Director: Ralph Senensky
Writers: Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, William Smithers, Logan Ramsey, Ian Wolfe, William Bramley, Rhodes Reason, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Bart Larue, Jack Perkins, Max Kleven, and Lois Jewell
Composer: None (Stock Music)
Air Date: 3/15/1968
Production #: 60343
While investigating a missing merchant ship operated by Kirk’s Academy friend R.M. Merik (William Smithers), the Enterprise crew locates an alien world reminiscent of Earth’s Roman Empire, but with a twist: instead of collapsing prior to the advent of modern technology, this version of Roman civilization has progressed to the equivalent of a 20th century superpower. Confronted with the traitorous Captain Merik—or “Merikus” as the Romans have dubbed him—and the conniving Proconsul Claudius Marcus (Logan Ramsey), Kirk must choose between violating the Prime Directive and allowing Spock and McCoy to die in a barbaric sword match.
An intriguing “what-if” scenario, “Bread and Circuses” should captivate Star Trek enthusiasts and fans of Roman culture alike. Despite operating on the dubious notion that another planet identical to Earth could exist in the Milky Way Galaxy, this episode compensates for any scientific shortcomings with its riveting and thought-provoking subject matter.
Unlike “The Omega Glory,” “Bread and Circuses” examines the parallel Earth theme with the nuance it deserves. Specifically, many disturbing comparisons between the “modern” Roman Empire in this episode and present-day America are highlighted, with a heavy emphasis on violent entertainment being the most notable example. In addition to its remarkable social commentary, Gene Roddenberry’s narrative will no doubt appeal to science fiction buffs with its televised gladiator matches and allusions to an alternate history emerging from subtle deviations in past outcomes.
Once again, the Enterprise crew encounters a society whose development inexplicably resembles that of an ancient Earth culture. While the vast majority of Star Trek episodes require a certain degree of disbelief suspension, “Bread and Circuses” can only work if viewers accept that an empire as described above could come to exist without deliberate interference from an individual possessing intimate knowledge of Terran history (a similar flaw was present in many prior episodes, with only “Patterns of Force” offering a satisfactory solution to any logical problems arising from the duplicate Earth premise).
On a related note, whereas Captain Tracey from “The Omega Glory” went completely mad after enduring tremendous suffering and personal loss, Captain Merik never presents a compelling justification for compromising his principles, nor does he appear mentally unhinged despite being forced to sacrifice his crew in the gladiatorial games of planet 892-IV. As a result, audiences may have difficulty accepting his abrupt transformation into a heroic figure starting in the final act.
Flavius (Rhodes Reason) and his fellow escaped slaves serve as a clever metaphor for the persecuted church that existed under Roman oppression, with both Christianity and the fictional Children of the Son providing humanity with hope and enlightenment during times of great darkness. Also worth mentioning are the parallels drawn between the aforementioned Children of the Son and Roddenberry’s humanist philosophy, which share more attributes in common than many would likely assume.
“Bread and Circuses” makes for a fascinating study on how the world could have turned out had the Roman government lasted into the 1960s. Likewise, a powerful exchange between McCoy and Spock may interest fans of the latter character and his ongoing struggle to maintain an emotionally detached facade.
Overall Quality: 8/10
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