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Star Trek: "Bread and Circuses" / "Assignment: Earth"

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If the first season of Trek was the Age of the Godlike Being, the second season has been all about the Prime Directive; what it means, what it demands, and what it costs when someone breaks it. It's a fascinating thematic direction for an adventure show to take, advocating detachment and observation over interference, and even though each episode that mentions the PD tends to provide enough narrative loopholes for Kirk to get involved without upsetting the rules, the core concept is never diluted. In fact, by the end of the season, we're fully convinced that the crew of the Enterprise would rather die than violate the PD, and that means something.


That doesn't stop "Bread and Circuses" from being frustratingly repetitive, though. Once again we've got a planet "suspiciously like Earth" (the number of times Spock reminds us of this fact is bizarre; it seems to suggest something, especially given the stinger at the end of the episode, but that meaning never really becomes clear), with a pre-space travel society. And once again, a space ship captain has beamed down among the locals and becomes involved in things that were better off avoided, in a culture that mimics a familiar one from Earth's history. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy get caught up in things, and have to decide just how much interference is justified when it comes to saving their own necks.

The Enterprise comes across the remains of the missing S.S. Beagle (Nooo! Not Space Darwin!) floating around in the vacuum, and then follow it's path of trajectory back to Planet 4 of star system 892. (So I guess the naming committee was working off a vodka-and-more-vodka hangover that day.) While orbiting around the planet, Uhura manages to pick up some video transmissions, and the news isn't good. The government is rounding up "dissidents," always a bad sign, and there appears to be some sort of televised, life-or-death gladiatorial fighting going on. Even worse, the man the bridge crew sees killed during the combat happens to be a guy whose name pops on the crew list for the Beagle. So they probably didn't blow up their ship because they were really happy about everything.

The prospect of arena-style fighting doesn't really appeal to me, and things got less interesting after our heroes hit planet-side. They meet up with some escaped slaves (and it's weird here how, despite their heated discussion about the importance of Directivo El Uno, Kirk and the others didn't bother to find local garb before they beamed down), and find out that, shockingly, the former captain of the Beagle, R.M. Merik, has transformed himself into First Citizen Merikus. It's "Omega Glory" all over again, only this time, instead of the Yangs and the Kohms, it's the evil Romans beating up on the hapless, well, we'll get to that in second.

So, we've got a teleplay that doesn't seem to have been written as much as paint-by-numbered into existence. Kirk is determined to have a chat with "Merikus," so the escaped slave Flavius leads them into town. Before they get captured, Flavius talks about how he used to be a gladiator himself, but then he heard of the religion that come down from "the sun," preaching peace and brotherhood, and could no longer bear to take up arms against another man. Remember that "sun" business, as it's going to be important by the end. Kirk gets captured, and eventually Merik comes into the picture; Kirk knew him back at the academy, but the guy washed out in his fifth year. The particulars may be different, but none of this is exactly fresh at this point.

Lots of shows have familiar patterns, but there's a difference between repeated structures and crutches. Part of the appeal of Trek is that it's potential for storytelling should be nearly limitless; you've got a star ship, you've got universes to explore, so why keep butting your head against the outhouse door? There are budget restrictions, of course, but while I can understand wanting to re-use old costumes and sets, that doesn't mean I want carbon copies of the same tired plots, with "Chicago" scrubbed out and "Roman times" swapped in.

Thankfully, "Bread" picks up momentum as it goes, and while it's never exactly great, it was better than I was expecting by the halfway mark. For one thing, we get the implausible-but-clever idea that the Roman trappings we see exist simultaneously with technology that's evolved far enough along to have something like television to support it. The best moment in the episode comes when Merik, and his evil Proconsul Claidus Marcus, show Kirk into the area where the fighting is held. Instead of an arena full of spectators, it's just a TV studio, with cameras and a cheap set, and an audience made up entirely of sound effects run through stereo equipment. Even better, when Flavius starts acting up later in the ep, the guards warn him if the ratings drop, they'll give him his own "special." It's a funny bit of satire, and the episode could've used more of that.

The in-studio fighting is "Bread"'s strongest stuff, but there's also some good Spock/McCoy interplay. As Kirk points out, not even Spock and McCoy themselves probably know for sure if they're friends or enemies, and that the series has managed to keep that balance throughout is terrific; the conversation the two of them have in the jail cell after Spock saves McCoy's life is melodramatic, to be sure, but it also plays true, and manages to give insights into both characters without getting maudlin.

For once, the Roman culture isn't the result of, say, Merik leaving a copy of I, Claudius lying around, but instead a natural development; which is as ridiculous as the whole Constitution nonsense from "Omega," but it is nice to find a race that can more than take care of itself in the face of Federation personnel. In fact, Merik was actually doing his best to keep a low profile when he arrived on the planet. It was Claudius Marcus who sought him out, Marcus who realized what was happening, and Marcus who decided it wasn't in the best interests of his society for word to get around about a bunch of slave-holding, fight-to-the-deathing Romans with their own planet. He had Merick bring his crew down, and anyone who objected got forced into the games—and died. Now Marcus proposes to do the same for the Enterprise, and in order to convince Kirk to order his men to start transporting, he puts Spock and McCoy's at risk.

Too much of "Bread" has a going through the motions feel, from the desultory hot chick that Kirk sort of seduces, to the threat that never seems all that threatening. The Roman society is never as expansive as it should be; all we get are some interiors with columns and stock footage of actual Rome. Obviously we couldn't have gotten Ben Hur, but this is too much of a hodge-podge of good and bad ideas. While the familiar plot-line manages to hold things together to a certain extent, it also stops the episode from breaking past its limitations. If this hadn't needed to follow the arc we've already seen too many times, if it had done more with the television angle… well, there's no way of telling if it'd been good, but it it least might've been more interesting.

The ending is curious, though. To the good, once Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam back to the Enterprise (with Merik dead by Marcus's hand back on the planet), the story basically ends. Since Merik wasn't responsible for any changes on 4, there's no reason for Kirk to meddle. That leaves the escaped slaves to fend for themselves, and while narrative that may seem abrupt, it's satisfying to leave behind a culture that wasn't improved by Starfleet. And then there's the whole "sun" thing. Turns out it was mistranslated, and the ex-slaves aren't worshipping the sun. They're worshipping The Son, as in Of God, which is a development that is at once astonishing in its scope, and blinkered in its imagination. Nobody on the bridge even seems surprised that they've stumbled across the birth pains of a new Christianity, and there's something more than a little upsetting in that. The idea that out of all those universes, all that potential for life, that so many planets are basically just going through the same routine as Earth civilization… Isn't that horribly suffocating? And isn't it exactly the opposite of what Trek should really be about?

I'm still not completely sure if I'd seen Season Two before I sat down to review it (I definitely haven't seen anything from Season 3 in years), but I'd definitely seen "Assignment: Earth" before, and I wasn't looking forward to seeing it again. "Earth" was made by Rodenberry as a potential pilot for a new series, and the thumbmarks of compromise cover this piece of crap from top to bottom. It's hackneyed, with an unforgivably draggy climax, and worst of all, it's not even really a Star Trek episode. Kirk and Spock and the rest are reduced to cameos on their own show.

The Enterprise has gone back in time to observe the Earth of 1968, an apparently pivotal year in the history of the world. Already things are stupid; given that the last time the Enterprise ended up in Earth's past, they spent a whole episode trying to cover their tracks and not ruin everything, the idea of going back again just to take some notes is absurd. What possible historical information can be gleaned that's worth the potential invalidation of all known life? Time travel is a concept that only works in small doses. The more often it's used, the easier it is to notice the holes, and to use it here, simply so that our heroes can be around to help pimp Roddenberry's latest lame-brain idea, is weak as hell.

Before any of the crew can comment on how stupid it is to risk negating one's own birth simply for a chance to catch Yellow Submarine in theaters, the Enterprise accidentally intercepts a strange transporter beam. A man with a black cat materializes in the transporter room, and he's upset, because he was supposed to land on the planet; he has a very special job to do, and Kirk and the others are just getting in his way. There's a fight, the man (Gary Seven, played by Robert Lansing) proves himself impervious to Spock's neck pinches, and Kirk takes him down with a phaser stun. McCoy gives Seven a once over and finds he's a perfect physical specimen (despite looking like a 47 year-old with a history of cigarettes and coal mining), and Kirk gets ready to discuss what they should do next—an then Seven escapes and beams down to Earth.

I don't really want to spend a whole lot of time on this one. We never see Gary Seven again, and Roddenberry never got his new series off the ground; and even taken on its own terms, "Earth" is an occasionally campy but mostly just lousy bit of filler. At least we get some quality time with Teri Garr, the human secretary that Seven's predecessor's hired before dying in a convenient car crash. Her presence never makes any sense (why would a group of super-advanced human saviors need a daffy secretary, no matter what her IQ is?), but Garr is a pleasure to watch as always. She's just kind of sweet and friendly, and while I can't imagine wanting to tune in to her and Seven's adventures every week, I do feel kind of bad that the show wasn't picked up, for her sake. But hey, things turned out okay for her in the end, at least.

Oh, if you're curious: Gary is part of an elite task force that's been trained for generations by another, superior race (a race from a planet that's too mysterious for even the Enterprise to be aware of) to hang out on Earth and make sure everything goes smoothly. To help him, he's got an advanced computer with a bit of a sass mouth, and a cat named Isis who's briefly revealed to be a human at the end of the episode. His first mission is to sabotage the launch of an orbital nuclear platform that could lead to all kinds of ugliness—and he succeeds. Eventually. (What's weird is that when Kirk recounts some 1968 history, he talks about how the world was threatened by a whole bunch of these platforms floating around in space, offering instant death at the touch of the button. As far as I know, this is not a thing that happened. So did Gary prevent what Kirk was talking about? And if he did, why would he? I mean, Earth obviously survived the danger. And if he did change the future, wouldn't that risk the Enterprise crew as much as them accidentally destroying a plane might have?)

Maybe "Assignment: Earth" could've been a decent series; but it's terrible Star Trek. Once Gary hits the planet, Kirk and Spock follow in his footsteps from place to place, occasionally getting in his way but mostly just being superfluous. During the episode's climax, they're reduced to standing in some control room while other people accomplish things, and while Kirk is good at many things, passive observation is not one of them. Gary takes ages to unplug a few wires on the platform, then gets beamed up to the Enterprise and then gets beamed back to his office by Teri Garr. Kirk and Spock follow soon after, and get to watch more as Gary uses the computer to watch some stock footage of rockets and then blow up the platform, "scaring" the US government into shutting down the program. (Of course, since that program was in response to a similiar Russion program… You know what? I don't care.)

The worst comes at the end. Kirk and Spock are paying Gary, Teri, and Isis one last visit. Spock's been checking out the computer files to see what's next for Seven (okay, I guess Gary's actions couldn't have changed the past after all, so apparently there was some kind of horrible orbital platform problem in the late sixties), and while he can't tell them exactly what's in store, he can say, "Captain, we could say that Mr. Seven and Miss Lincoln have some interesting experiences in store for them." Bad enough that we had to waste an hour being sold something that didn't exist to buy; even worse that Trek's wisest and best voice of reason has to take part in the shilling.

That does it for Season 2. Next week, we're going to take a look at two more Trek movies, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, before starting into Season 3 the week after next. Be there!

"Bread and Circuses": B-
"Assignment: Earth": D

Stray Observations:

  • Mediocre as it generally is, there's a brilliant edit in "Bread" that had me laughing—McCoy and Spock are having a heated talk, and McCoy goes, "I know, I'm worried about Jim, too." And then we immediately cut to Kirk eating and drinking with a hot blond slave. Ah, the life.
  • McCoy also gets a great insult in: "I'm trying to thank you, you pointy-eared hobgoblin!"
  • I wonder if the words turned to ash in Nimoy's mouth when he delivered that line? He sells it well enough; and I do know he's got a certain IDIC medallion in his near future…
  • Again: Star Treks III and IV next week, and then the week after that, Season 3, with "Spock's Brain" and "The Enterprise Incident."