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Bread and Circuses

This very ambitious episode ultimately fails for a number of reasons, but it goes down swinging. Written by the two head honchos, there was probably no one to say 'no' as this script progressed. And that is partly forgivable because the premise is memorably simple, and the opportunities for character exploration are plentiful. Ultimately, a few 'no's would have done the writers some good.

The episode ultimately sags under the weight of the concept it intends to introduce: the Prime Directive. (Here I am speaking of it only as a dramatic device, and not as a social construct or ideal.) It's been hinted at plenty of times, but here it is presented in something much closer to its final form. Unfortunately, it takes a very awkward scene at the beginning for the audience to be brought into what the characters already know. Writing these scenes is very tricky because the temptation is just to have one of the characters spit out the whole backstory (which is pretty much what McCoy does). A more subtle approach is to allow specific situations to arise in the plot, then illuminate the concept by demonstration: how the characters react tells the backstory. That approach, unfortunately, can take more time and certainly requires more careful plotting. We must always remember that they were trying to turn out another mini-movie every seven days. Short cuts had to be taken, and that has led to clumsiness here.

Further, in order to cement it within the viewers' minds, it must be brought up over and over. It gets to be something of an unwelcome party guest. You just want it to go away. After about the fifth reference, I was begging for a bouncer to escort the darn thing to the door.

Of course, any time such a strict concept is injected into a story, it's inevitable that a character will be tempted to part ways with it. This is exactly what happens as Kirk, no more than a couple of minutes after saying this: "No references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations," says this: "Perhaps you've heard, let's say, an impossible story or a rumor ... of men who came from the sky or from other worlds." This is really unacceptably sloppy. There were plenty of other ways to write Kirk in this situation. In fact, we've been led to regard him as a master of subtle maneuvering for information (as seen in "Mirror, Mirror").

It must be admitted that the story itself is quite exciting. The gladiator scenes are, for the most part, well staged. The presence of guns -- machine guns, no less -- complicates things immeasurably. It's OK if our heroes escape being splattered with bullets once or twice, but this borders on ridiculous. Part of it is staging, as in the scene where Flavius is killed. Kirk is clearly in the line of fire yet comes out unscathed. That's just sloppy blocking.

The Spock/McCoy dynamic is fleshed out quite satisfactorily. This alone almost saves the episode. It feels a bit like a tug-of-war between Coon (who wants to keep the dislike between them intense) and Roddenberry (who wants to mitigate it somewhat). This is merely conjecture, but there is evidence in David Gerrold's book that suggests Coon as the instigator and Roddenberry as the reconciler. Beyond that, the two actors are at their very best as McCoy first tries to thank Spock, then proceeds to filet him. Nimoy rises to the occasion, and the director allows this scene to take shape at the perfect pace, simultaneously allowing the viewer to enter Spock's world. This is quite a pivotal moment in the development of Spock's character. It's interesting to note that, as McCoy continues, Spock's musical theme, now played on a violin, begins to swell. The musical composers and coordinators on Star Trek are often overlooked. But such subtle touches are common and work well on a subconscious level.

Finally, the ending is unsatisfying and uncharacteristic. First, it relies on the "quick fix" -- which is just a deus ex machina dressed up in sci-fi clothes. Our heroes are unable to extricate themselves, and so Scotty swoops in to grab them (albeit with a nice assist from one of the guest stars). It would have been more satisfying if Kirk had taken a moment in front of the live television cameras and lay bare the emptiness of the system, perhaps saying something which would embolden slaves to assert themselves. Ah, but then there's that pesky Prime Directive again, mucking everything up. As a dramatic concept, the Prime Directive must be considered a complete failure. Writers would have characters break it more times than can be counted in this and later series.

Then this episode does something that no other Star Trek episode would ever do, or even come close to. It comes out and endorses Christianity, crediting it with providing the impetus for the change which was needed on Earth, and would be needed on this planet. This is uncharacteristically exclusionary, and, though perhaps heart-warming to Christians, leaves a sour taste for the rest of humanity. It's really best forgotten.

Rating: Middle Lower (5)


A theory on why there were machine guns used in this episode...they were on loan when used in "A Piece of the Action" and they wanted to get more use out of them...before returning them to the set of the "Untouchables".

Posted December 29, 2011 5:48 PM by Tom