***What happens when I, a 30-something-year-old fanboy, decide to look at the Star Trek franchise for the first time with an open heart? You get “Rob Watches Star Trek.”***
SERIES: Star Trek
EPISODE: S2.E25. “Bread and Circuses”
STARRING: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley
GUEST-STARRING: William Smithers, Logan Ramsey
WRITERS: Gene Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon
DIRECTOR: Ralph Senesky
ORIGINAL AIR DATE: March 15, 1968
By Rob Siebert
It’s always interesting to see what we forgive for a good story.
“Bread and Circuses” is an episode that wonders what lengths humanity might go to in the name of entertainment. It does this by presenting us with what is essentially an alternate Earth where the Roman Empire never ended, and now has the all benefits of 20th century tech.
But what we’re presented doesn’t look much like a modernized version of ancient Rome. We’ve got a handful of costumes from what must have been a production set in that time frame. We’ve got a few sets that look very vaguely like what they’re supposed to be. And the peaceful faction of slaves that our heroes fall in with? They’re wearing gray sweatsuits. Which means before long, that’s what our heroes are wearing as well.
This is about as clear an example as you’ll find of sci-fi on a budget. Objectively, “Bread and Circuses” just doesn’t look very good…
And yet, it works. “Bread and Circuses” is better than a lot of sci-fi flicks made 50 years later with state-of-the-art CGI. Why is that?
Because everything starts with story, and “Bread and Circuses” is a good story. It’s a little weird, and perhaps even a bit contrived. But at its core, it’s an editorial about television and entertainment that asks viewers important questions that are still relevant after all this time. And because it’s such a good story, we’re willing to forgive the tacky packaging it’s delivered in. That theory doesn’t work in reverse.
Case in point, the Star Wars prequels. When they came out, they were filled with top-line CGI depicting some amazingly creative environments. We had a big robot factory complete with big smelting pots, a planet that was also a giant city, and a humongous hive filled with space bugs, just to name a few. But the story was largely hollow. So all the special effects were hollow as well.
I’m a huge Star Wars geek. But I don’t have a problem saying “Bread and Circuses” is better than any of the three Star Wars prequels. It’s better than Rogue One, that’s for damn sure…
The episode explains the existence of an alternate 20th Century Earth on another world across the galaxy with something called “Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planet Development.” That sounds precisely like the kind of BS a writer would make up off the top of their head. Yet it’s such wildly fantastical BS that it feels like it just has to be true. And in the end, isn’t that the best kind of BS?
Not according to Gene L. Coon. Reportedly, a disagreement with Gene Roddenberry over the tone of this episode was what led to Coon’s departure as the Star Trek showrunner. (Though he would submit scripts for season three under the pseudonym Lee Cronin.) Apparently Coon wanted the episode to have more of a comedic touch, while Roddenberry wanted a more serious tone. Ultimately, however, we’re better off for what we got.
The best thing in the entire episode? The exchange in the jail cell between Spock and Bones. After dancing around it for two seasons, Bones finally starts to shoot straight with Spock. It’s clear the two are opposites in almost every sense of the word, and would not be friends outside the bounds of the Enterprise. But they’re united two things: Their sense of duty, and their loyalty to Kirk in particular.
And of course, we love them for it.
Email Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check us out on Twitter.