, and broadcast in the wake of a high-profile cancellation scale.

The Roman way...

The Roman way…

There is a sense that Bread and Circuses plays into Gene Roddenberry’s mythmaking. The traditional account of Star Trek, one that has been repeated and restated so many times that it is widely accepted, is that the show was produced by Gene Roddenberry in direct conflict with the network. After the show was cancelled, and in the lead up to the production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Roddenberry stressed that the original Star Trek had been the product of much compromise, with Roddenberry facing down the network on a variety of issues.

According to Roddenberry, it was sexism that forced him to drop the female first officer from The Cage. “The network brass of the time could not handle a woman being second-in-command of a spaceship,” Roddenberry insisted. “In those days, it was such a monstrous thought to so many people, I realized that I had to get rid of her character or else I wouldn’t get my series on the air.” However, this was not the case. The network was not displeased with Number One the character; they were unhappy with Majel Barrett, the actress and Roddenberry’s mistress.

Oh, hey, they have Friends on this planet!

Oh, hey, they have Friends on this planet!

Similarly, Roddenberry liked to claim that the decision to feature a diverse and international supporting cast was a risk move. Conceding there was “some pressure” to make the cast “white people in space”, Roddenberry again painted the image of himself as a valiant progressive fighting a stubborn network. “I said that if we don’t have blacks and whites working together by the time our civilization catches up to the time frame the series were set in, there won’t be any people. I guess my argument was so sensible it stopped even the zealots.”

This is, of course, something of an overstatement. It was actually the network that insisted on the diverse cast. The supporting cast from The Cage is much less diverse than the one eventually featured on Star Trek. While characters like Uhura and Sulu were important for the recognition and acknowledgement of minorities in television, there were already shows that had featured non-white characters in far more prominent roles.

They also have Jerry Springer!

They also have Jerry Springer!

There is a very clear sense that Bread and Circuses is playing into Roddenberry’s vision of his relationship with the network. The Romans working the stage lights and giving direction don’t seem too different from the network executives who feature in his tales of a valiant storyteller trying to communicate his vision despite the best efforts of a stubborn and conservative network to stop him. It is an endearing and engaging narrative, which perhaps explains why it has endured so well.

There is an irony here. Bread and Circuses was the last episode of Star Trek broadcast during the second the season, except for Assignment: Earth. However, Assignment: Earth was a very cynical piece of programming, and not due to any meddling by the network. It was an attempt by Roddenberry use Star Trek to launch another show. Roddenberry would remain a producer on the third season of Star Trek, but spent most of the season trying to develop ideas at MGM. It makes Assignment: Earth look particularly suspicious, as if Roddenberry were loading a parachute for himself.

Engineering an escape attempt...

Engineering an escape attempt…

The joys of being cynical about cynicism. Watching the games with Claudius, Kirk confesses, “Proconsul, in some parts of the galaxy I have seen forms of entertainment that makes this look like a folk dance.” It seems like he could just as easily be talking about twentieth-century television production. Still, even with all these caveats in place, Bread and Circuses makes for a delightful indictment of network television, all the more powerful because it seems to mirror a lot of what was happening at various levels of the production at the same time.

It is also worth noting the episode’s setting. It is a version of Earth where Rome never fell. “A world ruled by emperors who can trace their line back two thousand years to their own Julius and Augustus Caesars,” Kirk offers in his log. It is a world stunning close to Earth. The chemical composition of the air even matches twentieth-century Earth, and the dialogue from the natives does not need to be filtered through a universal translator. “Complete Earth parallel,” Spock reflects. “The language here is English.”

Captain of his own destiny...

Captain of his own destiny…

Of course, the language has to be English for the “son”/“sun” homophone reveal to work properly. The odds of the two words sounding exactly alike in any other language would be astronomical. Then again, the odds of anything resembling Earth as much as this planet would also be astronomical – “Hodgkins’s law of Parallel Planet Development” be damned. The idea of finding a world that is functionally identical to twentieth-century Earth, but with only one significant difference, is completely and utterly absurd.

There is a reason that this plot hook has become an easy source of parody for fans keen to revel in the ridiculousness of classic Star Trek. It is an absolutely crazy idea. While there are understandable production reasons why the crew keep stumbling across alternate worlds that happen to look like Earth cultures for which the studio has ready-made costumes and props, it is very hard to rationalise from a plot perspective.

A slave to his temper...

A slave to his temper…

Unless, of course, we accept that the Enterprise isn’t exploring strange new worlds so much as it explores reflections of our own. After all, there is an argument that Star Trek works best as allegory. Kirk and Spock meet alien races who can be defined by their relationship to certain aspects of mankind. The show can use these trappings to offer commentary of contemporary concerns that might be too difficult to address directly. The Enterprise might be seeking out new life-forms, but ultimately so that its crew might better understand themselves.

It is worth noting that Bread and Circuses is the third time that Star Trek has told a story based around a Roman Empire that never died. The Romulans were very much space!Romans in Balance of Terror, right down to the name of their home planets and the salutes that they make. In Mirror, Mirror, the Empire was very clearly modeled on the Roman Empire – with references to Caesar, that same salute, and the changes in decorum suggesting as much.

"Well, these reviews aren't that great at all..."

“Well, these reviews aren’t that great at all…”

Bread and Circuses just comes right out and labels the alien civilisation as Roman. However, as with Mirror, Mirror, there’s a sense that the story is more interested in a twisted reflection of contemporary America than an ever-lasting Roman Empire. Once again, Star Trek is playing with the idea of the United States as the spiritual successor to the Roman Empire – dealing with the issues raised by the country’s emergence as the dominant global power in the wake of the Second World War.

The Cold War and the responsibilities of being the most powerful nation on the planet brought all manner of uncomfortable choices. While there is a debate to be had over whether comparisons between the United States and Rome are valid in any meaningful sense, it does make for a catchy comparison – and a nice umbrella under which these issues might be discussed. After all, the Roman Empire in Bread and Circuses doesn’t actually feel that much like the Roman Empire. It feels more like a totalitarian mirror to sixties America.

Blessed by the sun... er, I mean, son...

Blessed by the sun… er, I mean, son…

Sure, the costumes, names and titles might evoke Rome. However, the characters speak English rather than Latin. The television is produced on an American rather than a European model. The buildings look like contemporary America. Although references are made to the religious beliefs and cultural of ancient Rome, society does not seem to function in a way that is alien to contemporary viewers. The world in Bread and Circuses is sixties America with a Roman theme. (Arguably in the same way that fascism coopted Roman themes and iconography.)

Kirk and McCoy are horrified by this perversion of American society. However, Spock spends most of the episode drawing attention to the similarities that exist between this culture and that of twentieth-century Earth. Although the episode never explicitly states it, Spock’s status as an outsider seems to play into this. As the member of the landing party with the least attachment to Earth, Spock seems to have a more objective stance on it.

Kirk is beginning to feel a little caged in...

Kirk is beginning to feel a little caged in…

“Must you always be so blasted honest?” McCoy asks Spock at one point. Although not referring specifically to his observations about this culture, it would seem to fit thematically. When McCoy objects to the “slavery, gladiatorial games, despotism” that exist on this world, Spock is not convinced that the difference is material. “Situations quite familiar to the six million who died in your first world war, the eleven million who died in your second, the thirty seven million who died in your third.”

There are points where Bread and Circuses seems to play as a criticism of capitalism. Spock is intrigued by the idea of “slavery evolving into an institution with guaranteed medical payments, old-age pensions”, which seems like a status quo that would justify use of the term “wage slavery” – implying that even people with basic protections can still be exploited by a predatory system. This Roman Empire exists in world where the strong dominate the weak.

Well, he had a stab at being a ruler...

Well, he had a stab at being a ruler…

It is explicitly a dog-eat-dog world. Merik justifies the slaughter of his own crew with the same rhetoric used to dismiss those who cannot prosper in a capitalist economy – his crew were simply not strong enough to thrive. “Those that were able to adapt to this world are still alive,” he tells Kirk. “Those who couldn’t adapt are dead. That’s the way it is with life everywhere, isn’t it?” Merik seems to suggest that he has been convinced by a philosophy quite similar to pure and untempered capitalism, one that excuses indifference to the plight of the disadvantaged.

Many of the criticisms made by Bread and Circuses are just as applicable to a certain strand of American political thought as they are to a parallel Roman Empire. One can be a slave without wearing irons. One can be trapped and exploited without wearing a shirt that labels you as a slave. Bread and Circuses suggests that Merik is just as much of a slave of the system as Flavius was. “Would you leave us, Merik?” Claudius asks him. “The thoughts of one man to another cannot possibly interest you.” The obvious inference is that Claudius does not see him as a man.

The pencil-pushers sadly don't get any fancy helmets...

The pencil-pushers sadly don’t get any fancy helmets…

This all pretty heady, pretty political, and pretty loaded stuff. It is amazing that these elements of the script tend to get glossed over when discussing Bread and Circuses. Then again, there is so much else going on within the episode’s fifty-minute runtime that it’s understandable these elements of social criticism might get lost between the critique of network television and the heavily (and explicitly) religious conclusion.

Bread and Circuses is notable for having an ending that explicitly endorses Christianity. While there have been nods towards the religious beliefs of the crew in earlier episodes like Balance of Terror and Who Mourns for Adonais?, Star Trek generally portrayed itself as secular – occasionally aggressively so. Kirk was quite happy to kill or depose beings claiming to be gods, “liberating” alien cultures from their religious beliefs.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

Here, the crew of the Enterprise celebrate the emergence of Christianity among the planet’s population. “I’ve been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves, the empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion,” Uhura offers during the epilogue. “But he couldn’t. Don’t you understand? It’s not the sun up in the sky. It’s the Son of God.” It’s a weird scene, not only because the crew seem so happy at the prospect, but also because it suggests it is impossible to mock Christianity.

It’s no wonder that The American Catholic considers Bread and Circuses to be one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced. It seems to explicitly confirm that Kirk and his crew respect Christianity as a special sort of religion. There’s no nod made towards religious diversity. Even Mr. Spock seems to welcome the news that Christianity is spreading. (It seems like a truism that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.) While it’s certainly better than knee-jerk rejection of religion and spirituality, it adds some uncomfortable subtext to the earlier stories in the season.

Fascist!

Fascist!

All of a sudden, the destruction of Vaal in The Apple and Apollo in Who Mourns for Adonais? are no longer a rejection of religion itself. They are rejections of particular types of religion – religion that Kirk and crew deem to be “wrong.” It makes it seem like Kirk is simply destroying religions that don’t conform to his own beliefs. Apollo and Vaal die to make room for Christ, just as the spread of Christianity destroyed many foreign belief systems. This has decidedly uncomfortable implications – another example of Star Trek struggling with its own imperialist tendencies.

To be fair, the episode does suggest that Kirk and his crew have moved beyond Christianity itself, even if it seems like various cultural signifiers are still in use. “Once, just once, I’d like to be able to land someplace and say, ‘Behold, I am the Archangel Gabriel!'” McCoy jokes at one point. When Spock fails to see the humour, McCoy replies, “Naturally. You could hardly claim to be an angel with those pointed ears, Mister Spock. But say you landed someplace with a pitchfork…”

A fun shoot...

A fun shoot…

There is no cultural relativism to be found in Bread and Circuses. When Kirk and Spock believe the friend slaves are worshipping the sun, they are patronising and condescending. “It seems illogical for a sun worshiper to develop a philosophy of total brotherhood,” Spock suggests. “Sun worship is usually a primitive superstition religion.” However, they take the beliefs more seriously when they turn out to be Christian. There is nothing wrong with religious belief, but there is something uncomfortable about treating one particular belief as unquestionably “right.”

To be fair, it is possible that Bread and Circuses isn’t endorsing Christianity completely and unequivocally. Christianity is just being used as a way to signal the decline of this Rome. Of course, this opens all sorts of other issues, as if to suggest that there is only one logical way for a culture to evolve – that Christianity must follow the Roman Empire, as part of the cycle of civilisation. This is a very Western-centric way of looking at the universe, coming with more than a few problems.

Kirk is a breakout star...

Kirk is a breakout star…

Even leaving aside the obvious imperialist undertones to this argument, this connection between the decline of the Empire and the rise of Christianity – most famously proposed in Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – is not uncontested. As Nancy Reagin suggests in Star Trek and History:

Unfortunately for Gibbon (and Star Trek’s writers), this thesis is not supported by historical fact, as the eastern Roman Empire, which was resolutely Christian, did not fall until 1453, nearly a thousand years after the western Roman Empire slowly imploded. If Christianity was inherently anti-Roman or anti-Imperial, then it should have been the eastern empire that fell.

Even if one accepts Gibbons’ argument, the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe was followed by the Dark Ages – as Crossover points out in its deconstruction of the ending of  Mirror, Mirror. That was an incredibly brutal time period. Should Kirk and Spock be celebrating?

"Sir, it's the ratings... they are not good..."

“Sir, it’s the ratings… they are not good…”

This conclusion seems rather at odds with Roddenberry’s humanist atheism, particularly on a script that carries his own name. In Star Trek FAQ, Mark Clark theorises that Roddenberry’s own beliefs might be playing out here:

Perhaps the pro-Christian stance of Bread and Circuses can be chalked up as an expression of Roddenberry’s own conflicted beliefs. Despite his apparent atheism, Roddenberry sometimes (albeit rarely) spoke of a nebulous higher power he referred to as “the All.” This was pointedly not the Judeo-Christian God. He never explained this idea fully, and may have never complete worked out the concept himself.

Long-time Roddenberry associate Susan Sackett has talked a bit about Roddenberry’s beliefs in My Secret Life in Gene Roddenberry, suggesting that Roddenberry’s belief in “the All” did inform a lot of his writing.

"... and scans indicate that suspension of disbelief is barely holding..."

“… and scans indicate that suspension of disbelief is barely holding…”

Whatever the reasons for the ending, the concluding scene of Bread and Circuses does demonstrate how difficult it is to try and construct a single unifying theory of the original Star Trek. As much fun as it is to try to piece together a single thematic throughline, the original Star Trek changed position on key issues from week to week, depending on who was writing. The series was prone to contradict itself, adopting different stances on various issues depending on the draft of the script that made it to screen.

It is very hard to reconcile the cynicism about the Cold War and Vietnam in Errand of Mercy or A Taste of Armageddon with the chest-thumping of A Private Little War or The Omega Glory. Similarly, the theme of Mirror, Mirror dramatically reversed itself between the original pitch and the final draft – originally Kirk was supposed to teach a weak Federation how to best make war, rather than recoiling in horror from a militaristic reflection of Starfleet.

Kirk and his crew a little too far afield...

Kirk and his crew a little too far afield…

Bread and Circuses is also notable for marking the departure of producer Gene L. Coon. To be fair, Coon’s departure is somewhat convoluted. He was credited as “producer” on every episode between Miri and Bread and Circuses, with the exception of The Menagerie, Part II. According to These Are the Voyages, Coon actually produced Journey to Babel, even if the post-production team assigned the credit to John Meredyth Lucas. Coon would then receive his final “produced by” credit on A Private Little War.

Although this is somewhat convoluted, it is understandable. Scripts enter and leave production at different times. There is inevitably overlap during the writing phase and in post-production. Coon’s departure during the middle of the second season was by all accounts rather sudden. It wasn’t necessarily clean. John Meredyth Lucas had only written The Changeling when Coon proposed him to take the reins. Though a veteran director, Lucas would not direct the show until a brief fill-in on Obsession and then a credited job on The Ultimate Computer.

Playing to crowded halls...

Playing to crowded halls…

Still, the transfer of power was in process. Director Ralph Senensky has argued that the change in producers in the middle of the second season had a profound effect on the show:

I cannot speak for the other directors and the other productions, but I can definitely say that there was a drop in quality from This Side of Paradise, Metamorphosis and Bread and Circuses to the other two episodes I directed the second season. And I ascribe the reason for this drop to be partly caused by the lack of Gene Coon’s stewardship of the scripts and the rest to the impossible expectation that the episodes in this series could be filmed in five and a half days.

As I bemoan the loss of Gene Coon, I don’t mean to dismiss John Meredyth Lucas. His was a formidable task. In one of my early postings I described what it felt like as a director coming to direct a long running series for the first time. It was like a Captain taking new command of a ship in battle. For John, taking over as producer of Star Trek, I felt, it was like an Admiral being reassigned to command of an entire fleet. And to do it midseason — a monstrous assignment. Filling Gene Coon’s shoes … use your imagination.

It is very hard not to pity John Meredyth Lucas as he stepped into the role of producer on the series. Although Lucas departed at the end of the second season, he remained a part of the franchise, contributing the script Kitumba to the aborted Star Trek: Phase II.

"I'll wager 400 quatloos on the newcomer."

“I’ll wager 400 quatloos on the newcomer.”

In Trek Classic, David Gerrold argues that Gene L. Coon’s stewardship Star Trek its unique identity:

“I’ll say it and I won’t even threaten you if you attribute it to me,” adds David Gerrold. “Gene L. Coon came in early in the first season and pulled it together, and he stayed there until more than halfway through the second season. If you look at the episodes in sequence, you can see that the best episodes are the ones where Gene Coon’s hands were at the tiller. Gene Coon made the show work, very, very strongly.”

It is hard to disagree with Gerrold’s assessment.

With friends like these...

With friends like these…

The departure of Coon was a massive blow to the series. Coupled with the broadcast of Bread and Circuses late in the second season, it lends the episode a decidedly funereal air. The script itself seems to acknowledge this, giving us an extended sequence that could easily work as the last conversation between Spock and McCoy ever. Trapped in a Roman jail, facing death, the two characters seem to finally reconcile to one another. It feels almost like the show is resolving one of its most iconic conflicts.

“Spock,” McCoy awkwardly offers at one point, as if searching for the right words, “I know we’ve had our disagreements. Maybe they’re jokes. I don’t know. As Jim says, we’re not often sure ourselves sometimes, but what I’m trying to say is…” Spock will hear nothing of it, but McCoy keeps on going. “Well, what I’m trying to say is you saved my life in the arena.” It’s a delightful moment, one that demonstrates the wonderful chemistry between Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley.

"I'm a Doctor, not a gladiator!"

“I’m a Doctor, not a gladiator!”

However, it isn’t just that honest admission of gratitude that lends the episode a sense of gravitas and weight. Here, finally, it seems like McCoy manages to figure Spock out. As Spock works hard to mount an escape, McCoy keeps pushing – as if working through his own realisations about the Vulcan. “Do you know why you’re not afraid to die, Spock?” he asks. “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.”

That is something that the audience have known since at least The Naked Time, but which is a revelation to McCoy. It’s a big moment for the character – the point where he seems to really figure out why Spock acts the way that he does. It’s not too difficult to imagine the conversation in the jail as the final conversation between Spock and McCoy, drawing a line underneath their relationship and demonstrating that the two have found a balance.

"You will go on my first whistle..."

“You will go on my first whistle…”

Sure, the duo shrug that deeply personal conversation off in the way that tough guys on sixties television do to avoid acknowledging their feelings. “Really, Doctor?” Spock asks. Without answering Spock’s question, McCoy replies. “I know. I’m worried about Jim, too.” As such, the conversation isn’t allowed to hang over them. Still, what is said cannot be unsaid. Although the episode leaves it open for the pair to fall back into their familiar bickering routine, it does suggest that there has been some breakthrough here.

Other aspects of the production nod towards a sense of closure and finality. Bread and Circuses ends with Kirk retreating back to the Enterprise. They do not make a change to the society. They merely bear witness. They are passive in all this, exerting little influence on the events of the narrative. The biggest difference that Kirk makes is the redemption of Captain R.M. Merik. The episode does not end up with Kirk overthrowing a corrupt government or saving a stranded crew. It ends with a convenient escape.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

Broadcast before Assignment: Earth, Bread and Circuses would have been the de facto series finalé had the show been cancelled in its second season. After all, Assignment: Earth was a thinly-veiled pilot. Perhaps it would have been an appropriate (if grim) finalé for a world where Star Trek ended two years into its run; it offers hints of resolution for McCoy and Spock, while forcing Kirk and his crew to confront their own ineffectiveness. They would depart a mirror of twentieth-century Earth having made no impact whatsoever.

It is worth conceding that Bread and Circuses is a mess of an episode. Kirk and his crew actually very little over the course of the hour beyond wandering into traps and getting captured so they can have philosophical conversations about the society of this world – building to a climax where the trio are captured and the episode throws in some gratuitous fight and make-out sequences. While Bread and Circuses is a script packed with ideas and concepts, it is not an episode that has been plotted particularly carefully.

Lights, cameras, action!

Lights, cameras, action!

In his interview with Starlog, director Ralph Senensky conceded that the production was a little rushed and under a great deal of pressure:

“Both Gene Roddenberry and Gene  Coon were writing on that show as we were  shooting,” Senensky states. “I do remember that my concern was that we not tip our  hand as to the fact we were doing a Christ  story from the word go. We devised the  idea’ of them thinking it’s ‘Sun’ worshippers. That took some doing, but they did  it. Originally, you knew it was the son of  God and the story had no place to go.”

This pressure accounts for a lot of the structural problems with Bread and Circuses that hold the episode back from the status of a true classic.

Another Earth...

Another Earth…

That said, there’s a lot to love here. The production design is fabulous. Rome is a lavish setting, and it’s always fun to see a television episode set inside a television studio – there’s a delicious self-awareness to it. Ralph Senensky’s direction is great, particularly during the fight sequences. The tight close-ups make the confrontations a lot more uncomfortable than they might otherwise be. The episode also benefits from two superb guest performances from William Smithers  and Logan Ramsey. Both are cast perfectly.

Bread and Circuses is too disjointed and uneven to be hailed as a masterpiece, but it is a fantastic piece of Star Trek. It is bold and ambitious and daring and provocative. It is brilliant, even as it is a little clumsy. It is a fitting tribute the work of both Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon, with even its flaws proving worthwhile and interesting.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

5 Responses

  1. Great review.

    I always find something vaguely unsavoury in the way Spock says ‘your wars/mistakes/irrationalities, etc’ where ‘the ‘your’ in question is humanity. As if he himself wasn’t half human and those mistakes thus just as much part of his heritage. It might be why I never warmed to the character as much as most.

    Having recently re-read Shatner’s autobiography I can definitely understand his desperation in Star Trek. His early career from the middle of the 50s to the early-mid 60s is absolutely fascinating and often impressive – how many other actors have starred in an all Esperanto film? – but I get the feeling For the People flopping was a huge personal setback and Nimoy seeming to usurp his role must have seemed a nightmare.

    • Yep. Shatner was massively underrated for about forty years – he only won his first Emmy a few years back, and is still somewhat overshadowed by Nimoy within the Star Trek franchise, despite the sense that the balance might be slowly redressing itself.

      I have a great deal of sympathy for Shatner. Nimoy went straight from Star Trek to another steady job on Mission: Impossible, while Shatner basically spent a lost decade wandering from flop movies to television guest spots. When they do manage to revive Star Trek for the big screen, Nimoy manages to grab most of the headlines by getting himself killed off and then deciding to come back and also directing the third and fourth films. When Shatner is allowed to interact with a later Star Trek cast, he is killed off as an afterthought. I can see why he’d be so slighted by the decision to bring Nimoy back for Star Trek (2009) and why he’d be so tetchy about accusations of stealing or bullying.

      (That said, I still think that some of his statements can seem a bit callous and petty – even if they come from an understandable place.)

  2. I thought the pro-Christian stance of this episode was all the more strange, given that Shatner, Nimoy, Koenig, Justman, Solow, and Senensky were all Jewish. Forcing the actors to make admiring statements about Christianity feels extra wrong under the circumstances.

    • Yep. In that context, the emphasis on “the Son” feels particularly pointed in a “Judaism won’t cut it!” sort of way. It’s not even just monotheism or Abrahamic religion, it has to be the right Abrahamic religion, dammit!

  3. God the historical inaccuracies in this episode are terrible. 11 million dead in WW2? (It was 60 million causalities altogether in case anyone is wondering, talk about being way off!) No sun worship in Rome (what, they never heard of Sol Invictus)? Christianity being this uber-peaceful movement that causes the fall of the Roman Empire (tbf, as you point out, that was a widely held belief for a long time), despite the fact that the Roman state eventually became Christian, violently outlawed all other religions, and the Christian Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantines) violently reconquered Rome and much of the West, and were major enthusiasts for slavery and torture. This episode is beyond irritating…

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