TREK-A-DAY: Bread and Circuses
EPISODE FIFTY-THREE: Bread and Circuses
Well, this one’s a bit of a dream episode for me: the crew finds a planet much like Earth that has developed much the same way…only Rome never fell, and thus they come upon 20th Century Rome, complete with sound effect laden televised Gladitorial games and gun-toting centurions.
I started reading a book with this premise a while back, but it quickly ditched the concept in favour of a fairly standard “young person with magic powers and destiny out to avenge family” story that could have taken place anywhere. Trek, instead, uses this fantastic premise to its utmost by focusing on a small corner of the Roman world (the gladiator spectacles) and what that says about the people running them. Through this, we get slave rebellions and politics, wealthy elites running games, and both savage and noble gladiators (who of course end up fighting our crew, in this case Spock and Dr. McCoy!) What I dig about this approach is that it doesn’t try (and ultimately fail) to show us every last detail about what 20th Century Rome would look like, it just gives us a taste, while hinting at a broader world (particularly neat is the implication that their religion is starting to shift to Christianity by the end, just a fun cap to the episode, but indicative of a greater story on the planet than just what our characters experienced in their short time there).
This episode continues to win, as we find a missing captain basically running games now, as the head Roman of the area figured out about the Prime Directive (which is finally defined aloud, with the ‘rather die than interfere with the development of cultures’ underlined; it makes a bit more sense with regards to which societies they openly mess with…basically, if you’ve mastered space travel, then you’re advanced enough to be tampered with-just like the Vulcans with Humans. If you haven’t reached warp speed space travel yet, you can’t be contacted for fear of contaminating the culture.) In any case, knowing full well that a Captain is obliged not to interfere at any cost, the Roman USES THE PRIME DIRECTIVE AS A WEAPON to force Kirk to beam down the rest of his crew as game fodder (Kirk, of course, outsmarts him, with the help of Scotty who merely kills the power to the city in a non-starshipy way, allowing the Prime Directive to stand). But the idea that a guy could basically say “You can’t interfere, nor can you send down armed troops because it would violate your directive, ergo I own you now” is awesome. It’s a fascinating power switch and fun to watch. It also means that when the crew does finally escape, they just leave. There’s nothing else really they can do.
The episode also has a wonderfully complicated scene between McCoy and Spock, where McCoy tries to thank Spock for saving his life, then tears into him about not letting his human side out at all and his insecurities. It’s a bit uncomfortable to watch (perhaps because we’ve seen Spock slip a number of times that McCoy hasn’t), but not dissimilar from watching two good friends have it out about each other’s personalities. You know there’s a deep bond there, but sometimes that means the jabs hurt a bit more. It’s a neat scene, particularly since Kirk is not around to break it up (he’s busy meeting his planetly quota of women to sleep with, later explained as “They threw me some curves, no time to explain”. Slick. Sorry Yeoman Rand; you’re still first in our hearts.)
All-in-all a very entertaining episode, if cut of the increasing common fabric of “it’s like human history…but with this twist!” So far, this season alone, we’ve had Chicago Gangsters, Nazis, Greek Gods, post-viral war Communists/Yankees, and now Rome. Combine that with CARBON COPY EARTH of season one and you’ve got a hell of a lot of “it’s almost the sames” going on. It’s a fun premise to explore, but I do find it funny that the crew only occasionally notices how bloody strange it is to find another planet advancing the same way we did.
Ah well, good times never the less. Was I not entertained?
Yes. Yes I was.