|“May Auri-El’s light guide your way.”|
At last, we’ve come to the series finale of the original Star Trek.
At least when the end came, it came quickly. In one of the franchise’s saddest twists, “Bread and Circuses” is the epilogue to the story of Star Trek grasping immortality last week and proves once and for all the Original Series really had nowhere to go after “The Trouble with Tribbles”. As the only episode co-written by both Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon (and serving as a send-off to the latter’s tenure as showrunner) it’s a tight summation and echo of all the series’ motifs, and while it brings closure to the show in style, the last, desperate grab for glory “Bread and Circuses” represents is ultimately futile: While it’s ironically one of the best episodes of the season, and one of the tightest, most creative productions in the entire series in terms of both writing and cinematography, the writing is on the wall. There’s one more episode to go, but even a cursory knowledge of what that one was supposed to be should make it abundantly clear what Star Trek‘s future prospects look like.
Frustratingly, “Bread and Circuses” is genuinely exciting and clever: It’s a scathing condemnation of life in the mid-20th Century United States penned by people unfortunate enough to witness some of the more particularly excessive aspects of it. The indictment of the late-stage capitalist, Modernist West and its careless ecological destruction, self-absorbed egotism, short-sighted ecological carelessness, insensitivity to brutal violence general cynicism and society built around spectacle and artifice remains frighteningly relevant and one of the strongest statements Star Trek ever made on the issue. Furthermore, we now have the circa-1968 United States being just about explicitly called Rome and, as before, comparisons are made between Starfleet officers and Roman legionaries, with the most obvious being the Proconsul’s growing admiration for and respect of Kirk and his quip to him that he’d “make a good Roman”. However, perhaps because we’ve now had “Mirror, Mirror”, there’s no longer any ambiguity about how our heroes stack up: Coon and Roddenberry (though I suspect this is mostly Coon) are firmly on the side of Kirk and the Enterprise crew and this story is about them proving that while they may have the makings of imperialists and have a conflict-ridden, imperialist history (as Spock points out on a number of occasions) they are manifestly not imperialists.
The way they go about this is, interestingly, the Prime Directive. This is the other major episode this season to deal with it and, unlike “The Apple”, it’s portrayed as being unambiguously a good thing: Taking the oath of the Prime Directive is shown to be a solemn responsibility and that Starfleet officers would rather die than break it, which really just makes “The Apple” look even more ridiculous than it already did. Although, there’s a bit more nuance to the Prime Directive debate here than there usually is-Merik is portrayed as being in the wrong for violating it, but he’s shown to have been coerced into doing so by the Empire. Kirk, Spock and McCoy face the same dilemma, but eventually Scotty comes up with a solution that engineers their escape without directly interfering. Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the self-defeating contradictory problems inherent in the Prime Directive, but it does clarify what the writers intended it to stand for a bit. As a result, it works noticeably better here than it does in other places as Coon and Roddenberry seem to want it to be a straightforward rebuttal to Western imperialism, so it actually makes sense to have it in a story like this.
Indeed the anti-imperialism theme is laudably blatant and well-executed in “Bread and Circuses”. The highlight, apart from the general brilliance of the setting, is McCoy’s argument with Spock in the Proconsul’s dining room. Spock comments on the efficient and ordered way the society is organised, while McCoy keeps pointing out it’s dependent on slavery and engages in violent spectacle for light entertainment. Spock and McCoy are once again reduced down to their most basic programmatic roles, that is, strict logic and unbridled passion but, as with the Prime Directive, this actually seems somewhat appropriate for this particular story. It’s certainly just about as good an execution as this particular theme got in Star Trek, mostly because “Bread and Circuses” manages to remember these are supposed to be characters as well.
The best single scene of the episode comes after the first battle, when Spock and McCoy are alone together in the gladiatorial cage. Last time we got the first Spock/McCoy bickering scene that was written to be textually uncomfortable, where McCoy compared Spock unfavourably to a Tribble, which causes the latter to be visibly hurt despite his quick comeback. This episode builds on that by first having Kirk tell Flavius Spock and McCoy don’t know if they’re enemies or not, and then, wonderfully, by having Spock save McCoy in the games. As McCoy tries and fails to thank Spock for saving his life, to Spock’s predictable detachment, the two finally reach a breakthrough when McCoy declares that Spock isn’t afraid of death, but is afraid of living because he lives in fear that his human half will eventually overtake his Vulcan half, and that he wouldn’t know what to do if that ever happened. It’s possibly the greatest scene these two characters ever get together in the Original Series, and for the first time we finally get a sense about what their relationship might actually be and why they’re so confrontational towards one another. While Star Trek didn’t have character arcs per se, this serves as a sufficient closure to a reoccurring motif that’s been a defining aspect of Gene Coon’s tenure on the show.
But as good as the character moments are, and they are quite good, the true high point of the episode is the horrific blood-sport of NBC’s You Pick The Winner. Coon and Roddenberry’s intended attack on network television and its drive for ratings through violent spectacle is so blunt and obvious it almost doesn’t warrant mention. What does, however, is the combat itself: Fistfights were an integral part of Star Trek from the beginning, dating to “The Cage” being dubbed “too cerebral” and the resulting obligatory dust-up in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and pretty much every other episode of the Original Series ever made. These last few weeks have seen a growing discontent with this aspect of the show from the creators themselves, most notable in the barroom brawl in “The Trouble with Tribbles” being played as laughably gratuitous, but maybe even dating back to the resolution to “I, Mudd” being a painfully staged Vaudeville routine. The peak is in “Bread and Circuses”, however: Unlike almost every other fight in Star Trek, the games are depicted not as fun and campy action but visceral, dangerous and deeply disturbing. This is clearest in the cinematography of the fight scenes, which shoots the action in extreme close-up and makes jarring edits (where previous fight scenes had been shot at wide angles in order to give the best view of the action), giving the sense of a brutal, ugly struggle. This is not violence to take in and cheer on, this is violence intended to make us feel uncomfortable and unclean.
This then is the perfect backdrop for the show to eat itself alive against. While the script unquestionably gives the Enterprise crew the moral high ground and wants to grant them dignity and intelligence, the series had other ideas. Incoming producer John Meredyth Lucas observed the acrimonious atmosphere during the filming of this episode, and it shows. The actors fought each other in the arena, all looking to gain favour with Lucas in the hopes they’d be spared and declared champion. William Shatner took on Captain R.M. Roddenberry, feeling personally hurt by his renouncing of his oath to uphold the Prime Directive. And lording over the proceedings was Proconsul David Sarnoff, a candidate for the most unsettling and formidable adversary the Enterprise crew ever faced. The unwavering confidence Sarnoff had in his control over everything and everyone was truly disturbing, and it makes the likes of Khan Noonien Singh and any of the Klingons look like complete pushovers (and in an inspired bit of costuming, the insignia Sarnoff wears on his lapel is William Shakespeare’s coat of arms). This is due in large part to the tremendous acting of Logan Ramsey, who absolutely owns every scene he’s in, though it’s clear Coon and Roddenberry wrote him to be a frightening presence.
But even if it weren’t for the games, “Bread and Circuses” would have failed in its attempt to send off Star Trek as cleanly and as comprehensively as possible, because the ending is a total hatchet job. The fate of Magna Roma is left in the hands of the freed slaves, whom Kirk, Spock and McCoy had initially thought to be sun worshipers, but who in fact turn out to be Son worshipers, i.e., Christians. When Uhura points this out to them in the denouement (in what is maddeningly otherwise a candidate for her best scene in the entire series), Kirk smiles and seems genuinely inspired by this, emboldened in his belief that the society will progress naturally after all. This is flagrantly, unbelievably, catastrophically and self-destructively hegemonic on so many levels. Unlike previous comparable moments in the series, which were either bones tossed to the affiliates in the southern states or merely pop Christian by association owing to the fact they were the product of mainstream Western culture, this is Star Trek essentially converting to Christianity and encouraging everyone else to do the same as it’s apparently the One True Belief, or at least part of a natural, teleological social development path, according to the Federation. Forget “The Apple” and “The Changeling”, this is the best evidence that, far from being a bit of secular utopianism, early Star Trek had an undeniable and irreducible religious streak about it. This is just in keeping with Modernization theory as “The Apple” was, and, furthermore, “Bread and Circuses” manages to make this worse with its sun/son conflation and its Roman setting. That’s right: Coon and Roddenberry are (probably unintentionally, but nevertheless clearly) likening Jesus to Apollo, right after telling us Jesus will show us The Way. Yikes.
It’s one thing to be a work of fiction with a Christian subtext, or even to be pop Christian by coming out of uncritical Western hegemony. It’s quite another thing entirely to overtly act like a Christian missionary, thus equating your faith with neo-imperialism. This is something I need to come right out and say I have zero tolerance for, as its a line of thinking that was singlehandedly responsible for the collapse of countless spiritualities, cultures and ways of life, not to mention, well, the one this blog comes out of. It’s fine to have a faith. It’s fine to talk about your faith and try to explain why you think you’re correct-That’s just discourse, ultimately. It is not fine to declare yourself arbiter of Truth and explicitly work towards erasing the beliefs of everyone else, because it’s Right and Natural for everybody to end up exactly like you. Even if we accept the anti-imperialist conception of the Prime Directive, which Coon, Roddenberry and the show all seem to want us to here, there’s nothing that’s a grosser, more flagrant violation and rejection of it than this: In doing so, this means “Bread and Circuses” ends up not as a bristling bit of anarchic revolution like “Mirror, Mirror”, but instead supplanting one form of imperialism with another. No wonder Shatner renounced Roddenberry.
But perhaps that in itself is a proper and fitting send-off to the original Star Trek. A show defined by tension, conflict of interest, ego and a shifting sense of morals and ethics that somehow managed to live on after itself again and again. The physically extent television series may be over now, but the franchise, and, more importantly, the mythology, that bears its name is just beginning. While I hesitate to call the show we can watch a classic, it most certainly created enough classic moments and toyed with enough provocative ideas that remain in the memories of generations of people who grew up watching it over the years, and this is a rare and unique phenomenon. This makes Star Trek somewhat special amongst Soda Pop Art franchises and, as we’re about to see, this is part of the reason it keeps coming back and lingers so.