Season 2 of Star Trek featured two episodes that directly referenced the ancient world, 'Who Mourns for Adonais?' and 'Bread and Circuses', but halfway between the two appeared 'The Gamesters of Triskelion', which includes no overt references to the ancient world but which seems to owe something to it via the theme of gladiators and gladiatorial combat.
The name 'Triskleion' is Greek but that's due to geometry rather than history (and the symbol itself is more associated with the Celtic world). Otherwise there are no overt references to the ancient world, or to Rome or Romans, in this episode. The arena in which Kirk, Uhura and Chekov are forced to fight is fairly simple and doesn't seem to be based on any particular place or time (unless there's a record of an arena with blueish rocks and purple sky somewhere).
However, the tropes on display during this episode are largely those of gladiator-stories set in ancient Rome. We get scenes of the new recruits being trained by older, more hardened gladiators, a willingness on the part of the trainers to throw away new gladiators to set an example to the others, there are rich audience members taking bets on the fights and, of course, there's an escape attempt. Most tellingly, one of Kirk's final opponents is waving a net around, though how exactly it's supposed to be a fearsome weapon is unclear. Just about every gladiatorial story inspired by ancient Rome includes, at some point, a retiarius or space equivalent thereof - the gladiator who fights with a net and trident (and trident please note, makers of Star Trek). No matter how far from Rome we seem to be, there it is, waiting to ensnare our heroes (see what I did there?!) Although the parallel is not made obvious, the influence of gladiator stories, especially Spartacus, lurks below the surface here.
The essential difference between the set-up in this episode and that in ancient Rome is that the fights here seem to be staged for a small number of elite known as 'the Providers', whereas in Rome, as is well known, they were for the benefit of the widest possible audience. 'Bread and Circuses' takes the Roman purpose of gladiatorial fights and updates it for the twentieth century by putting it on television, just as Suzanne Collins does in The Hunger Games. Here, however, they're more like those stories about mad monarchs who make people do daft things for their entertainment (a favourite theme of Star Trek, along with childish aliens with god-like powers and planets entirely populated by one small fraction of twentieth century American or European society). It's very much like the scene in Spartacus where Crassus and his hangers-on demand a private show. The Providers must have a ridiculous amount of both resources and free time to keep such a set-up running purely for their own enjoyment. One wonders when they have time to provide anything to anyone.
Of course, the other major difference between this episode and 'Bread and Circuses' is that 'Bread and Circuses' is really good and this is... not. It's super-cheesy, some of the aliens are really odd colours and the tone is all over the place (poor Uhura appears to be sexually assaulted - it's not very clear - while Chekov's discomfort with his not terribly attractive trainer is played for laughs). Kirk teaches the Space Babe of the week about this strange human thing called 'love' (pah! 'lust and the desire to make out' is more like it) and of course, since she is a woman, she falls for his charms and turns on her own society. I'm so glad Colonel O'Neill didn't use this method to persuade Teal'c over to his side in SG-1. And the bad guys turn out to be glowing brains in a jar. Seriously. When the best thing you can say about an episode is that Kirk gets his shirt off, you know it's bad.
I think there's a lesson here - episodes about rich people forcing the crew to entertain them are not usually a good idea. Unfortunately, Star Trek didn't learn this lesson, and I'll get to 'Plato's Stepchildren' in a few weeks...
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