Star Trek: Bread and Circuses

"You bring this network's ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you."

I had a great opening ready to go for this review, with a pun about bread and the ultimate in cheese. But I'd forgotten how good this episode is. It's like a cross between "Patterns of Force" and "Gamesters of Triskelion," but much better than either.

They've done parallels to Earth before and it's been awkward. But at least this time they sort of explained it with "Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development," something they should have come up with back in season one for "Miri." And they did a good job with twentieth century Rome, where the slaves gradually acquired unions or whatever and became the working middle class. It was also intriguing that they hadn't had a war in four hundred years. Possibly because of state-sponsored violence and death on television, which was the best part of the episode. This time, the cheesiness of the sets worked to their advantage. Very good.

Merik got a bit more character development than Tracey or Gill, and went out with class sacrificing himself to save the landing party. Pro-Consul Claudius was a good character, too, since he wasn't just a cookie cutter villain, but a product of his time. After realizing that Kirk and company weren't slimeballs like Merik, it was clever of Claudius to keep using the Prime Directive to manipulate them. I particularly liked that he gave Kirk such a nice "night before death" present, too. Although, let me add that I have to assume that was legal prostitution, because if it wasn't, and only the male slaves had unions... well, you get my drift.



The good character development continued with Spock and McCoy, who were threatened with torture and death as they were used as pawns by Claudius to manipulate Kirk. I liked the initial fight in the arena, where Spock held off because he didn't want to hurt his opponent, right until the moment when McCoy was in serious trouble. And their exchange in the prison was moving, when their worry about Kirk (who was enjoying wine, fruit, and a blonde slave at the time) had them attacking each other's weaknesses. Spock and McCoy often act as if they hate each other, but we all know they do not.

Not everything worked as well as it could have. I thought it was illogical for Claudius to try to force Kirk to bring down the entire crew by actually showing what would happen to them in the arena, since you'd think that would make Kirk even more determined to hold out. And even though the Prime Directive was much discussed and actually semi-observed, what were they thinking during the initial beam down, as they were walking down the road talking about planetary development? They didn't realize their ray guns, cell phones and colorful uniforms would be conspicuous? Not to mention Spock's ears?

I'm sure the fact that they all spoke English on Planet Rome was set up for the Sun/Son homonym denouement. Since it didn't come out of the blue, I didn't find it quite as obnoxious as the Yangs and their secret magic Constitution. And I'm not saying that because I'm a Christian. Because in fact, I am not a Christian.

Ben says...

As Russell Crowe asked, "Are you not entertained?!?" Why yes, surprisingly quite entertained. I expected another round of parallel history silliness but was pleasantly surprised by this episode. It is the best of the lot and more importantly, I begin to sense a sharp satirical edge creeping into some of the shows as we work through the last half of season 2. First the Nazi episode, then "Meet the Yangs," and now we have "the Gang visits Caesar's Palace."

You could easily take the episodes on face value, but I think there is something subversive going on here. Each addresses societies which have gone wrong and sunk into some kind of vicious oppression, and each reflects fear of a police state and the brutality of order. This is a major departure for Trek which in many of the episodes comes down very solidly on the establishment side of the 1960s thought (most obviously in the "Ya Damn Hippies" episodes). The difference here is that they tread very lightly on the "they are us" theme, presumably because the Man would not have been happy. Despite this, it's hard to miss the parallel here. Order and prosperity trump justice. Television is used to lull the masses, with the most obvious parallel being the gladiatorial games being indistinguishable from contemporary sports broadcasts. Overall, a really well done episode.

And speaking of parallels, this is also the first mention of Dr. Euphonious Hodgkins and his Law of Parallel Planet Development. Dr. Hodgkins, who was the Chair of the Department of Theoretical Physics and Television Broadcasting at the University of Ipswich, was a huge influence on generations of historians, cryptobiologists and television hacks. Less well known than his Law of Parallel Planet Development are his equally important Everyone Remembers the Stripper Corollary and Theory of Time Travel Amnesia (wait, what were we talking about?). Check out T.V. Tropes for much, much more of Dr. Hodgkins' (often uncredited) work.

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

— Stardate 4040.7. The crew of the S.S. Beagle (great name for a space ship) who were stranded on system 892, planet 4. Not that exciting a name for Twentieth Century Rome. They should have come up with a cool planet name. How hard could it be?

— Kirk, Spock and McCoy beamed down alone, sparing the red shirts who would have surely died either at the hands of the secret Christians or in the arena, like the crew of the Beagle.

— There was a Jupiter 8 automobile, Mars toothpaste, Neptune bath salts.

— Spock kept trying the bars, but the prison was a bit better built than the one in "The Omega Glory." How many jails have our heroes wound up in? They should have had a standing set.

— "Condition Green" means that we're in serious trouble but don't do anything. Scott managed to save the day, anyway.

— The prisoner costumes, ripped gray sweats with an image of three links of a chain at the top, have always been favorites of mine. They were futuristic and utilitarian at the same time, much better than something flashy, and they looked good on the cast. And the cop outfits were like a cross between Roman soldiers, Nazis and Star Wars storm troopers. Nice.

— Roman names are apparently created by adding a two-letter suffix. Merik became Merikus. If our heroes had been forced to stay, they would have been Kirkus, Spockus, and McCoyus.

Quotes:

McCoy: "Once, just once, I'd like to be able to land someplace and say, 'Behold, I am the Archangel Gabriel!'"
Spock: "I fail to see the humor in that situation, Doctor."
McCoy: "Naturally. You could hardly claim to be an angel with those pointed ears, Mister Spock. But say you landed someplace with a pitchfork..."

Flavius: "What do you call those?"
Spock: "I call them 'ears'."
Flavius: "Are you trying to be funny?"
Spock: "Never."

McCoy: "Medical men are trained in logic, Mister Spock."
Spock: "Really, Doctor? I had no idea they were trained. Watching you, I assumed it was trial and error."

Announcer: "Stand by. Ten seconds. And first tonight, ladies and gentlemen, a surprise extra. In the far corner, a pair of highly aggressive barbarians. Strong, intelligent, with strange ways, and I'm sure full of a lot of surprises."

Claudius: "Admit it. You find these games frightening, revolting."
Kirk: "Proconsul, in some parts of the galaxy I have seen forms of entertainment that makes this look like a folk dance."

Kirk: "They threw me a few curves. No time to explain." Very funny.

Three out of four Roman television networks,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

7 comments:

Juliette said...

I *love* this episode! (Except for the part with Kirk and the slave girl, which I find deeply disturbing. Hasn't he seen Spartacus?!). If the Romans had had television, this is exactly what they would have been doing, I'm sure. (Plus it got me loads of hits on my blog a while back, which makes me love it even more ;) )

Billie Doux said...

Since Juliette is too classy to post a link to her review, I'll post it for her. :) Great review, Juliette. http://popclassicsjg.blogspot.com/2010/03/star-trek-bread-and-circuses.html

Juliette said...

Thanks Billie :) I was feeling guilty about mentioning it, but I know my fondness for this ep is partly because I got my 100th post out of it! :)

Patryk said...

Yes TV Tropes. I think it's the 1st review with a link to the site. About time hehe. Especially when many of Billie's Ten Rules of Television are actually tropes. Like for example number 2a is Narrowed It Down To The Guy I Recognize and number 10 is Never Found the Body

Billie Doux said...

Patryk, until Ben sent me his part of the review, I'd never heard of TV Tropes. And I still haven't visited the site. Guess I reinvented the wheel.

Patryk said...

"Great minds think alike" comes to mind. So no problem. But it's good to know that there is a repisitory of knowledge gathered from works of fiction. :D

Patricia said...

Billie, don't look at the TV Tropes site unless you have a spare month to kill. It's extremely addictive and has lots and lots of material, links, and snark.

See http://xkcd.com/609/ for an example of this happening, though I would sprinkle the reaction very liberally with laughter.