Friday, 5 March 2010

Star Trek: Bread and Circuses

I believe this is my 100th blog post - Woo! It seems appropriate, given my known geeky tendencies, that it will be about Star Trek. Tony Keen has also blogged about this episode here.

This episode is one of those Classic Trek episodes where Kirk & co. come upon a planet that is just like a particular location on Earth in a particular period. Sometimes this is explained by a backstory in which people from Earth have ended up on the planet somehow and influenced it (as is the case with the Nazi planet in 'Patterns of Force'), or the aliens on the planet have got wind of a particular Earth culture through travel or communications and tried to emulate it (as the Platonians have, theoretically, emulated Greece in 'Plato's Stepchildren'). In this case, however, neither of these things have happened. Although, in the same season's 'Patterns of Force', Spock reckoned it was impossible for another planet to randomly come up with the exact same culture as a place on Earth, in this episode that's exactly what's happened, and there's even a fancy name and theory for it - Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planet Development.

This theory, as you've probably guessed, suggests that, just as in the Trekverse all aliens look humanoid because they've all evolved the same way, all planets go through basically the same history. Much as this may sound like an intriguing, almost Marxist, idea, the way it's presented here is utter nonsense - it's not just major social movements that are the same, but individual people (Caesar, for example) and customs. This is clearly quite bonkers, even for Star Trek. (Yes, I am aware that similar customs often develop independently in different places, but there's similar and then there's exactly the same). But the useful thing about such an idea is that it allows the show to do, basically, an alternate history - what the twentieth century might look like if Rome had never fallen. This is rather good idea, though I think, personally, I'd have been inclined to do it as a time travel/parallel universe story - a parallel universe would be perfect - rather then inventing an implausible alien planet.

As the episode opens, Spock is surveying Science Stuff. Kirk is wearing that weird green top with the drunk Starfleet logo (the one that's on it's side). They are examining the wreckage of a ship lost six years ago, whose merchant captain Kirk used to know. Then they come across a planet exactly like earth but with difference shaped continents – 'exact in some ways, different in others', as Kirk notes as if this was a new discovery. Uhura taps into the planet’s television broadcasts and the crew watch a gladiatorial combat overseen by twentieth century helmeted guards and filmed in black and white against a painted backdrop. As Kirk puts it, the planet appears to be, basically, ‘20th century Rome’. (The gladiators have retiarii and everything!)

Credits – man, you gotta love those classic Trek credits!

Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down and Spock and McCoy bicker like an old married couple. They observe that today, they are choosing to obey the Prime Suggestion, and conceal their true nature and the existence of space travel from the natives. They are promptly taken prisoner by a group of English-speaking runaway slaves (they don’t realise at first that these are runaway slaves, despite the little chain motifs on their identical outfits. They’re not too bright, these three). Apparently English just developed on this planet in the exact same way it developed on earth. The group are members of a cult who worship ‘the sun’ and believe in peace and one true belief (though one, Flavius, thinks they should really kill them anyway). Spock explains they are looking for 47 lost friends – 47! Hehe.

Kirk explains that the whole place is an example of Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planet Development – they have their own Julius Caesar etc, but on this world Rome never fell. Our heroes are puzzled by the whole ‘sun’ business because they think there was no sun worship in ancient Rome (which is particularly odd for a group of people who actually met Apollo) and because no one notices the essential mistake they’ve made until Uhura points it out to them at the end of the episode. They really aren’t that bright.

The merchant captain, Merrick, has become ‘First Citizen’, now known as 'Mericus', and is supervising the gladiatorial games, so Kirk explains that he has violated their law and they need to capture him. They set off with Flavius, a former gladiator, but fairly quickly get captured themselves (really, really not that bright). The Roman guard uniforms are great – thoroughly twentieth century but with bits of purple to remind you they’re Roman. There’s also some great use of real, modern classicizing architecture as they are taken to the city and Kirk demands to see ‘Mericus’, the merchant captain. Spock and McCoy bicker some more (amusingly). Flavius asks if they’re enemies and Kirk grins and replies ‘I’m not sure they’re sure’.

Mericus and the pro consul

Mericus finally turns up, and for some reason he’s wearing a carpet. He’s best chums with the pro-consul and takes our heroes off to talk. They have food, and the obligatory blonde slave girl in a minidress (I kept expecting her to tell them her name was ‘Gloria’, but she’s gone for the more dubious ‘Drusilla’). The pro-consul, it turns out, is essentially keeping Mericus prisoner so that he can’t tell anyone about them, though Mericus has done rather well out of it. Any crewmembers who didn’t agree to stay quietly have been killed in the arena.

Spock and McCoy bicker some more about politics, while Kirk refuses to be drawn and only cares about his ship. Mericus and the pro-consul insist that the entire crew of the Enterprise be beamed down and ordered to settle there for the rest of their lives, or they’ll send our heroes to die as well, and apparently they can’t just go to war with their far superior weapons because they’re choosing to really, really care about the Prime Suggestion this week. Kirk refuses to order them down and instead tells Scotty ‘condition green, all’s well’ – which is, of course, a coded message (so they do have some brains after all). Scotty knows they’re in trouble but is not allowed to take action, so he starts monitoring the situation.

Our heroes are marched out to the TV-set arena (bad painted backdrop and sports commentators – I like it!). Spock and McCoy are sent out against Flavius and ‘Achilles’, another gladiator. They are fighting to the death – if they're following Roman customs, not every fight would be to the death, but since this is essentially an execution, it makes sense. The pro consul annoys Kirk by snarking and philosophizing at him the whole way through, and trying to persuade him to get the rest of his crew down while Kirk pretends he doesn’t care that Spock and McCoy are about to die. The fight goes on for a little while, but eventually Spock puts both gladiators out with a Vulcan Nerve Grip. The best bit is where a guard orders Flavius and McCoy to fight properly so as not to bring the network’s ratings down.

Proper, old-fashioned 'Roman' costumes are worn by the television guards, 20 century styles by the real guards - a nice touch

The pro consul orders them taken away to die another day (apparently unaware that neither downed gladiator is actually dead). Then there’s a really, really bizarre scene where, while Spock and McCoy fret in a prison cell, Kirk has sex with Drusilla, who is wearing just a bit of tin foil. Since she is a slave, and was told to ‘be commanded’ by Kirk, I’m very, very dubious about the ethics of this. OK, she pretty clearly comes onto him, but she’s been ordered to do so, she isn’t doing it out of choice, which surely makes this rather dubious? Hmm. Anyway, it has no place in the story whatsoever other than giving Kirk an opportunity to get laid. Spock and McCoy have a good old heart to heart though – a very pointed and antagonistic one where McCoy gets really ticked off – which is genuinely interesting and nicely played by both characters.

Eventually, the pro consul come to see Kirk again, and is rude to Mericus in the process (perhaps he’s fed up of looking at that orange carpet he’s wearing). He promises to let them die quickly and sends them off to be killed ‘in full colour’. Meanwhile, Scotty has, rather usefully, decided to disrupt the planet’s power sources, to scare them. Kirk is about to be executed when Flavius rushes in to save him (and is killed in the process) and Kirk runs off to fetch the other two. When they ask where he’s been, he says ‘they threw me a few curves’. Oh, boy. James Bond has wittier one-liners. Mericus tries to save them and is killed, but succeeds in chucking them a communicator so Scotty can beam them up.

Back on the ship, Kirk gives Scotty a commendation and Uhura finally points out the blinkin’ obvious – that the group of runways don’t worship ‘the sun’, they worship ‘the Son’ (of God). Spock has some very peculiar ideas about sun-worship – he thinks it’s inherently 'primitive' and 'superstitious', not sophisticated enough for the Romans. Seriously guys, you met Apollo! (Sort of). Then follows the most positive description of Christianity I’ve ever heard in science fiction outside of C. S. Lewis. It is implied that Christinity is partly responsible for the fall of Rome, but this is seen as a good thing, because it is a religion of peace and brotherhood. According to Kirk, this new religion of peace and love will make a better world on the planet below.

Tony Keen has pointed out that this is the view that features in a number of older Hollywood Roman epics. In recent works, however, including more recent Trek series, religion in general tends to be used in a much more negative fashion, and religions parallel to Christianity tend more towards the oppressive than the peaceful. In a way, it's rather nice to see the elements of peace and love emphasised, but it also acts as a reminder that classic Trek belongs firmly in the 60s - no modern series could make such a speech and get away with it, nor would most modern TV writers want to.

I really enjoyed this episode. Spock and McCoy's bickering was very funny and genuinely interesting. The idea of seeing a twentieth century Rome is also a rather nice one, and although not gone into in great detail, cars like the 'Jupiter 8' are fun touches. The only area that is really explored is that of the gladiatorial contests, and the obvious parallel with TV entertainment in general and digs at the networks are no less fun for being obvious. Shame Flavius died though. The only aspect I really didn't like was the scene between Kirk and Drusilla - there was something really unpleasantly seedy about it. Of course, Kirk slept with random alien women all the time, but this particular encounter had a rather nasty feel to it, possibly because I've spent too much time studying real slavery.

Aside from that, this episode is a great example of one of my favourite themes of classic Trek, the Planet of Hats. 'Soft' science fiction is often best employed in metaphor, and a Planet of Hats is a wonderfully simple way to do a fairly basic metaphor in 45 minutes. I also have a strange fondness for the planets that are just like various parts of Earth, though I think the explanation for this one is rather excessively far-fetched. Goodness knows why, but I love episodes where Kirk & co beam down and discover a planet with something weird about it (everyone passing out at a certain time of day, Planet of the Nazis, and so on). So I love the idea of Planet of 20th Century Rome, illogical though it is, and although the use of Christianity is rather heavy-handed, this is done nicely here.

15 comments:

  1. Even when I was a kid, that business of the Romans not worshiping a sun god bugged me. I knew about Apollo and Helios/Sol, so why didn't the writers? And looking at it now, there is also the little matter of Sol Invictus that predominated in the 2nd/3rd centuries.

    The positive view of Christianity -- or better said religion in general -- is a tad unusual even for TOS. All the more so, since Roddenberry was one of the writers for this episode and he was awfully fond of the "God is an alien who is really full of himself" plot.

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  2. Also, Adrian Murdoch just gave you a nod on his blog:

    http://adrianmurdoch.typepad.com/my_weblog/2010/03/star-trek-bread-and-circuses.html

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  3. Yay! v cool - thanks for letting me know!

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  4. Aw! I miss those guys... I loved that show so much! BTW, great blog today and congrats on reaching the big 'C'!

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  5. Thanks! :) Mum and Dad got me series 1 for my brithday and I'm loving watching them all through - sometimes I forget how good the original series really was. I've always loved it coz it was the films I first saw and adored when I was little, but I haven't seen any 60s episodes in ages!

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  6. Congratulations on your century.

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  7. Nice post. I like the idea of the "Planet of Hats", and may use it again in the future.

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  8. Thanks everyone! I have TV Tropes to thank for the Planet of Hats - have you seen TV Tropes? It's a (massive) wiki that collects common tropes from all media. Totally un-academic and informal, but I'm completely addicted to it...

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  9. You should be careful about pointing people to TV Tropes. It's one of those places where you intend to "just check something" and when you look up it's Tuesday.

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  10. http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v470/matsmith83/tvtropestrap.jpg

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  11. It is just sifi, not real history. Get a life. It is meant to entertain, but is obviously over your head.

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  12. Very amusing review -- thanks.

    Now, for the question of the moment: Will you be reviewing The Eagle (nee Eagle Of The Ninth)?

    Perhaps you did and I missed it? Your comments on this film would be most illuminating.

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  13. Yes, I reviewed The Eagle - review here: http://popclassicsjg.blogspot.com/2011/03/eagle-dir-kevin-macdonald-2011.html

    I'm hoping to read the book at some point as well :)

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  14. The episode could done with a bit more money for the sets and maybe as a two part story to explore the Roman Empire survival idea interesting show anyway and I like it.

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  15. May I recommend a science fiction novel by L.Sprague DeCampe Lest Darkness Fall it is alternate history story in which a American Archaeologist is thrown back in time. He winds up in six century Rome just before Justinian The Great reconquest of Italy preventing the fall of the Ostrogoth kingdom and the division of Italy afterward. It was the book that got me interested in the history of the eastern surviving part of the Roman Empire. Funny is it a fantasy story got me interested in a period in history I wasn't interested before I read this book.

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