Written by Gene L. Coon and Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Ralph Senensky
I get that budgets were an issue back in the 1960s for television programs. For that reason, and the fact that actors and actresses are human, there are many episodes that intelligent life on other worlds are bipedal humanoids that remarkably resemble humans on Earth. However, the show, unfortunately, relied too much on worlds in other galaxies that were developed in culture and technology all too similar to Earth. After a while, it becomes very tiresome.
The Enterprise is investigating the disappearance of the S.S. Beagle when it picks up video transmissions that show a world with gladiator-type competitions and slaves. It is a world where Rome never fell, even though it is similar to 20th-century Earth in many other ways.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Doctor McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) beam down to the surface. They are outside of the main population but are quickly found by a group of escaped slaves armed with rifles. They are “sun worshippers” who don’t believe in other worlds and find Kirk’s talk of traveling in space impossible to fathom. They are also people of peace and freedom, in contrast to the people of the cities.
They learn Captain Merik (William Smithers) of the S.S. Beagle is now “first citizen” Merikus. With the former slave Flavius (Rhodes Reason), they set out to find Merikus and possibly arrest him for violations of the Prime Directive.
Kirk talks about it being one of the most important laws of the Federation – to not interfere in the affairs of others, yet that has happened again and again. It happens here when Kirk is trying to talk to them about where they are from and talks about traveling between the stars, which Septimus (Ian Wolfe) rejects.
The Enterprise landing party and Flavius are soon captured by the Romans. After Kirk refuses to direct members of his crew to beam down, they are forced to fight for the amusement of the television audience in Rome.
There’s not much compelling about Bread and Circuses. When it was an episode that would come up randomly on repeated viewings in the rerun universe, it was a fun episode to watch, if a bit of a stretch in terms of believability. In concert with the other episodes in the second season of the series, it’s hard to watch. This was done before this season, many times over. A Starfleet officer is missing and has somehow risen up in the amazingly-similar-to-earth world to a position of authority. The Prime Directive is at stake!
One positive note is the audience is finally given an explanation for the existence of all of these planets – Hodgkins Law of Parallel Planetary Development. It sounds positively ridiculous, but it is an attempt to give an explanation for all of these stories that are set in societies similar to Earth. Really, though, the concept is tired and overused by this point.
The acting is good. The actors do a tremendous job selling this setting to make it the least bit believable. There are some great moments between Spock and McCoy that come across as genuine friendship and fun.
The stunts are pretty poorly choreographed. The fight scenes among the gladiators and others are laughable, at best. No one looks the least bit threatening. Again, I get that there are budgets that need to be dealt with but you’d think with stuntmen they could have done a better job.
The last few minutes of the episode pull the story together in a slightly different way. At times it seems as nonsensical as the rest of the story, others, it makes an interesting point. Did the collapse of Rome occur because once peace and brotherhood were rising across the land it provided a counterbalance to the oppression and butchery of Roman culture? It’s an interesting thought, but still requires the suspension of disbelief to how the same exact things keep happening on planets across the galaxy. Again, I think this would have worked better as a story taking place in a parallel universe to ours.
This isn’t one of the horrible episodes of the series. There is enough here to like. However, the plot is a tired one with multiple retellings over the course of the second season. It’s one that can be viewed or not, depending on the feelings of the moment, and you wouldn’t feel as if you’d really missed anything.
Previous episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – The Ultimate Computer
Next episode in the series (link): Star Trek: The Original Series – Assignment Earth